Alan woke to the sound of chirping. He pulled himself out of his sleeping wrap and crawled forward towards the door of his shelter. Halfway through the entrance he looked up, squinting away from the beams of light that shone through the treetops. There he saw the pair of them, small birds sitting on a branch.
“Mom!” he screamed.
The middle-aged woman sprung up from her sleeping wrap. “Alan? What is it?”
“What’s the matter?” the man sleeping next to her screamed.
“Look, birds!” Alan said pointing upwards.
The older couple made their way towards their son and joined him, looking up at the trees. “Oh, my!” his mother said. “That’s unbelievable!”
“I didn’t think we’d be seeing them around here for quite awhile yet!” the father admitted.
“That settles it, honey,” the woman put her hands on her son’s shoulders. “Your birthday is blessed.”
“That’s right! Thirteen years old! You’re a man now!” the father punched his son lightly on the shoulder. Alan smiled and punched his dad in turn. His father tackled him playfully and the two wrestled on the floor.
“Don’t roughhouse, Tom.”
“What?” the man turned to his wife. “He’s old enough to go on his first hunt, but not old enough to wrestle with his old man?”
“It’s just fun, Mom!”
“Yeah, Dee, lighten up!”
The woman rolled her eyes and pulled a robe from a hanger near the doorway. “It’s daybreak anyway; I’m going to go out and gather for breakfast,” She threw the cloak over her nightclothes.
“Honey, you shouldn’t be gathering, in . . . your condition,” Tom said putting his hand on her stomach.
“Look here, buddy, I’m not useless yet, and I don’t plan on being so for at least another six months.”
“Bringing a new life into the world is hardly useless, Dee,” Tom said. “Especially these days, ya know?”
“Like I said, I’m going to help gather for breakfast.”
“Do what you gotta do to feel useful, woman,” Tom said with a smile.
After giving her husband an evil look, Dee leaned in to give her son a kiss on the cheek. “Happy birthday again, sweetie.” She turned back to her husband: “Why don’t you go back to bed for an hour while the useless women get your food.”
“Heck, no!” Tom said, pulling his son to his feet. “I got a better idea—let’s go wake up the other men so they can all wish you a happy birthday.”
“Good idea!” Alan laughed. The two of them ran out from their house, towards the other shelters nearby.
Twenty minutes later, the entire village was gathered around the fire circle in the center of their shelters. There was no fire, and there was no need for one. It was a warm day, the sun was shining through the trees, and there was no meat for breakfast.
A group of three dozen people of various ages sat in the circle, all talking amongst themselves. Meal time was important in their group. Alan’s attention was on the bowl of fruit in his hand, and the twelve-year-old girl to his right. Her name was Julie. He’d been her friend for as long as he could remember. He saw her every day, and every day when they were done with breakfast and chores, they’d go into the forest and explore.
“So how does it feel to be a man?” Tom asked him, patting him on the shoulder from the left.
“Honestly, I don’t feel any different than I did yesterday,” Alan said.
“That’s how it usually feels, buddy.”
“How much more work are you going to have to do as a man?” Julie asked.
“I don’t know,” he turned to his father. “Well?”
“Don’t worry; it isn’t going to kill you. You’ll have to help with the building, and repairing. Some days it’s a lot of work, other days it isn’t. And of course, you have to take turns coming on the hunt.”
“Will he still have time to come explore the woods with me?” Julie asked Tom.
“Of course he will. In fact, he can go out and play with you right after breakfast; we aren’t going on the hunt today until after lunch.”
“Really?” Alan asked.
“Cool!” He jumped up from his seat, dropping his bowl, and grabbed Julie by the hand. “Let’s go! I want to show you something!”
“Okay, okay!” she said getting up, running as fast as she could to keep up as he made his way through the trees. “What are you trying to show me?” Julie asked as she ran after her friend.
“You won’t believe me unless you see them; I saw them earlier with my parents!” Alan said, increasing his speed.
“Saw what earlier?”
“Just trust me!”
“Whatever you say!”
After running for several more minutes Julie stopped, leaning forward trying to catch her breath.
“What are you doing?” Alan asked.
“I need a breather!”
“But they could be just up ahead!” Alan leaned forward, trying to catch his breath as well.
“I can’t run anymore,” Julie sat down on a low tree branch. “I need a break.”
Alan sighed. “All right.” He sat down on the ground. “We probably wouldn’t have found them anyway.”
“This morning when I woke up, I saw some birds.”
His friend looked up at him. “Birds?”
Alan nodded. “On a branch by my shelter.”
“You mean actual birds, not just a picture?”
“I think I know the difference between a real bird and a picture, Julie.”
“How would you know?”
Alan thought for a second. “Good point. But these were real! My parents saw them too, and they would definitely know the difference.”
“Wow . . . if you really did see some birds . . . well, that’s a nice birthday gift.”
“That’s what my mom said!” Alan laughed. The two sat for a moment, in silence, catching their breath.
“How far do you think this forest goes?” Julie asked after a moment.
“You know you ask that every day. I don’t know; in the direction our fathers go to hunt, it’s not that long, I don’t think.”
“They don’t let us go that way, though.”
“I know, but it obviously stretches a lot farther in the directions they let us play.”
“Every day we seem to run farther and farther, and every day it seems more and more is being added to this forest.”
“Well, wasn’t that the point of what our parents did? The whole ecology, biology plantation thing, or whatever they call it.”
“I know, but from what they told us, about how plants and trees normally grow, it seems, I don’t know, a lot quicker or something.”
“Yeah, it does. I remember a few years ago when the forest was only a few miles long and the jungle covered the rest of, I don’t know, the world. Now the forest is easily ten times that size.”
“You think they’re ever going to explain all this to us?”
“When we’re older, probably.”
“Older? You’re a man now! In a few months I’ll be a woman, how much longer do we have to wait?”
“Maybe I’ll start finding things out today.”
“Like about the hunt?”
“Well, yeah, that, for starters.”
“Do you even think you’re strong enough to hunt?”
Alan’s eyes shot open as wide as they could. “Excuse me?”
“The hunters they talk about in the books, they all look strong, you don’t look that strong.”
“You want to come over here and say that?” Alan asked, standing up straight.
“You don’t scare me!” Julie said with a smile. “I’ve beaten you in wrestling before.”
“You wanna try it again?”
“Fine!” she charged at Alan, grabbing him around the waist, sending them both to the ground. They rolled around on the ground for a while, back and forth, until finally Alan pinned her.
“Hah! You see! I beat you! I’m a man!”
“You’re a man all right, a man who can barely beat a little girl!” Julie stuck her tongue out.
“You’re bad . . . you’re evil!” Alan screamed. She laughed, and as she laughed, he felt himself drawing closer to her. Without knowing how, or why, his lips were pressed against hers, lightly. Pulling back, they both looked at each other, deathly silent. “Um . . . I gotta get back.”
“Yeah, of course,” Julie scurried out from under him.
Alan turned his back to her, looking at the trees. “I have to get ready for my hunt.”
“Yes, the hunt.”
“You know, it’s my first time and all that.”
“I don’t want to be late.”
“No, of course not.”
Alan turned around, in Julie’s direction, and looked down. “Um, so should we go back now?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“So we’ll just . . . walk together then?”
“That’d be nice.”
The two started back towards the shelter circle.
“There you are!” Tom said when Alan showed up at the house. “Was worried you were going to be late.”
“Not for my first hunt!” Alan said with heft.
“You look happy, having a good first day as a man?”
“I . . . um . . . well, yeah.” Alan smiled.
“Hey, Tom!” Another man said, coming out of the shelter next to Alan’s. He was in his thirties, and carrying two gray cases by the handle. Each case was about three feet in length, and two feet in height and width.
“How’s it going, Bob?” Tom asked, grabbing one of the cases.
“Hi, Bob,” Alan said.
“Hey, young man, how’s your birthday?”
“Well, don’t worry—it’s about to get better!”
“Bob!” Tom said.
“What?” Bob asked. “You know it’s true!”
“The hunt isn’t something to joke about Bob, I know you think it’s fun, and relieving, and it may be necessary, but you should still have more respect for it.”
“I do have respect for it, Tom! I have respect for what nature intended, and it intended for us to not only have to hunt, but enjoy it. Just like it makes us enjoy sex. If it didn’t give us the urges for both, and make both incredibly fun, we would have died out like a gazillion years ago.”
“Bob, you’re a great hunter, by why don’t we save the philosophy lessons for when he’s a bit older, all right?”
Bob threw his free hand in the air. “All right, have it your way.”
Tom turned to his son. “Go inside and get your backpack and a canteen, fill it up with water at the stream and meet us back here in ten minutes.”
“Yes, sir!” Alan said, running into the shelter.
Twenty minutes later, after a farewell and a “be careful” from his mother, Alan was following his father and Bob. The trio walked through the trees, heading away from the shelter circle.
“How far away is the jungle?” Alan asked.
“We got about a half a mile left of forest. Then they’re some hills, and then the jungle,” Tom answered.
“Don’t expect it to look anything like the jungle pictures you’ve seen in the books though, kid,” Bob said. “The world has . . . changed a bit since those pictures were taken.”
“I think he knows that by now, Bob.”
“Yeah, I knew that,” Alan said. Bob smiled and rolled his eyes. “So what am I going to have to do?”
“Well, today, you’re just going to watch and learn, I think,” Tom said. “After a couple of times watching us work, then you’ll give it a try.”
“But I thought I was a man, and I thought a man was supposed to be able to hunt,” Alan protested.
“That’s true, but even men don’t know everything; even men have to learn how to do something before then can do it.”
“I guess,” Alan looked down.
“Let’s keep moving,” Bob said.
After a few more minutes, the end of the forest was in sight. “Ok, we’re coming to the hills now,” Tom said to Alan. “Just be aware, it’s nothing like the forest.”
“How different could it be?” Alan asked as the trees before him thinned, and the hills became apparent. The grass ended shortly after the trees, replaced by dirt, mounds and mounds of it, with a few weeds on top. “Wow.”
“Isn’t that happy to look at, is it?” Bob asked.
“Not that much farther now,” Tom said patting his son on the shoulder. “The jungle is a little ways off yet.”
“Just a couple of minutes.”
Alan nodded and followed the two larger men, staring on and off at the scene around him, occasionally glancing back to the forest behind him.
“Stop here,” Tom said sitting near the top of one of the hills.
“Right,” Bob said sitting down, and pulling his case in front of him.
“The jungle is just over the hill,” Tom said pulling his case near Alan. “We prepare out of sight.”
“We ready our weapons,” Bob said, opening the latch on his case.
“Now I know you’ve seen all kinds of hunting in the books they’ve shown you, but we don’t hunt with spears or bows and like some of the hunters we’ve talked about. We hunt with these,” Tom opened his case revealing its contents to Alan.
“We hunt with guns?” Alan asked.
“That’s right,” Tom said, pulling out both pieces.
“I thought that hunting with guns was an act of cowardice.”
“In a lot of ways it is,” Tom admitted as he screwed the rifle’s barrel into place. “But we weren’t raised like the hunters of old; in a lot of ways we’re weaker.”
“Besides, we don’t hunt what they used to hunt either,” Bob said, loading a shell into his rifle.
“What do you mean?” Alan asked.
“Let’s not talk about that now!” Tom said harshly, loading his rifle.
“Fine,” Bob said crouching.
“Ready?” Tom asked.
“You ready, Alan?” His son nodded. “Go ahead, take a look over the hill, and don’t be scared.”
“Yes, sir,” Alan said, climbing a few feet higher against the side of the mound. His head crept over the top, to behold the sight before him. A hundred yards in the distance, across an empty field of smaller hills, were shelters; shelters unlike anything Alan had seen. They were bigger, much bigger than the ones in the forest. Many of them stretched high into the sky. Pieces of these gray shelters seemed to be missing. Chunks of building and material Alan couldn’t identify littered the ground before them. The entire site, stretching as far as Alan could see, sat on top of some kind of black foundation. “Oh my God,” Alan said ducking back behind the hill. “What . . . what is that?”
“That is a city,” Tom said simply.
“That was a city,” Bob added.
“What’s a city?” Alan asked.
“Hold on; you mean those women teach the kids about old-fashioned hunting parties and they don’t teach them about cities?”
“I guess not,” Tom said turning to his son. “A city is a really large village.”
“Then shouldn’t there be lots of people in it?” Alan asked.
“Well, the city had . . . an accident awhile back and it’s been abandoned, for the most part,” Tom explained. “But there’s enough down there of what we need.”
“Let’s move in before we miss our opportunity,” Bob said.
“All right,” Tom nodded to Bob then turned back to Alan. “Follow us closely, and do your best to keep quiet.”
Tom and Bob crouched down and moved over the hill slowly, their rifles held tight into their shoulders. Alan crept behind them.
The three men moved slowly across the hills, closing the distance between themselves and the ruins. Alan came to a halt when his father threw up his hand; so did Bob.
“This is a good spot,” Tom said. “We have a clear shot.”
“A clear shot at what?” Alan asked.
“Take a look for yourself, kid,” Bob said. Alan looked to his father, who nodded in approval. He inched up, to where his companions were. Looking at the city again, from much closer, the finer details were more apparent. He could see individual fallen bricks, litter of all kinds all over. Large boxes with four wheels were everywhere in between the shelters, some upright, some on their sides. Small plants were bursting through the black floors and vines were creeping up the sides of the buildings.
“Are those them?” Alan asked pointing. “Are those what we’re hunting?”
“Yes, son. That’s what we’re hunting.”
Alan’s eyes were fixed before them, at the scattered groups of people, rummaging through trash, moving in and out of buildings, searching under cars. Men, women and children could be seen; all scavenging.
“How many do you think we need?” Bob asked.
“Two should do it today. We still have a fair amount left over from last time.” Tom pointed out.
“All right,” Bob said aiming his rifle. “I think I got a prime.”
“A prime?” Alan asked.
“We don’t want to take any women, or children,” Tom explained. “We need males, and not too young or not too old, preferably big ones, with a lot of meat on them. A prime is one that fits that category.”
Alan nodded. “All right.” He sighed, and took a deep breath. “Can I give it a shot?”
Tom and Bob looked at each other, then back at Alan. “I like your son’s style, Tom,” Bob said with a smile.
“Alan, are you sure you don’t want to watch first before you give it a try?” Tom suggested. “It would probably be better that way.”
“I’m here to learn though, aren’t I? What better way to learn than to try?” Alan asked.
Tom looked at Bob. “What’s the harm, Tom?” Bob asked. “Even if he misses you know I can get two on the move easily enough.”
Tom nodded. “All right, son, you can give it a try,” He handed his rifle to Alan. Alan took it delicately, and tried to aim it in the same fashion that his father and Bob used earlier. “Tuck the butt of the rifle tightly into your shoulder,” Tom showed his son. “When you aim, you want to look along the sight, here.” He pointed to the end of the barrel. “You want to line it up with one of the people down there, and squeeze the trigger; squeeze, don’t pull. You understand?”
“I think so.”
“All right, then wait until one of them stops. Like I said, a male. Not too old, not too young.”
“Yes, sir,” Alan said as he lined up such a person in his sites. The man’s clothing was torn, and he was leaning down into some kind of round barrel, picking through pieces of paper and other junk Alan didn’t recognize. “Is he good?” Alan asked pointing to the man.
“The man by the trash can?” Tom asked.
“What’s a trash can?” Alan replied.
“Yes, that’s a good one,” Tom said.
“Ok, now just squeeze the—” The sound of the shot rang not only through the trio’s ears, but the ears of those in the city. People ran in every direction. The man by the trash can clutched his arm, and screamed in pain.
“I hit him! I hit him I hit him!” Alan screamed. As Tom grabbed the gun from his son, there was a second shot. A man running ten feet from Alan’s target fell forward.
“One down,” Bob said.
“I see that,” Tom took aim with his rifle and fired. His son’s target went down as well. “Got him,” He turned to his son. “Sorry, Alan, but you hit the target in a non-lethal spot, and I didn’t want him to suffer.”
“It’s all right,” Alan said.
“Good job, boy, you hit a mark on your first shot!” Bob patted Alan on the shoulder.
“Looks like the area’s clear,” Tom pointed out.
“Yeah, they’ll all be gone for a good while,” Bob said standing up. “What about this next part?”
“What next part?” Alan asked.
“Well . . . we have to go down there and skin the bodies. We take some meat and carry it home in the cases, and leave the rest there for the rest of the people to pick on.”
“And that’s something we’re going to save for another day for you,” Tom said. “You did well for your first hunt. Stay here and relax for a bit, me and Bob will be back shortly.”
“Ok!” Alan said with a smile.
Tom and Bob took their cases and headed down over the mountain, towards the city.
A half hour later the three hunters walked across the hills, heading back towards their village. Alan walked with a bounce in his step, his stomach sucked in and his arms muscled forward. Tom and Bob smiled behind him.
“I guess you got a story to tell at the campfire tonight, huh?” Bob asked.
“I have something to tell Julie at least,” Alan admitted.
“She’s going to be happy to have a big strong man like you in her life.” Tom said. “One day, who knows, you two might end up like your mom and me.”
“No . . . that’s gross,” Alan said.
“Last year that was gross; this year it’s starting to seem a little bit okay, isn’t it?” Alan looked down and smiled. “I thought so.”
“Why do you call the city a jungle?” Alan asked. “It doesn’t look like the pictures of jungles I’ve seen in the books.”
“It’s just a nickname,” Tom said. “Something we used to call a place that was a mess in the old days, nothing more.”
“Oh . . . ok.” Alan said. “Why don’t we take all the meat?”
“From the kills, Bob said that you take some and leave the rest for the others to pick on, why do you do that?”
“Well, it’s a little complicated son,” Tom offered. “But the short version is the people scavenging in the city have nothing to eat for the most part. And well, we want them to stay alive, so we can continue to hunt them for food. So we leave them some food, and the cycle continues.”
Alan nodded. “That’s not that complicated.”
“Maybe not,” Tom smiled.
“So, if we hunt those people for food, why don’t they hunt us?” Alan asked.
“Well . . . they don’t have the means. And they don’t know where we are,” Tom said.
“They don’t have a forest?”
“No, they don’t have a forest. And we wouldn’t have had a forest either, if a few great minds hadn’t figured out a way to make growth . . . a little more rapid than normal.”
“Couldn’t they do that with the animals then, Dad?” Alan asked.
“I wish they could have, son.”
“I don’t get it, Dad.”
“What don’t you get, Alan?”
The son turned to look at his father. “No one ever told me what exactly happened to all the animals.”
“That’s a long story.”
“We happened to them, that’s the story,” Bob interjected.
“What’s the matter with you?” Tom asked turning to his fellow hunter.
“He has to find out at some point!” Bob replied.
“Wait a second . . . did we used to hunt animals?” Alan asked.
Tom turned his gaze back to his son. He spoke gently. “Yes. And that’s one of the reasons that . . . there are so few of them left.”
“So people didn’t kill other people then?”
Tom blinked a few times, looked at Bob and then back at Alan. “Well, we didn’t hunt other humans. At least most of us didn’t.”
“People still killed each other though,” Bob muttered.
“Bob!” Tom screamed. “If you don’t stop it, you and I are going to have a serious problem soon.”
“Okay, okay!” the younger man said rolling his eyes with a grin.
Tom wrapped his arm around his son and the two of them walked a few paces ahead of their companion.
“What did he mean, Dad?” Alan asked.
“He meant that we used to hunt animals and people still killed other people.”
“People used to eat animals?”
“And they killed other people too?”
“Yes, some of them did.”
“But not for food?”
“No, not for food.”
“I don’t get that, either; why would people kill each other if they didn’t need the food?”
Tom sighed, looked briefly in Bob’s direction then put his hand on his son’s head. “I can’t tell you that, son.”
“I’m a man now! You can tell me anything!”
Tom smiled, then sighed and held his son tight. “I know you are, Alan. I can tell you anything—if I know the answer. But I don’t know that answer, Alan. I just don’t.”