Peter woke with sun in his eyes. A bird sang. He stretched and sat up. A breeze stirred the branches around him. The air was warm and the leaves a deep green. Peter swung his legs over the edge of the platform he had built high in the tree and sat there listening to the morning sounds in the forest. The platform swayed with a gentle motion beneath him.
He got up and pulled on his cammies. Threw a couple of cans in his pack for breakfast and checked the load in his rifle. He lowered the rope ladder and climbed down to the forest floor. It was a long climb. His hidden nest was lost in the overhead foliage. No one was going to surprise him up there.
He secured the ladder to the trunk of the tree in shadow and hiked over to the ridge. He sat down on a log to eat his breakfast while he checked out the town below. He saw the teenage girl slip into the Oaks Market to forage. The couple with two children made their way down Main, guns ready, and entered the department store after listening at the door for at least five minutes. Peter saw smoke rising from the picnic area in the park south of town. That would be the young couple who had arrived a month ago.
He didn’t see the grandparents and their granddaughter or the boy who was ten or so. The grandparents slept in, he knew. The boy seemed to like it better at night.
These few who remained in town were all cautious. Except for the ten-year-old boy. He was feral.
Peter heard the sound of an engine, for the first time in weeks. He stood up and dug his binoculars out of his pack. A car appeared at the end of Main and came forward, in no hurry. It stopped in front of the hardware store. A man got out, armed with a shotgun. A woman got out the other side. Rifle. Two kids, from the back. Handguns. Like the family now in the department store, they listened outside the hardware store for a long time before entering. Peter was already running down the path off the ridge, to catch them before they left.
He followed Oak down to Main and took up position in the middle of the intersection, trying to catch his breath. When the family came out of the hardware store, half a block away, Peter raised his arms and hailed them. His hands were empty and open.
The four froze at the sound of his voice. The father and both kids brought up their weapons and aimed them at him. The mom faced in the other direction, rifle up, scanning the street and the windows in the buildings on both sides back that way.
“Stand clear,” the father said to Peter, loud enough to be heard. “Stay where you are and we’ll run you down.”
“I’ll move when you start up,” Peter said. “If you’re just passing through, have a good trip. If you might be staying, I thought I’d tell you who’s here already.”
The man glanced back at his wife.
“Clear so far,” she said.
“Keep your hands up,” the man said to Peter.
Peter told them about the family of four in the department store, and the young couple on the edge of town. He told them about the teenage girl, and the grandparents and their granddaughter, and the ten-year-old boy.
The mother turned her head from time to time to look at him. Blank expression. Dangerous. The children seemed tense but curious.
“So far,” Peter said, “no one here has trusted anyone else enough to team up with them. We’re all on our own. I live out in the woods. If you choose to settle here, you won’t be bothered by a welcome party.”
“We’ll take that into account,” the man said.
“One other thing,” Peter said. “I’m organizing a little experiment. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but I’ve invited everyone in town to a sort of meeting. At noon, day after tomorrow, at the park. There’s a large playing field. We’ll all arrive separately, of course, and position ourselves around the edge of the field, far enough apart so that everyone feels safe. Then we’ll all move forward until we’re as close to each other as we can tolerate.”
“What’s the point?”
“We see each other every day. We’re all just trying to make our way. This would be a time to exchange names and stories. Maybe mention some problems we could use advice about. Maybe set up another meeting.”
“Nobody would risk their kids,” the man said. “I’d come alone, if I came at all.”
“There would be four couples,” Peter said, “three with kids, if everyone came. And then the teenage girl and the younger boy. And me, of course. Maybe everybody wouldn’t come, but if anybody came, anybody at all, it would be a start.”
“You get a bunch of folks armed and nervous out in an open field, they might start sharing something other than their names.”
“That’s the point of everybody staying at a distance they feel safe,” Peter said. “Hell, we can shout to each other if we have to. There’s seven youngsters. At least they’d get a look at one another. We’ll make sure everybody has a chance to speak.”
“We’ll think about it,” the man said. “We talk about how to join up with others all the time. But you don’t know who you can trust. You could be gathering everybody up to get rid of them.”
“And be alone?” Peter said.
“I’m alone now.”
Returning to the ridge, he settled down to watch. Spring had settled in. Time to start a garden. He’d need to hide it and guard it, wouldn’t he? A community garden would produce more for everyone.
The new family remained in town. With children involved, the parents had so much more to gain, but also to lose, if they trusted somebody else.
Two days later, Peter left his pack and his gun in the tree. He walked down to town wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, unarmed for the first time since death and chaos claimed the country.
He arrived at the park early, but, to be safe and to avoid ambushes, so had everyone else. Without direction, they automatically spread out around the field. Everyone was there. Only Peter was unarmed, but that didn’t bother him. The presence of the children was a good sign.
The sky was clear, the sun bright. Two crows argued on the roof of a gazebo in the overgrown public rose garden beyond the field. Peter noticed a doe standing at the edge of the woods.
He walked to the center of the field and gestured everyone in. They came forward slowly, eyeing each other, pausing, until they formed a loose ring around him. Peter felt tension in the group but also something else.
“We don’t have trust yet,” he said, “but we’re here. We’re together. We have hope.”