Holly Went for a Walk

(Note: This is a late entry for an amateur novelette contest. I’ll link the other entrants and results once they’re up.)

Hector buzzed Holly again, getting so close that she reflexively swatted at his floating basketball body. “What do you want?” she asked, removing her earbuds.

“You should not be here,” said the small robot. “Please go back home, Holly.”

“Why?” she asked. “It’s just a forest.”

“It’s dangerous,” said Hector, followed by a low, electronic moan. “There are wild animals here, and no safety robots.”

Holly pressed through a low-hanging branch that had grown through the old footpath. She felt the rough bark as it snapped back. Her hand came away with a handful of smooth, green leaves. There were small holes chewed into them, and the edges were going brown. Evidence of insects, of nature. Real nature. Tiny autonomous landscaping drones guarded the trees in her local park day and night, swarming any intruding pests when they weren’t chewing on the grass to keep it even. No leaf ever hit the ground.

Cresting a small ridge in the path, Holly squinted and raised a hand against a shaft of sunlight piercing the canopy. It was morning, and her entire body ached with the hike. A yawn overtook her, stiffening her back as she stretched out. Once clear of the glare, the oncoming terrain revealed itself. The path kept winding downward, toward a wide gully that cut across the forest at an angle. She consulted the map she’d drawn and traced a thin, blue line with her finger. It looked like she was going the right way. A few motions on her PDA and she could have found accurate maps of the forest, and a GPS locator to guide her in real time, but all that would be monitored, so she had left it behind, resting on a bench with a note for her mother. By now, someone would have reported it. She didn’t miss the thing, except for the journal. After years of entries that read “Nothing happened today,” there was finally something to write about.

“Where are you going?” asked Hector. Holly didn’t answer.

After folding it carefully, Holly put the map back in her pocket, then pulled an energy bar from her backpack. It wasn’t a particularly cold day, but lack of sleep had drained her, and she was glad that she’d thought to wear her heavier autumn jacket. She pulled the hood over her head and replaced her earbuds as she ate and walked.

There was a smell of clean water near the creek in the gully, and she breathed deep. Cold stone and moss over pine needles. With her hands shoved into her jacket’s pockets, Holly crossed the water, hopping from rock to rock. Once, she nearly slipped, but Hector was at her back, pushing to steady her. She scowled and shouldered him away. There were small fish darting between the rocks, dull, then shimmering silver tracers when the sun caught their scales.

On the other shore, while looking for the continuing path, she stepped onto a low bush and heard a loud, high-pitched wailing over her music. It sounded almost like a child in pain. She recoiled from the bush, stumbling and falling to the ground as her earbuds came out and the music stopped. The scream cut off, and a moment later a small, brown rabbit darted out from under the bush. Its black eyes fixed on her for a single, knowing moment, and then it turned and disappeared into the trees.

Slowly, Holly climbed to her feet. Her heart was racing, and she was gasping for air. She could feel the tears waiting to get out, and she forced them back.

“Are you hurt?” asked Hector as he moved around her.

“No,” said Holly, brushing dirt and fallen leaves from her clothes.

“You seem unwell,” he said. “You should go back home.”

“I must have stepped on it,” she said. “I’m fine. Just a rabbit.” She started walking again.

“Ma’am,” said the boxy robot, its service hatches resolutely shut. “Your order exceeds your allotted calorie limit. Please change it.”

Holly’s mother glared at the robot, her knuckles turning white with the grip she had on the edge of the plastic table. “I’ve added to my exercise regimen,” she said, the words tight and strained.

“Helen,” said Holly’s father. “The kids are hungry. Can you just leave it?”

“No,” she said.

The argument went on for few minutes, ending only when the service robot informed Holly’s mother that it had full access to their home’s monitoring devices, and could play back the feed of her sleeping in during her alleged early-morning yoga sessions. After that, the robot gave them their food, still warm from its internal trays, and Holly’s father set about the task of worming his way into his wife’s sullen silence.

Holly had spent the morning following her mother from shop to shop, trying on new clothes for the upcoming school year. She was ten years old now, and double digits meant double the responsibility, or so she’d been told, and now she had a budget to manage. This was gal time as well, a chance for her and her mother to hang out while her older brother, Nate, and her father were off having their own guy time. Yet, the entire morning had been a series of brittle silences, her mother unable to stop pacing and barely responding to Holly’s choices or questions. Even before they’d met back up in he cavernous, noisy food court for lunch, Holly had made her mind up. If nobody wanted to talk to her, then she might as well be alone.

Nate, sitting across from her, nudged Holly with a foot and cocked his head, prompting her to lean down and look underneath the table. He opened a bag wide enough to show her a copy of a new video game, and the big, red “Restricted” label on it. “How?” she mouthed at him. He might be a few years her senior, but he still wasn’t old enough to legally buy such a game. Nate grinned, shrugged in the direction of their father. That wasn’t fair.

“Nate has a game he’s not allowed to have,” Holly told her mother, who held her head up in one hand while she frowned at the leafy salad the robot had left her.

With a heavy sigh, her mother lifted her head enough to look from Holly to Nate, then back. Her eyes narrowed. Before she could speak, their father interrupted. “I bought it for him, Holly,” he said.

“I’ll let you play it, too,” said Nate. “Just don’t tell.”

“I asked for that game,” said Holly, her voice beginning to rise. “You said I wasn’t old enough. Why does he get it?”

“Holly,” her mother said, the tone making the words a warning. “Eat.”

Lunch proceeded under a clinging shroud of tension, under which none of them dared speak, least of all Holly, who kept her eyes on her food while she thought of all the places she’d rather be. Afterwards, they split up again. While her mother tried on a new skirt in an over-lit changing room, Holly walked away from browsing shirts and left the store.

She wanted to find Nate at first, but soon gave up on that and wandered toward the video game store. The patrolling safety robots might have found a lone girl walking the mall anomalous, so Holly did the best she could to tag along with other families when one was in sight, as long as they were going in her direction. She got some funny looks, but nobody tried to stop her. It wasn’t illegal, and there was no danger for her or anyone else, so why bother?

The bored-looking young woman raised an eyebrow as Holly approached the counter, her copy of the restricted game held up like a trophy. “Who’s that for?” asked the cashier.

“Me,” said Holly. “I have the money.” She put her debit card next to the game. She knew she had enough left from the clothes budget to afford it.

“I bet,” said the woman. She leaned across the counter and spoke softly to Holly. “Look around, kid,” she said. “If it were up to me, I’d let you have it. But I’m the last human working in this store, the last non-robot on this entire floor. I sell you an illegal game and it’s all over for me.” She glanced over her shoulder, toward one of the cameras. “Sorry,” she said, snatching the game away from Holly.

Holly had finished crying when they found her. The cashier called in the name on the debit card after Holly ran away, and safety robots tracked her down in a department store, where she hid in a rack of soft, blue sweatshirts. Her father pulled her out, then bought her ice cream. He didn’t ask her why she was so upset.

A landscape of feathered greens and smudged browns lay before her like a painting, and it beguiled Holly even as she huddled under a towering pine tree, shelter from the cold rain, and hugged her legs close to preserve what warmth she could. She’d turned her music off and listened only to the rhythmic impact of the heavy raindrops all around. Uncontrolled, unshaped, conforming to no meter or timescale, no convention or purpose, but still beautiful, in its own way. Her breath was coming out in puffs of white steam, and she remembered the time she was entering middle school and her mother had taken those two weeks off from work.

Every day she had an elaborate breakfast ready for them when they got up. Crepes, waffles, real bacon and eggs, something different each morning. Nate and her father raved about it, but Holly wasn’t a morning person at the best of times, and wasn’t in the mood for waking up an hour early, not while she was still mad at her mother. It was an argument about her vintage James Dean poster, the one of him sitting casually on his motorcycle, a cigarette dangling suggestively from his lips. Holly had rescued it form an estate sale. Smoking was illegal–she had never even seen a real cigarette outside old media–and the only motorcycles still around were in museums. Holly hid it under her mattress when her mother invaded, shouting at her and wanting to tear the poster to pieces. They stopped talking after that.

At the end of that first week, with Holly only rolling out of bed in time to get dressed for school and grab a handful of something cold from her plate while running out the door, her mother had entered the room and sat next to her on the bed. It was Sunday morning, and Holly had been awake for hours.

“Will you come and eat with us?” asked her mother.

Without moving, Holly grunted.

“You really should, Holly.” She felt a warm hand caressing her back. “You can’t stay alone in here forever.”

She lay still and silent until her mother left the room.

Would things be different now if she’d hadn’t been so petty? If she had the discipline to wake up early and eat breakfast with her family? She did manage it, eventually. She ate a cheesy omelette while her father talked to Nate about sports, and her mother took tiny bites that she chewed too much. It was warmer in the house than out here, but those mornings had the same feeling of greyscale life as the forest had when the first staccato raindrops sent her to the tree. On Hector’s nagging insistence, his warnings about how a creek could expand and flood in a storm, she’d pushed for higher ground, and was feeling the effort of trudging through the new mud. So she retreated to the densest-looking branches she saw once she reached the top of the nearest hill. A driving wind forced her around the thick trunk to keep the rain out of her face, and after clearing away as many of the needles and pine cones as she could, she’d managed a nap.

“The rain has stopped,” said Hector, his voice modulated to nearly a whisper. Holly opened her eyes and found the forest reborn, the vital greens renewed by the water and the noonday sun. After loosening stiff legs, she climbed to her feet and walked awkwardly down toward the gully, only to change her mind and keep to the high road. She wanted to see this, nature in the raw.

“Is it beautiful?” asked Hector at a normal volume. He’d taken to hovering at her shoulder, and only speaking when she wasn’t listening to music. Somewhere, someone might be trying to track him, but Holly had dug out his GPS transponder before setting off. It was that or leave him behind, so he had helped her do it.

“Yes,” she said, voice creaky from sleep. She took out one of her water bottles and drank most of it.

“You should go home now,” he said.

“I’m not going home,” Holly told him, again.

“Why?”

Holly glared back at him for a second before deliberately putting her earbuds in. Hector bobbed up and down slightly, but said nothing. Trying to figure her out? He had detailed files on human psychology, as he’d told her more than once. Everything he did, he did for a reason, and Holly didn’t know what he was thinking, what those reasons really were. Or if he thought at all. But as long as he didn’t get in her way, she could ignore him.

As evening came, Holly noticed a long strand of black smoke unfurling into the darkening sky. She looked at her map, which wasn’t made with any sort of scale in mind, and she didn’t know what landmarks to look for other than the creek. That had to be her destination, though. A rush of energy quickened her pace.

A sharp, metallic crack shattered the idyllic forest scene. Loud enough to shut Holly’s music off as an emergency response, the sound brought instant flashbacks to old media, the movies and video games from before she was born. The tiny pops and bangs of simulated gunshots, not the same as the deafening report echoing back from the hills, but similar enough that her mind made the connection. She froze in place, and heard a softer clack, the sound of the gun cocking, becoming ready to fire again.

Holly had rehearsed dozens of first impressions, each more awkward than the last, but none of them had been as bad as this one.

With her heart beating out the heavy pulse of fight-or-flight doom against her rib cage, Holly gulped at the cool night air and raised her hands above her head. Other sounds were starting to make an impact as she turned, slowly, to face the direction of the gunshot. She could hear Hector, voice modulated to a shout.

“Lay down your weapon.” Hector was hovering his body between Holly and the barrel of the gun. He began to list off the names and numbers of the laws the gunman was violating, his pitch rising steadily as each of the legal threats had no effect.

“Don’t shoot,” Holly yelled. It was fully dark now, but a light shone at her from where the gunman stood, turning him into a large, indistinct shape against the bleeding shadows of nearby trees. The gun’s mouth was visible, faint smoke catching the light like hot breath. Her knees felt weak. She had to keep consciously fighting her legs and their impulse to run, to seek the safety of nearby tree trunks.

“Holly?” asked the shape holding the gun. It was a familiar voice, belonging to a somewhat familiar man. He immediately pointed the weapon away from her, toward the ground. “Jeez, kid. Sorry about that. Thought you might have been the cat.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m not a cat.”

“Can you tell your ‘bot to shut up?” asked Richard.

“Hector, I’m safe,” Holly said to the robot as she lowered her arms. “You can calm down.”

Hector spun around a few times, then floated toward Holly, still keeping between her and the gunman. “This man is dangerous,” he said. “He has a firearm. It is illegal and suspicious. You cannot trust him.”

“This man is my uncle Richard,” said Holly. “He’s family.”

“Suppose so,” said Richard as he approached. He looked Holly up and down, pointed the light at Hector, then kept walking past her, taking long strides that forced Holly to jog after him.

Now that the immediate danger had passed, Holly felt a deeper unease, aided by the forest’s uncivilized nighttime silence, settle in her gut. She wanted to say something, but all the words she’d rehearsed were for when she’d found him, not the other way around. Was he angry with her? She needed to explain herself.

“I–”

“Your mom still fighting the food ‘bots?” Richard asked, interrupting Holly.

“Yeah,” she said. He seemed calm enough, which relaxed her some. “Can you, uh, slow down a bit?”

He did. “You’ve got her short legs,” he chuckled. Maybe he could feel her scowl because he threw her an apologetic look. “Bad joke, I know.” A few more seconds of quiet walking. “You know, I haven’t had a chat with another real person since the last time I was in town. At the thing.”

“Yeah,” said Holly. That was the last time she, or anyone else, had seen him, and when he’d told her all about his plans to live free in the woods.

“How’d you find me?” he asked.

“Satellite images,” said Holly, surprising herself with how contrite the words sounded, as if she were complicit in the surveillance state. “The trees you cut down.”

“Figures,” said Richard as he looked to the sky, to the hanging crescent moon and the endless twinkling stars.

Hector looked like he wanted to say something, his body bouncing with agitation. He turned toward Holly, his face-plate scrolling the words “THIS MAN IS ILLEGAL AND DANGEROUS.” Holly pushed him away, and he floated out ahead of them.

“When’d you get that thing?” Richard asked.

“Dad got him for me the day after you left,” said Holly as Hector buzzed them again. “Didn’t want me to be alone.”

“Wanted to spy on you, more like,” said Richard. “I left all that behind for a reason, Holly. You should get rid of it.”

“He means well,” she said.

“It’s not a ‘he,'” Richard said, the hostility in his voice surprising to her.

“I took out the GPS tracker,” she said, knowing it was a meaningless gesture after bringing up the satellites.

They were coming up to a clearing, the same one Holly had seen from the photographs. A small log cabin sat in the middle of it, surrounded by stumps. Richard pushed the door open, and Holly followed him inside. Hector tried to come after her, but she put a hand up. “You’ll have to stay out here for now.”

“We should leave in the morning,” said Hector. “You shouldn’t stay here, Holly.”

“Noted.” She shut the door in his face.

Richard was her mother’s younger brother, and he didn’t belong in society. That’s what they told Holly whenever his name came up. It wasn’t malicious, it was simply a fact, in her mother’s eyes. And the eyes of the law, and of most regular people. And, it turned out, in Richard’s eyes as well. After holding down a part-time job for years, and spending his free time out of town, Richard finally cut ties and left for good three years ago, emptying his accounts, buying as much food and gear as he could carry, and disappearing into the woods.

Holly knew her mother watched him through the satellites. She wanted Holly to forget about him because he was a bad influence, but she couldn’t do it herself. It’s not so easy to do that with family.

Holly’s interactions with Richard were fairly limited. Aside from a few visits when she was still learning to walk, he was absent from her memory until around the time she’d hit puberty. That summer, he stayed with them for a few months while searching for a new job, and looked after her and Nate while their parents were at work.

“He’s not a bad man,” Holly’s mother had explained at dinner the day before Richard arrived. “Rough around the edges, sure, but not bad.”

“He’s dangerous enough to get himself marked,” said her father. “They wouldn’t be watching him if he weren’t a problem.”

“He has never hurt anyone but himself.”

Sitting on the single hard cot, Holly remembered her mother’s words from a different perspective. Back then, Richard was an interesting recluse, and their time together was one of imagination and adventure. He was fun and friendly, if a little strange. What had she really expected to find out here, anyway? Passing images of a wooden cottage, straight out of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Lived in and cozy. But that wasn’t reality. Now she was in a smelly log cabin that wasn’t any bigger than her room back home, and Richard was no longer merely a gentle giant. He was a man who hadn’t shaved for three years, and who, somehow, owned a shotgun.

Besides the cot and a row of worn, sagging bookshelves, the only furniture in the room were a short table that was really only a wobbly section of tree trunk, and the camo-green metal folding chair that Richard sat in while he worked a fire in a small wood stove. Something that might be a skinned rabbit carcass hung from a hook in the corner, but Holly couldn’t look at it straight on to make sure.

“So,” said Richard. “What brings you out to my neck of the woods?”

Holly saw Hector floating outside, watching through a crack in the door frame. “You’re not sending me home?”

Richard laughed. “It’s not as if I can call Helen and tell her to come get you.”

“So I can stay here?” she asked.

He looked sideways at her, then around the small space. “I’m not going to put you out in the cold, Holly, but, as you can see, there’s no space for you here.”

“I can help you build an extension,” she said.

“It’s a thought,” he said. “Don’t look at me like that, Holly. I’m not one to judge. You can stay here while you work this out. But what would your mother think of me if she found out?”

“I doubt she thinks about it at all,” said Holly.

“That’s why you got rid of your GPS trackers, right?” he asked.

This wasn’t going how she wanted it to. Holly snapped her mouth shut, cutting off her response, and let herself drop from a boil to a steady simmer.

“I just needed to get away from it,” she said. “I thought you’d understand.”

“I do,” he said.

They ate a watery stew out of tin cups. It tasted funny to Holly, but not in a bad way, and she was hungry enough that even if it was a rabbit, she didn’t care. After the meal, the space felt warmer, and she relaxed.

“They found me stuck in a tree,” she said as Richard added more wood to the stove. “The safety bots gathered around underneath me, spouting all their nonsense about getting enough vitamin D and working hard to achieve personal goals. I just wanted to be alone. Actually alone. But it’s impossible. And I thought maybe I’d just stay up there forever, until I starved or something, but Hector insisted on getting help.”

“Maybe he’s not all bad, then,” said Richard.

“That’s the thing, though,” said Holly. “They mean well. As far as that goes. Hector only wants to help me. So does Mom.” She shook her head. “And I sit there thinking it must be my fault because I don’t feel any better.”

Holly remembered the drive home after getting down from the tree, the nervous woman who owned the car, socially obligated to escort a lone minor home, even one who had ruined an afternoon picnicking with friends. She remembered her own apologies, and how the woman kept attempting awkward small talk. She remembered standing on the street outside her house, looking up at clouds in the dark sky, feeling trapped by their unconscious weight.

“I looked at my street,” said Holly, saying the words she’d rehearsed in her head so many times. “The same street I’d seen every day of my life. It was empty. There’s no curfew, but also no reason for anyone to go out at night. I thought of that old media, those movies and shows, the books. How different life was in those. When was the last time anyone heard a dog barking? Or a raccoon going through the trash? A fox? Even another person out for a run after dark?

“I looked left, saw the endless row of identical, prefab houses. Green lawns, all freshly mowed, recycling bins waiting on the curb.” She didn’t have to close her eyes to see the image, the glow of video screens from every one of the matching bay windows. Like a promotional drawing. “I looked right and saw the exact same thing. And there’s no sound, like I said, no smells. And I’m standing there in my dirty clothes, and I realized that everything is in place there, it all has a purpose, a reason. Everything except for me.”

She looked at Richard, finding his eyes. He looked back at her, face still, and waited for her to finish. “I see the lights go off, Mom and Dad headed for bed. I know there are dozens of messages that I haven’t looked at, but the safety robots would have told them that they’d found me, that I was on my way home. It’s a given. Where else can you go? But I can’t go back in there. Back to my room. So I just kept walking.”

“And now you’re here,” said Richard.

“Yes,” she said.

He nodded. “Get some sleep,” he said. “We’ll figure this out in the morning.”

She wanted to protest, but couldn’t deny how heavy her eyes felt. Richard left the cabin, saying he needed more wood. Holly saw Hector again, waiting outside the door, but she was already drifting off.

A half-remembered dream, the details repeated, etched over and over in her mind until they overlapped with themselves, taking on strange proportions. She stood outside the church, the faceless crowd parting from her, or pressing into her. Talking, endless waves of gentle words meant to wash over her, to comfort her, but that only battered at her mental shores.

And in the middle of it all, her mother, shouting. Shouting at Richard.

“I need this part of my life to be over,” he shouted back at her.

“I am this part of your life. We are this part of your life, Richard. I put my family on the line for you. But it’s never enough. Not for you.”

Sometimes Richard had his back to her, sometimes he stared her down, standing taller than she was, even from her place at the top of the church’s wide steps. The positions changed, but not the words.

“I have nothing left to give,” he said. “Nothing else to take, to bargain for. I don’t belong here.”

“If you leave now, that’s it. We’re done.”

“That’s not what I want.” Regret, sometimes soft, but this time booming, a declaration. “But if that’s how it has to be.”

Usually, he left after that. But not always. Sometimes he stood alone, like she was, while everyone else filtered into nothingness, and they watched each other from those private islands until the sun came up.

“So, this is what you do for fun?” Holly asked as she sat down on one of the piles of rough wood outside the cabin.

Richard split one more small log with his axe before letting the blade catch in the wide stump he’d been using as a cutting surface. “It has a certain charm I can’t deny,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead with a dirty sleeve. “You should give it a shot yourself.”

It was only the insistent beat of the axe and the shattering wood that roused Holly from her sleep, and after quickly eating one of her last energy bars, she came out to see what the noise was about. It was mid-morning now, the sun had climbed out of the bristling treetops spread before them to the horizon, bringing its token heat to the clearing.

“Where’s Hector?” she asked, squinting at the sky. She saw birds, floating specks between the clouds, but no sign of the robot.

“Beats me.” Richard took a long drink from a plastic canteen, which he tossed to her when he finished. “Maybe it went to recharge its batteries or something.”

Holly caught it but didn’t drink. “He’s solar powered,” she said.

“So it’s sunning itself on a rock with the snakes,” he said. “What difference does it make to you?”

“I don’t know.” Holly stood. “But I should find him.”

“Wait,” said Richard. He pulled on a stained jacket and grabbed his shotgun from where it leaned against the mound of logs waiting their turn on the chopping block. “Something’s been at my traps, stealing my catches. Probably only a fox, but I’ve seen a mountain lion hanging out in the area lately. Best not to wander off alone.”

Holly let Richard lead the way into the forest after he grumbled something about thinking he saw the robot headed north. After walking for a few wordless minutes down a rutted game trail, Holly asked, “Why did you really leave?”

Her uncle’s pace slowed fractionally. “Your parents must have told you,” he said. Neutral, a bit wary.

“Say they didn’t,” she said. Because it doesn’t really matter what they tell me, she thought.

“I hope you didn’t come all this way just to ask that,” said Richard.

Evasion. Even out here, where she went to get away from that. “I hope I didn’t come all this way just to hear more lies,” she said, sounding more frustrated than she meant to.

He laughed, a single exclamation of amused surprise that took her off guard. “Yeah, I guess that’s fair.”

They were heading downhill, weaving between thicker copses and underneath low-hanging branches. Back toward the creek, Holly thought.

“You’re probably wondering about the cabin, the tools, my well, where it all came from,” he said. “More than one man could carry on his back, right?”

Unsure about this tangent, Holly only shrugged when he looked back at her.

“Truth is,” he said. “I’d been working on this place for going on two years when I left. See, this was always the plan for me. But Helen–your mother–she couldn’t accept that for what it was. She fought me every step of the way.”

“So?” Holly asked, still not seeing the point.

“I quit my job the day after I was sure I had potable water and the stove wasn’t about to blow up in my face. Called my boss a fat sack of shit on the way out, too.” Richard bent a branch in the path, pushing it forward and out, far enough for it to crack, scattering a tree’s worth of birds that left behind angry caws. “I burnt all my bridges.”

“But that still doesn’t answer my question,” said Holly. “Why?”

“You ever have kids in your classes that you just couldn’t get along with, no matter how hard you tried?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess so.”

“Imagine I’m one of those kids,” he said. “But it’s not just you who can’t figure me out, it’s the whole damn world.”

Holly considered that, rolled it over in her head, tried to fit it into the puzzle. But the missing pieces remained. “So you had to get away from other people? Because they didn’t like you.”

“Oh, they liked me fine,” Richard said. “They liked me more than I liked myself. That was the problem. Because they liked me despite who I was, not because of it. They liked me because they liked everyone. Because everyone likes everyone, no matter what. A world without crime, without war, without hate of any sort. It’s a paradise, a utopia, thanks to the laws and the machines. Did you know that I have the distinction of being the only man in a thousand kilometres with an assault charge? I’m almost famous. Your mother had to jump through a lot of hoops to get me that last job. I don’t blame her for being so pissed about that.”

“You could have asked for help,” said Holly. “There are doctors, there are treatments.”

“It’s not as simple as all that,” he said, and stopped, putting a hand up, signalling for her to be still.

“What is it?” she whispered, sensing his unease.

Richard had his shotgun shouldered, had the barrel moving in a slow arc from right to left. Holly squinted past him, and thought she could see something, a ripple running through the bushes at the side of the path, faint, like the shimmering of a shadow on water. Then, without a sound, a huge yellow cat–as long as Richard was tall–stepped onto the path directly ahead. She took a half-step back, heart pounding, feeling a primal fear of the lean bundle of teeth and claws and hard, fast-twitching muscle. She heard the low rumble of a growl, saw the hard gleam in its sharp, marble-grey eyes.

The shotgun roared, sending a blast of pellets into a tree high above the cat. It flinched, then turned and ran, disappearing into the forest.

Lowering the gun, Richard asked, “Wonder what’s up with him today? I know he follows me sometimes when I’m setting my traps, but he’s never shown himself so deliberately before.” He turned back to her. “You okay, Holly?”

“Will it come back?” she whispered.

“I doubt it,” he said. “He’s grumpy as hell, but he’s never been one for direct confrontation. Maybe he’s tracking a raccoon or something and didn’t notice how close we were.”

“Are you sure?” Holly tingled with the adrenaline but forced the muscles in her legs to relax, to stop seizing up as they pressed her onto balls of her feet, ready to run.

“Sure enough,” said Richard. He continued along the path as he pulled another shell from a belt pouch and loaded it into the gun.

Holly didn’t hesitate in following after him. She decided to leave the rest of the conversation for later, when there was less of a risk of something big hearing them and deciding to find out what creatures made such strange sounds, and whether they might be good to eat.

The path opened up at the creak, which she heard before they saw. And there was Hector, floating at chest height while his display showed an orange standby light. Holly tapped him a few times, setting him to spinning, and he woke with a greeting half-way out before she could shush him with a finger at her lips.

“You’re going to tell me what you’re doing out here, but it can wait till we get back to the cabin,” she told him. “Till then, be quiet. There’s a dangerous cat on the loose, and I don’t need you getting it worked up. Got it?”

Hector bobbed up and down, his version of a nod.

Richard kept his gun in both hands for the walk back, and Holly’s eyes and ears probed every bit of foliage large enough and dense enough to hide the cat, or any other predator. It didn’t reappear. Back at the cabin, they had a lunch of reheated stew.

Sitting in the cramped cabin, her knees pulled up tight to her chest, Holly stared the small robot down. Richard and his shotgun were out rechecking his traps, leaving her alone to think about what he’d said, and what she was going to do next. The rush from encountering the big cat was fading, and in its place she felt that restless anger coming back.

For his part, Hector made the small cabin feel even smaller by darting back and forth, up and down, to examine every object in view, from the books on the shelves to bits of old gear and tools hanging from hooks or piled in corners. Finally, she’d had enough. “Staying inside is a privilege, not a right, Hector. Either you stop that, or else.”

Hector quit his snooping, moving to hover at her eye level. “I hope your encounter with the mountain cat is enough to convince you that going home as soon as possible is the right thing to do.”

“What were you doing out there?” she asked.

“Establishing a communication signal,” he said.

“And did you?” she demanded.

“Yes,” he said.

“So, they’re coming to get me? To get Richard?” Holly’s back straightened, but she felt the resignation creeping in at the edges.

“No,” said Hector. “It was enough that I could, should I have to. For the sake of safety.”

“Safety?” she yelled, a burst of white-hot rage that had Holly on her feet, looking down on the robot. “What do you know about safety?”

“It is a core tenet of my programming, of society–”

“Then tell me,” she screamed. “Then tell me, if it’s all so safe back at home, you tell me why Nate is dead. You tell me why I should ever believe anything you, or anyone else, says or does when I’m standing here while my brother, who never did a dangerous thing in his entire life, isn’t. Can you tell me why, Hector?”

“I did not meet your brother,” said the robot as it rose again to eye level. “He died before we met. But my understanding is that he was born with a very rare disorder that shortened his lifespan. You do not have such a disorder.”

“Don’t I?” Holly felt her hands balling up. “I’m the normal one, with the robot following me around everywhere I go just to make sure I don’t do something I might regret.”

“Your parents and your doctors thought–”

“I know exactly what they think,” said Holly, tight-jawed emotion clipping at the words. “But what about what I think? Move.” She pushed past Hector and opened the door. “What about my choices?”

“It is dangerous out there, Holly,” said Hector.

“Exactly,” she replied.

She stepped outside, into the warming afternoon, and ran into Richard, who stood at the door, his shotgun resting in the crook of his left arm. “Oh,” she said. Hector skimmed by them as he followed. “You heard that?”

“Yeah,” said Richard. He looked down at her with something like pity in his eyes. “But it wasn’t anything new.”

A quiet room full of soft whites and placid greens. The hospital room, where her older brother lay on a literal deathbed surrounded by stacks of his old adventure novels. Holly sat next to him, alone with what had quickly become the greatest fear of her life.

She swung the axe, throwing the heavy head into a high arc before pulling it down as hard as she could. The wood split on the second swing, giving way with a satisfying, chunky break, and as Richard set another piece on the stump, Holly imagined the eulogy, the rows of medicated faces staring back at her while she stammered and gave up. The whistle of the axe through the air, the words she wanted to say but didn’t, the disdain, the darkness that followed her through those days. Timed exhalations, each chop cutting away at something, diffusing the lingering shadow.

Holly put the axe down, letting the handle fall away from her tired arms. She barely managed to catch the canteen Richard threw to her, and, this time, she drained it without a second thought.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?” he asked.

Gasping, she sat down on another stump and nodded.

“You wanted to know why I left,” he said. “Do you remember your grandfather at all?”

“No,” said Holly.

“Didn’t think so,” said Richard. “I’m not surprised Helen didn’t talk about him much. He died while you and Nate were young. Maybe before you were born. Can’t remember anymore.” He stood and began gathering up Holly’s chopped wood. “I say he died, but the truth is he took his own life. Suicide. Pill overdose. That’s the reason for Hector there, you know. They say that runs in the family.”

“And what about you?” asked Holly.

“Suicidal?” Richard tossed wood onto one of the piles, forming a loose pyramid. “Far from it, no matter what they thought. But the thing is, my father wasn’t always like that. Or maybe he was, but he didn’t always act like that. The treatments changed him. Helen knew that, too, even if she didn’t want to say so. That’s why you get your spy ‘bot, because the alternative is even more pills. Me, though, I got all the pills I could ever want, and then some. All the smiles, too, all the encouragement.”

Finishing with the wood, Richard sat across from her. Holly was surprised to see wet, red-rimmed eyes. “The treatments, they do change you. That’s the point. And I couldn’t do that. I took the pills, I held down a job, but that person wasn’t me. I got scared, and that’s why I left. The real reason. It’s not about conformity or paranoia. It’s about losing who I was. But I couldn’t be a burden, either, not to you guys, not to Helen.”

Holly watched her uncle as he put his head in his hands and shook. She stood and crossed to him, sat on the edge of his stump and leaned into him. “We liked you,” she told him. “When you were with us. I don’t know if you were taking the pills or not then, but that person was our uncle, and we wanted him to be around.”

“When I heard about Nate . . . ” Richard choked on the words for a moment. “I didn’t know what to do.”

“Yeah,” said Holly. “I know.”

They sat together and watched the sun burn itself out against the sky, crashing toward the horizon like a slow-motion meteor. Hector rested on the cabin’s roof, scanning the forest for signs of danger.

“Are you going home?” Hector asked her on the third morning after they’d found Richard. Not an order, nor a recommendation, but a simple question. Even he seemed to recognize the change. After the taciturn years in which she’d hid herself behind a kind of stolid glibness, completely unresponsive to anyone trying to get below the surface of her obvious turmoil, she’d opened herself up to her uncle.

After lunch, Holly started what was on the way to becoming routine. She took Richard’s heavy axe to the pile of wood near the cabin and began chopping away. Her earbuds in and the music turned up, she continued to feel the steady relief of catharsis, every impact a word she’d wanted to say but couldn’t.

She imagined her mother, waiting for her when she came home from school, sitting on her bed with one of her diaries. Holly knew her mother read them, had always known. She wrote things in them that she couldn’t say out loud, secretly hoping that, even by mistake, they would slip out in an unrelated conversation. They never did. But there, between the rise and fall of the axe, she said it all. She yelled, her passion overwhelming any debate, or she spoke with a cool, assured authority, making all her points with the infinite, impossible certainty of a fantasy.

And when she rested, she found that changed, too. The more she thought about it, the less it really mattered. There wasn’t an argument she needed to win. Like Richard, what she needed was for someone else, for someone specific, to understand her. When Hector asked if she was going home, Holly realized that no longer felt like an attack. Maybe they would return, once she knew exactly what that was going to mean.

Hector blared a warning when they heard the gunshot. Holly aborted her swing and pulled her earbuds out, looking around to find the direction of the sound in the echo. “Richard,” she said. “He was checking the traps. Where is he?”

“This way,” said Hector, and took off toward the trees.

Carrying the axe in both hands, Holly followed him, ducking under or crashing through branches to keep up. Another gunshot. She pushed her legs harder, though she already felt tired from the woodcutting.

They found him on the ground, back against a bent tree, the barrel of the gun cracked open while he pried the spent shells free with unsteady fingers. Holly crouched next to him, resisting the urge to recoil from the hot smell of gunpowder. Her hand felt something warm and sticky, and she looked down to see blood flowing from a ragged, dark-red tear down his right thigh.

“Oh shit,” she said, softly, as if he wouldn’t hear her.

“The cat,” said Richard. “Came for my catch. Asshole nearly took my leg off.”

“Hector,” said Holly. “Look.”

The robot looped down on them, getting as close as it could to the wound while Richard waved the gun. “I got him,” he was saying. “I got him, too.”

“This is a serious wound,” said Hector, no hint of panic in his robotic voice. “Likely arterial. He is losing blood very fast, and will not survive without immediate first aid.”

“What do I do?” Holly pleaded. She looked around for the cat, saw a trail of bloody paw prints retreating into the trees. Hopefully, it was gone for good. “Tell me what to do.”

“Expose the wound,” said Hector.

Holly pulled out the knife on Richard’s belt and gingerly probed for the fringes of the wound. Richard bucked and kicked when she touched him, but she soon found the edge of the rip and slipped the blade underneath, sawing with one hand while she pulled at the fabric with the other. “Now what.” She had nothing to stop the bleeding with. She tried pushing at the torn flesh with her hands, but she couldn’t dam the flow. Within seconds, she was smeared up to her elbows with the bright blood, the coppery smell of it filling her nostrils. “Tell me what to do.”

“You will need to use a tourniquet,” said Hector.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Do as he says,” said Richard between rough breaths.

“Tie the arms of your jacket around his leg,” said Hector. “Further up, above the wound. Yes. Make it tight.”

“Tighter,” said Richard. He sounded weak. Holly looked up to see a white face and felt her stomach churn.

“Another knot,” said Hector. “Put the axe handle in. Make that tight as well.”

Holly did what she could, as fast as she could, but she felt the pulse, the beat of her uncle’s heart, through the flowing blood, and that it was growing fainter with every second that passed. “Is that tight enough?” she asked, but he was unconscious. “Richard,” she said. “Hector, what’s happening to him?”

“He has passed out from shock and blood loss,” said the robot. “He is still breathing. You have to hurry.”

“What now?”

“Twist the axe to tighten the tourniquet. Keep turning it until the bleeding stops.”

She pulled the axe through until the head caught against the knot, twisted it clockwise, toward herself, then pushed the handle back out a bit so she could keep turning it past Richard’s body. She didn’t stop until it wouldn’t move anymore. Holding the handle still with her left hand, she touched the wound. She repressed a gag as she felt slippery muscle fibre and something smooth and hard that must be bone, all warm and wet, but didn’t find that spurting pulse. “I think that’s it,” she said.”Is he going to be okay?”

“I believe you have saved his life,” said Hector. “For now. But he may lose the leg without professional attention.”

Holly sat back, watching her uncle’s shallow breaths. He wanted to live out here, alone, away from society, and she knew why and still felt that she agreed with his reasons. But what choice did she have here? She couldn’t let him die, and she alone couldn’t give him the help he needed, even with Hector. And what if the cat came back? She couldn’t wait for him to wake up, either, to ask him what he wanted. This was her responsibility alone.

“Go and call for help,” she told Hector. “As fast as you can, and tell them it’s an emergency. Please, Hector. We can’t let him die out here.”

“I agree,” said the robot as he turned away. “Keep him warm, and be safe while I am gone.”

“Go,” she said. “Hurry.”

It took some effort to pry the gun away from Richard’s worryingly-cold fingers. Holly moved over, getting shoulder to shoulder with her uncle while she held the weapon in her lap, hoping that he’d reloaded properly before passing out because she didn’t know how, and watched for danger from the outside world.

Hector returned a while later, lit up like a beacon, and assured her that help was incoming.

“Do you think he’ll be okay?” she asked him, momentarily forgetting that he’d already answered the question. She just really needed to hear it.

“I think that with time and effort, it’s possible he can make a full recovery and become a part of society,” said Hector.

“That’s not really what I asked,” she said.

“Nevertheless.”

“And what about me, then?” she asked.

Hector said, “You are braver than you think, Holly, and deserve happiness.”

“Dear Diary,” said Holly. “Today, something happened.”

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