Ten rations remaining, eighteen mouths to feed, and one very distraught leader.
Tobit Eagen pinched the bridge of his nose as the tumult of concerned and angry voices assaulted his ears. He felt a headache coming on with every negative word that was spewed in his direction, but he couldn't think of one thing to say to calm his worried, hungry subordinates. He was their leader. It was his job to keep order among them when everything else on the planet was distorted with chaos.
As the voices seemed to grow louder and louder, grating on every nerve in Tobit's exhausted brain, he looked off into the twisted, naked trees at the edge of the clearing to focus instead on their strangely relaxing appearance. He thought, were they aspen or birch? He tried to recall what they used to look like around this time of year before the upheaval. Smooth white skin with flecks of darkness scattered over the surface in aberrant patterns, almost as if someone had taken a knife and carved into them, causing them to bleed through these thin, horizontal cuts. And, their leaves, so vibrant and alive like fire, clinging to the last warmth of summer, yet slowly dying with the arrival of fall.
Fitting, he thought, that the chill of autumn was upon them. It was a chill September afternoon not unlike this one when the upheaval reared its ugly head. After a war of global proportions ravaged humanity, there was a worldwide social and economic collapse, shortage of food and resources, and disease that spread faster than a rumor amongst a group of bored, middle aged women. Between all of that, there weren't many people left. Those who survived would band together in groups for protection and a sense of purpose.
Tobit often wondered if he would have been better off on his own, striking out into the wastelands of the world with only his shadow at his side. The solitude was inviting on days like this when his followers grew restless, and there was more than one occasion when he considered leaving without a word. They would be fine, he thought selfishly. They would have each other to rely on. But, he couldn't fool himself. These poor people couldn't even rely on themselves on a good day. They were filled with doubt, and would rather sit and long for the old times than fight to survive. So, they appointed him as the leader so he could do all the work and make all the tough decisions for them. Leadership, Tobit mused, is more like volunteering to be shot in the face.
Lost in his own head as he glared at the dead, gnarly trees, he noticed the calloused knots protruding from some of them, like eyes that stared back at him with pity. The trees understood him better than the people surrounding him. These human eyes only pried, glowered, scrutinized. But the eyes of the trees, unblinking, had no negative judgments. They only saw Tobit's efforts and sacrifices, and in their silent way, they begged him to abandon these unappreciative people and instead wander off into the forest of eyes, into sweet oblivion.
“Definitely aspen.” He murmured to himself.
“What on earth are you mumbling about, Tobit?” A harsh voice growled.
Tobit looked up to see Willis Bullard's gruff, aged face frowning down at him. The younger man sighed and stood to his feet. When upright he was taller by an inch than Mr. Bullard, and his stern, edgy face, covered in stubble, was intimidating to anyone who didn't know him well.
“What's the problem, Willis?” Tobit questioned.
“Have you even been listening?” Willis snapped. “We've been discussing for an hour what to do about the food shortage.”
“We haven't discussed anything.” Tobit stated. “You've been ranting, I've been listening, and an hour later we're no closer to coming up with a solution.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” Willis persisted.
Tobit thought for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “We should ease up on the rations until we have time to recover more. We all pitch in with hunting, foraging, and finding shelter. If we're occupied, we're less likely to focus on our empty stomachs anyway.”
Willis threw his hands out in exasperation, shouting, “You're joking, right? We're already starving and your suggestion is to just keep busy until we forget about our hunger?”
“No, my suggestion is we keep busy which should eventually result in us finding more food, thus our problem will be solved.”
“You're a real cynic, you know that, Tobit?” Willis muttered.
Tobit only shrugged before saying, “This group elected me as leader because of my reasoning and my skills in situations like this, so why don't you actually try listening for once.”
“But, we're starving!” A woman cried from somewhere in the crowd.
Frustrated with their refusal to heed his advice, Tobit turned around, stuffed a hand down into his bag and pulled out a can of food. Turning back to the group, he held the can above his head and shouted, “If you're so hungry, take my ration!” Then, he chucked the metal container at them. There was a moment of panic as some of the people closest to the food scrambled to reach it, clawing and tugging at one another in an attempt to grab it first. They stopped suddenly when Tobit raised his voice over their clamoring, saying, “Eat up! Satisfy your needs with complete disregard to my own!”
The air grew very still, and shame fell on the faces of everyone present.
“That's right,” Tobit began, his voice calm yet authoritative, sardonic yet honest. “Take my ration so I can starve instead of you. You act like you've forgotten that I'm in the same freaking boat. I'm hungry, too. I'm tired, and frustrated, and hurting, too. But, unlike you, I'd rather spend my time working to remedy that. All you seem to be successful at is coming to me with a new complaint every day.”
No one dared respond, because they knew it was true. Tobit crossed his arms over his chest while studying the defeated expressions on all of their familiar faces. “You brought your needs to me, I gave you my two sense, now it's up to us as a collective to act on it.”
The group stared at him for a long moment until one of the women returned his can of food to him. He nodded his thanks to her and then his eyes scanned over the remainder of the people. “Jason, Tracy, and Mark,” Tobit began, pointing to three of them. “You three are in charge of foraging. Head over to the town and see what you can find.” He paused and looked at four more. “Patrick, Jackie, Douglas, and Darren, you guys grab your gear and head into the forest for a hunt. It's almost dusk, so the game should be pretty active. The rest of you, work on gathering firewood and cleaning up the camp before nightfall.”
“And, you?” Willis asked.
“I'm going to scout our perimeter to make sure we don't have any unwanted visitors.” He paused and looked around one last time before saying, “Are we good?”
Some of them nodded and then they went their separate ways. Tobit turned and swept his pack up off the ground, slinging it over his shoulder, before trekking off into the trees. The solitude of the forest was a welcome distraction, but he couldn't entirely escape the issues at hand. The shortage of food was getting worse by the week, and everyone knew it. On top of that, the group's morale was the lowest it had been since he first came upon them after the Upheaval. It was making it hard to reason with them about anything and everything.
Tobit weaved between the trees, his hand grazing over the surface of some of them as he wandered by, and his mind started drifting to the times before when the world was beautiful. He thought of simple things like green grass and electricity. He thought of clean clothes, new shoes, and warm beds. Donuts, pizza, and coffee. Music, TV, and radio. All the simple things that were taken advantage of everyday, were rendered obsolete after the war. Every commodity, gone, like ash in the wind.
As the shadows grew deep in the dead forest, Tobit finished his sweep of the perimeter and headed back to the camp. As he broke into the clearing and made his way over to his shelter, a commotion in the distance drew his attention. From what he could see, the entire group was gathered off in one corner of the camp, their raised voices carrying over to his ears. Heaving a sigh, Tobit dropped his bag by the tent before jogging over to them. They were arguing about something and didn't even notice he had returned until he was standing right next to Willis.
“Anyone care to tell me what's going on?” Tobit asked.
“We've been talking and we've come to conclusion that hunting and foraging isn't going to be enough to keep us alive.” Patrick stated matter-of-factly. “Our efforts aren't getting us anywhere and something has to be done.”
“Okay.” Tobit said, even as a horrible feeling settled in his gut. “What do you have in mind, then?”
“We need to thin out the group.”
Tobit's dark eyes hardened. “Out of the question.”
Willis stepped forward and said, “Think about it. There are too many mouths to feed and not enough supplies. Maybe it's time to cut our losses.”
“What losses are you talking about exactly?” Tobit countered. “Do you see what happened today? We rallied together and worked to find food. Did you come back empty handed?”
“Well, not completely.” Tracy said, holding up a large sack of non-perishable food items, enough to last for a few weeks if rationed out correctly.
Tobit indicated the bag Tracy held and said, “Of course you didn't. So, what's the problem? If we keep this up, we will find the food and supplies we need to survive. And, if it gets to the point where we're exhausting our resources in this area, then we'll pack up and move somewhere else.”
“But, we've been here for over a month without incident.” Patrick said. “Other groups don't know our camp's location so we've been safe from raids. Why leave the one place that has offered us the most protection?”
“That's just being lazy.” One of the younger women spoke up. Tobit looked over to see it was Josie Leverett, one of the younger women of the group at age 20.
“No, it's being smart.” Patrick retorted. “This is the one place we've found so far that has a town nearby with plenty of supplies for the taking, but we only go on runs every other week. The problem isn't a food shortage. It's a population issue.”
“That's ridiculous!” Josie yelled. “You're reasoning is completely backwards!”
“Enough!” Tobit shouted, his voice rigid. “What's bringing this on? Is there some personal problem that's causing all of you to think like this? Any grudges making you want to get rid of people?”
Patrick lifted his hands as if to claim innocence of such an accusation. “All I'm saying is there are liabilities in our group, and one day that's going to catch up with us and get us all killed.”
“I'm with Patrick.” Willis chimed in, and a majority of the group nodded in agreement.
Tobit was on the verge of losing his temper, but he took a few deep breaths to calm himself. “This isn't something that we can just put into action. It's peoples lives we're talking about. If there really are liabilities among us, then I've yet to see them.”
“You're too soft, Tobit.” Willis said in an almost joking tone.
Tobit turned on him, gripping him by the collar of his shirt and said, “At least I'm considering the well being of those under my watch. All you're talking about is getting rid of people. Whatever happened to safety in numbers?” He paused to see if Willis had a response. When met by silence, Tobit released the older man and looked back at Patrick. “Even if we did cut our losses, as you put it, who gets to decide who stays and who goes? Huh?”
“You're our leader.” Tracy said. “You should be the one to decide.”
Tobit gripped his hair with his hands, ready to explode with anger at the arrogance of these people. “Have you all lost your humanity in the last few hours? You're talking about sending one of our own out to die just so there's a little more food for you?”
No one spoke, indicating that his statement summed up exactly what they thought of the situation. They didn't care that they would basically be exiling and murdering a member of the group. They were just trying to save their own skins.
Willis faced Tobit and said, “If you can't make a decision, then let's put it to a vote. All in favor of thinning out the group?” Tobit was astonished when every one of them lifted their hands except for Josie and himself.
“That answers two questions at once, then.” Patrick stated before turning to look at Josie. The girl's expression changed from disgust and anger to fear for her life in less than a second.
“You can't be serious!” She cried. “I've done nothing but contribute to this group since the day I got here!”
“It's nothing personal, Josie.” Willis said. “It's just the sacrifice we have to make.” A few of them men started toward the frightened girl, grabbing her by the arms.
Tobit stalked forward with intent to protect Josie. “Sacrifice, my a-”
“Get back, Tobit!” Willis growled, throwing an arm out to stop him. “There's no need for you to get involved in this.
“This is insanity!” Tobit roared, struggling against the older man. He was about to break through when a sharp pain exploded across the back of his head. He tried to cling to consciousness, but a darkness swept into the corners of his vision and gravity took hold of his body. He collapsed with a thud, barely able to look up and see the thick branch in Patrick's hands, a trace of Tobit's blood on the end of it, before the darkness crashed over him and pulled him into a dreamless slumber.
^ ^ ^
A horrid throbbing in Tobit's head was the first thing he recalled upon waking. The second thing was Josie Leverett. He sprang up from the ground so quickly that he almost lost consciousness again, but he was able to find his balance and his wits within seconds.
“You shouldn't move, Tobit,” came Tracy's soft voice. “You took quite a fall.”
“It was more like a club to the head, if I remember correctly.”
Patrick stepped into the wounded man's line of vision and said, “I didn't want to hurt you, you know.”
“Where's Josie?” Tobit questioned, refusing to waste any time.
“Don't worry about her.” Patrick began. “She packed up her things and left the camp last night.”
“You mean, you forced her to leave!” Tobit fumed.
“It was for the good of the group. Listen, I'm sure she'll be just fine. We just need to focus on getting our leader back to his healthy self.”
“Forget about it.” Tobit growled as he reached for his pack. “I'm resigning.” He started to stuff some of his belongings inside, trying to come up with a plan of action.
“You can't!” Tracy cried, desperation in her voice.
“It's already done.” Tobit replied in an icy tone. “I refuse to spend one more minute of my time with a group who's been reduced to a system of sequestering their liabilities.” He paused as he stood upright and adjusted the straps of his bag. “Tell me where Josie went.”
“I don't know.” Tracy stammered
“Where is she?” He demanded.
Patrick sighed as Tracy broke down into tears. Stepping in front of her he said, “Well, if we can't change your mind, then I have no choice but to appoint myself as the leader of the remainder of our group.”
“If you want to lead these people to their deaths, be my guest.” Tobit said, a deep frown on his features. “Just tell me where you sent Josie so I can make sure she has a fighting chance.”
Patrick crossed his arms and smirked at Tobit's stubborn nature before nodding toward the trees. “She started off west. Probably because there's a better chance of coming across other settlements in that direction.”
Tobit didn't say a word. He stalked off toward the trees without a glance behind.
“See you around, Tobit?” Patrick called after him.
Tobit could hear the smile in the man's voice. It was a smile of arrogance, victory, and new found authority. He wondered if Patrick and the others had been planning this whole ordeal for a while, but by this point he didn't even care. The only thing on his agenda was finding Josie and ensuring her survival. If she died her blood would be on his hands, and he refused to let that happen.
“Don't count on it.” Tobit whispered in response to Patrick's question. Then, he stole away into the forest of eyes, embracing solitude, welcoming oblivion.