The whole damnable journey was one tangled mess of exhaustion, misguided gut feelings and complete and utter frustration. Two months on and Jane could barely remember what had passed out there in the woods. She only recalled that she started out with every intention of tracking down her family and with a companion by her side. She had returned with neither her family nor her companion.
During erratic sleep however, the details of the excursion would come rushing back like a torrent of flood water, held back by her consciousness.
The day that they left had been a fine one. The woods were almost tempting, promising an adventure. The first few days passed by slowly without much instance or progress. But then on the fourth day, Jane grew tense and uneasy. It started out as an annoying niggle in the back of her mind, a numb kind of suspicion. Then it grew to a fairly frustrating buzz like a chorus of insects had set up shop in her head. It grew until she could ignore it no longer.
“Leave us alone!” she bellowed, whirling around on the spot, swinging her arms wildly, as though trying to swat away the imaginary insects. “Stop following us!”
“Jane, be quiet!” Sophia whispered urgently. It had been decided when they set out on the journey that they would remain silent unless absolutely necessary. All the better to pass by unnoticed. It had been almost a day since they’d uttered a word at all to each other.
“Someone is following us and I can’t stand it anymore!” Jane cried, scanning the dark trees where she stood for signs of her stalker. Sophia stared back at her as if she’d lost what was left of her mind.
“Maybe we should take a break,” Sophia hissed and lowered her heavy backpack, wincing as she did so. She then promptly lay down on the mossy ground, curling herself up tight. She was trying to find some solace in the closeness of her own skin.
Jane carelessly threw her bag on the ground and herself down next to it. She was dog tired. Her boots had rubbed her feet and now they were covered in uncomfortable, little pearlescent pods of blisters. And now after days of walking the fruits of their labour had yielded absolutely nothing, unless you counted an abandoned pair of shoes that neither of them recognised. Which she didn't. Wherever you choose to look in any corner of the earth there is always a pair of abandoned shoes. They meant nothing.
Sophia was dead on her feet, even if she had been given months of preparation for this journey Sophia would still have not been strong enough, let alone packing up and going within the same day. They had covered a slow thirty miles and that simply wasn't far enough. At this rate The Crookeds could have covered hundreds of miles, they would be long gone. Long gone to a place that was probably impossible to find.
Rejecting thoughts of defeat, Jane pulled some squashed bread from her bag and stuffed a dry hunk in her mouth, before crawling over to Sophia and force feeding some of it to her as well. She was being as strong as possible but only because Jane was making her. She bullied her with things that Tim had said about her. It made her keep walking even though Jane was beginning to understand what Sophia had meant. She wasn't sure she wanted to see what they found when they eventually found it.
“Are you alright?” Jane asked.
“No,” she said, not feeling the need to sugar the pill.
“No,” Jane agreed solemnly.
They caught eyes for a moment and looked away. The women silently loathed each other. Jane despised Sophia for making such slow progress and for being such a miserable partner. Sophia hated Jane for dragging her along on this journey and she hated her because she was of no resemblance to her brother.
“We need to keep moving,” Jane said after a few minutes. Sophia nodded glumly. They walked. They did not speak.
Night fell and Jane shook out their blankets and they lay together under the stars, things sticking into their backs and night noises reverberating all around. Sophia took Jane's hand. Undoubtedly she was pretending it was Tim’s. Jane didn’t really mind.
Jane's dreams were wracked with fire and screaming and some small children and a hollow tree and two monsters laughing in the black night. She woke in a sweat, despite the fact that it was cold out there beneath the trees. Sophia lay next to her, soft and peaceful in sleep. She comforted herself with the thought that even Sophia who had been through the worst of this war, had managed to find some peace in the mayhem and drifted off once more.
“Please let me stop,” Sophia cried, falling down to the mossy ground.
“We have to keep going,” Jane said stoically, neglecting to stop and help Sophia to her feet. She had grown impatient of her. She was a nuisance. Eight days, they had been walking for eight days.
“I need to go home. Please let me go home,” Sophia wept as they lay in the freezing rain beneath a thin canopy of trees. The woolen blankets had absorbed all of the water and they were bathing in an inch of mud.
“Tim is waiting for you. What will he think if you don't come looking for him?” Jane shivered.
“Stop it. Please, I can't bear it,” she cried. “They will be dead by now! We will find nothing. There is no point!”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive you for saying that,” Jane whispered.
The rain persisted for hours. It had been eleven days since they left home.
“Do you recognise this?” Sophia asked Jane, holding up a bracelet. Jane's heart slammed. It collided with everything left inside of her.
“It's my mum’s,” Jane said, taking it from Sophia and turning it over and over in her hand. The beads were dark, indigo colored. They felt cold. When she wore it her body heat transferred into the beads and they turned a different, lighter colour with her warmth. She hadn't been wearing it for a while.
“It's good! It means they came this way!” Sophia reassured her. “She might have left it as a sign. Don't lose heart.” She beamed at her. She was a sorry sight, her cheekbones were clearly visible again and she walked with a stoop and a limp. Her skin was dark with dirt and her light hair was clumped together. But in that smile Jane saw the beauty that still lived in Sophia. And hope too. There was still hope. Sixteen days on.
“And then he climbed into the tree house and he kissed me,” Jane whispered.
“No!” Sophia giggled. The night was unseasonably warm and Jane had created a tent with their blankets and a few large sticks. It felt like a sanctuary. Jane had also found a large bush loaded heavily with ripe berries. They had eaten and eaten. And for the first time in days they felt full.
“He loves me,” Jane sighed.
“Yes, and you love him,” Sophia replied. They had passed the night with Sophia asking for stories of young Tim and Jane had told her of Isaac and the love she felt for him. Sophia took her other hand and kissed her forehead and chuckled, “Tim told me about you two. He said, ‘If she doesn’t notice him soon I think he’ll combust.’ We'll find them, Jane, if it’s the last thing we do. I promise.”
Sophia was now Jane's sister, best friend, hope, encouragement, confident and family. She would not have lasted twenty days of walking without her.
“Do you suppose it’s empty?” Jane asked. They had spotted an old farm building. All around was quiet and as they approached they could see that everything had been cleared out and the building was sitting sad and lonely.
“I think it’s been abandoned,” Sophia sighed happily. They had spent far too many nights on the cold ground now. Twenty four in all.
“I don't think we should leave yet,” Jane groaned as she curled down into her blankets in that abandoned barn.
“Jane, we've got to. They're waiting for us. Who knows what has happened to them by now?” Sophia said, striding restlessly around the room. The truth was that Jane hadn't moved in days. She'd hit the ground and they had both slept for two days straight. But when Sophia had started to look for food and had come back fairly empty handed, Jane had fallen into a stupor.
“I'm comfortable,” Jane moaned.
“Get up,” Sophia pulled at Jane's arms but she had cried and out resisted. The shout had echoed around the barn eerily.
“I can't do it anymore! I can't face it!” she cried. She started to cry. Great rasping bellows. Sophia hadn't seen this before. She stared at her, shell shocked and unsure of how to help her distraught companion. After twenty eight days, it was suddenly her turn to be strong.
“We aren't lost because we didn't know where we were headed to in the first place!” Jane shouted.
“So we really have no idea where we are?” Sophia whimpered.
“Not a clue. I couldn't even tell you if we were even on the same planet anymore. We might have walked right out onto the other side,” Jane huffed, folding up onto the ground. The weather was scorching and they were burnt and bitten and dehydrated. And miserable, don't forget miserable.
A while later they happened across a crystal clear branch of a river. Jane laughed and without hesitation, she ripped off her filthy rags and jumped in. The water gushed about her peacefully and she sighed as she recognised it as hers.
“Yes, definitely our river,” Jane laughed, the sound was strange and distant to her. Sophia joined her in the water, wincing as it flowed over her naked form. She was decrepit and as close to a skeleton as a person can actually look.
Jane looked over at her companion and bitterly resented her presence. She filled Lilia's place and nobody could do that because Lilia knew all of her faults and all of her secrets and Sophia didn't know them yet. Then she took her hand because she felt guilty about thinking bad things about the girl she had been walking with for thirty one days.
Sophia's face was crumpled with loss and ache and the simple wish that she had Tim's hand in hers instead of his sisters. But Jane understood because she wished someone else's hand was in hers too. They caught each other’s eye and smiled because at least now they were clean.
She lay on her back and looked at the sun dappled leaves above her and thought about the endlessness of sky and the endlessness of this road they walked together.
“Sophia! Sophia! Sophia! Where are you?” Jane cried as she thrashed through the undergrowth. It was dark and this exercise was pointless. If Sophia had been taken then she was gone for good. But still, she could have wandered off to go for a wee or she could have been sleep walking or something else like that. But deep down Jane knew this was not true. Sophia never went anywhere that Jane was not.
She ran and ran and ran and found neither hide nor hair of her. It was the middle of the night when Jane had woken and found nothing next to her. The space where Sophia had been lying between the soggy blankets was still warm.
She suddenly burst into a clearing where the full moon was beaming down upon her, as bright as daylight. She span around and around, like a dog running aimlessly for its tail. They had been followed after all, just like she knew they had. They had allowed Jane enough time to fall in love with Sophia and then had snatched her away too, just when she was as far from home as she could ever imagine herself to be, they had taken everything she had left.
“Take me!” she shrieked out into the night. “Take me! I'm here! Take me! I’m the one you want after all! I’m the valuable one! I won't fight back! Don't leave me on my own anymore.”
But they continued to leave her behind. This is a cruel and clever trick, she thought.
The next morning she awoke, totally numb and not able to feel the cold or the ache of lying on the broken ground. She did not turn back for the bags that she and Sophia had carried with them for forty days, she left them to rot. They were mostly held together by mould now anyway. Without any idea where she was or any idea of how to get back to the path they were following she started to walk. She walked, for perhaps ten minutes until the woods spat her back out at the track, directly opposite her house.
When Sophia and Jane had thought they had been moving steadily away from their home, inching themselves closer and closer to their family and coming ever closer to saving the day, they had actually been coming back full circle. The clearing she had ended up in was the same clearing she always ended up in. It was as though she were drawn towards it, like her polar opposite. Those woods were referred to as Dark for a reason.
Oh, how Jane laughed when she saw her old house that she found she couldn’t refer to as home anymore. Now, it was prison.