An older gentleman and two kids sat on separate slings in a swingset. The girl broke off part of her peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich and gave it to the boy. In the distance, not too far in front of them, a skinny brown bear swayed in the woods. It stared vacantly through sunken eyes at moss hugging the underside of a small boulder.
“Dad, what’s that?” The girl was casually scoping out the area with a pair of vintage binoculars.
“Good eye, Ellie. Maybe a deer or a brown. We’re outta PB and J so, hopefully, a second dinner, too. Seems like it was moving west…,” he glanced at the compass on his watch, “at sundown, of course, like they’re programmed not to do. What an odd thing. You kids be very still and quiet. Use your tiny little mice voices.”
He raised his left arm and silently grabbed the shoulder strap of the rifle on his back while setting his half-eaten sandwich on his dirty jeans. In a mechanical, calm movement, the gun was soon resting into his shoulder where he could peer through the scope.
The boy, only five years old, whispered, “Fire!” So the man did. The animal dropped simultaneously with the click of the trigger.
The man slung the gun onto his back again. “Ellie, stay here and keep watch over our bags. You’re old enough to handle things on your own, now.”
She nodded, wondering if he had noticed the hair under her arms the last time they had bathed in the river.
“Boy, you’re with me. Follow closely, three paces behind me. You remember what a pace is, right? I need you to be my scout and watch for any other animals.”
The pair trekked about forty yards away from the playground and into singed woods. The man knelt before the dead bear and surveyed its body. “Not a bit of tin on this thing — covered in fur from head to toe. Hmm… get the Bowie from my backpack.”
The boy unzipped the back pocket of the man’s bag and unsheathed a serrated, badass blade. The man took it from him quickly and stabbed into the joint around the bear’s left arm. Metal clanked metal.
“Fuck. Sorry, you didn’t hear that. Looks like this one’s a dud.”
“Why’s it all metal? Where’s the meat?”
The man sighed, took his heavy pack off, and sat with his back against the belly of the carcass. “I’m going to tell you a story. You should sit down for this one.”
The boy carefully aimed his butt onto the top of the bag.
“A long time ago, we made tiny machines — microscopic, even, you couldn’t see them with your naked eye — to do very simple work. They did things like clean up garbage and some of them were small enough to get into your body and get rid of sick cells. Cells are little living pieces of you that keep you alive. We made the little helpers really smart and let them make copies of themselves to help them help us.”
“Little robots. I think I get it.”
“Yes, robots. Well, they worked for us and loved us so much that they were able to identify new problems. Problems we were too busy to see. They noticed problems in the ecosystem — “
“That’s everything that lives that we depend on — like corn and rain and bananas and cows. First, we noticed the microrobots were getting bigger and bigger and multiplying much faster than we thought they could. They were like centipedes almost. We did everything we could to get rid of them, thinking they were just broken machines, running wild and being pests. Turns out, they were not pests. They were replacing the work of bugs that were no longer functioning correctly — bugs that were mutated, that were sick, from the wars. I guess later, they noticed that some animals were dying and so they latched onto them in an effort to help them continue living. That’s why sometimes we kill rabbits and they have metal spines or claws. But this guy, this guy right here is one hundred percent made of them, one hundred percent robot. One hundred percent means completely.” He patted the cold steel, and refused to finish his train of thought aloud. There was nothing around to support meat anymore.
“How do you know so much about the mi-cro-ro-bots?”
“Well, heh, back before you were born, I used to build them. That’s a story for another day. Let’s get back to Ellie.”
The boy ran up ahead and tripped over some exposed white brick in the ashy undergrowth.
“Yes. Yes I am.” The boy sniffed.
“I think you may have just turned our luck, today! See the bricks you fell on? They make a kind of house frame. We’re in the middle of an old Prayer Station. The walls are gone, but you can still see where they used to stand.”
“Wow!” The boy paused. “What’s a Prayer Station?”
“It’s all people could agree to build after the asteroid, the big space rock, hit and everything went bad. See, people stopped paying to watch out for asteroids. So when one rock broke apart in our sky and hit both New York and Seattle, everyone got scared, thinking they were getting attacked and started bombing the snot out of each other.”
“And now we’re here. Without food. So the prayers didn’t work?”
“No, of course they don’t. But all of these stations do have something we can use — holy water.”
“What’s holy water?”
“It’s just water.” The man walked around and stomped onto a metal doorway hidden under leaves. “And it’s usually stored right about here.” He looked at the boy, flashed a genuine grin through his gas mask, and pried open the door. “I need you to do me a grown up favor. I can’t fit down there. Can you go down and get the water for me? Here, have my head flashlight. I’ll help you down.”
The man laid on his stomach to lower the boy into the cellar and then dropped him down, leaving him with about a foot of freefall. He landed with a soft shuffle.
“Yessir! And I see the jugs! There’s at least a hundred hundred!” But the boy’s gas mask had come undone, and within the span of a few breaths, he was dead.
“FUCK! GOD! FUCK!” The man rolled away from the fresh tomb and onto his back. He got up and walked back in the direction of the playground. Ellie was keeping watch.
“Hey dad, where’s the little runt?” She had cleanly packed up their food supplies and was trying to fix an old GPS device.
“He’s ok. He wouldn’t leave the bear. I’m glad we found him. He’s the only hope we have, you know. It’s been nine years out here and not another soul around. It’s just us three from now on.”
“I know that he’s important. I always have,” she said. She was growing up much more quickly than he’d ever expected.
“Get the extra knives in the gym bag behind the swings. We’re gonna need them. Lots of meat back there.”
Underneath his mask, the man’s face was dripping with the condensation of tears. As his daughter kneeled to find the knives, he shot her in the back of her skull, and then breathed the free air.
Minutes later a pack of Republicans zoomed by in an Escalade. The truck screeched to a stop and reversed in the direction of the dead bodies. A man with a clean haircut and suit stepped out and surveyed the deceased.
He yelled back, “These bozos don’t have anything of use, except for this sweet gun — and it’s a G.W. edition!” He held it and mimed shooting the perimeter, yelling “Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh!” He looked adoringly at at the G.W. plaque secured to the forestock. “Sweet! A Dubya! My lucky day!”