by Sara Blakey

Many years have gone by, but I remember my seven-year-old self waking up mad thinking Dill had kicked me. But Dill was nowhere around. A branch jabbed into my bare bug-bitten leg. My worn shorts were no protection against the night air and an awful fear overwhelmed my simmering pique. The fire we had cobbled together in late afternoon was ash. I hugged my cold hands in my armpits while hunger gnawed into my hollow gut. My head swiveled, searching for signs of Dill as the dark listening forest crept around me in silence. All I could think was Oh no! Please…not again.

Dill stood at the edge of the clearing, head tilted up to the evening sky. His thin, underfed body was small for ten and he shivered in threadbare clothes. He wasn’t just my big brother, he was my world. Some brothers were mean, never let their little sisters tag along, teased and tormented them to tears. Dill didn’t hold to that; he was born a compassionate old soul. It was his clever thinking with the quartz pebbles last time that saved us from the first “Big Adventure” in the woods.

He turned to face me and a look flashed across his sensitive features. I recognize now what I glimpsed in that fleeting instant.

The look of a child scared in his very being.

That look unnerved me and something primal — I hardly knew what — shrank a little. I realize now his child’s mind must have already figured out something I hadn’t caught onto yet. The plague had eventually swept over our part of the country and Mama was one of the first to go. After her passing the father brought home the new mother and said she’d make things better. He was wrong. Dill cautioned me to keep out of the new mother’s way. She didn’t like little kids. Money was always tight and food scarce; it just got worse after she came. The new mother can’t be blamed entirely… store after store eventually emptied and shut down and the whole world was hungry and dying.

Dill and I thought all had returned to usual after our last outing, but it appeared we’d been ditched again. The father had led us into the unfamiliar dark heart of the forest on the pretext of gathering wood. Past noon, we made a fire in a small clearing and settled in for a rest. When Dill and I woke it was night, the father gone. Vast trees pressed close and crowded around us. The cold air pricked our frail, famished bodies. Trembling and desolate, we watched as a finger of wind lifted a single leaf, looked at it, and laid it softly down before going on its way. We stood like wee white shells facing an ocean of infinite forest.

Dill was too quiet. I pulled my peanut butter sandwich from my pocket and unfolded it from the napkin.

“So, he’s left us again,” I said after a bite. It wasn’t a question. Dill’s belly rumbled in

“Where’s yours?” I asked as I took another bite.

After a long pause, he mumbled, “I used little pieces of it to mark the trail.”

“What…why?” I couldn’t believe he’d waste food like that.

Another long silence. “It was the only thing I could think of. You don’t know, but they’ve been lockin’ our door at night. I couldn’t sneak out to get any quartz this time.”

His voice caught and I had an awful feeling he was about to cry. I tore my remaining peanut butter and stale bread in half and handed it to Dill.

“Thanks, Boo.” He took a nibble, pretended to rally.

With contrived enthusiasm I knew he hardly felt, he said, “I’m thinkin’ in a little when the moon comes up, we’ll be able to see the pieces of bread better. Just wait, you’ll see.” The reasoning, in that it was only partly true, was a lie, and Dill knew perfectly well that I was not deceived.

We were lost.

“Why do ya think he did it? He never loved us like Mama did, did he?”

Dill shrugged. “It’s been tough on him too.”

Draughts of night air murmured through the tops of big trees and a deep silence fell on the clearing.

“I’m so cold,” I whispered through chattering teeth.

Dill stood. “Let’s start back. We’ll warm up soon as we start walkin.”

With the persistence of true pluck, Dill pulled me to standing and we moved off into the shadows. It was soon apparent birds or other forest creatures had made quick work of the bread and nothing remained. We followed tracks the best we could. Wandered hopefully down one trail after another only to return in despair to a spot we had passed hours ago. All was unfamiliar, utterly unknown. I remember stumbling after Dill to a stream and drinking till our bellies stretched tight. I brought some shiny red berries to him and he slapped them out of my hands. Those will kill you, he said.

No wind stirred and birdcalls sounded strangely thin and wailing. After a day of weary futility, Dill plucked some mushrooms from the bottom of a gnarled oak. We dropped to the forest floor and nibbled the meaty caps. We could not see the sky for the million trees crowding and pressing. Sleep overtook us.

I stirred in a drowsy haze to something familiar, like a half-remembered dream. It was a smell, a scent of cinnamon, only heavier and animal-like; something you’d smell in any place infested with mice. It frightened yet excited me. Curious, I followed the strange disquieting scent to light filtering down on a little clearing.

I stopped in wonder, my mouth agape. How had Dill not seen this?

Elated, I cried out to my sleeping brother, “Dill, Wake up, wake up, you! We’re saved…I
see a house!”

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