I laid the firewood just as Father had shown me. They must be just so. I take the fire starter from the hook on the mantel, hoping I won’t get in trouble for using it. I aim it and squeeze hard until a burst of light comes from it and a baby fire starts in the kindling.
While the fire grows I gaze around the room, happy there are no dark corners in the round space. Our one-room tower has three floors and Father says it used to be a chapel. A night breeze comes in the open window, cooling me off and bringing with it a waft of pine. The ladder stair is placed in the hatch above. I sweep the floor with the straw broom. I wipe down the pine table with my towel. I tidy everything I can think to tidy. I’m bored enough to scratch pictures in the dirt floor with a stick, rub them out and start again.
Sweat beads on my forehead as the fire gets stronger. I drag the stool over to the rough-hewn cabinet that holds the cooking stuff. Heaving the cast iron pan off the cabinet, I try not to fall off the stool. I jump to the floor and lift it onto the cooking grate. Wait for the pan to get hot while I watch the fire. The eggs I have gathered are ready, green and brown and dirty still, since I don’t want to use any of the water I have left to wash them. Trigger watches from his spot on the floor, the only thing moving his ever-hungry eyes and his black tail wagging, ready to help eat whatever I cook.
“If you were a cat you could catch a pigeon or a squirrel and bring it to me and we could cook that.” I tell Trigger. He doesn’t seem upset by his lack of cat-ness.
When I crack the eggs in the pan I know it’s too hot, they sizzle like crazy and I can smell them burning. I grab the spatula and stir, hoping I can still eat them. Stirring until there are no more runny parts, I scoop the eggs onto my plate. I scrape up the worst of the burnt parts in the pan, then dump in the porridge I have ready. I don’t want to waste fire while I have it so I’m cooking breakfast now.
Trigger waits, and I sweep part of my eggs into his bowl. He wolfs them down and then sits again, watching me in case I decide the eggs are not to my liking. They are dry and crunchy, but I’m so hungry it doesn’t matter what they taste like. I alternate stirring the porridge and shoveling the eggs in my face.
Water is the only thing I want more than food. I have part of one skin left, which won’t last long. I wish we had one of those big barrels with handles like the neighbors have, they roll the water from their well to the house, and it lasts for days. Father and I still carry water from the stream every day.
I pour a mug of water and sit with my feet up, sipping it a little at a time to make it last.
I have to get more water. But what if Father came while I was gone? What if rovers came? What if there was a bear on the path? What if I fell and hurt myself? What if it got dark? My tummy hurt even more as I thought about it.
The porridge finishes cooking, so I grab a pot holder and put the hot pan safely on the floor. Once the fire dies down I can put it back to stay warm until morning. I finish my dinner and clean up as best I can with no water.
Once I finish I face Trigger. “I will flip the quarter to decide if we should go get water, ok?” Trigger stands ready. “How should we decide which is which? Oh, I know. Heads we go, tails we stay. With our tails tucked between our legs. Get it.” I giggle and he wags his tail. He always gets my jokes.
I pull the metal box from the shelf and dig the quarter out of our treasures. It is shiny and smooth, worn from being handled for so long. I stand in the middle of the room and close my eyes, hoping Father will magically appear so I don’t have to make this decision. But he doesn’t, so I flip the coin up and let it land on the floor. I step up and peer at the quarter.
“Heads. Dang,” I tell Trigger, since he isn’t looking.
Trigger has to go out for potty time. I open the door and he gallops off towards the outhouse. It’s too dark to see but I scan outside anyways. I listen but all I hear are chickens clucking and the leaves rustling in the breeze. When I find nothing I take three deep breaths, then hold it and run across the open space. I jump into the outhouse and close the door. I tell myself there’s no such thing as monsters, but I swear I can feel them creeping up on the outhouse while I do my business. When I’m done I peek. I check again and repeat my mad dash back to the house. Trigger thinks this run is a great game and comes along with me, tail wagging like crazy.
When we are inside I close the door and lift the bar. The best way for me to do this is to slide it up the door. Then try to jump it over the hooks. Without falling over and hurting myself with the bar bruising my chest. Again. I get the bar in place on the first try. Then lug the heavy shutters up to cover the widows.
The fire casts a flickering light as I patch the knee of my overalls with an old piece of quilt. I only stab my finger a couple of times. My jeans are dirty and a little smelly, and I can’t spare the water to wash them, so I will wear my overalls tomorrow. I change into my sleep shirt. Before the light gets too dim I want to read. I can’t wash my hands, but I rub them hard with sand and then my towel. I place a clean cloth on the table. Then I use the stool to reach the bookshelf and our handful of books. I pull down my favorite, about a little girl and her adventures, from another time that is strange and wonderful. I read for a while, being gentle with the fragile pages. I can’t concentrate on my book as I listen for my father or someone else to knock on our lonely door. Giving up I return the book to the shelf.
I try to bank the fire. I’m not sure I’m doing it right, but it’s too hot inside and I will use this fire in the morning to eat before we leave. With the fire banked I haul the porridge pot back on the grate to warm. I grab my cat stuffy Rose from the table. There are no more chores to do and I climb the ladder to our bedroom. Father built the ladder from strong branches and made it so Trigger can get up. Trigger climbs after me. He doesn’t like the ladder, it’s hard for him to climb, but he wants to be with me and I want to be with him. The first night I tried to bring the ladder up, but it’s way too heavy. I almost dropped it and trapped us on the second floor.
Trigger settles on his blanket next to my trundle bed. I lie down and try to sleep but I’m so thirsty I can’t stop thinking about water. Daydreaming about swimming in a cool pool of still water, or drinking from a cold pitcher of lemonade. I make up a lullaby for Trigger about swimming across the ocean in search of a bone. One arm is wrapped around Rose’s soft black body. I get sleepier as I run my fingers through Trigger’s soft fur.
Even with the blanket I wake up cold, there’s a bite of fall in the air. It’s dawn, I can hear the birds singing happily to the new day. I roll out of bed, because it’s fun, and wake Trigger. He stands and stretches, his tongue sticking out. I stick my tongue out back at him as I struggle into my overalls and t-shirt. Grabbing Rose I head down the ladder stair. Trigger follows tush end first. I don’t laugh at him even though he looks silly, I don’t want to make him mad at me first thing.
I poke the ashes in the fireplace but find no embers. My porridge is cold and I have nothing to add to it to make it taste good. I am left with a solid block of tasteless goo. Putting half in Trigger’s bowl I split the last of the water with him. I choke down my helping, but Trigger refuses to eat his. Smart dog.
Since we are leaving I don’t remove the shutters. I let Trigger out and the warm sun rushes in. Nothing stirs, so I run for the outhouse. On the way back I gather the eggs the chickens have laid, using my overall pockets to hold them. Another check, three quick breaths, and I dash back to our home. The eggs go into the basket I forgot to take with me.
I think about what I should pack to get water. I have to take a gun. The bang and the jump scare me when I fire guns, but if we cross a big animal I might need it. I don’t think I can get the rifle from the hooks over the door, never mind carry it. But my father’s thigh holster can expand to be a belt for me. I strap that on and snap the revolver on one side and my knife onto the other side. My whistle with a compass is around my neck. I grab the headlamp but we have no more batteries so I hope I won’t need that. The last of the crackers go in my bag. I pack a bag for blueberries along the way. Trigger’s harness to help carry water is important, but he doesn’t like it so I wait to put it on him. I wonder if I should pack my jeans and t-shirt to wash in the lake, but then I will have to carry wet clothes back. It’s better to save that room for water. I pack the water filters and skins with clips, but I’m not sure how many I can carry once they’re full.
Rose will stay home and guard the house.
I intend to leave before it gets too hot. Trigger is ready, his shiny black head resting on my arm as I stand in the doorway, loaded down with my backpack. I listen for any different noises but it all seems peaceful. I look for anything moving. From the top of this hill we can trees rolling away.
I close the heavy wood door and lock it with the metal key. They key goes in the pocket of my overalls. I turn and head towards the deer run that leads to the lake. I remember the way, we have to go down the hill, up another and past the giant rock, and down again to the stream. It shouldn’t take too long.
My bare feet slap on the warm dirt as Trigger leads me down the trail. He must know we’re headed to get water. He’s so clever.
We enter the trees and are making a steady pace down the hill. Parts of the trail are a little rocky or have roots to trip you up. Near the bottom of our hill I trip once and skin my knee and hand, tearing my new patch off my overalls. I sit with tears in my eyes, trying not to cry as it stings. Trigger licks my face because he likes to be helpful. I pull myself up, wipe off my scrapes, and continue on.
The last time I had gone this far was before the last band of rovers we saw. Father and I hid from them, and that would be what I did this time. Their loud cycles scare me and they would take all of our things. Father said they were not nice people.
Up the next hill a mountain lion’s tracks cross the path. It’s hard to tell how old they are in the dirt. I hope it stays away, and the bears and deer and the moose and the porcupines. Everybody should just stay away.
We pass the rock bigger than our home, then we’re going down the hill. We come to the blueberry patch. I check for the bears that like them so much. Berries go in my face by the handful. I throw Trigger some and he’s so funny jumping for them I laugh, too loudly. Quietly I bag more berries and clip the bag to my backpack. I don’t want to spend too long at the blueberries and risk having something happen. The blueberry bushes like it wet and we’re close to the water.
We continue to follow the deer run, and I sniff the clean tang of running water. I hear it burbling first, and then we can see the stream winding at the bottom of the hill. It cuts through between this hill and the next, jumping over rocks and winding away. I’m so thirsty my hands are shaking, and we run down the hill to a spot where you can walk right into the stream. Trigger gulps down water but I have to wait. I pull all the the skins out and fill them while Trigger happily wades. I wait for the filters to light up and splash water on my face. When the lights come on the water is safe and I pour some down my throat. It is so good, sweet and crisp and earthy. I try not to drink too fast and give myself a bellyache. When I’m better I splash Trigger, who’s still bouncing around in the water like a nut. I giggle as he jumps, chasing my splashes.
When Trigger tires of splashing I realize I’m tired too. I wish I could take a nap. The sun is warm, the water makes soothing sounds. Trigger is relaxed sitting next to me and we are safe for the moment.
I pull out the crackers and nibble on them. Trigger doesn’t like the bland, hard crackers, but I should eat something before we hike back. I watch the water ripple around the rocks. What will I do if Father does not come back? How long can I stay here without Father’s help? Should I go looking for him? What if he’s hurt somewhere between here and town? What if rovers got him and he isn’t coming back? What if rovers come while I wait?
Trigger whimpers and nudges me with his shiny black snout, he wants to get moving again. He must have forgotten about the harness. I dig it out of the bag. He doesn’t run away, but his ears are tilted at an unhappy angle as I clip the leather vest around him. I clip water skins to it, being careful to put the same number on each side. It might be funny for me to make him lopsided, but he would most likely get his revenge by sitting on my head while I sleep tonight.
“I wish I was still little and could ride you home.”
When I’m done loading him up I clip the rest of the skins to the backpack. I do an experimental pull and yup, it’s heavy. Water sloshes as I hike the loaded bag onto my back. I teeter a little before I find my balance. I hope I don’t trip or I’ll end up mooshed into a pancake.
We head out. I find up the hill is much harder with all this water on my back. Trigger sloshes ahead of me. I have to keep my eyes on the ground most of the time, watching for rocks and roots and dips. My ankle getting twisted might be worse than getting mooshed.
We’re past the rock and headed down the hill when I almost trip over Trigger, who has stopped. He is still and the fur on his back stands on end. I feel all tingly as I look for whatever has upset Trigger. I move nothing but my eyes, scared of whatever Trigger is afraid to growl at.
Off in the trees something tan is moving. It’s too far to see, it could be a deer or a mountain lion. Either one could hurt us. It is moving away and we both stay still and silent, waiting. Long after I can’t see it any more Trigger does not move. He can hear better than me and he will know when we can move again.
Trigger relaxes and I sag on my shaky legs. I would sit on the ground except I’m sure I won’t be able to get this bag back up again. My sweaty palms slip on the backpack straps as I hobble over to a rock big enough to sit on. I look at my shaking hands and rest for a minute. My butt wiggles down until the bag sits on the rock instead of pulling on my back, I slump with my butt half off the rock. “Trigger, I don’t feel so good.”
Trigger sits beside me and leans against my leg. He licks my face. “If you were a cat you could purr and that would make me feel better.” I sit and watch the leaves flutter in the breeze until I calm down. I have to turn sideways and push myself off the rock to get up, but I manage it. Trigger could have helped, but he just watches me.
We set off again, this time going slower so I can hear better. I still have to watch where I’m going. Up the other hill and we’re at the end of the trees. I can smell wood smoke and can see the old stone chapel in the clearing. I drop behind a tree and shake off my bag. Who lit the fire that is making that smoke?
Nothing is moving, besides the occasional flutter from the chicken coop. The smoke waves away above our home. I see no vehicles, but rovers might hide them nearby so we would come back. It could be squatters. I have to peek inside and find out who is in there.
I can’t get there from here, if I walk across the clearing whoever it is will spot me right away. I can go through the woods and around to the back where that one window is almost hidden by the cupboard. Maybe I can see them without them seeing me.
I leave my bag and make my way through the trees, Trigger following me. I step with care so I break no twigs. In a couple places it’s hard to get around branches without making the bushes move and we have to go around. Finally I am across from the back window and I get ready to dash across the clearing. I have to go fast. My tummy hurts again.
I crouch at the edge of the trees, knowing there are no bushes for me to hide behind. I understand how the land Father has kept clear around the house makes it easy to see people sneaking. My best choice is to just charge across and hope. I check one more time for rovers or vehicles.
With a push off the tree I am pelting across the clearing, pumping my legs as fast as they will go. I feel a little funny, excited and scared at the same time. I reach the back of the house and crouch below the window. I try to quiet my gasping breathing. Trigger is right beside me and I’m grateful he didn’t decide we were playing a game and he should bark.
I turn and raise my head enough to peer over the edge. There is a man with his back to me, stirring a pot over the fire. I can tell just by the way he stands it is Father. I let out a whoop and nearly fall over Trigger in my rush to reach the door. Trigger barks as he wiggles away from my clumsy stumble and then we both dash to the front. I crash through the door and straight to my father.
He smiles as he gathers me to him. One arm is hugging me, still holding a spoon, but the other is in a sling. I relish the texture of his rough shirt and scratchy beard and hug him tight, the tears trying to squeeze out of my eyes. I hold them in, wanting to show him what a big girl I have been.
“Helen,” he whispers, “where have you been?” I look up. His warm brown eyes are shimmery with tears the same as mine.
“I went to get water. All by myself. Except I had Trigger.” I tell him as he sits and pulls me on his lap, careful of his hurt arm.
“Hmm maybe you forgot the water part.” The corner of his lip quirks as he teases me.
“Nooo Father. I brought the water. I left my bag in the woods when I saw someone was here. And Trigger has water, too.” Trigger is sitting watching us with his head titled to the side, and I slip from Father’s lap to get the harness off of our dog. Trigger stands and shakes when I take it off. I pick it up, staggering as I bring it to Father. We both get a drink of water.
“Let’s go fetch your bag and we can chat.” Father leads the way out, grabbing his rifle from over the door. It’s so much more comfortable going out when Father is with me. He knows when it’s safe. We recover the bag full of waters. He lets me carry the big gun while he hauls the water with his good hand.
We return to the house and settle in at the table, having a meal of the porridge he made with a handful of the blueberries I picked. I tell him all about my adventures and how well I did on my own. With Trigger’s help.
Father explains what happened to him, “I had an accident on my way to town, the trike will need repairs. My arm will need healing, too. I was unconscious for a while. When I woke up I knew I had to get to the next farm for help, I was closer to them than here. They gave me a ride back and tomorrow they’ll help me fetch the trike. I worried when I got home and you weren’t here. Rose kept me company though.”
He glances at my stuffed cat sitting on the table. Father coughs a little and his voice is rough when he continues, “You were brave going to get water by yourself. I’m proud of you. I think you’ve become a big girl.”
“I am a big girl now,” I agree with Father.
“I see that now. From now on you can come with me when I go out. You must be responsible and make good choices, but I think you’re ready.”
“Yay!” I squeal and jump up. Trigger barks and jumps up with me, and I hug him and pet his soft head.
“Also, if you’re willing to pull a little more weight around here we can afford to take two of those kittens off of our neighbor’s hands.”
“Really, Father? I promise they won’t get in the way or leave mice in your shoes!” I twirl around the room with Trigger barking after me, happy that our little family is safe and about to get bigger.
~ M. D. Flyn
Based on a prompt from: Terrible Minds