I am used to the chemical smell in the air. We all are. We all have to be. It coats our throats and hurts when we breath, but we fight through it. There simply aren’t enough gas masks to go around. We don’t have a choice. We need food. We need wood to keep the furnaces going.
Without the precious logs that others bring in, we would all freeze to death in the only thing keeping us safe from the disastrous elements. The bunker.
My red hoodie and black gloves protect me from the dangerous plants. Fungi coated in poisonous slime. Flowers that bite. Countless things that have been forever changed by the damaged environment around them.
I carry an ax in one hand.
A burlap sack in the other.
My mother warned me that I wasn’t old enough to be going into the toxic woods without a mask. That my body couldn’t protect me from the radiation. That I wasn’t strong enough to fend off all the other creatures lurking between the deformed trees.
But today even my mother agreed that I had no choice.
We recently lost two of our people. We don’t know what happened to them. We only know that they didn’t come back.
We are already short on people as it is.
So now it’s my turn. It’s my turn to harvest.
I cover my mouth and nose with the red fabric of my tattered hoodie. It filters out some of the chemicals in the air. Not all, but enough that it makes a difference.
I walk into the woods. Toward the center, where we started collecting years ago. The clearing in the center is filled with tree trunks and felled branches too small to be of any use to us. I approach a tree.
The tree has a greenish tint to it. It’s all sharp corners and jutting branches. Not healthy by any means. I take my ax in both hands, dropping my sack onto the too-bright grass. I swing. I cut into the tree, revealing the live green wood inside. Another chop.
These trees are fragile and weak. Easy to chop through. Within three swings of my ax, the tree is toppling over. It lands with a crash onto the ground. I chop some more, near the base to get the thickest logs, and chop it into smaller pieces.
I leave the leaf covered tree top on the ground to decompose into the soil, only throwing the chopped up bits of it’s base into my sack. Thanks to the poor condition of the trees, they burn through so much faster. The thin branches are no good. We leave them behind to prevent them from taking up precious space in our bags.
I am felling another tree when I hear something. A rustling in the branches. I spin on the balls of my feet, swinging my ax in front of me. My eyes dart side to side, examining the dark spaces between the trees. At first I see nothing. Then I hear it again. Branches crunching underfoot. Right ahead of me.
I press my back against the tree. It groans as I push against it’s fresh cut. I worry that it my fall just from the pressure I am putting on it.
Branches shift and crack as whatever is moving in the trees comes closer. I crouch down and prepare to pounce at the thing. My thighs start to burn while I wait until I can see the thing in the woods.
Finally a shape begins to make itself known. As it comes into view, I let myself relax, standing and letting my ax fall to my side.
The man approaching me is a familiar one. He wears a matching red hoodie, his more stained and torn up then mine. He also carries an ax and a sack identical to mine. He is another member of the group sent out to collect wood today. He startles when he sees me.
“Gosh, Tom, you scared me! Maybe announce yourself next time? I could’ve killed you!”
He scoffs as if I’ve insulted him. “Sure you could’ve. What are you doing out here anyway, Scar? I thought your mamma wouldn't let you out.”
I roll my eyes. “Had to. Synthia and Craig didn’t come back last night.”
“Poor guys.” He looks sad, but not distraught, although they were friends of his. We can’t afford to mourn in our situation. We simply don't have time for it.
“Anyway, get out of here. This is my spot.”
He looks like he is maybe going to argue, but he doesn’t say anything. He simply moves on, disappearing in the trees. I can hear him whistling as he walks away, trying in what little ways he can to brighten up the depressing woods.
I finish chopping down the trees. I fill my bag all the way to the brim.
I wipe the sweat off my brow, proud of myself for completing my first harvest so well. I tie the bag closed and try to lift it.
I can’t, no matter how hard I try, seem to get it more than a foot off the ground. I sigh, the pride I felt for a job well done dissipating as I untie the bag. I cringe with every piece of precious wood that I throw into a pile behind me. I try to focus on the fact that I’ll at least have some pre-cut wood ready to collect tomorrow. That will save some time. I hope.
I end up having to dump half the bag onto the forest floor. It pains me to look at the wasteful pile of wood, even if I know that I can come back and get it soon enough. Maybe even today.
I retie the bag and throw it over my shoulder. I am more disappointed in my weak arms then anything else. My mom was right. I’m not strong enough to be doing this yet. I hadn’t spent long enough training for spending any sort of time outside the bunker.
Everyone else had spent twice as much time as I had in the make-shift gym we have in the bunker to earn the right to leave.
I walk through the woods, try to push through my already shaking arms. Pathetic. I’m pathetic. The thought repeats itself over and over again in my head. As I walk. I keep my eyes on the ground, watching to make sure I don’t trip over any roots or branches.
Branches crush behind me.
“I’m not in the mood for company, Tom.” I shout over my shoulder.
He doesn’t respond though. He just keeps walking.
“Seriously. Go away.”
Frustrated with being ignored, I toss my bag to the ground and turn, fully prepared to chew him out for not listening to me.
What I see behind me isn't Tom. Not at all.
A rabid dog stares me down. Foam drips from its black lips while it stalks toward me. The ax slips from my hand while I stare the dog in the eyes, trying to convince it to back down. To leave me alone.
It growls. It doesn't seem to like the eye contact. It crouches down on it's front legs, it's tail raised in the air behind it.
And then it pounces.