The Deadly Nightshade

The Deadly Nightshade by Justine Ashford Page A

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Authors: Justine Ashford
grimaces. “Oh, God, do I really have to?”
    “Yes, Connor, that’s kind of necessary.”
    His expression changes to one of absolute pain. “But it has fur and paws and whiskers. I can’t kill that —look how cute it is.”
    “Yeah, it is cute, and it’s also delicious and I intend to eat it.”
    “Come on, didn’t you ever have a pet rabbit or hamster or something?”
    I sigh in exasperation, then grab the thrashing squirrel and remove the noose from its torso, holding it tightly so it can’t wriggle free. “Yeah, I had a gerbil when I was seven, but that doesn’t mean I would rather go hungry than eat one of his cousins.” With one quick flick of the wrist I snap the animal’s neck. Its body goes limp in my hands. Connor shudders, but says nothing.
    “Honestly, Connor,” I scold, tying the dead squirrel to my belt for later, “you act like you’ve never killed anything in your life.”
    He looks at me gravely, and I realize from his measured stare that the killing of that squirrel has affected him; it’s funny—he watched me dispatch five men and that was just peachy, but the second I break one squirrel’s neck suddenly I’m a villain.
    “That’s because I haven’t.”
    The words sound so innocent as they flow from his mouth. He is so pure, so uncontaminated, so untouched by this world that grabs at everyone it meets with its grimy black hands until they cannot scrub the dirt from their face or the blood from their skin. I have been corrupted, there is no doubt about that; I was nothing more than a guiltless seedling when the War commenced, but I have germinated under the present conditions and blossomed into something deadly. But Connor—Connor is an entirely different animal. To have lived all this time and never killed a soul—it’s remarkable. But he cannot survive this way; if he wants to go on living he will have to kill eventually, and it looks like I will have to be the one to corrupt him.
    “Go check the other snares,” I order. “If there’s nothing there then take them apart and move on to the next. If you’ve caught something and it’s not dead already, it’s your job to kill it. Otherwise you don’t eat.”
    Somewhat reluctantly, he leaves to do what I have asked of him. While he is gone, I try to determine which way would be best to go from here, ultimately deciding we should keep heading west—even deeper into the woods—in order to further reduce our likelihood of running into other people. As I pace back and forth in my state of contemplation while I wait for Connor to return, the shrill cry of a bird’s warning call sounds somewhere in the distance, interrupting my thoughts. The sound of dozens of flapping wings follows, and I look above my head to find a flock of blackbirds scattering from the treetops in fear of some peril. While normally this would put me on my guard, now that I have Connor with me I know it was probably his loud, careless steps that frightened them away. I can’t help but sigh. If he doesn’t work on treading lighter, he’s going to cost us a lot of meals.
    When Connor returns, he carries three dead animals by the nooses that caught them. With a look of satisfaction, he displays what his snares captured: a hare and two more squirrels—enough to feed us today and probably well into tomorrow.
    “Impressive,” I praise him as I tie the animals to my belt. “It’s rare for every snare to catch something. Usually you’re lucky if even one works.”
    “Well two of them were empty, so I took them apart like you told me to.”
    “What are you talking about? We only set up three.”
    “What are you talking about? There were five.”
    Suddenly I remember the birds. “Connor, show me all of the strings you took from the nooses and leader lines.”
    He pulls the strings out of his jacket pocket and displays them to me. Though they are similar in appearance, four of them are noticeably thicker than the others. I look around frantically, trying to

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