Chapter One | Winter
His breath hitched in his throat. The frigid air filled his lungs, constricting them with each gasping breath. He could hear his younger brothers calling out for him. Each beat of his heart seemed to slow, begging him to calm his nerves. The crashing vibrations behind him were growing louder and louder. He had to speed up. He willed his legs to move faster as he darted to the side. The harsh sound of heavy breathing was close enough for him to smell. Just ahead was a hiding place. The roots of a freezing tree offered just enough protection; but could he make it? There was no other option. He pulled out his pin and dove, tumbling through the roots and spun on his heel to jab out. His heart leapt into his throat. A hollow, emptiness swelled in his gut as he came face to face with the gaping maw of a dog. He gripped his pin tight and thrust forward.
Soren woke with a start and sat bolt upright, a cold sweat on his brow. His breath was shallow and rapid. Every nerve in his body sending chills and nervous sparks through his body. As his heart began to calm and stop hammering against his chest, he laid back down and tried to breathe deeply against the constricting feeling in his chest.
It was a dream. It was only a dream – this time at least. Soren’s dream pulled from events just four days ago. Soren could’ve sworn he could still smell the dog’s breath. He glanced at either side, remembering his two younger brothers sound asleep and pressed against him. He hadn’t disturbed them. Their makeshift bed on the dirt and under those few scraps of clothing they managed to bring with them was neither comfortable nor warm. It allowed them to survive, which was enough for now.
Northern winters were harsh and frigid, especially by the northern lakes. This was not a contested point, it was fact. The wind would easily reach below zero. The snow could bury a yard in hours and make any terrain dangerous to traverse. Water would freeze over and become nearly impossible to drink or drill to boil. Wildlife, scarce in certain months, was nearly impossible to hunt and often the stores closed. If someone had a house with heating and water and light and the means to sustain such a life, it wasn’t so bad. No person in their right mind would live outside willingly in such harsh conditions; but, sometimes, it was unavoidable – especially if that person was a borrower.
In a small subdivision filled with a labyrinth of apartments and college town students, a family of four borrowers lay shivering in the cold. It was only late fall, but there was still a dusting of snow on the ground. They were forced to migrate after Brady, their father, thought he was seen. He most likely was seen; at least, that is what Soren guessed.
Neck stiff, Soren tried stretching without disturbing his siblings. A quick glance around told him it was just after dawn and he couldn’t see Brady anywhere nearby. He felt a frozen growl rise in his throat. If he was being honest with himself, Soren resented Brady in a way. Brady was clumsy and careless; it was a miracle he hadn’t been killed or worse, caught. If it weren’t for Soren’s mother, they probably wouldn’t have lasted this long.
Soren shook his head free of his thoughts. He couldn’t think about that now. He had to focus on the move ahead of them. The house they intended to stay in for now was largely unexplored and they were in desperate need of supplies. His brothers were too young, being only seven and eight years old, and Brady was incompetent. Soren would need to handle supply gathering. With a gentle nudge, he began to wake his brothers.
“Soren?” groaned the youngest, Rey, teeth chattering slightly.
“I know, it’s early; but it’s time to wake up,” said Soren. Dorian stirred, pressing himself into the warmth of his eldest brother. Soren maneuvered slightly so he could better peer out of their rooted hiding place when they heard something. It was a soft scraping, and it was getting louder. Soren leaned forward, much to his brothers’ dismay, and pulled his pin from his pack and held it at the ready. The hair on his arms raised. His breath stilled as his heart began to pump harder in his chest.
It was Brady. Even with mixed feelings about him, Soren had to admit he was glad of his return. He said nothing and instead dropped his borrowing bag at the edge of the hole they came through.
“Anything?” asked Soren. Brady shook his head.
“Nothing. Everything is sealed up tight. There’s a whole maze of walls in this place,” muttered Brady, sinking against the wall and pressing his head to the concrete. Rey and Dorian stirred at the sound of their father’s voice and sat up shivering. [Of course.] Thought Soren bitterly. The knot in his gut wouldn’t be satisfied with snow again. Even though his body shuddered uncontrollably for a moment, he managed to push himself onto his feet. His brothers moaned in protest as their primary source of warmth.
“I’m going to see what I can find,” muttered Soren after retrieving the borrowing bag from the ground.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You should save your strength. We should just move onto the next home,” said Brady.
“It’s almost winter Brady. We’ve got to settle long-term here, at least for now. Regardless, we need some supplies. Don’t go anywhere until I get back,” said Soren stiffly before slinging the pack across his body and ducking in-between the walls.
The walls were only slightly warmer than their place by the crawl space. There was a place he could climb from the crawl space to the hall. Step by step, he carefully traversed the wall’s edge until he reached the first floor. From where he stood, he could stare up at the towering expanse above him. Just the sight of something so tall gave him a sense of vertigo. He couldn’t even see the roof of the hall without some sort of light source – and he only had a few matches which he left behind. The bricks and drywall surrounding him did offer some limited light where the electrical outlets connected their world to the world of the humans.
Soren shuddered at the thought of being seen by a human. His mother and father had told him stories of what happened to other borrowers who had encountered humans. The horror stories passed through generations was now uncommon. Whether some of the stories were true was always in debate. Still, it didn’t stop Soren from always been careful and he wasn’t about to stop now.
Just ahead was an outlet into the first floor. Soren took a calming breath before approaching the holes and the wires. Each wire in of itself was nearly as thick as his arm, making the hair on the back of his neck raise. Carefully, he pulled on the screw and unwound it just enough for him to peer inside.
The warmth from the room poured in through the miniscule crack Soren was able to create. He listened in. Nothing. He breathed deeply. There was a thick smell of mothballs and something else. A smell of a thick, scented powder wafted through the air. It was an unmistakable scent of litter. [Cats.] Soren pulled the plate back over and tightened the screw. [I have to remember not to go here.]
Soren jogged to the next few rooms which he soon realized belonged to the same human because of the smell. [We can stay in between these walls here and be unbothered as long as we don’t go into the rooms. It’s much warmer at the very least, even if it does stink.] Soren felt his way along the walls and jogged through the darkness until he reached another break in the walls. [These must divide the larger rooms] thought Soren.
The next five rooms Soren checked turned up unusable since they were completely empty. Soren had dared to go outside of the walls and walk around the chilled rooms. The vast expanse of room seemed endless and empty. It was unnerving and forced Soren to duck back into the confines of the walls. [How can humans live in such a huge space? I know they’re huge, but still…]
There were only a few abandoned spider webs and no signs of mice. Finally, after a long trek through the walls, Soren managed to find what he was looking for – a warm apartment kitchen left unattended. The outlet on the floor came out right beside the kitchen table. The chairs were covered with skirts that hid the legs, which made the perfect hiding place. The kitchen itself was only twenty-seven paces away. The counter, on the other hand, was another issue altogether.
The surface was slick and covered with something called linoleum. Gaining purchase with his hook was going to be nearly impossible without leaving a mark. Soren glanced from side to side. A move this bold wasn’t something he usually partook in, but he was running out of options if he wanted to make sure his family ate today.
Soren stepped out from behind the wall and walked the twenty-seven paces to the edge of the wall next to the kitchen. Empty and no active signs of humans at the moment. The kitchen was small, but there were still two separate counters. One side had the sink while the other had the stove. Based on his experience, bread didn’t do well next to water.
Taking a shaking breath to swell his confidence, Soren darted from his place by the wall toward the stove while swinging his hook as hard as he could toward to top of the oven. Missed. He cursed under his breath and tried again, this time finding his hook catch something metal. [I must’ve snagged the grate of the stove.]
Soren wasted no time and began climbing, his heart pounding as he rose further and further from the ground. Out of breath, he reached the top. He looked around. The place seemed clean and well put together. Soren shook his thoughts away. He couldn’t think about this now. He turned his attention back to the counter in search of something he could grab and shove into his bag quickly. [There!] There was a bread box shoved in the corner by the wall and the counter. More importantly, there was an electrical outlet mere inches away from the box. He’d hit the jackpot.
Soren wrapped up his hook and made quick work of getting into the box, pulling off enough breadcrumbs to be unnoticed. He wanted to take the entire end, but it would have been too much and was bound to be noticed. He had hopes that what he took wouldn’t be noticed as it was, pinching off more than what he usually would.
Soren had just stepped back onto the counter when he heard a loud grinding sound coming from the next room just behind the door. His heart stopped. Every nerve in his body screamed to run. He couldn’t hesitate now, but he had a choice. He could try and shimmy down his line back to the cover he knew would lead him back or he could pull free the electrical cover mere inches from himself. He made his choice.
Climbing now would be too risky and at least he could duck behind the top of the bread box which was just barely taller than the backsplash. Hands trembling, he began frantically unscrewing the cover. It was already loose. There was the sound of a high pitched, shrill sound followed by silence. Soren could guess it was a car coming to a stop. His hands fumbled as he managed to pry the screw loose and began to peel back the faceplate. Nearby, he could hear muffled shouting.
Humans. They were angry by the sound of it. Soren pulled with all his might, accidentally stumbling backwards when the plate came off suddenly. He could see the lock turning. It was now or never. He leapt to his feet, screw in hand, and bolted behind the faceplate cover. He straddled the electrical cords and managed to pull the face plate back into place just as the door opened.
Heart pounding through his ribs, Soren listened as the two humans, who were still shouting at one another, came into the apartment. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but at least he was out of harm’s way – for now at least. There was a small shelf just below his feet which he didn’t see before. Soren imbedded his spare hook into the wood and rappelled down the line and began jogging back to where he had left his brothers and Brady.
It was a close call, but not an unsuccessful venture. His family would eat tonight, and that’s what mattered. As his legs carried him, Soren couldn’t help but think about why the humans were shouting at one another. How could they be angry when they had so much? They had food and shelter, warmth when they wanted. Soren rounded the final corner and dropped down from the ledge into the crawl space. He could feel the temperature difference instantly.
Yes, they would move as Brady requested; but, Brady wasn’t going to be the only one calling the shots anymore.