We’ve walked for nearly an hour when Mischa calls “Stop.” We do. The grass out here is thicker, scratchier, and we’re glad not to need to keep fighting through it. It’s hard to pick our feet up with all the kit we’re carrying, and while the oversuits offer some protection they’re the ones we brought with us, years old now. My legs sting where the fabric has worn through.
Mischa turns to face us. It’s her first time leading, and her eyes flit nervously. Next to me I hear Lee mutter: “Never thought I’d be led by a lifer.” I don’t rise to it, but it annoys me all the same. Mischa’s young, but not so young to have been born out here. And what would it matter if she was?
“Alright trappers.” Her voice is loud but thin; brittle, like bird bones. “You all know why we’re here. The traps in this area are our last line of defence against what’s out there.” She turns to indicate the trees behind her. Even in the daylight they look imposing, dark ranks harbouring nightmares. “We need all these traps to be replaced and brought back to camp for checking. If even one is left and doesn’t work, it could be you or your family who regret it.”
She looks at us, searching for questions, then claps her hands and we start to scatter.
“What if we find a sprung one?” he calls. Everyone turns. I want to punch him; he’s showing her up, showing off, asserting his dominance.
Mischa reddens, and for a moment I think she’s lost it. But then she recovers: “Anyone who finds a sprung trap, call for me. Don’t, under any circumstances, investigate it yourself – we don’t want a repeat of Tammy.” This draws a laugh from most of us and Tammy raises his arm in mock modesty; enough time has passed now that it’s a slapstick incident, and his finger’s almost fully healed. Even Lee gives an appreciative snort.
We work quickly, as always. They’ve rarely been seen before dusk, but still we all regularly glance up at the forest and check that our pistols are secure in their holsters, close at hand.
We stop. It was Rachael who shouted, one of the old hands. It’s rumoured that she lost her husband to them early on, before we left the old cities. When we thought they could be tamed.
“Keep working,” calls Mischa. It could be nothing, an unfortunate fox or some over-curious dormouse. It wasn’t unheard of. But we know Rachael, and we know the note of fear in her voice. I’m carefully closing and removing a trap, using the key to shut its heavy steel jaws so it can be safely lifted free, when out of the corner of my eye I see Mischa gingerly carrying something in her thick gloves.
So they were here last night.
I start to work even faster. I want to get back, back to the underground network of tunnels and caves that honeycomb the earth, the new way of living we’ve turned to. I’m focused only on my work; I can no longer see the others around me, just metal and earth and earth and metal.
Mischa is called to inspect several other traps, but none of them turn out to be of any concern, and I only have three left to lay when we hear the distant gunshot. Where there had been a cacophony of rustling and clanking there is silence as it echoes. We wait, then after several silent seconds we hurry back to our tasks, desperate now to finish.
Our arms ache as we haul the old traps home to be cleaned and checked, but no-one complains or asks for the truck. We can’t have fuel wasted on us. We reach the camp exhausted and Fran comes out to meet me, throwing her arms around my tired body.
“Was it alright?”
“Yeah. We heard a shot.”
She looks worried, but then we hear the sound of raised, jovial voices from another group, the loud relief of men who have learnt their fears were misplaced. “Don’t worry everyone, Imran just went off a bit quick.”
“Not for the first time!” Lee shouts, and there’s a roar of laughter, then we pile underground to where brimming glasses of beer are waiting for us.
The evening passes in a friendly glow, and I collapse into bed some time after midnight. But the drinking is still going on and sound travels easily here. I find myself remembering rather than sleeping.
It was a night like this, warm and sticky. I was back from my first trapping, and several celebratory drinks to the good when I realised with a stab of panic that I’d left my key out in the grass. My lungs felt suddenly full of thick, heavy air, and I left the party claiming sickness, which attracted a predictable good-natured barrage. I lay for hours in my bed, staring straight up at the ceiling, waiting for the noise to die down.
Once I was certain everyone was asleep I snuck out. I would never do it now – far better to face the short-lived anger, and the shame of friends willingly putting their lives in danger on an unplanned foray, than risk being caught in my own trap with no-one within screaming distance. But I was young and scared, and that’s a combination that to this day I think should excuse most things.
The moonlight was thin, but I didn’t dare turn on my torch until I was twenty minutes from the camp. As I moved further towards the boundary the nauseating feeling grew; I was lost, and the key would be out there all night. I had little concern for my own safety – it was images of the destroyed, smouldering camp, not of steel teeth closing around my leg, that flashed through my mind.
But then I saw the patch of flattened grass in the wild swing of my torch beam. We had been here, and I followed the evidence out until I could see the trees in the distance. I scoured the ground with my eyes and my hands, praying for the feel or glint of something small and metallic. I still remember the jolt that shot through my body as my fingers brushed something cold; I snapped them back, but it wasn’t a trap. I snatched the key as if it might escape, and as I did so the torch illuminated something giant just a few feet from me. It was tall – taller than a man on its two feet, thick-legged, and its entire body was covered in coarse brown hair that seemed to have more in common with pine needles than any fur I had ever known. I stared, mouth agape as it turned its huge head towards me, and for a moment our eyes met.
When I think of it now, years later, I imagine those eyes as pure black, gleaming in the light of my torch. But such was my terror that I can’t be sure of that – only that I turned and wildly ran, gripping my key and the torch all the way back to safety. I never told anyone of my late-night expedition, nor of what I had seen. But I knew it had been on its way to us, and I know that for as long as we are here they will be waiting, on the edges of our new lives, until it is dark and until we make a mistake.