My hands shook from cold. The breath I blew froze as soon as it hit the freezing cold air. I sat, frozen, unmoving, hearing my heart pound inside of my chest. Seconds grew, stretched, passed. I squinted through the trees, trying to make something, anything out, but the glare from the snow seemed to blind me. My stomach growled. How much longer? I wondered. Hopefully not too long. I gripped the long, sharp spear that I had made out of a stick and a rock in one hand, a silvery kitchen knife in the other. There. I saw it. A deer, about twenty yards away. Alone. Head up, listening. I held my breath and slowly began to move my spear. In one fluid motion, I threw the spear and jumped down from the tree I was sitting in. I heard a thunk as the spear hit the deer, and I dropped into the snow and rolled, covering my deerskin coat in white powder. I had hit the deer in the chest. It limped, staggered, and I slit its throat with a knife. We were eating tonight!
When I got back from the hunt, cheers erupted. A group of about twenty boys and girls between the ages of eight and thirty gathered around, staring at my prized possession. I grinned.
“I got one.” I said. The cheers erupted again and I smiled. I handed it off to Sophia, a twelve-year-old who pulled her brown hair back and began to gut and carve the deer. Tai, a boy who couldn’t have been past the age of ten, flicked a lighter and started us a nice fire. Our lone thirty-year-old blew the flames, many helped Sophia hack legs off of the deer, trying to get as much useable meat as we could. Everyone pitched in when I made a kill, everyone except for me. I sat at the edge of the campfire while our crew–no, my crew–talked and chatted and gutted a deer. Not the best of lives, but a happy one. I slowly pulled out a rag and cleaned the blood off of my spear, and then began sharpening the spear head with a knife.
“Hey,” I heard, next to me. The newest member of our crew, eighteen-year-old Brett, was walking up to me. Though he was new, he had already proved useful. Before he had been forced to join us, he had been quite the thief. “I wanted to say thank you,” he said, running a hand through his hair. Dark brown, like mine. But that was where the similarities ended and the differences began. Like most of the people in my crew, Brett was older than me–by two years. I don’t know how I got picked as the leader, but it happened. Maybe because I was good at hunting, or because I was reasonable, or maybe because I was so young; easy to manipulate. Only sixteen and leading a group of twenty people, I was bound to need some help. “I didn’t have a lot before… you know, I ran away. And at first, it was hard. I mean living on your own… it’s difficult, and dangerous, and I would’ve died if you hadn’t picked me up. So thank you. Thank you for that.” He sat next to me, a deer hoof in his hand, carving it with a knife. I’m not sure what he intended to use the hoof for, but we tried to salvage everything we could out of every animal we killed–even squirrels and chipmunks.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Do you mind if I ask… what’s your, like, backstory? Where did you come from?” I was always tentative asking this question, but normally it was something that they actually wanted to talk about.
Brett paused a bit before he spoke. “I think… I think I’m like most of the kids here, you know. My parents weren’t abusive, but they’re alcoholics. They used to fight. They’d be gone for weeks without telling me. When child services was going to pick me up…” Brett shook his head, like he was remembering some terrible things. “I’ve known some people who grew up in orphanages and foster homes, and I didn’t want to be like any of them. So I ran, and you guys found me.”
“If you’re eighteen, why did child services come for you? Aren’t you a technical adult?” I asked.
“Well, when I ran away, I was twelve. I was on my own for a few years–I lived with my aunt for three years in Texas, and then I just kind of got a job and lived in a kind of cardboard box thing. Scrounging, you know. Wasn’t fun.”
I smiled. “Well welcome to the group, Brett. I hear you’ll be quite useful.”
He grinned back. “Thanks.” Then he left. His smile had been so real, so genuine, that I had almost told him the truth. That I was not like him, or the others, that I was not on the run from abusive parents or spouses or child services. I was on the run from my friends, sure. But only because every human being that ever knew me wanted to turn me in to the police.