The Village

Nora and Bram named their child Amanda. They filled her heart with stories of the Last City until it was as overflowing as their own. Stories of rest and relief, of laying down their weapons. Stories that made their fear, sharpened by the long road and its dangers, soften and disappear for a moment. Stories of safety.

For now, the Chaperone was their only safety.

They'd come to the village just for a night's rest. It was a half-deserted settlement of rotted buildings, tents, and lean-tos. But they had livestock, and a field for growing bitter vegetables.

"Is this the City?" Amanda asked.

"No," Nora answered. She always said it with sadness.

They traded with the inhabitants: food, ammunition, warm clothing. When the Fallen raided that night, Nora and Bram fended them off beside the villagers.

From a hiding spot, Amanda watched her mother fire the Chaperone, watched Fallen die in a hiss of Ether. Watched her parents defend people they'd never met and would never meet again. She was used to the sight by now.

The people were thankful and let them stay the night in an empty cowshed, even loaning them a gas lamp. It was a cold night, and the family was happy for shelter and warmth.

Bram portioned out the food while Nora took the Chaperone out and laid it down in the straw. Amanda came to her side, curious. Nora watched as her daughter reached out for the gun and traced the curling, embossed design on the barrel with a fingertip. She did it with the reverence reserved for sacred things. Nora knew that was a good thing. It meant Amanda would treat the Chaperone with care. Not just as a weapon, but as a memory.

"My mama gave it to me when I left her," Nora told her daughter. She then nodded to the curly floral designs along the gun's receiver and barrel. "But I did those."

It had given her something to focus on. Something to do when the day was too hot or too cold to keep moving. Carefully carving out those soft and delicate shapes, she'd taught herself beauty when the world could not.

"Can I shoot it?" Amanda asked. She'd never asked before. Bram looked up with alarm at the prospect, but Nora only laughed and tousled her daughter's hair.

"No," Nora said, her voice kind but firm. She saw Amanda's disappointment across her face—that exaggerated, devastating emotion that only children can feel. She wouldn't cry, but she would probably sulk for a few days, at least until something else caught her interest and became her whole world.

Nora wanted to keep her attention for as long as she could.

"You can help me clean it," Nora offered. "I'll show you how to take it apart and put it back together. Just like your little engines."

Amanda's expression told Nora that this is what she really wanted.

Together they disassembled the gun, cleaned it, oiled it, reassembled it. Nora named each piece and what they did. Soon, Amanda knew the shape and texture of it all. How the pieces fit together, how they functioned. How the parts worked to create a whole. Amanda took it all in with the boundless curiosity that motivated her every thought and movement.

"We do this every time we use it," Bram told his daughter. Nora nodded.

"Every shot I fire," she continued, "I gotta clean it so it's good as new and won't jam up when we need it most. That way, it can protect people for a long time."

Then she tickled her daughter's sides, enough to make Amanda squirm and smile. That's how Nora knew her daughter would remember this moment. Bram laughed at the sight and came to sit beside them; Amanda crawled into his lap. Nora knew she'd teach her daughter to shoot one day, but for now, she wanted to savor the time when Amanda was too young to try.

"We use it to keep people safe," Nora said. "That's all that matters."

Nora watched her husband hold their daughter. She knew, one day, the City would keep Amanda safe. Nora wondered if the Chaperone would have any place there. She had a quiet hope that it would not.

The Forest

Category: Book: The Beaten Path

The Ravine