Dad slapped his neck in disgust. “The fish aren’t biting but the mosquitoes sure are.”
I was covered in itchy red blotches, one of which I’d scratched so hard, it bled. “Can we go in now?”
“If we don’t catch anything, there’ll only be rice for lunch.”
I was sick of rice. We’d eaten nothing else for days. “Maybe it’s time to call it quits. Go back.” The instant the words were said, I regretted them, but my stomach hurt from hunger, and things were getting worse.
He sat opposite me on the skiff and laid his rod aside. “You remember why we left?”
I couldn’t meet his eyes. “Maybe it’s different now. Better.”
“Why would it be?”
“But maybe it is!” I missed pizza and internet and food on the grocery shelves. I missed talking with my friends and hanging out. I even—oh my god—missed school. I would have been a junior this year.
He touched my shoulder, and I flinched. “We’re going through a rough patch. It’ll pass.” He straightened. “Tell you what. We’ll kill a chicken for dinner tonight. How does that sound?” He slapped his arm, and I saw blood. The mosquito had got him.
Killing a chicken was a huge sacrifice on his part, but I didn’t care. I wanted things to be the way they used to be. I was tired of scrambling in the swamp for survival. It had gotten old weeks ago, and how would we make it when summer came? Just thinking about having no AC made me break out in a sweat. He’d talked about trying to make it north to relatives in Chicago, on foot so we could avoid the checkpoints, but every time I brought it up, he changed the subject.
He was scared, but I wasn’t. I’d prove it was safe to go back, then return for him.
That night, after dining on a skinny rooster, I snuck out of the lean-to with my pack and headed for the nearest road. I knew where it was because we’d been avoiding it for weeks. Sticking to the shoulder so I could dive into the brush if I heard a car or saw someone, I walked, slapping skeeters and grateful for the nearly full moon and clear sky.
After a few hours, I fell into a kind of waking doze, moving steadily north but feeling like I was dreaming. I knew I should stop and drink, but I was in the zone and kept going.
It was near first light when someone stuck something hard in my back and said, “Hands up, fucker.”
I obliged, wide awake again. “I don’t have anything you’d want.”
“That’s for me to judge. Drop that pack.” The hard thing—a rifle barrel?—was withdrawn, and I did as he demanded. “Now step away a piece and face me. Keep those hands up.”
The guy was scruffy and looked half-starved, and so did the big dog sitting next to him. “You’re just a kid. What the hell you doing out here by yourself? Don’t you know the world is full of mean, nasty people?” His laugh sounded like rusty wire.
My heart sank. It hadn’t changed at all. If anything, it was worse.
“Keep an eye on him, Rowley.” The man went through my pack methodically.
I looked at the dog, who stared back without dropping his eyes. Old Rowley had been through some things. Even in the moonlight, I could see his ribs.
I had a couple pieces of jerky in my pocket, and I went after them as quietly as I could. At the same time, I reached for the knife I kept in a sheath strapped to my back.
“You’re right, kid. There ain’t much here, but I’ll take the fishing line and hooks and the little bit of food you got.”
The hell he would. “Hey, mister!” When he looked up, I underarmed the knife into his throat. He gasped, and his eyes rolled back. Blood gushed down his neck, black in the moonlight. Rowley barked once, then backed away when his master fell forward on his face.
I prepared to be attacked by the dog, but he came toward me, head and tail lowered, and nosed the hand holding the jerky. Smiling, I patted his head and gave him a piece. He swallowed it without chewing and waited for more. I gave him the other piece. “You’re mine now.”
I rolled the man over, retrieved my pack, then pulled my knife out, wiped it on the guy’s dirty shirt, and stuck it back in its sheath. “Guess my dad was right, Rowley. Want to come home with me? It’s not much, but if you can stomach rice, we’ve got plenty of that.” I picked up the man’s rifle and slung it over one shoulder. I was surprised I didn’t feel worse about killing him.
I went back the way I’d come, the dog trotting docilely along beside me. Dad wouldn’t like me bringing home another mouth to feed, but I needed the dog to stay sane. I was keeping him, no matter what.
“I have some ideas about how to trap fish,” I said to the dog. “And there are ducks on the water sometimes. With this rifle, I bet I can nail a few.”
Feeling better about life, I quickened my pace. I couldn’t wait to introduce Dad to Rowley.
Word count: 906