Dawn came gray and early to the edge of the canyon. Beyond that edge, there was nothing worth holding on to. Rachel rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, grinding the grit farther in. The tail end of a watch could make you see things. Over her shoulder a thin column of smoke rose like dirty wool pulled from a pillow, someone burning garbage in the daylight hours. She turned back and glassed the valley floor with her 700’s scope, just where the canyon turned and wandered into grottos and eventually the wide-open desert. Nothing. Some days, she felt this was all she was, a shoulder on which rested a rifle, a point of focus, the last thing between home and the world.
Rachel pressed the rough knit of her fingerless gloves hard against the back of one hand with the other but didn’t scratch. Just pressed. The scars itched. She circled her fingertips on the ground to coat them with a little muddy sand, a little grip.
When the storm passed an hour earlier in the dark pre-dawn she was happy to have the rain. She pulled an imperfectly perforated tarp over herself and welcomed the pit pat of the drops because good God sometimes as her shift crept on toward morning the silence drove her crazy.
She checked the bolt again. A rifle round wouldn’t stop everything. The thin column of smoke had dissipated, Nash cracking down again. Nash had been up her ass all week.
She touched the back of her hand again. Then she moved her hand to her back pocket, her other hand still at the rifle’s trigger, and touched her wallet there. There hadn’t been money in it for she didn’t know how long. It was full of pictures, from before.
Her son Zeke would still be asleep at this hour, had just recently gone from waking up far too early to sleeping deep into the morning and sometimes afternoon, body burnt out from stretching. A teenager. But thinking of him now, buried in covers, face turned away from the light leaking in at the tent’s door, mouth half-open and soft, he still looked like a little boy.
Before her thoughts could drift any further, Rachel shifted her body, dug her elbows in a little harder and refocused down the scope. She counted the leaves on the sagebrush on the little rise right before the canyon made the turn. It was just about the only thing that grew around here, nothing useful. But she lost count. She stifled a yawn, her eye leaving the rubber of the scope. And there it was: a black shape at the curve. She cupped her eye to the crosshairs.
Someone was coming up the path.
They weren’t sly about it either. The figure was alone. Rachel pulled the bolt and chambered a round with a hollow clink but something stayed her trigger finger, and not just because she’d never shot a man. Coyotes, deer, a mountain lion once. Other things. But it wasn’t just that. She pulled away again from the scope and could see the figure there in the distance and sure enough: alone. No one on the ridges around. Hands aloft as in surrender, he took measured steps along the path. Through the scope she could see between his hands a rifle, one like her own. Rachel dialed the focus on the scope back and forth and as she did she picked out ammunition hanging here and there, a duffle bag slung around the figure’s shoulders draped in a black-green-gray longcoat, nearly leopard-spotted with dust.
Then the figure stopped.
He paused, looked directly at her, back down the scope, then slowly set the gun down. He pulled at the scarf that covered his face and loosed the iridescent goggles from his eyes. He shook out black black hair and that’s when Rachel knew.
It wasn’t a man. It was her. It was Wolves.
Rachel leaned against the rust-eaten outside wall of Nash’s tin shack and watched Nash watch Wolves. To call him skin and bones was an insult to skin. He was a walking skeleton, nothing but decay save for the spray of stubble that unevenly shaded his jaw. He was what passed for a leader here.
“So,” he coughed. Every sentence with a cough. “You’ve come to us.”
Wolves stood, hands bound behind her back, and waited before answering. Up close, Rachel could tell she was ten, maybe fifteen years older than herself—a strange thing since Rachel had never considered her being any age at all. She was more ghost story than woman. And then she spoke.
“If you don’t want my help, you don’t have to take it.” Her voice poured out like burnt honey, slower and deeper than expected. When Rachel brought her in, she had said nothing. Just handed over her rifle.
Beside Nash stood Crane, half a foot taller than his boss and thicker too, all knots and grizzle. He leaned over to Nash and said something behind an open palm. Come to think of it, Rachel wasn’t sure she’d ever heard him speak aloud.
“Indeed,” said Nash. “How can we trust you?”
“How can I trust you?”
Nash raised an eyebrow. A brief silence through which a cloud’s shadow passed. The morning was coming on strong and hot. Rachel pushed herself to standing, hands smarting at the heat that hid on the surface of Nash’s shelter. From across the clearing at the center of the camp she saw Zeke emerge from their tent. His right hand raised against the midmorning sun, he looked all about before seeing Rachel and making a beeline toward them. Rachel’s back muscles tensed and she cracked her knuckles in a fist.
“I suppose perhaps trust is a luxury we needn’t afford each other,” Nash said finally, “so long as our interests lie in the same direction.” His language was a humming butterfly knife: long and eloquent when he wanted to dissemble, short and sharp when he wanted impact. Rachel shifted her weight back and forth, watching Zeke draw closer.
“If your interest,” said Wolves, “is in stopping the Gullies from ever bothering you again, then I’d say we’re on the same page. If it includes killing Shamil, so much the better. But—”
“Mom.” Heedless of the weight of the conversation, Zeke broke in. “What are you doing.”
“Ezekiel,” Rachel said. Nash watched them with no expression. Crane likewise. But something moved across Wolves’ face. “We’re talking. I’ll be home right after. Go on. Go.”
Rachel watched him. His body looked so frail, lost in a worn gray T-shirt two sizes too big and a pair of shoes that had been too big for the dead boy whose feet she had pulled them off. Once he disappeared back under the tent flap, Rachel turned back and caught Wolves’ thick jet eyes lingering there.
“The Gullies killed two of my men last week.” His men—they were no more his than anyone’s. “Hunters. Foragers. Took their haul, I’m certain. That leaves us with less, and fewer men to go out and find more. I have neither love nor enmity for Shamil himself, but if cutting off the head of the snake is the best way, so be it. Let’s say I’m more than interested.”
“I’ll need help.”
Nash reached down to finger one of the loops that held his belt up, hitching his pants a bit higher. “You’ll have help. Crane here, and whoever else you need. Until then, you’ll be under guard. Here.”
He gestured to the empty tin box across the way, next to Rachel’s tent. Williams and his family had lived there until very recently. Now it stood empty.
“How long?” asked Wolves. “The longer we wait, the more likely things change.”
Nash held his hands up in mock surrender. “A day—no more than two.”
Wolves dipped her chin once and Crane grabbed her by her bound hands and began to march her across the clearing. Rachel took a step to follow when Nash caught her by the forearm.
“Talk to her.” Up close to her ear, it came out in a thin stream from between his pursed lips.
“What?” She locked her own hand around his forearm where the skin was exposed below his loose shirtsleeve. He might have been mostly bone, but there was heat there.
“You’ve been here longer than any of the others—now,” he said, still not making eye contact. “Go tonight. Kurtzwell will let you in. She’s holding back but I saw the way she looked at your boy.”
“No. She’s your problem.”
“Rachel,” he said, his tone flat, paternal. She twisted the skin at his wrist and he recoiled at the burn. She snatched the 700 up from where it leaned against the aluminum and walked away. “Rachel,” he said, louder this time.
She turned to catch the canvas bundle he threw. She unwound the leather ties and inside was a holster and inside the holster, a pistol, an M19A11. The finish was bright silver, still. The way it caught the sun made it glow, a pistol-shaped retinal burn broken only by the places where it was scratched. It was almost all Rachel had left when Nash found her on the brink of starvation, Zeke hardly better, and she hadn’t seen it since. In the camp, there’d been no need.
She slid it from the holster and even in the day’s heat the familiar grip sent a chill of goosebumps up her arm. She slid the clip out, saw it full, then rammed it back into place. She pulled the hammer back and chambered a hollow-point, then clicked the safety on. It all came back so easily, every movement that had taken weeks to wire into instinct. A man whose name she’d never known had shown her once, just days after, and she’d practiced constantly, knowing it was just a matter of time before she’d have to use it.
“Think about it,” Nash said when she looked back up at him, then he disappeared inside his lean-to. Rachel aimed the gun skyward, tracking a vulture that wheeled above the camp. The sights were still in good shape. She was still waiting to fire it.
“Who is that woman?”
Rachel had felt Zeke wanting to ask all day, but not sure how to start. The wild open way he had talked as a child had evaporated in the last several months. There were pauses now, greater weight. Rachel couldn’t wish it away. The question came now after minutes of silence, Zeke under the covers of his cot, wrapped against the desert’s night chill. Rachel sat at the table—a thin piece of plywood balanced across mismatched sawhorses—and picked at dinner. Nights after a watch her hunger always came late; she was not sure why. The pistol lay in its canvas sack beneath a pair of tin cans on the highest shelf Rachel had. She had not gone to see Wolves. She stabbed with a fork around an old can, its label half burned away.
“You want the last strawberry?” she asked.
He shook his head and pulled a face. The syrup was sickeningly thick, it was true. She started to say something, then stopped. Chatter about Wolves had circled the camp all day and Zeke had surely heard it. The same stories Rachel already knew but louder, closer. That she was former Army, Special Ops, a former terrorist, part wolf. A cannibal, undead or otherwise halfway between this world and the next.
“Mom. Who is she?”
“Who’s she fighting?”
“No. We don’t fight everyone.”
“I wouldn’t want to fight Crane.”
Rachel swallowed a smile. “No, I wouldn’t want to either.”
For a while, the only sound was Rachel’s fork trawling the tin for lost drops. Then it stopped. “You know,” she said, “that’s not right. She’s a survivor.”
Zeke’s response came slowly, from the bottom of wakefulness. “Is there a difference?”
“Fighters are trying to win something, beat something. Survivors are just trying to live… like us. Does that make sense?” She turned but he was already asleep, his face a slack moon at the top of the covers. A cratery uneven feeling seeped into her, a rough, familiar mix of contentment and regret. This is the world and there can be no other.
“Does that make sense?” she said again, to herself.
She wiped the fork with a dry rag and set it down. She pulled the rubber band from her hair, letting it fall into her face before forking it back with her fingers. What had once been a honeyed brown was now sandy and brittle, plus shot with gray. She lay down on her own cot, smaller than the other, the one she had managed to secure a few months ago when sleeping with Zeke had become difficult.
She lay there a long time. The tent’s heavy canvas flapped in the night air and it admitted slashes of full moonlight that kept Rachel from dropping off completely. Before long she was asleep but still staring at the entrance, at a pale featureless face that seemed to hover there, another ghost. When the face turned, she startled from this half-dream. Across the room, Zeke had rolled away, now lost in blankets.
She rose and put the back of one hand against his warm cheek. His breath came slow and measured against the rough skin on the back of her hand and then she softly lifted the flap and went into the night.
Front page image by Kevin Dooley.