We were children once, but we aren’t anymore. At least, that’s what Magda says. You have not been a child for many years, she tells me over dinner that night, her hand clasped around a butcher knife, sawing into the meat of a rabbit carcass. The meat is pink, and the veins are purple, so much like the meat and veins of a human except for the bones.
It won’t be enough for the three of us, even if we eat the organs, I tell her, while dicing potatoes.
Outside, something bangs against the porch door. We cook here on the third floor of the building, where nothing should be able to reach us. But there are times when the dead-alives wander up the stairwell after we’ve been gone for a long time. I found one in the bathroom once. Had to put a toothbrush through its eye.
We have corn, Magda says.
Corn isn’t nutrient dense.
Magda saws. Sometimes, because she is older than me, she thinks she knows better, but age doesn’t matter anymore. I was eleven when all the adults became dead-alive. She was thirteen. That would make her near sixteen now, but it doesn’t matter anymore because age doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except the rabbit and the potatoes and the slim lick of corn that we will eat without butter or salt, waiting to see if the sound on the porch is a dead-alive or just a pigeon caught under the brick eaves.
Abdul was six when the adults died, so that would make him nine now. He has a mop of brown hair which he allows me to cut with the shears we use to clip the feet off birds. Abdul is not like Magda, and that is why I like him.
Nothing’s out, he says, squinting into the sunlight.
The city is quiet below us, deserted and still as winter approaches. We sit perched on the rooftop of an apartment building near the outskirts of Berlin, the sun at an angle. It is getting colder now, with frost lingering longer each morning on the glass windows. I can feel it in the cement beneath my belly where I lie, the rifle perched on the ledge of the building. Berlin is gridded and compact. The streets here are still visible even with the overgrowth, but the concrete is crumbling in some places. One building collapsed completely a few weeks ago, exhaling this breezy moan as it fell.
Abdul is right. Barely anything moves anymore. The dead-alives stay quiet during the daytime, but there used to be birds out, dogs. Sometimes bigger animals like deer and coyotes. Yet for the last few weeks, there has been nothing. We’ll have to go outside the city, I tell him. Soon.
He glances at me, and I pretend not to see it. Abdul looks at me closely in a way Magda does not, like he needs to see what I do to know what he should do, but I almost never know what needs to be done. I don’t want to, he says. This is home.
We’ll go to the forest, I tell him. It’ll be our new home.
No, it won’t, he says.
The sun glints over the lens of the rifle scope. For a second, I think I see movement, but then it just turns out to be a piece of clothing hanging on the ledge of a balcony, waving like a hand in the wind.
We eat diced potatoes for three days straight, me, Magda and Abdul. On the morning of the fourth day, I awaken on my floor cot to find Abdul sucking on a piece of blanket. His stomach groans. It’s the same kind of sound the dead-alives used to make when there were more of them, before they started starving away like us kids did.
Hurts, he says, when he sees me staring.
We leave for the forest two hours later.
There is a dead-alive at the edge of the forest when we arrive. Magda says to stop the car, because if she doesn’t kill it now, she’ll be thinking about it every single second we’re inside. Magda doesn’t like the forest. But this is where the animals will be, I told her.
If there are any, she replied.
Magda uses a pickaxe to kill the dead-alive. It is her specialty. When there were more kids, we liked to sit around a fire and talk about our specialties like we were superheroes. Jeromy used a spade, but he died six months ago. Hayden used a baseball bat. She died shortly thereafter.
Magda embeds the pickaxe in the dead-alive’s head. It shudders for a moment before falling forward, onto her. It wears an old apron and what could’ve been a yellow sundress. I can’t remember what my mother was wearing the day it happened. I don’t remember much about what she looked like at all. It’s just the way her face changed that day, something in her brain snapping, the way it bled into her eyes so there was nothing left in them.
It's colder here, Abdul says from the backseat.
I turn to look at him. He’s right. There is a shadow over the forest. For years, the other kids used to say that this area was cursed. The trees grew up in the adults’ absence. Now, they tower over us, dozens of feet tall. The weeds have sprung up, the lichen, too. I’ve read every single book the Berlin library has on this forest. Nothing mentions a curse. But then, there are no books on the dead-alives, either.
Still, there is a sudden chill. Magda returns to the small car, wiping the blood off on a handkerchief. Drive, she says. She doesn’t look at me.
Havelhöhenweg is nestled along the river, thick with trees and algae which sits inches heavy on the slower parts of the water. We set up in an old cabin. It’s small and squat with ivy curling up the outsides, the wood bleached from the sun. It sits near the observation tower and smells of wet things left to dry too long. An old fireplace rests in the center of the room, brick marring the wood walls which are flecked with shadows and mold.
It is so much quieter than the city. There, parts fall from things, causing tinny thuds and hollow banging sounds. Here, everything is muted by the undergrowth, which grows so close to everything else, like barbed wire weaving tighter and tighter.
The plus of being in the forest is that we are all now invisible. Weeds and earth mute our footsteps. The fox does not hear me when I approach. Its coat is thin on the edge of the fading summer months. The tail is striped. I kill it with a pair of garden shears. Your superpower, Jeromy told me once. I don’t mind killing things, but I hate the twitches they make, the way they look when they’re struggling. Jeromy, Hayden. They all twitched.
I cut the fox’s throat, so its blood spills out. The body falls still. Above me, the conifers sway. It is still except for that whispering sound that the greenery makes. It sounds like a curse, and in that moment, I understand why none of the other kids would come out here.
A branch snaps. I spin, ready with the shears, but it’s just a dead limb falling to the ground.
The fox isn’t heavy. It is barely one meal for the three of us, but it is something. I sling it over my shoulder and tromp back to the cabin, its blood warming the back of my jeans.
What I’m most curious about is whether I will twitch or not when I die. What my body will do. What it will feel like. I wonder if it will be better than this. If it will feel less empty or if it is just nothing forever, like Magda says it is.
Magda takes more meat than us, saying she is older and needs it more. We consume all we can – meat, fat, organs. Abdul stirs the bones into some boiling rainwater in a pot over the fireplace. Still, my stomach rumbles when I lay down on the mat to sleep. Our breaths frost, even as the flames pick up.
We wake in the night to cackling.
It’s coyotes, I tell Abdul when he reaches for me.
It’s cursed, Magda says, and then lets out a coarse laugh.
The fire in the corner pops. We have left the fox tail in the corner. Perhaps it will become a hat or a pair of socks. Abdul likes to skin things that are already dead. You can smell it on them, he told me once. They smell different when the soul is gone.
The coyotes continue laughing. I look to Abdul, the firelight trailing across his pale face. When he puts his head back down on the pillow, he gives me something that looks like a smile except it doesn’t reach all the way to his eyes.
Abdul is gone in the morning and the fire is out. The dumpy cabin smells of smoke and cold, something deeper that I know from the library books is peatmoss. A trail of acorns wanders across the cabin floor. He was still hungry, Magda says.
The fox was good but not enough. It was small bones, small meat. Not enough fat. Not enough muscle. Foxes are thin and smart. He needs a beaver or dog. Something thicker. He wouldn’t leave without us, I say.
Outside, the light falls in grey strips. The windows are dirty. I can feel the dirt of the cabin on my face and mouth. Like grit grinding between my teeth. I slip out from beneath the covers and the chill of the morning crests over me immediately. Don’t, Magda says. It’s one less mouth to feed.
I tell her I’ll be back in a little.
There is no wind outside. Usually, rain will bring gusts of wind that sweep the water up into our eyes, cold and stinging, but the rain just comes straight down today, thick and sharp, almost like hail. The forest is covered in fog – must be oncoming rain – making it difficult to see.
Jeromy used to say that fog was the enemy of the people. Fog is for grown-ups, he told me once. It covers and hides things. In the beginning, Jeromy said that with all the adults gone, we kids would have a chance to grow into something meaningful. But then everyone got hungry, and the hunger grew and grew until everything felt like it was before.
The fog settles, dense. For the first time in a long time, I am scared.
At the observation tower, I take the western route, further into the dense conifer trees. It’s hard to hear with the rain coming down so hard. It gets on my nose and cheeks, slipping down my neck and bleeding into the top of my sweater.
I call and call, but Abdul is nowhere. When I’m looping back to the lake, my skin starts to get tight. It used to happen when one of the dead-alives was near, but after so long, it eventually stopped. The feeling now is so tight, it is painful.
As the lake appears through the fog, I seek refuge under a giant cedar. The needles are thick enough to block some of the rain. There are no animals anywhere, not even squirrels. Why would he have come out here like this? And where could he have gone?
The cabin is only on the other side of the field. I cross it just as the first crack of lightning explodes above me, the sound so loud, I can feel it creeping up through the earth.
When the adults all died, at first, they ate one another. It wasn’t uncommon to look out the window in those early days and see them attacking each other on the streets, all shrill and wordless and without any life in their eyes.
I stayed in the apartment for two months, scooping refried beans out of cans, before I ventured out on the street. Magda was the first one I met, in her ballcap, her freckles spread on her cheeks. Magda looked dead and walked like it, too. It was the walk that kept her alive, she told me later, all hunched over like something might pop out to kill her at any time.
Magda’s mother tried to eat her that first week. She never talked about it except for one time, when we found a liquor store and drank a bottle of pink colored wine. It made me sleepy and laughy, but Magda just got teary-eyed and talked a lot.
She came at me with a can opener, she kept saying. It was like she was trying to unscrew my head from my body.
I’m sure she didn’t mean it, I told her, but Magda was already reaching for a cigarette, its flame the only light in the room. It sent shadows dancing across the dirty walls around us, bouncing around like a voice does in an empty room. When she pulled the cigarette to her mouth, it looked like she was smiling but there was nothing in her eyes.
The cabin is dimly lit when I arrive, and there is a smell. Something musty. I recognize it as the inside of a human body. My feet are wet and so is the collar of my shirt. It feels tight and choking. Abdul? I call. Magda? My eyes struggle to adjust to the lighting.
The cabin is mostly empty except our sleeping mats and one chair. Abdul is there, in front of the fireplace. His hair is slicked back with rain. Sprinkles of it dot the floor. Magda rests in front of him but there is something wrong with her body. One of her shoes has been knocked to the side. Her foot twitches. Abdul, I say.
There were no animals, he says, his back to me. My stomach gets tight. The pickaxe is on the floor. Magda’s pickaxe. As I round the side of the room, I see her for the first time. Her eyes are semi-closed, like she’s sleeping, but she is not sleeping. Her forearm is missing. Blood flecks the floor. Abdul cracks something then places it in the fireplace. My head is buzzing now, a tight sensation like a drill going off behind my eyes. You could smell it on her, he says.
The argument is on the edge of my tongue, but I can’t force it out.
It made sense.
I suppose, in some ways, it did. It is all he knows, all that has ever been modeled for him. We have not been children for a very long time.