A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 5: Emerson

On Monday, I sit down to write my letter to Adelyn on three separate occasions. I actually start the letter on five separate occasions and have to scratch it out and retry. I don’t have enough paper to waste this much, and I need to write the letter by tomorrow, but no words seem to come together in my head. Nothing coherent, anyways.

I want to talk to her in person, in her world, surrounded by chaos and people. I want her to take me to all the best restaurants and show me what the heck cobblestone streets look like. My imaginative mind takes me in a million different directions. She’s only told me so much; I’m left with creativity to fill in the gaps.

She says that the streets are too crowded for cars to drive on. Does that mean they have flying cars? She says the people wear outrageous clothes. Do they wear sequins and beads? Animal furs and wide arrays of fabric? Is everybody’s hair dyed as crazy as Aspen’s?

And it makes me think about the short story attached to her letter about the lake that takes you to the place you long for the most. I know a lake not far from here, and though I’ve never swam in it, the thought haws me tempted. It’s a beautiful story in that it’s centered on hope. You can swim in a lake and emerge somewhere completely different, somewhere you’ve always wanted to be.

I jump up from the floor of my bedroom and walk down to the living room. There, the rest of my group congregates. They’re all writing letters to their pen-pals as well. Cade is bent over in concentration, raising his hand to rub his bunny tattoo when he’s at a loss for words. Kenzi sits on the couch beside him, gray hair hiding her face.

Porter and Zofia sit on the floor, scribbling furiously across empty paper with pens running dangerously low on ink. We’ll need to find some new pens soon or face catastrophe. I personally have my pen hidden under the mattress in my room. Should one of my group members try and take it, I’ll fight with teeth and nails.

None of them so much as glance up at my arrival. Kenzi sends me a noncommittal, “Hey, Em” and Cade grunts, but it is an alarmingly underwhelming welcome.

It makes me feel better about what I’m about to do. “I’m going out.” I tell them. Finally, this earns some level of attention. Cade, Kenzi, and Porter snap their heads up to look. Zofia rolls her eyes and continues writing.

“Where are you going?” Kenzi asks. “Do you need someone to go with you? It isn’t safe to go out alone—”

“I’ll be fine.” I wave her off with a hand. “I’m not going to town. Just in the woods.”

“Which is secluded.” Cade talks slowly, as if talking me off a cliff. “And if you ran into anybody—”

“Who am I going to run into?” I counter, hand on my hip. “Mother nature? Everybody else is dead or hanging out in some abandoned house.”

Zofia snorts, earning a hard look from Porter. I love my mismatched family, but for once, I’m dying for alone time. Cade’s own word bounces around in my head: seclusion. It sounds heavenly right now.

I head for the front door across the room, swinging it open and walking into the hot summer air. Behind me, I yell out a goodbye, but the closing door cuts off my farewell. Then I’m alone. For once, it doesn’t feel eerie and empty. It feels peaceful, refreshing.

The lake is as I remember it. Porter and I found it on a hike one day, a pleasant surprise as we huffed and puffed to the top of an enormous hill. We didn’t swim, instead electing to drink from the crystal-clear waters. It was a risk, but we haven’t died yet, and I’m thirsty enough now to bend down, cup some liquid in my hands, and gulp.

The water is cool and invigorating. The lake ripples where my hands disturbed the surface. All around me, trees line the water. Every leaf is a healthy summer green; every tree is thriving. The forest was thick and unforgiving getting here. I have cuts from many thorn bushes to prove it, but now that I’m here, I realize it was well worth it.

I’m struck with the desire to sleep here tonight beneath the stars and sky. Unfortunately, my group would freak out if I did that. I’ll have to go home, but next time I’ll warn them of an overnight trip and actually do it. For today, I’ll have to be content with taking a quick swim and going home. Besides, I still have to write my letter to Adelyn before tomorrow.

I’m left with a choice: swim fully clothed and walk home through the woods soaking wet or strip off my clothes and face paranoia of someone watching me. I meet in the middle, flinging away my t-shirt to join the dirt and taking off my pants. I’m left exposed in the wilderness, only a ratty old sports bra and underwear on.

The cold water is a shock to my body, so I take it one step at a time. We bathe in a river closer to home, so I shouldn’t feel this humiliated to be almost-naked in the woods, but at least there in the river I’m with Zofia. Should anyone discover us, at least our humiliation would be shared. She can cover my back, and I can cover hers.

Now I’m alone, just what I wanted and just what I wasn’t prepared for. Logically, I know I’m the only person for miles. Also logically, that statistic is kind of terrifying. I’m alone. In the wilderness.

I’m up to my knees in water now. My waist. My shoulders.

Slowly, my body is getting used to it. This isn’t the in-and-out, wash-your-body and evacuate drills I do biweekly in the river. This is soaking in the lake and being completely immersed in the water. Gradually, carefully, I dip my head under.

There’s no substance on the planet that works as fast as water. Before, I was a nervous girl with dry hair and a sense of unease. When I emerge from under the surface, I come up sopping wet and confident. I even laugh out loud, feeling silly for my earlier anxieties. Even though almost everyone on the planet is gone, I find I’m still somehow dependent on the survivors.

We never go anywhere alone. I always have Porter or Zofia with me. Honestly, it’s shocking Cade and Kenzi let me leave the house alone to come here. It was probably because I had stunned them and didn’t leave them time to protest.

But I’m alone, and I’m thriving. I’m feeling the water surround my body and I’m floating on top of it and I’m…free. For a while, I just swim around to the different corners of the lake and back. It’s exhausting but fantastic. I swim underwater, pushing the limits of my lungs and then pushing just a little bit farther.

By the time I’m ready to get out of the water, the sun is sinking below the trees. I need to get back home before it gets too dark to see, so I swim towards the shore and walk out from the shallows.

My clothes are no longer lying on the dirt where I threw them. I search the surrounding area, desperately moving aside underbrush and tree branches in the forest for any sign of them. I can’t go back home wearing nothing but underwear and my bra, but it seems to be my only option.

Cold fear wraps around my heart. Where did they go? I know for a fact that I threw them on the small dirt beach by the lake’s edge. So if they’re gone, that means that somebody had to have taken them. I’m not alone in these woods, as I had thought.

My arms wrap around my upper chest, even though technically nothing scandalous is showing. I’m freezing and dripping water as I run through the forest towards home. Stray tree branches and thorn bushes reach out and rip my skin, but I keep running. I should never have gone out alone. I should’ve asked Zofia to come. I should’ve—

The house isn’t where it should be when I finally reach the clearing I’m looking for. There’s a house, but it’s not mine. This one is colossal and made of siding, the entire thing painted an alarming shade of purple. It’s light and beachy, but it does not belong in my woods.

A clothesline thankfully has outfits of varying sizes hanging from it. From my position at the edge of the woods, I search for anyone else around. Stealing isn’t something I fancy, but it appears to be my only option here.

To get to the clothesline, I’ll have to run across an open field of grass with no cover whatsoever. The house is dark, but so is every house these days. It means nothing. Somebody could be right inside, watching for me.

Still, I’m desperate. In my head, I count to three and bolt. The wind whips at my exposed skin. My arms pump and my legs push me faster. I grab the first size-appropriate things I can find: a polka dot shirt and shiny, metallic leggings. With the clothes in hand, I run back to the forest.

These clothes feel new. The fabric is strong and none of the edges are frayed. And the leggings…I’ve never seen this material before in my life. They’re stretchy and silver and absolutely hideous, but I tug them on and pull the shirt over my head.

My heart is pounding, but it isn’t from the exertion of running. It’s from fear. I’m lost. This is not my house. The sun is going down and I’m absolutely terrified. Where the heck am I?

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