Marvin’s mother had begged him not to go. His father hadn’t even emerged from his sleeping quarters to see his son off. As he stood surrounded by gut-biting cold and snow, he wondered if they had been correct in their apprehension over his journey. So much snow.
No white flakes had fallen since his arrival, but they covered his surroundings; a shroud of murderous purity. Small stretches of the landscape lay bare, but even these areas offered no reprieve from the encroaching chill of death. And he would die if he remained in this place much longer. His tribe could withstand the harshest of conditions—when you’re relegated to the outskirts, you don’t have another choice—but this land was beyond what his body could tolerate.
Marvin willed his legs to move him forward. Going back the way he entered wouldn’t be an option. While he was an excellent climber, he had grown too weak to haul himself back up the vertical terrain of the frozen mountains. Even if this could be accomplished, his initial passage into this place had required him to squeeze through a narrow crevice, using his upper body strength to coax his relaxed lower half through the tight space. He was sure to get stuck halfway should he try that now. And he hadn’t completed his mission. The only way out was through.
Before he could get more than a few steps, a thunderous wind moaned overhead, sending a blast of icy air across his body. He stopped his forward motion and pulled his extremities inward to protect them from the stinging air.
“It would be simpler to roll onto my back and die,” he yelled over the roar of the air. “But we don’t take the simple way out. We never have and we never will.”
The Less were survivors. Their ability to withstand disease, drought, and famine pushed them to the fringes of society. Instead of being exalted for their evolutionary gifts, The Great feared them. There were stories of the two groups peacefully co-existing, but Marvin had never seen it with his own eyes. He had only witnessed depravity and intolerance.
The Less lived off the discarded and unguarded resources around cities and towns. They kept to the shadows. Being spotted by The Great would mean certain death and escape was often impossible. What The Great lacked in their immune systems and survival abilities, they made up for with their strength and impunity. It was nothing for them to strike down The Less. It evoked less emotion than drawing a breath. Marvin had seen it himself.
Several months ago, he had been on a foraging mission with his cousin, Elva. Their home was a comfortable one, and well hidden, but The Great in this area guarded their food and garbage well. This forced The Less to forage frequently to obtain enough nourishment to sustain themselves. While they were capable of living on very little sustenance, starvation remained a threat. It took longer than it would for The Great, but it was no less painful and resulted in the same end; death. Marvin and Elva had adventurous spirits and enjoyed these missions, despite the dangers.
The pair remained vigilant on their journey, careful to duck behind cover when their enemies drew near. A scout had mapped out the safest route of travel to a food source, though no mission could be considered truly safe. The Great were everywhere. But the pair followed their instructed course without deviation and found the discarded food just beyond a large building.
It wasn’t as much as they had hoped for, but it would be sufficient to keep them going. It had been too long since their last meal. Elva’s sunken gut was more pronounced than Marvin’s, but they both teetered on the brink of weeks-long starvation. Feet away from their position in the shadows sat enough edible material to quiet the internal screams.
Elva moved from the safety of their hiding place.
“Wait,” Marvin whispered, but she paid him no mind.
She slipped quickly to the pile of refuse, her feet making no sound as she ran. Marvin’s stomach begged him to follow her. It seemed safe. The Great hadn’t been moving much that day, and they had seen fewer than expected. Perhaps it would be ok to take the food without watching the area first.
Before Marvin could convince himself to abandon his training and join Elva in the feast, one of The Great appeared. Elva froze, her eyes large, taking in the lumbering, well-fed man before her. He gripped a weapon in his right hand. The Less had no use for such things. Surviving didn’t involve violence, even as a means to an end. When confronted, their only defense was to flee, hide, and continue living. The weak immune systems and incapable organs of The Great bred fear and hatred in their hearts, which fed their hostility until it was a gorged beast.
The Great raised his weapon and attacked. The Less were agile, and Elva had time to avoid her demise, but she remained in place and accepted her end with dignity. Marvin watched as life left her, too engulfed with fear to pull his gaze away. Her limbs twitched as The Great carried her away for disposal. Another arrived soon after to disinfect the area and remove the food to a different dumping site. Marvin remained, locked in place as he witnessed their callousness. It would be hours before he would begin his return journey; alone with a still-empty belly.
The bellowing wind ceased as abruptly as it had begun. Marvin pulled himself away from his painful memory and stretched his limbs. They felt like foreign things, no longer a part of him. The cold had numbed them until they hurt, then continued attacking until the pain abated. If he survived, he would struggle for the remainder of his days with the damages of frostbite.
“I will,” he whispered to himself. “I will find Vale and I will survive.”
Renewed by his purpose, he continued across the snowy expanse. The reason for being in this frozen hellscape lay somewhere ahead, and the only thing that would stop him from reaching his goal was death. He refused to accept this realistic probability and continued the search for his missing brother.
Vale left several days prior on a solo mission for food. A passing traveler scout had given him the coordinates of a large food cache in the north. Travelers were part of The Less, though they didn’t belong to a stationary tribe. They did as their name suggested and traveled great distances in search of resources, passing information to the tribes they met along the way. Vale had listened with his stomach more than his ears as the traveler described the wealth of food and water. He seemed unable to hear the details regarding the unforgiving land and plummeting temperatures. Marvin tried to convince him to search closer to home, but The Great had been more cautious with their food storage and discarded items since Elva’s murder. The hunger was becoming unbearable. Their situation grew increasingly dire.
“There’s nothing here for us anymore,” Vale said after listening to the words of the traveling scout. “We should look into this information. If it’s as the traveler said, we could move the tribe closer to the foot of the mountain and live in abundance instead of slowly starving to death.”
“If the resources are so good, why haven’t we heard of it before now?” Marvin asked.
“Maybe it’s a guarded secret,” Vale said.
Marvin shook his head. “That’s not how the tribe works. We share knowledge of all resources. Putting individuals above the group would make us no better than The Great. It sounds too dangerous.”
“Let’s go together and find out.”
That was the last communication between the brothers. Marvin had shaken his head once more and walked away. He hadn’t expected Vale to leave the same night, alone and without even saying farewell to his family. When he hadn’t returned by the third day, the family prepared a group to search for his remains, believing that The Great had likely discovered and killed him. Only Marvin knew the truth, and he could no longer keep it hidden.
“He’s gone to a mountain in the north,” he told his father. “I told him it was a bad idea, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“You let him go alone?” his mother asked. Marvin lowered his head, weighted with the guilt of her accusation. One of Vale’s legs had been damaged during a foraging mission. While he didn’t struggle on normal terrain, the mountain described by the traveler would have been difficult for the most able-bodied of The Less.
“Don’t fault him for having the brains his brother did not,” his father said. “We survive by our genetic gifts. If we choose to laugh at these gifts and tempt death, we do not deserve them.”
“I’ll go and find him,” Marvin said. “My last meal wasn’t long ago, so I have strength. I will bring him home, dead or alive.”
“No!” his mother cried. “You are close to the age of coupling. We’ve already lost your brother. We can’t lose you as well. The strongest members of The Less must reproduce in order to continue, and your contribution is needed. We have only just begun to rebuild after the poisoning.”
It was true. The tribe had taken a hit after the deaths of so many. The ones that had eaten the poisoned scraps and survived were left barren. Marvin was one of the lucky few that had avoided the trickery from The Great and been left whole. With so few left to reproduce, he was invaluable to the survival of The Less. But Vale was his brother.
“I have to go,” he said. “I will leave tonight.”
His mother pleaded as he prepared, crying in anguish as he departed. Part of her pain came from losing her sons, but the remainder of her grief was due to the shame of Marvin going against the tenants of The Less. He was choosing the individual over the group.
Her wailing echoed in his mind now as he trudged through an endless white night. He longed for warmth. In all of his years, he had never known a cold such as this. It lashed every fiber of his body, sinking into him and banishing even the memory of comfort. The wind began above him again, blanketing his frail form in its frigid misery. He refused to stop this time and continued forward.
In the distance, he could see a lake of ice. On its far edge lay a crumpled form. He drew strength from an internal well; a reservoir soon to run dry. His speed increased as he struggled across the tundra, each step heavier than the last. At the edge of the ice, he stopped, straining to make out the collapsed figure along the distant bank of the glassy surface. The wind buffeted his eyes until he was certain they would freeze and fall from his face.
“Vale!” he called. The figure twitched. “I’m coming, brother!”
Marvin looked at the lake before him. He weighed little, but he still feared falling through a weak point. The figure moved feebly again, and it was enough to coax Marvin forward. He stepped onto the ice.
David opened the freezer and spotted two small roaches in the ice tray. One lay on its back, twitching its spindly legs while the second stood at the other end of the tray, seeming to watch its dying comrade.
“Mom, you need to call the exterminator again. There’s bugs in the garage freezer,” he yelled as he pulled off his shoe. He whacked the one scurrying across the ice first, then squished the dying one for good measure. He removed the ice tray, dumping its contents onto the driveway. The summer sun warmed the ice until it melted, washing Marvin and Vale to their final resting place beneath a bush on the front lawn.
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