Cora stared at the tree in their backyard where her mother was buried.
Her mother was a spitfire, always pushing their family to leave Kamas and help the hunters.
Her mother had died before they could commit to such a thing. Although things were different now, and Cora wondered if it was finally time to act. The hunters had come two weeks ago bearing grim news, their words still echoing in her mind, “Soon, we will start an initiative to reclaim what has been stolen from us. The lycans think they won the war, but it’s just begun.”
War. The hunters wanted war. Cora didn’t know how she felt about that. On the one hand, she felt revved from the energy of actually fighting rather than hiding. On the other, she honestly didn’t want a substantive war. She didn’t know if humans could survive another one.
She shivered in the crisp morning air, the cold wind brushing over her un-braided hair. She took a sip of the hot water in her mug, the steam smothering her face. They were out of tea, but she still liked the warmth of it. The mug had a pink heart, and the word coffee printed over it in cursive.
Such a unique design and I don’t even drink coffee. It was a part of the mug collection found in their home when her mother and father settled here.
She heard the squeaking of the patio screen, accompanied by the dramatic sigh of her ten-year-old brother. “What’s US 248 mean?” Ben asked. She looked down to the younger version of herself, and he kept pushing his dark brown hair out of his eyes. She’d need to trim it soon.
“What?” she asked, gripping the mug tighter to warm her hands.
“The sign in the living room. I was looking at it while I drank my hot water, and I just realized that I have no idea what it means,” he said, pulling a walnut from his pocket and using it to tap the wooden railing of their porch.
She furrowed her brows. “You really don’t know what it means?”
He flicked the walnut up in the air and nearly missed catching it. “I thought it was just odds and ends! Like your coffee mug. But then I saw that Harry had one at his house, and he said it was for the highway, but he didn’t know what that meant either. I didn’t realize more than one person would have it,” he said, glancing up to his sister. He had dark brown eyes like their father, the only thing that was opposite of Cora. She had her mother’s hazels eyes instead.
“US 248 was a highway, and those are signs that they used to put on them. Our village is near that highway,” she explained.
“What’s a highway?”
“Those giant roads that the cars drove on,” she explained.
His eyes lit up. “Oh, cars...like what the hunters drive?”
She nodded. “Kind of. Father says that cars used to look a lot different than the ones that hunters drive today. They use diesel instead of gasoline.”
“What’s the difference?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I have no idea. It’s just what father said.”
He caught the walnut again, smiling. “I want to go to see the highway. I want to go see the mountains, and where the Van Burren Hunters live. They live in southern California. How far away is that from Utah?”
She pursed her lips and gritted her teeth. After meeting a hunter two weeks ago, Ben wouldn’t stop talking about leaving the village to explore. “It doesn’t matter. You’re not going. You’re only ten, Ben.”
“Then why can’t the witches just take us exploring? They keep the witching border up, don’t they? I’m tired of them keeping us cooped up in this little village.”
She laughed. “It’s not little. There’s like three hundred people that live here.”
“I can walk the whole perimeter of it in a day! That’s too small. Van Burren...” he said, looking to her with wide eyes. “...has thousands of humans. They even have giant cities where people don’t even have yards! That’s what I want. Not the dirt and mountains that I can’t even visit.”
“Well, that’s all for our own safety. You leave the border, and a lycan or vampire, or whatever else is out there, could eat you alive.”
“Lycans don’t need to feed on humans, just vampires,” he said with a stern face.
Her face relaxed as she had gone through his very phase once. “I know. But that doesn’t mean they don’t attack humans. They don’t like us, and still, see us as the enemy. Unless you want to live in their servitude and slave away for them instead of the witches, then you stay inside the border.”
“Tell me more about the lycans,” he said, his eyes eager for anything other than walnuts and farming.
“I can’t. I don’t know more than you do. And even if I did, I wouldn’t. You need to accept that anything outside of Kamas is dangerous. Out there,” she said, taking a hand off of her mug to aimlessly point at the land way beyond theirs. “...is no business for a ten-year-old.”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, whatever. Everyone is just so dramatic. I just, I want to see one. Or anything. It’s so boring here. I mean, maybe I should just become a hunter. I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” he said and gave her the most earnest eyes he could muster. “When a hunter visits next, it might be for the best that I tell him to take me with him. If war is really what we are going to do, then I want to know how to fight, and I want to help. I could start training in Van Burren. I’m nearly a man, and if I have to pick a trade, I’d rather learn how to be a hunter than a farmer.”
She sighed and looked to the tree, gently smiling at his comment about nearly being a man. Oh, Ben, you’re so young.
Although he wasn’t entirely wrong, she had been thinking about this herself for the last two weeks. Something was brewing outside of Kamas, and she didn’t feel content just sitting here. Despite how much it made her nervous, sitting around with one’s head in the ground was not her style, nor was it Ben’s.
But Ben was ten and not of age to be worrying about such things. I guess he can still be right about his observations, though.
“See, you’re not saying anything. It’s because you know it’s a good idea,” he pestered. “I’ve seen you look at Hugo too like he was pumpkin pie himself. You like the hunters just as much as I do,” he said, poking her in the shoulder.
“It’s just a fantasy, Ben,” she said and glared at him. “Honestly, we don’t even really know what it’s like to live with the hunters. What if it is brutal work? In all of my twenty-two years of life, no one has ever stepped foot into the village that wasn’t invited. That’s safety that can’t be undervalued. Look at it this way - do you want to become like Aunt Tilly? Because leaving Kamas, and becoming a hunter, is how you become like Aunt Tilly.”
He dropped the walnut when she said that and picked it up, his eyes wide with a grotesque curiosity. “I forgot about that...”
Oh, great. “No, don’t get that look in your eye, Benjamin Elijah Gabris. You better not go ask her about it. That’s rude, and it traumatized her.”
It was too late, as the childlike wonder glossed over his eyes. He loved learning about the paranormals, more than just what the witches told him. He was the worst combination of brave and reckless, always hungry to prove himself.
“Ben, come help me with the farm!” their father shouted from inside the home.
Ben groaned but did his duty and left to help.
Cora stood there for a moment longer, thinking about her brother and what would be best for him, before she went inside herself. She put more wood in the double-door wooden stove, braided her hair, changed out of her nightdress into pants and a white tank top. She then spent the first hour of her morning mending clothes.
Most of the clothes she needed to mend were for her cousins, who had a father that worked as a mason. Tilly was his wife, and she couldn’t sew the clothes herself. She had lost an arm and half of her face when she journeyed past the witching border four years ago. She went out on her own to pick walnuts from a nearby grove and didn’t bother to take a patrol with her.
It was a symptom that they had been living in privilege. Otherwise, no one would be so reckless. Except for Ben. The thought made her nearly roll her eyes. What am I going to do with that boy?
If aunt Tilly hadn’t been carrying a silver blade, she probably would have died. She was able to kill the beast, although when they went to collect the body at the witch’s command, they found that the lycan couldn’t be much older than seven. The witches said it must have been a rogue that was starving, as most lycans and vampires knew to stay away from witching villages, lest they wanted to face the wrath of their magic.
After mending the clothes, Cora went on a long walk to visit the orchard with a basket, collecting apples to make applesauce, pies, and jams. When she returned, she placed the basket by the cabinets that were in desperate need of replacing. She spent the next hour kneading sourdough from the mixture she had going in the corner of the hodge-podge kitchen. She kept it stored in one of the many bowls that didn’t match at all. Just like her coffee mug.
Once the morning chores were done, she sat outside on the porch to eat an apple as she eyed the only tree in their yard, glancing to the stone that had her mother’s name carved into it. She missed her mother every single day.
In the last forty years, everyone had lost someone. Though, it didn’t make losing her mother any easier.
Cora looked up at the endlessly blue sky and thought of the things called planes. Her father said that large pieces of aluminum used to fly in the air like a bird, although she sometimes wondered if he just made that up.
For centuries, the pendulum of power remained on the side of humans, their arrogance their downfall. They overlooked that all pendulums must eventually return to the other side.
And so it did, forty years ago. The pendulum fervently swung in the opposite direction when the bombs and EMP blasts changed everything.
Her father told her that after the EMP blasts, all the logistics seemingly vanished. Grocery stores were not restocked, places called pharmacies were no longer getting their medicine, and the reach of communication inverted overnight. He said giant metal flying objects called airplanes used to operate in the sky, and if they were within the EMP range, then they crashed when their systems went ‘offline.’ Families that lived states away lost all contact. Her father himself never saw his parents or siblings again, as he was serving in Utah for the military.
He described it once like it was stepping on an ant hill and digging up their tunnels, forcing everyone to start over.
The creatures that were forced into obscurity saw the disorder how any predator would - their forced hibernation was over, and it was time to feed. They found victory where humans found chaos.
And so, the calculated hunt began.
If it weren’t for the witches, Cora didn’t know what would have happened to humanity. The women of magic corralled the surviving humans into protected villages, and forty-something years later they were still barely surviving. The hunters were, indeed, humanity’s only hope now.
And she replayed the hunter’s words in her mind once again. War. They want more war. Was it wrong, though? In the end? It was either that or continue living a life full of fear. She was of the mindset that she’d rather die fighting for something.
She chewed on her lip. She would also have to see what her father would say, as they could all relocate together. She could marry there, Ben could find adventure, and her father could stop working so hard.
Kamas was full of nothing but hard, tedious work, anyway.
She threw the apple core into the compost bucket that they used for her aunt’s chickens. Once she tended to the chores for the rest of the day, she baked and cooked until the sun was starting to touch the western horizon.
Ben was outside visiting their mother, something he did nearly every night. He never got to meet her, although they would often tell him that he and Cora looked like just her. They both had her tan, Native American skin, her nose, and the shape of her eyes. Although it still did very little for him, as nothing could genuinely heal him from such a loss.
Her father was away on patrol for the night, so she would leave out some bread and butter for him when he returned. He was sixty-four and yet acted like he was in his forties. He said it was due to his Greek heritage. Although she didn’t really know what that meant, as heritage meant very little to their world. Skin, eye, and hair color was nothing more than an arbitrary trait anymore. All that mattered was if one could help
She took off her cooking apron, hung it up, and turned around to go see how Ben was doing. She furrowed her brows when she looked at the end of the counter.
It was Ben’s bear, the one her mother made while she was pregnant with him. He still slept with it but was embarrassed about it, so he never let it leave the room.
So why was it there?
She turned around to walk to the back door, and when she did, she let out a throaty cry.
Standing right in front of her was a man she had never seen before, and he had eyes that were the color of bright amber.
It was the eye color of a lycan.