After a while, you start noticing things. Little things. Things so small you never noticed them before – except now, every little thing matters. So you notice. You don’t even question why, at this point. You just tend to accept the fact that you notice things now.
The way the light catches the edge of your sunglasses.
You’ve resorted to wearing the backup sunglasses, because you and the person traveling with you lost the second set of skiing goggles, and you insisted that he be the one to wear the last pair. He argued. You remember arguing back, but not for long. If someone talks too much nowadays, their throat chokes up on the air, and their saliva freezes in their mouth. So you don’t talk, and he doesn’t talk. You see him glance at you from time to time, making sure you’re still upright and on your feet. He makes sure you haven’t slipped, and you do the same. If he slips, you’ll pick him back up, and you’ll do it as fast as possible so he won’t get stuck to the ground and freeze.
Right now, you’re less worried about the ice, and more about the light. You’ve been walking for hours, and the day is drifting off into the late afternoon – or evening, sometimes you can’t tell. The sun stays out forever, it seems like. It’s as if the whole world turned into the Arctic Circle in summertime, except it’s a few degrees below freezing. But despite the cold, the back of your neck prickles under the light of the sun, and you have to fight the urge to turn your head a little and look behind you at the sun.
It glares over the mountains and deforms your shadow, and his, turning the two of you into giant disproportionate freaks. You wish that you didn’t have to keep your back to the sun – the glare stings, of course, but your shadow obscures the layout of the ground. You’re always afraid of slipping and bruising or breaking some valuable part of your body. Your jacket, your snow pants, they only protect against so much.
The way the light catches the ice.
To you, this whole situation reminds you more of a Slush Age, rather than the Ice Age as everyone else calls it. The ground underneath your feet crunches, and you can dig into it better than on sheer ice. The chunks of ice are coated in mud and speckled through with pieces of exposed rock. Some of the pieces are black, like broken asphalt – maybe there was a highway under your feet once, cracked apart by waves of shifting ice.
Ice is everywhere now, scraping the soles of your boots and clinging to the fuzzy lining of your hood. You flick your eyes to the side and see him, and his parka is coated in ice, shining cold and wet in the piercing afternoon light. His scarf – it matches yours, since both were made by the same person, a person you miss dearly – is heavily caked with muddy slush. He fell, a little while ago. You can see he’s still limping a little bit, but he says he’s fine. For the most part, you believe him. It’s a miracle if either of you can go a whole day without tripping at least once on a crack in the ice. Like you, he’s tough. He bounces back quickly. In fact, you can’t really remember a time when he really got hurt. You bruised your knee pretty damn badly a few weeks ago, and he practically had to drag you to safety. He teased you about it for all of half a minute before he started coughing from the cold.
Under your balaclava, you suffer yourself a grin. Your lips are so badly chapped and sunburnt that you can only smile for a few seconds. Grimacing, you shift to the side, twitching your nose to make it stop itching. Your nose has been peeling for a while, and you used up the last of the Vaseline in order to soothe it. That’s the worst part about living nowadays, you think – its freezing outside, but one can get a bad sunburn faster than they can blink. You know that if you pulled down your balaclava and faced the sun right now, your face would start cracking. It almost makes you wishful for frostbite, but then you remember losing two of your toes to the cold. Luckily, it isn’t nearly so cold today. Still, you start shivering out of anxiety, and you glance around for a way to distract yourself.
The way the light catches the clouds.
You glance upwards, pausing momentarily to look at the sky overhead. The sun tries to peek over the brim of your hat, but it doesn’t quite make it, and you can clearly see the clouds without being instantly blinded. The sky itself is usually just a pasty, yellowish gray, but today it’s a little more blue. The clouds are thin, and the sun paints them with soft pinks. A few of them, the thinnest ones, are traced all the way across the sky, dipping into the horizon. These clouds look dense, not unlike narrow thunderclouds, and they remind you of jet contrails. You wish they were – you haven’t heard the sound of a plane in ages, and the silence is sometimes terrifying.
When it gets that bad, though, you just talk to him. He barely looks at the sky anymore, but he understands what it represents, and he knows why the silence scares you. It scares him, too, and neither of you like to admit it. So you just talk – a few words here, a couple murmurs there. A grunt, a sigh, a whisper. Anything to break the silence. The wind does that too, but when the wind picks up it usually knocks you and him straight off your feet, so neither of you much care for the wind. Or the clouds.
You stare at the clouds, particularly the contrails, for a few seconds longer before you here the scuff of a boot against ice. You look at him, and find that he’s paused a few feet ahead to let you catch up. You shuffle to make your way to his side, and then he keeps going. He doesn’t care about clouds that never move, never change, because they’ve been scarred into the atmosphere. Who knows if they’ll ever fade – you sure don’t know. You were young when it happened. You barely had any idea what was going on… you only knew that the world got colder, and the sun got brighter. The meteorites, small though they were, stripped away a part of the atmosphere. Yep – space rocks are to blame for your sunburn. You really wish you could laugh at that, but you can’t remember the last time you laughed. There’s nothing worth laughing about.
The way the light catches the barrel of his gun.
You have one, too, but his catches your attention, because his is slung across his chest in such a way that it catches the sunlight and steers it in your direction. The metal glints, nagging at your eyeballs, and in your mind the gun is the most bitter reminder of the world you and he live in. You’ve grown used to the cold, and the sun, and the bruises and the hunger pangs, but not the gun. Never the gun. Well, the gun in and of itself isn’t a problem – it’s the reason why you need it that bothers you. You haven’t really ever asked him, so you don’t know if he feels the same way. You guess that he doesn’t mind as much, but then again, he’s just as human as you are. You know he always feels something.
You count yourself very, very lucky that you’ve only ever had to use your gun for hunting. Normally, you and he don’t see other people that often. So, the bullets in the magazines you carry on your waist almost always end up buried in the lungs or brain of some unfortunate animal. Last time, about a week ago, it was a bear. Like most animals, its fur was spattered with little bits of mud and oil. Walking is dangerous, and not just because of the ice – it’s all too easy to step wrong and have a jet of oil spurt up into your face. Animals are better at avoiding oil patches, but even they can slip. The bear you and he shot down was thin, ragged, and malnourished, but it still had more meat on it than you knew what to do with. A lot of it is still stuffed into your backpack, and the rest is being carried in the sled that he pulls behind him. It’s the only food you have right now, and that’s why you need guns. But you know, deep down, that you also need your gun in case someone else notices the food you have.
Sometimes it doesn’t end badly. Sometimes they want to trade – either for food, ammo, or medicine. Heat packs, too, and sunburn ointment, though that tends to fall under the medicine category. So far you and your sole companion have done well for yourselves, picking over the remains of camps and outposts that you find scattered throughout this barren landscape. You both share the bullets, and the food, and pretty much everything else. But he keeps other things. Sentimental things. Last time you two found an outpost, he found an old iPod. Now, he keeps it in his chest pocket, right next to his unused heat packets. It doesn’t play any music, but you understand why he holds onto it. On occasion, you hear him humming to himself, and you like to hum along, at least until your lungs start hurting. He never comments on it, but he always smiles when you start humming in tune with him – his balaclava shifts a bit, with the corners of his lips. That’s another thing you notice nowadays – body language. You see the little shifts, the slight twitch in his hand when he starts reaching for his trigger, or the shiver whenever he pauses to rest his legs.
Right now, your calves burn, and the laces of your boots cinch tightly, almost tight enough to cut off circulation. You want to ask him if you can stop for a minute, or at least slow down, but you two know there is an outpost about a mile away. You also know you have to get there before the sun sets, and the temperature plummets, trading one bitter, biting agony for another. At least there aren’t any bugs. Raising your head, you turn your eyes from the ice and slush at your feet and look at him, and you start to ask if you can stop. Before you can say anything, you notice something. He’s already stopped. The sled he’s dragging scrapes to a halt, bumping against his heels. Without the sound of footsteps, the world is dangerously silent. He hunches over, pulls his hood up, and removes his goggles. He squints into the distance, and you follow his gaze. With your sunglasses still on, you can’t see anything but the shine of the ice, and the ridges of the horizon. That’s when he turns to face you.
The way the light catches his eyes, and the breath in your throat catches too, when you see how his eyes are wide with fear, telling you that your luck has run out.
Already you see him reach for his gun, and you reach for yours, even though you can’t see what he sees yet. But you trust him. You trust him with your life – if he sees a threat, you don’t question him. You wait for him to point in the direction of the danger, as you push a magazine into your rifle, but the signal never comes. You hear a crack, echoing over the ice. At first you can’t tell if the ground has shattered underneath you, or if someone has discharged a gun. Something shrieks by your ear a heartbeat later, and suddenly he lunges forward, shoving you down onto the ice. The slush splatters around you, dribbling down into your gloves. You rip them off and toss them away, because you can’t shoot with them covering your fingers. Your voice is faint when you call to him, asking where to shoot. He doesn’t answer.
You twist around and see him kneeling, hunched over you with the butt of his rifle pressed into his shoulder. He squeezes down on the trigger, and five, maybe six shots crack over your head. Your ears ring in the aftermath, but you can still hear him yelling, yelling your name and pointing with his the muzzle of his gun. Flattening yourself to the ground, you flick the safety off and line your eye up with your sight. You sweep the area in front of you, and finally you see the danger. They’re hiding now, behind a drift of broken ice, but you saw them. People, at least three, maybe four. You saw the glitter of their guns. Overhead, you hear him fire again. Through your sight, you see the ice splinter, and a shriek sounds off from behind it. The people are at least a hundred feet away, and you wonder if they were waiting for the two of you. But you can’t afford to think about that right now. These people are between you and him, and the outpost that you hope is still there. They are shooting at you. You know they will kill you, given the chance… so you can’t give them one.
You press down on the trigger just as one of them leans out to fire. You clip him right in the shoulder, and he goes down. One of his friends drags him out of sight, but you feel a victorious thrill. Now there’s only two of them left, and the odds are more even. You glance to the side in time to see him dump the bear meat and fur onto the ground, and he props the sled up in front of the both of you. The sled is just plastic, but it’s a better shield than the empty air. Maybe, just maybe, you two will survive this.
Another gun is fired, and you can’t tell where from. You hear a scream, and this time you recognize it. The sled, propped up on its edge, suddenly falls down onto your head, blocking your vision. You punch it away just as you hear a thump behind you. Panic seizes inside of your chest, and you fire off a spray of bullets, emptying an entire clip into the ice. You think you hear a shout, but you don’t care. You turn around, scrambling on the slippery ice in order to get to him. His eyelids are squeezed tight, and his chest heaves, his every breath like thunder against the silence of the ice. Murmurs of terror escape your lips, and you desperately hope that it isn’t as bad as it looks.
The way the light catches the blood on the ground.
It seeps from his shoulder, and you clamp one hand down over the wound. He hisses when you dig one finger into his skin, but you need to see if the bullet is still in there – and it is. There are bone shards, too, and in horror you realize his collarbone was hit, splintering into his flesh. His eyes fly open. staring at you in pain, and he lets out a barking yell before grabbing your wrist and yanking you back to the ground. A bullet narrowly misses you thanks to him, and it reminds you that this fight is nowhere near over. Grabbing his gun, still with half a magazine left, you turn away and sight in at your attackers. They know they’ve hit him, and the last two are getting gutsy. They come out from behind the ice, and that’s when you bring down one of them. The other one jumps to the side and fires in your direction.
This bullet pierces your leg, bringing you down hard onto the ice. You can’t tell how bad the wound is, but it hurts like hell, and you can’t get back up. The last man starts coming closer, thinking he’s won – and for a moment, you think he might be right. He comes within fifty feet, then twenty, and now you can see him fully. You can’t see his face, but the gun in his hand draws your attention. Adrenaline coursing through your veins, you try to lift your rifle, and the man laughs, lowering his gun straight at your head. You whisper a curse at him, not that it’ll do much good. You see his trigger finger move.
In that second, a bullet buries itself right between his eyes, shattering his goggles, and he dies before he drops to the ice. Twisting your head around, you see him, still bleeding on the ice. He holds your rifle, reloaded with a fresh magazine, and his arms shake as he lets it drop to his chest. Groaning, you force yourself to your knees, grabbing your leg to examine the wound. It seems your luck hasn’t quite run out – the bullet went through, and it missed the artery. Fingers numb, you fish into your hip bag, pulling out a thick roll. You don’t have time to properly dress the wound, so you resort to wrapping it as tightly as possible in a layer of duct tape. Your leg burns in white-hot pain, but you clench your teeth and make yourself ignore it as you shuffle over to him.
You spend the next fifteen minutes digging out the bullet, and the largest of the bone shards that you can find. All the while, he lets out grating yelps of pain, but he still lets you work. You brace one hand against his shoulder to keep him from thrashing, and as you pry inside his flesh for the bullet he grabs onto your wrist and holds on tight. His eyes are tightly shut throughout the ordeal, and when you finally pull the ugly, bloody slug out of his shoulder he lets out a haggard breath. He starts bleeding more once you pull it out, and you have to hurry to wrap it, in antiseptic gauze this time. When you sit back, hands trembling, you realize that the sun is dangerously close to disappearing.
As fast as humanly possible, you clean your hands of most of the blood and retrieve the sled. Straining your already-exhausted muscles, you lift him into the sled, covering him with the bear fur he dumped previously. There’s no room to carry the meat, so you leave that on the ground for some lucky predator to find. Slinging both the rifles across your chest, you make sure he’s secure, and you loop the sled’s rope around one shoulder. You fingers are still numb, exposed to the cold because you couldn’t find your gloves, and you hope that your fingerless gloves will be able to keep your hands warm enough until you can find shelter. If you and he are out much longer, you know you will die. He will die, and you refuse to let that happen. So you are going to have to push forward, and drag him to safety.
Before you stagger to your feet, he murmurs something, shifting his functional hand to grab onto yours. Your sunglasses fell off a while ago, so he can see your face, and you can see his. His eyes glint, and he pulls down his scarf just enough to let you see him smile. He whispers, thanks. You offer a grin in return, and tell him it was no problem. He snorts, knowing that is a dirty, rotten lie, but he still looks relieved. That ambush could’ve gone so much worse, but the both of you are still alive. You’re determined to keep him that way.
You rise slowly to your feet, getting a good foothold on the ice before you start to move. You limp, biting your tongue against the pain in your leg, but you move forward all the same. Less than a mile – that’s how far you need to go. You know you can make it, because you have to, in order to keep him with you. After all this time, he’s the only one left. He’s the only person you know you can trust, and you will die before you lose him. You made that promise long ago, and you’re not about to go back on it now. The sled scrapes the ice behind you, but you can still hear the faint sound of his breath. Yours mists in front of your face, condensing in the cold that threatens to sap every last bit of your strength.
But you’ll keep going, and you’ll only stop when your legs give out underneath you. And if that happens, you’ll crawl in order to keep him and you alive. You can’t afford to die. You hate the way the world is now, but that’s no excuse for you to give up. The two of you are alive, because you’ve kept each other that way for so long. You aren’t ready to let go of life yet. For the bitter cold, the burning sun, and the biting bullets, there are some good things, too. As you struggle across the ice, you make a new promise – if you two get out of here, you’re going to start telling him about the things you notice. You’re going to tell him why these little things matter. Hopefully, he’ll start noticing, too.
The way the light catches the mist of your breath in the air, reminding you that you are still alive.