The hill stood just a tad taller than the hill beside it on the edge of a river. It stood, green like mint, in a splash of morning sunlight. Dewy drops clinging to blades of grass shimmered like diamonds in such a way that if a giant were to pass by, he could mistake the hill for a sugary treat that he might stop to pop into his mouth.
Three people lived on the hill一Ford, Gregory, and Clara. Six people lived on the hill beside them, and eleven people lived on the hill behind them. Interactions happened sparingly.
On Ford’s two-hundred and seventy-third day on the hill, he didn’t rise immediately from his pallet. He couldn’t if he wanted to, because an arm一one-third the length of his一held him down. A ghost of a smile graced his face as he peered down at the slight person curled into his side. Wispy blond hair tickled his nose.
A whisper turned his head.
“Not yet.” Ford replied to Clara’s five-year-old brother who shared his sister’s pallet.
“Yes.” He answered with a patient smile. “I’m awake.”
Gregory smiled and then snickered as he leaned down to kiss his baby sister’s hair, knowing full-well that it would wake her. She stirred, Ford gently chided the impish boy, and Clara’s eyes opened; blue like the sky, where her brother’s were blue like the sea. She blinked and smiled at the two faces peering down at her.
“Good morning, Clara.” Ford smiled. “Did you sleep well?”
Smacking her lips, the two and a half-year-old girl idly drummed her fingers on her belly. When she didn’t reply, Ford kissed her cheek, warm with sleep, encouraging another smile from her.
“Oh!” Gregory gasped and jumped to his feet, holding the front of his loose, cotton pants. “I go potty!”
Ten yards away, he ducked behind a tree while Ford’s eyes vigilantly scanned their surroundings. When Gregory returned, his feet were wet with dew, and the shape of a foot printed into the corner of his pallet. He grinned, rubbing his bare belly as he waited expectantly for their morning to begin. His copper-blond hair, disheveled from sleep, lifted from his forehead at the whisper of a gentle breeze. It was enough to raise goosebumps on Clara’s bare arms.
“Are you cold?” Ford asked and without an answer he sat up, encouraging Clara to sit up as well. Amongst the bedraggled blankets, he found the long-sleeved dress he had peeled from her skin sometime during the night. A notoriously sweaty sleeper, Clara often shed her layers until morning.
Rough like wool, but warm and durable, the article resisted as Ford tugged it over Clara’s head, and she whined when he had to tug especially hard.
“There you are!” He cheered to relieve her distress. He brushed wispy blond hairs from her face before tugging each arm into a sleeve.
“Gregory,” he addressed the boy who waited beside his sister. “Can you find your shirt, please?”
While Gregory searched amongst the blankets, Clara announced that she had to “go potty,” so Ford took her behind a tree. When a whine indicated that Gregory had tangled his shirt around his head, Ford hurried with Clara to rush to Gregory’s aid.
“Silly boy.” Ford reassured the uncertain boy, encouraging a smile to his face. “Come on.” Ford straightened. “Let’s roll up our beds and get on with the day.”
Such wonderful helpers, the siblings rolled up at least one blanket each and carried them uphill to a wicker basket that perched on an old tree stump. Another tree stood directly behind that one, so the wicker basket and everything else beside it wasn’t visible from down the hill. The other items beside the wicker basket consisted of several pots and pans, an ax with the blade wedged into a thick root protruding from the earth, three lanterns, two stakes, and a chest full of smaller items such as forks and knives, matches, batteries, tin mugs and plates, and spare blankets. A few paces away, there stood a chicken coop with three hens, names: Fern, Olive, and Ivy, and a rooster named Caswell. Above the chicken-fence, a loose white line stretched from one tree to another, bearing several items of clothing and one sheet that billowed in the breeze like the sail of a boat.
Ford gathered the remaining blankets and the bamboo mat that added further protection between their bodies and the ground. He followed the children up the hill, behind the protection of trees, and tucked the freshly folded linens into the wicker basket on top of the stump. When Clara dumped her wadded blankets into the basket with a toothy grin, Ford neatly removed them with a gracious “thank you” and refolded them. With a smile, he did the same with Gregory’s linens.
In bare feet, the three of them tramped across the grass that had thinned from nearly a year of daily treading. They followed their morning footsteps from the buildup of supplies to the miniature home that held their chickens.
Olive was the oldest of the three hens, and her egg production had slowed dramatically in the last few weeks. Fern was an excellent egg producer, but Ivy was the gem of the flock, and she was expecting the arrival of three chicks.
Ford unlatched the gate and Gregory lifted the small wicker basket seated in the grass just outside the chicken-fence. Clara followed, crying “Mine” when her big brother headed for the coop with the basket in hand.
“Clara,” Ford lifted the small girl in his arms. “Big brother is going to collect the eggs, so he needs the basket.”
“No, I want to collect eggs.” She repeated Ford, her baby voice grouping the words together into one long mumble as she pouted. Two-hundred and seventy-three days ago, Ford wouldn’t have understood her.
“OK.” He set her down. “You help big brother collect the eggs. But don't take the basket from him, OK?”
“OK.” She answered, toddling after her brother who was just disappearing inside the coop.
“Give Caswell a wide berth.” He reminded the determined two-year old who blazed past the moody rooster. Caswell stood taller than Clara by at least half a foot, and Ford nearly stepped in as the temperamental bird huffed indignantly at the tiny girl. But, she paid him no mind, and to Ford’s relief, the rooster stalked off.
“Ford!” Gregory shouted from inside the chicken coop.
“Yes?” Ford replied. He stepped forward, only to be greeted by Gregory flying down the ramp and colliding with Ford’s knees.
“I got four eggs!” The boy explained excitedly. “Clara got two!”
“Two eggs!” Clara confirmed, barrelling down the ramp far too quickly for Ford’s comfort. He caught her just before she tripped over the final lip. Her little arms clutched behind his neck as she bounced happily in his arms.
“Very good. Thank you for helping, Gregory.” He spoke to the boy who was already on his way to complete his chore. “And thank you, Clara.” He gentled his voice for the sweet girl who refused to release her grip. He followed Gregory out of the chicken-fence, latching the gate shut behind him.
A few paces down the hill at their buildup of supplies, Gregory lifted a lid to a beautifully woven wicker basket. Then, one by one, he added his eggs to a stock of thirty more. Ford let Clara down so she could do the same. When Gregory stepped back, his task complete, Ford stepped in, taking a knee to better sort half of the eggs into a small wooden crate reserved for himself and the children. Returning the basket’s top, he tucked the basket under one arm. With the other, he lifted Clara.
“Ready?” He asked the children and they responded with an enthusiastic “yes,” and down the hill and into the trees they trekked.
“Ford?” Gregory gasped, rushing to keep up with Ford’s long strides.
“Yes?” Ford responded, slowing for the boy.
“We going to neighbors?”
“Neighbors!” Repeated Clara.
“We see Ella?”
“Ella!” Repeated Clara.
“We get milk? And meat?”
“Milk, yes,” Ford responded with a smile. “Meat… Maybe.”
“Yes, monsters take the meat.”
“Monsters!” Repeated Clara. “Monsters so scary!”
“The monsters are so scary?” Ford asked, encouraging her to speak again.
“Yeah. They scare me.”
“They scare me too.”
“Me too,” Gregory added enthusiastically. “Monsters so scary. Monsters go rawwwrrr!”
“Shh…” Ford gently reminded the boy. “Not too loud, Greg.”
“Oh, sorry.” He covered his mouth with a snicker.
Down the hill, the three veered right and into the trees. Down, down, down they continued their descent downhill; their trail wide and deep like the earth-worn path of the Oregon Trail.
“What’s that noise?” Gregory gasped as something rustled in the trees to their left.
“Squirrel,” Ford responded, eyes focused straight ahead, his pace picking up.
“Monster?” Clara squeaked. Ford didn’t respond. Twenty paces, he told himself. Nothing would be this far up the hill, he told himself. They don’t come out in the sun, he told himself. A break in the trees above their heads filtered in a stream of warm sunlight and the weight in Ford’s chest lifted ever-so-slightly.
Down a brief slope, up a short climb, around a wide knot of shrubbery, and Ford and the children arrived in a clearing where two people stood, waiting.
“Vince,” Ford addressed a man in muddy brown boots, dark jeans, and a grey t-shirt. A severe frown slashed across the man’s mouth, giving someone who didn’t know him the notion that he was capable of terrible things.
“Ella.” Ford offered a smile to the young woman standing several feet from Vince’s side. She smiled pleasantly at the children who smiled in return.
“Slept in, did you?” Drawled Vince, his heavy-lidded gaze dropping to the child that clung to Ford’s jeans.
“We may have slept through the rooster’s crow,” Ford spoke to Clara, although his words were for Vince. When Ford returned his attention to the churlish man, he jerked his chin towards a white sack at the man’s boots. “Any luck on the hunt?”
Vince leaned down and swiped the sack from the ground, only to toss it at Ford’s feet. Gregory jumped back.
“That’s the last of the pig.” Vince gruffed. “Let’s hope your chickens had better luck this week.”
“They didn’t.” Unblinking, Ford replied, balancing the basket in his palm and extending it towards Vince who ungraciously accepted it. Then he held it out for Ella who sorted half of the eggs into a satchel of her own.
“You know, Ford,” Vince released a sharp laugh that wasn’t the least bit happy. “I’m starting to think you’re holding out on me.”
“I could say the same about you, Vince,” Ford replied. “Last week, you came up empty-handed, and this week you’ve given me barely enough to feed myself, let alone the children.”
“Well, I know how you can fix one of those problems.”
Vince’s eyes darkened as they located the little girl in Ford’s arms, slashing through her with his cruel, determined stare.
For the moment, Ford had forgotten that Clara was in his arms. He stepped forward, ready to kill when Ella stepped in.
“Vince, you’re despicable.” She hissed, her body standing between the two men. “What would you have him do? Toss the children into the wild?”
“I don’t care what he does to them.” Vince’s lip curled over his teeth. “But it’s not my responsibility to feed them. And it sure ain’t my fault there’s no hunt. You think you’re the only ones goin’ hungry?”
“Ford?” Gregory gently interrupted.
“Yes, Greg?” Distracted, Ford came off more harshly than he intended.
“No meat,” Ford confirmed.
“Yes,” Ford’s eyes leveled on Vince. “The monsters ate the meat.”
“I don’t care if you believe me or not.” Vince gruffed, swiping the back of his hand across his nose. “And what about you? Are the Scabs coming up the hill now? Are they eating your chickens?”
“Olive quit producing eggs. But three eggs are on the way, and at least two of them should be hens.”
“Ella, how’s milk production?” Vince turned his attention towards the woman who had moved to the side once the gentlemen settled down.
“Well, aren’t we fucked.” Vince tucked the basket of eggs under his arm, then accepted one of the other baskets Ella had ready for him. “I think it’s time to move on.”
“Where would we go?” Ford argued. “High in the hills is the safest place for us.”
“Staying high isn’t an issue. This hill range stretches a hundred miles west.” Vince reasoned, turning his back to Ford and Ella. “But I wasn’t talking about all of us.” He looked over his shoulder. “Just me.”
Ford watched him walk away, a sour frown fixing itself across his mouth. In his arms, Clara dropped her chin into the crook of Ford’s neck. From below, Gregory slipped his hand inside Ford’s.
“Don’t listen to him.” Ella stepped forward, smiling as she gently rubbed Clara’s back through her wool dress. “You look tired, Ford. Why don’t you let me take the kids for the day? You can catch up on some sleep…”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you for the offer, Ella, but I’m fine.” Ford’s grip tightened around Gregory’s hand. Ella smiled wistfully.
“You’re a good man. I don’t think anybody else would step up for these children as you have.”
Ford smiled, lowering his eyes, and deciding to step away. He was never good at accepting compliments. Ella didn’t notice. She was lowering herself to Gregory’s level with a friendly smile.
“And how are you today, Gregory?”
“I’m Gregory.” He responded with professionalism as if he had just been asked for his name.
“I know who you are,” Ella chuckled. “But, how are you?”
“I’m super fast. Watch this!” Gregory answered, proceeding to run in place. Ella smiled wanly and straightened. “Ford, are you sure…”
“It’s just a speech delay.” Ford cut in. “He’s fine. Do you have our milk? We better be getting back.”
Ella retrieved a wicker basket that replaced the one Ford had given Vince. Inside, four waterskins, sloshing with fresh milk, gave the promise of a calcium-enriched drink for the children.
“Thanks, Ella. Maybe I’ll have more eggs for you next week.”
“I hope so. Take care of yourself, Ford.”
Through the woods and up the hill, Ford and the children returned to their camp. They put their goods away. Ford praised the children for their hard work, and then he set off to make breakfast with the pork Vince had provided.
Over a crackling fire that spread the smell of smoke and wood, Ford cooked just enough pork to satisfy the children. He knew they wouldn’t eat every bite on their plates, so he would eat what they didn’t and be satisfied with a morning of eggs and whatever they had leftover. And perhaps after breakfast, they would search for Mulberries in the woods. It was that time of year.
Around an old tree stump, the three sat with their tin plates of egg and pork. Mugs of milk sat adjacent to the children’s plates, while a flask of water dampened Ford’s tongue.
“Greg…” Ford swallowed his final bite. “Do you know where Scabs came from?”
“Monsters,” Ford explained. “Do you know where Monsters came from?”
“Monsters came from?” Gregory repeated uncertainly.
“Almost two years go, people started to get sick from Mosquito bites.”
“Bugs?” Clara interrupted.
“Blood bugs,” Gregory told his sister.
“And as people got sick, they started acting weird. Like, getting angry and hurting other people.”
Ford frowned pensively at the boy.
“Mommy get angry?” Gregory pressed.
“Yes. Mommy got angry. And she was alone. She was trying to keep you two safe when I found you.”
“You find us?” Gregory repeated.
“Yes, I did find you, but it was an accident. I didn’t know I was going to find you. And when I did, I helped your mom.”
“Help Mommy?” Clara sneezed.
“Yes. Mommy wasn’t feeling good. So, I took you guys away so she could rest.”
“Mommy tired?” Clara poked her eggs with an index finger. “Mommy sleep?”
“Yes.” Ford forced a smile.
“Mommy all better now?” Gregory’s eyes locked with Ford’s.
Ford’s smile waned. He watched the two siblings wait for his response, and when it didn’t come, they started to argue. They argued over who “loved mommy more.” Within seconds the squabble boiled into a fight, and Clara was swinging at her brother with her little fist.
“Owww!” Gregory threw his head back and cried. “Clara hit me!”
“OK, shhh…” Ford stood to his feet and lifted the girl who had begun crying as well. “No fighting today. Greg, that’s too loud. Clara, don’t kick一Greg, stop it, you’re upsetting your sister. Stop it, both of you!”
Ford’s shout echoed in the sudden silence before the tears of young children crescendoed and crashed in his ears. Clara’s legs crumbled beneath her the second Ford lowered her to the ground. On her butt, she cried and screamed in the grass. From the makeshift table, Gregory cried, his mouth wide open and full of food; his eyes pouring massive drops of tears.
For a moment, it was just too much.
Ford turned and walked several paces away, leaving the screaming children behind. Rounding a tree, he leaned into the rough bark and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He took another. And then another.
The sound of crying children dissolved.
When he opened his eyes, a tear slipped from the corner of his eye. A sniffle from below drew his attention down, and he dropped to his knees to enfold Clara in his arms. Behind her, Gregory stood. He opened his embrace to the boy, who fell into Ford’s chest. Everyone started crying again.