We Were Good at Surviving
She’d heard that the human body could go for three weeks without food. Well, that may have been true. She hoped it was. Because it had been two and a half weeks since she’d started walking, and there hadn’t been sight or sound of water, or food.Her feet burned from the sand beneath them. Two and a half weeks ago everything had changed. She could vaguely remember the way things had been before, with real buildings and people. There had been cities with skyscrapers that touched the stars, and warm arms that had held her. Had she had a family? What was her name? She knew she’d been sixteen. How old was she now? Still, for better or for worse, everything was a desert now. The sand stretched to the horizon like a great orange sea, in contrast with the brilliant blue sky above. The girl hardly ever saw a cloud, and when she did, she prayed for rain. It never came.
She remembered a great cataclysm. Some event so world-shattering it had altered the entire climate of the earth. What had it been? She wished she could remember. Her mind was still hazy. Her breath came in heavy, dry gasps. Her feet stumbled an uneasy rhythm as she moved. She adjusted her cape around her shoulders, feeling the velvety material. The landscape around her was dry and lifeless, and yet she wore a little black dress, a necklace of diamonds, and her hair adorned with feathers as dark as her locks. She’d lost the heels the day she started walking. She felt out of place. Surely she belonged in a grand party and not here. But she gripped her cape tighter and walked. She loved that cape. Why she had it, she didn’t know. But she liked the red color of it, red as the sunset. She tied it tighter around her neck and kept on going. She didn’t know where. But surely, one day she’d end up somewhere better than here.
He looked out his window and sighed at the nothing he saw. It was always the same, every day. Sand, sand, and more sand. At least there were stars at night. By now he’d memorized several constellations. He could vaguely remember where he was and what this place used to be like, and he knew that he’d never really seen the stars. Now, of course, they were there every night. They were like a new family to him, since he didn’t have one of his own. He couldn’t remember having one, and yet he could. His life before had been warm, he thought. There was always light and laughter. He’d had parents, maybe. Yes. Maybe a sibling. Still, it was never more than a flash of a memory. He didn’t even remember his name. A few days ago, he’d decided to call himself Arctic. It was nice to have a name, even if he’d given it to himself. And he had the bakery.
Arctic found it a bit amusing that he lived in a place that now had no value. Before, he knew, this had been a shop and people had lived above it. They’d probably been happy. But now, all that the money in the register was good for was starting fires, which he did every night, and the pastries kept him alive. He’d run out eventually, and what then? He shook his head. No need to worry about that yet. He reached out with a large bronze-toned hand to the water bottle by his foot. He was a big person by nature. Like a wolf, he thought. He’d found a picture of one in a book about a week ago, though he’d never actually seen one. The book had been found at a bookstore, about half a day’s walk from here. There were hardly any buildings left after what happened, so he’d been lucky to come upon it. When he saw the picture, he smiled. He didn’t smile much these days.
Arctic groaned and stood, his back aching in protest. He took another sip from the water bottle and mentally reminded himself to check the fridge to see if any more was left. Not that the thing worked, but at least there was water and a bit of food in there. He didn’t know what he’d do when the food ran out, but he knew he’d find something. If there was anything he was good at, it was surviving.
She saw the building two days later. At first, she was convinced she was seeing things. After all, this was the desert. Didn’t people start going crazy after not drinking water for a long time? But then she got closer. And closer. And closer still, until she was two feet in front of it. She stared up at it. It was three stories tall and made of stone. There were letters on it, but she couldn’t quite read what they said. Bank, maybe. No, Bakery. Yes, that must be it. Slowly, she reached a hand out to touch it, but stopped. What if this was all fake? Her brain was tricking her, probably. And yet … She put her hand on it and she smiled for the first time in three weeks. Real. It was real.
He thought he was dreaming when he saw the girl. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, even sacrificed some precious water to splash on his face, but there she stood. He’d been looking out the window when he’d seen her, then had come the furious self-convincing that she wasn’t real, and by the time he realized she was, she was right in front of the bakery. He ran down the stairs to the entrance faster than he was sure he’d ever gone in his life. The second he got there, he slammed the door open. He regretted it as soon as he’d done it. The girl shrank back, eyes wide and hands clenched in fists curled into her chest. He looked at her for longer than he should have, not for any weird reason, but just because she was another human. She was the first one he’d seen other than himself.
She had straight dark hair, messed up from the wind, and a small frame that made him think she might blow over any second. Yet she stood, and something in her bearing made him pause. He was struck with the sensation that he’d never know everything about her even if he asked questions every day until the end of the world. Which, granted, had already happened.
He blinked after another moment and said in a rush, “Hey.”
Really? ‘Hey’ was the best he could come up with? The first person he sees in three weeks and that’s all he can say? Well, it was better than nothing. He reached forward to take her hand, but she flinched back.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s … weird seeing another person, isn’t it?” She nodded.
He smiled and retracted his hand to scratch the back of his neck. “Yeah. Well, uh, wanna come in?” He stepped back, indicating she could enter. She looked down, pursed her lips, and stepped inside. It was then he noticed she was barefoot. And shaking. And her lips were so, so dry. His blood turned cold as he realized she hadn’t eaten or drank anything in a long time. Weeks, maybe. Arctic ran across the room, dodging dusty tables and chairs, then vaulted behind the display case. He ran to the back room and slammed open the fridge, grabbing two water bottles.
In a moment he was back in the room, in front of the girl. He held the water out to her, one bottle in each hand. “Here,” he said. “For you.”
She just stared at him.
When she saw the boy, her first thought was: I knew it. I’ve lost my mind. But then he spoke, and the sound was so vivid, so warm, that she knew it had to be real. She looked down and stepped inside. It was so much cooler in here. Could she stay here forever?
She didn’t know what to say when the boy offered her the water. All she could do was stare. Here was another person, finally, another person, but she didn’t know how to react. What was she supposed to say? Did she even remember how to speak? She opened her mouth, but all that came out was a dry croak. He held out a bottle, and dumbly she took it. She thought she remembered how these worked. She started to twist the cap off, and to her surprise, she did it.
With shaking hands, she tilted the bottle up to her lips. The water tasted like bliss and pain. She let it course down her throat and make an ocean inside her. She’d been so thirsty, so dry inside. Her stomach burned at the sudden sensation, but she still drank the bottle down in three gulps after the first sip. A moment later she reached for the second one, and when the boy gave it to her, she downed that one, too. She fell to her knees and watched a drop fall from her lips to the floor. For a moment she wanted to lick it up off the sand. Water was so, so wonderful.
“Better?” the boy asked. She nodded. After another moment she opened her mouth, and for the first time in three weeks, she spoke.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Thank you,” she said.
Her voice was beautiful. Even if she sounded like a toad that had smoked too much, he could tell that her normal voice was something. He wondered if she could sing. He had a brief vision of her wandering down a forest path, singing a song to herself. Was she the type to sing to herself? Suddenly he wanted to know.
“Here. Let’s go upstairs,” he said, and held out his hand. She looked at it for a moment, then took it. She gave him a brief smile. He looked down at their hands. His were so large, and hers were so small. He hoped she wouldn’t be scared away.
He led her up the stairs slowly, taking the steps one by one. She still shook, and it was clear that his assumption may well have been correct: she really might not have eaten in three weeks. At least she’d had some water. When they got to the second floor, where he usually spent his free time, what with all the bookshelves and seating, he led her over to a comfy-looking couch and sat her down. She smiled and folded her legs underneath her. She looked so small and innocent, like a child, and her red cloak brought out the sunburn in her otherwise pale skin. She reminded him of a tulip, beautiful and fragile. Though again, a look in her eyes had him second guessing that fragile part.
There was so much he wanted to ask. How had she survived the cataclysm? Had she found shelter like him? If so, why did she leave? Did she like books? Had she seen the stars too? Well, of course she had, it was impossible not to. Did she know any constellations? After a moment, he decided on the simplest question he could think of.
“So, uh … ” He clapped his hands together. “What’s your name?”
She looked down. He tilted his head. She fiddled with her diamond necklace, and he wondered if she’d been rich before the desert had happened. After several minutes it was clear she wasn’t going to say anything, so he said carefully,
“You … don’t have one, do you?” He wasn’t surprised.
She opened her mouth and spoke again. “No … not that I rem-remember,” she stammered.
“Well, I’m Arctic.” When she looked up, he laughed. “Yeah, like the Arctic tundra. I uh, found it in a book. Did you know wolves live in these packs, and they rely on each other to survive? It’s amazing, and — ”
“Wolves?” the girl said, brow forming a V.
“Yeah,” he said, and without another word, he dashed upstairs. He stepped over to the bed and reached under the pillow, where he kept the book. He rushed down again to the girl and flipped through the pages until he found the picture. “Here,” he said.
The picture was actually a drawing of a girl like her with a red cloak and a wolf standing above her. Arctic liked it; that’s why he’d taken the book, after all. The girl seemed to like it too, because her lips turned up again. Heartened, he put the book in her lap. “So, um, can I give you a name?” She blinked several times, but said nothing.
“Sorry, just, um … do you want one?” He was talking nonsense, wasn’t he? Oh, she was going to laugh at him.
She nodded slowly.
“Cool.” Arctic sat on the couch next to her. He took a deep breath. “Sorry,” he said with a breathy laugh. “Just never done this before.” He sat in silence for several moments before grinning. “I’ve got one.”
She leaned forward.
“It’s from this language, French, I think. It means red. What do you think?”
“Rouge,” she said, testing the word out. “Rouge.” She said it a few more times and nodded.
“Yes,” she said, and beamed. It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.
“No problem, Rouge.”