By Aaron M.
Milton walked through the woods. His name wasn’t actually Milton, but since he was the only guy around, he figured he could choose what he called himself.
He hardly ever thought about his name, though. He had far more pressing concerns, such as staying alive. This morning, he was thinking about finding food.
The sound of the wind blowing the rain off trees covered up the sounds Milton made. He clutched his machete and kept his ears perked for the sounds of moving animals.
He had been hunting for a long while now and all he had found was a dead squirrel that was too far gone to eat anyway. He had thrown the machete at live birds and squirrels, but in all his four years as a hunter-gatherer, he had never hit a target so small and agile.
Needless to say, Milton was very hungry. He started down the slope of the ravine toward the fields of garlic mustard. He slipped on some wet leaves as he descended and fell on his back. Swearing, he picked himself up and continued. He reached the stream. Its water was brown with silt that the rain had picked up from the sides of the ravine. He waded across it, the warm water washing the dead leaves off his bare feet.
On the other side of the stream, the garlic mustard was thick. He grabbed a handful of the stuff and began to chew it. He had learned to ignore the vile flavor. Even now, however, as hungry as he was, it was far from his favorite food.
As he chewed, he thought he heard something. He paused in his eating and listened. The sound came again. It was something he had not heard for many years, yet the sound was unmistakable. It was a human voice.
The person he heard was yelling loudly. He couldn’t make out the individual words. Another voice responded. It was further away, and even more indistinct. The voices were coming from downstream. He was already a few miles from his old, decrepit house in the woods, and following the voices would only take him further.
This only caused him pause for a second. He spat the garlic mustard out of his mouth and began to run down the bank of the stream. The thin shale rocks were sharp under his feet, but four years of going barefoot had toughened the soles of his feet so much he barely noticed.
He also wasn’t worrying about making too much noise anymore. He splashed in the stream, crashed through the brush, and crunched on the brittle rocks. Only one thought was going through his mind: He was done being alone.
Milton hadn’t given much thought to his solitude. He had been too preoccupied with survival. Now, all his loneliness swept over him all at once. It pressed him on through the woods. He ran faster, faster toward the voices.
Milton suddenly froze as an arrow flew right in front of him. He looked around to see who had fired it.
It was a young woman, standing on the rim of the ravine, and she was prepared to fire at him again. He put his hands up in the air and stood still.
“You’re gonna scare the animals away,” she said, “Stop being so noisy.”
“I haven’t seen other people in such a long time,” he said, “When I heard a human voice I had to find out who it was.”
The woman visibly rolled her eyes. “Come on up the hill,” she said.
As Milton climbed the hill, the woman kept her bow trained on him. When he reached the top of the hill, she pointed down a dirt path.
“Go that way,” she said, “There’s other people there, if that’s what you want. Be quiet though; I got a job to do.”
He walked down the path. It was narrow but well-trodden. Milton could smell wood smoke in the air. He wondered if he was walking toward a house or even a settlement.
The path continued for the better part of a mile. It wound its way through the trees. Other than wood smoke, there were no other apparent signs of human habitation.
That all changed when the path led him into a clearing. It had several camping trailers in it, as well as some huts that appeared to be handbuilt. The air was thick and hazy with smoke that appeared to be rising from one of the huts.
Milton stood cautiously on the edge of the clearing. He knew enough to know he was unlikely to be welcome here.
His thoughts were interrupted when a small boy wearing a large shirt ran through the clearing. When he saw Milton, he stopped and looked toward him in fear. The boy turned and ran toward one of the trailers.
Milton ducked behind a tree just as a man carrying a shovel burst out of the trailer. Milton hid his machete behind his back and walked out into the clearing with his hands up.
“What’re ya here for?,” the man asked.
“I just wanted to see other people. It’s been so long…” Milton’s voice trailed off.
“We’ve had a few of that type. Come on over here.” The man gestured for Milton to follow him.
The man led Milton to one of the shacks. Inside, there was an aging woman sitting at an old wooden desk, which was very out of place in the dark, dirty hovel.
“Who’s this?,” the woman asked.
“A hunter-dude who’s lonesome,” the man said.
“He got weapons?,” she asked.
The man pulled the machete out of Milton’s back pocket. “Not no more he don’t,” he said.
“Good,” the woman said. Addressing Milton, she said, “You know what we is here?”
“No,” Milton said.
“We’re a cooperative. We’re a group of farmers and hunters who survive off each other. Anyone who lives here’s gotta work all the day. You fine with that?”
“I guess so,” Milton said.