Eden came awake abruptly, snapping to consciousness with one hand automatically reaching out to check the kids. Waking slowly was a luxury she hadn't had since the end of the world.
Hannah Rose lay quiet under her palm, breath whispering softly in and out, deeply asleep, but Lucas held himself stiff, eyes open, too still, too eerily contained for an eight-year-old. He gave a small nod Eden could hardly see in the pale gleam of moonlight trickling through the window.
He'd heard it too. Whatever the hell it was that had woken her.
Eden acknowledged the signal with a silent nod of her own, careful not to rustle the layered blankets as she slipped out of bed, the shotgun clenched firm in her grip.
Tonight they were squatting in a doublewide trailer perched high on a hillside above a lake, but she hadn't chosen it for the pretty views. The linear layout meant only one door to guard. The narrow window above the bed was plenty wide enough for two small kids and a bone-thin woman to wiggle through if they needed an escape hatch and high enough off the ground not to be an entry point from the outside.
The worn soles of Eden's hiking boots didn't make a sound on the threadbare rug as she crept down the hallway, shotgun at the ready, her breath puffing little clouds in the icy air.
Winter came early in the mountains. She'd kept track of the days as best she could--it was harder now to mark the time but she was pretty sure it was barely October. Not even a year since the first epidemic hit. Things had changed so fast.
The nights were already too cold for the kids. They needed to start heading south again. Since the power grid failed, Idaho was still too far north for easily survivable winters--and much too close to the dangers of Seattle for comfort. Arizona, Nevada, maybe New Mexico. California's sunny beaches held a fantasy appeal, but she'd heard rumors that things were bad in California. High population density meant more survivors, more mutated attempts at society like the Seattle commune.
Eden shuddered at the thought, instinctively glancing back toward the bedroom to check on the kids.
No, cities were too risky. Better to be on their own. Safer.
Though on nights like this, the completeness of their isolation stung. It meant no one to guard her back as she slunk down the hall, shotgun in hand, and only Lucas to comfort Hannah Rose and keep her quiet if she woke.
The knot of guilt Eden carried in her stomach tightened. Sweet Lucas. He'd grown so silent, so ancient in the last eight months. No normal childhoods for children of this new world. It was hard to remember laughter when you'd seen so much death. At least laughter that wasn't the hysterical cousin of sobs.
When six point eight billion people died in a three-month period, there was no way to avoid looking Death in the face, being scarred by his scythe. Over ninety-nine percent of the world's population wiped out by a virus. Quick, lethal and indiscriminate. And then more deaths in the aftermath--insanity, starvation, exposure... So many ways to die and suddenly so few reasons to live.
She couldn't fault those who'd given up. Without Lucas and Hannah Rose, who was to say she wouldn't have wanted to? They were her purpose.
The meaning of life meant something different now. Carrying forward the legacy of human history. Adapting. Rebuilding. Tonight it just meant survival.
The front room was layers of darkness, but her eyes had adjusted to the distinctions of pitch against tar. Eden kept low, easing along the wall to the front window, and peered out into the murky glow of the moon. She didn't bother searching the shadows. She'd just wind up hyperventilating over every roughly man-shaped bush if she did. Instead she kept her focus broad, trusting motion to catch her eye. Survival lessons courtesy of the National Geographic Channel.
She waited for some indication of what had woken them, some foreign sound or movement, but nothing came. Knee-high grass swayed in the breeze. She carefully flexed her fingers to keep them from cramping on the shotgun. Had to be something out there. Lucas had heard it too.
A dark grey blur streaked across the corner of her vision. Eden's head snapped around, the gun barrel tracking the figure as the grey menace froze at the edge of what would once have been the lawn. Hellhound. Eden shook away the nightmare fancy, correcting herself. Wolfhound. An Irish wolfhound the size of a small pony. Heavy enough to sound like a man rustling through the bushes outside, but no threat unless it'd gone feral. Domestic animals hadn't fared well. The survivors weren't always the sweetest pets that waited obediently for their kibble. Eden didn't want to think of what this dog had been living off of for the last nine months.
The dog bolted into the woods, and Eden held herself still and steady for a while longer, just in case the hound had a master, but nothing else disturbed the predawn quiet.
A floorboard down the hall creaked. "Mom?"
Eden whipped around, tipping the shotgun barrel to rest against her shoulder. "I'm here."
After the moonlit vista, it took her eyes a moment to pick through the denser shadows at the mouth of the hallway. Lucas stood, feet braced, the rifle cradled in his arms like an overgrown, overly lethal baby. Eden's heart lurched at the sight with a mix of pride and aching remorse.
"It was nothing. A dog. Go back to bed." Put away the gun, she wanted to add. Never pick it up again. But this wasn't that world anymore.
"'Kay." He walked as silently down the hall as she had. Hannah Rose still thumped and bounced everywhere--somehow more immune to the harsh lessons of the new world, or just more blissfully oblivious to them--but Lucas stepped carefully now, testing out a minefield. It wasn't the chaos of the new society or the violence of the disease that had corrupted him, but the lethal silence of it.
Eden turned back to the window, watching again, but after a few minutes the initial adrenaline jolt she'd woken with was long gone and her eyes began to feel itchy and heavy. She would need the sleep tomorrow. More than she needed five more minutes of paranoia.
She eased away from the window and back down the icy hallway. Lucas was already out again, Hannah Rose snoring softly at his side. Eden slipped in beside them, fully clothed, one hand still holding the shotgun, and offered up a prayer to whatever divinity still existed that tomorrow be a good day.
The hound faded through the shadows of the night and circled to face the little house, lowering her haunches to sit beside a tree. She leaned her bulk against the leg of the man standing there and whined softly until he reached down to idly scratch behind her ears without taking his eyes off the house. When he stopped petting, she cocked her head, shivering with eagerness, waiting for the signal to give up their vigil and go home, but he said a different word, a much less welcome command, and she flopped to lie on the ground with a heavy sigh, resting her chin on her paws to wait out the night.