Gwen had woken only hours later to the sound of movement in the room. At first, she thought it had just been Riley, and had rolled onto her side to go back to sleep, except when she had turned, her eyes caught Ryan’s.
She quickly jumped off the bed with no thought for the ladder. Her feet hit the ground with a hard thump that could be heard through the whole house, but she didn’t pause to think about the others who were sleeping. She heard the others in the room stirring at the sound, but she paid them no mind, quickly making her way across to Ryan.
“Hey.” She said softly, hearing Riley sit up in bed behind her, but like the others, she ignored him. At the moment, the only person who needed her attention was Ryan.
“Hey.” Ryan said, and his voice was cracked and broken and weak, but he’s speaking, he’s alive, and that’s good enough for her. He held her arms out to her, wrapping them tightly around her body. She had to bend down, and it was awkward and uncomfortable, but she didn’t care about that.
“I was so scared.” She whispered, pressing her face into his shoulder. “I thought you were going to die.”
“I’m sorry.” He says into her hair, and she shakes her head. Those words remind her too much of his breakdown before, and it hurts, it hurts so bad to remember it.
“Don’t be. Just don’t ever do that again.”
“Okay.” He whispers to her, presses his lips to her forehead. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
“I’m glad you’re okay.” She says in turn. “We were so close to losing you.”
“How am I still alive?”
And Gwen hesitates. She doesn’t want to tell him that she went against him, went to the one place he told her not to. She doesn’t want to let him down again.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.” Ryan said, pushing her away to look in her eyes. “Tell me.” His eyes flick over to Riley. “I want to know. I need to know.”
Riley cuts her off. “I made some arrangements for Gwen to get access to Lab Four. She found several vials of the cure, and we gave one to you. That was last night.”
“Gwen, I told you not to go in there.” Ryan says, and he sounded frustrated, like an older sibling being forced to baby sit their annoying little sister. “You could’ve been hurt, or worse, caught.”
“I did it for you.” She said quietly. “I couldn’t just watch you die.”
“You shouldn’t have.” Ryan said, and she finds that burning anger that had just been simmering for the last few days flaring back up, and her words seemed to burn her throat like a concrete on a hot summer’s day burned bare feet.
“Was it selfish of me?” She asked, her voice dangerously loud now. “Because that’s too bad. How is it different from you not killing me when I asked you to?”
“Don’t.” She snapped, turning on her heel and striding out of the room. She wasn’t sure why she was so angry these days – she had never found herself more than mildly annoyed before the City, and had never had taken her anger out on someone else. She shakes her head to get rid of the thought of ‘it’s the disease’, and walks into the lounge room.
She’s met with the sight of the four guards, strewn about on the floor. They were talking quietly among themselves, laughter and light-hearted teasing are the first things that hits her ears. She stood awkwardly in the doorway for some minutes, shifting her weight from foot to foot until Isiah noticed her.
“Morning, Gwen.” He said, sounding far too cheerful for the hour of morning. The others had echoed his greeting, and annoyingly, they were just as cheerful as he was. “Come sit with us.” He shoved Kel’s legs off the lounge to make room for her, ignoring his friend’s frustrated sigh.
“You’re extremely rude. Can’t even let a man be comfortable.” Kel said, rubbing at his eyes and sighing dramatically, though the others ignored his antics.
“How was your night?” Isabelle asked, working at a knot in her hair with her fingers. Her makeup was smudged from sleep, leaving dark black smears under her eyes that made her look as though she wasn’t human. Despite that though, she looked absolutely stunning soon.
“It was alright when we finally got Isiah to shut up and Kel to stop complaining.” Ariana said, laughing at the affronted expression on both of the boys’ faces. “You know it’s true.”
“It is.” Isabelle said, smirking at them. “Kel’s like a fussy baby. If you wake him up, you won’t hear the end of it, he’ll just cry for the rest of the night.”
Gwen felt her chest constrict, reminded of Chris and James and how they hated to be woken up. She missed them, and wondered who would be waking the pair of them up now that she was gone.
“Well, this ‘baby’,” the quotation marks were audible in his voice, “is going for a smoke.” Kel said, standing and stretching. He rifled through the bag before finding his cigarettes and lighter and with his prizes he dramatically strode out of the room, looking far too much like a diva.
“It’ll kill you one day!” Ariana called out to him, and chuckled at the scoff she got in return.
“Bite me, Ari.”
She rolled her eyes. “He’s bitchy in the morning until he gets a smoke. It’s like some people with coffee, but more unhealthy and gross.”
“Maybe you should buy him those nicotine patches.” Gwen suggested, and was confused when the trio laughed at her, and found herself worrying that she had said something stupid.
“Trust me, we’ve tried. Patches, gum, mints, everything. They don’t work. He kept the patches on for a few days, and took the gum and mints but he got back into smoking only a few days later. I think he thinks it makes him look cool.”
“I can hear you.” Kel called from outside, sending the group in laughter once more, and she found herself smiling along with them. She liked these people; they reminded her that she was still in a world that existed outside of death and disease. She felt relaxed around them, even though she hardly knew any of them.
But despite the good things that had happened in the last few hours, Gwen couldn’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop.
“So, tell us about yourself.” Isabelle said to Gwen when Kel had re-joined the group. Riley and Ryan still hadn’t made an appearance, and Gwen didn’t expect to see them anytime soon. By now, her anger had burned off, but she still felt all of her frustration lurking at the back of her mind, ready to be thrown at Ryan.
“Um.” Gwen said, and then shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you want to know?”
“How old are you? Any family? Boyfriend or girlfriend? What did you want to be when you finished school? Stuff like that.”
“Well. I’m seventeen years old.” She paused, unsure how to answer the next question. “I had an older brother and two parents, but they got sick, and had to be left behind.” She struggled to keep the sadness out her voice, and continued on to the next question, thinking for a second. “It’s complicated.” She said eventually, and the other four shared looks and raised eyebrow, but she didn’t elaborate on her answer anymore. “And, I wanted to go into fashion design before all of this.” She shrugged again. “What else?”
Ariana hummed. “What’s your biggest secret?”
And Gwen had a lot, ones that weren’t anything special but she hadn’t told anyone about, but she settled with saying. “I don’t really have one.”
“Sure you do.” Kel said, “It doesn’t have to be like ‘I killed my best friend with a crayon when I was four years old.’ It can be something stupid, but it has to be real.”
“Did you really kill your best friend when you were four?” Gwen asked, laughing at Kel’s exasperated sigh.
“I was four, and I didn’t use a crayon.” He said dramatically. “I didn’t know that running with scissors was a bad thing, honestly. I sure as hell learnt the hard way that it is indeed a very bad thing to do.”
“Wait.” Gwen said. “I thought you were just joking. Did you actually kill your best friend when you were four?”
They laughed. “No.” Kel reassured her. “My best friend at four years old was my dog, and I didn’t kill him. I wasn’t some child serial killer.” He rolled his eyes.
“Uh, okay. Well, my biggest secret would have to be that I stole some girl’s pen in year eight but when she asked me if I had seen it, I told her that I hadn’t, and that she must’ve lost it.”
The group laughed at her. “You little thief. I know who I’ll be searching if anything of mine goes missing.” Ariana said.
“I was like, thirteen.” She argued. “And it was a really cool pen. It was one of those big ones with all the different colours in it.”
“Oh, them!” Isiah said. “I always used to pull them apart and then I wouldn’t be able to get it back together perfectly.”
“And he wanted to be an engineer when he was younger.” Kel said, rolling his eyes. “Yet he couldn’t even reconstruct a pen.”
“I never said I’d be a good engineer.”
“Gwen.” Riley called, stepping into the lounge room and putting an end to a fight before it could start. “Ryan wants to talk to you.”
Gwen sighed, and shook her head. She knew she should go in and talk to him, maybe apologise for blowing up at him earlier, but she didn’t want to. She was happy enough to sit here and talk with these guys, and didn’t want her good mood to be diminished as quickly as it had come.
Kel bumped shoulders with her. “Go. Talk to him.”
She glanced at him in annoyance, but nodded. It would be better to talk to him now rather than let the issue sit like water in a sink and let it get dirtier and dirtier as the days went by, even if she didn’t particularly want to talk to him at the moment.
She stood, and carefully stepped over the three sitting in a half-circle on the floor and made her way into the room, standing quietly in the centre of the room and stared at Ryan, who stared right back at her.
“Hey,” He said quietly, “I’m sorry I got angry at you.”
Gwen felt of her anger start to melt away, and she offered him a smile. It wouldn’t do to try to keep melted ice-cream from falling off the stick, in the end; it was always a sticky mess that ended up with disappointment. “It’s okay. We’re all a little stressed out at the moment. I’m sorry for snapping at you.”
Ryan returned the smile. “It’s okay. Like you said, we’re all a little stressed at the moment.”
And she thinks that maybe things might be okay, that the other shoe wouldn’t drop.
But it did.
She hears it dangling threatening over the floor when Ryan wakes up the whole cabin, screaming from nightmares, waking up in a panic, sobbing and wheezing and trembling, flinching away from their touches and their reassurances. After the third time in a row it happens, she anxiously asks Riley why it was happening and wishes that she hadn’t.
“Side effect of the cure.” He tells her, and she’s furious, furious at herself and at Ryan for getting sick, furious at the ‘cure’, and furious at the stupid world that constantly seemed to replace the moon and stars with clouds that blocked out the shine.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the side-effects?” She asks, her voice not quite a hiss but it’s close enough, like the sound a cat makes when it’s warning it’s human that it’s getting very upset.
“Would you have listened?”
She shuts up.
The others are getting nervous. “If Ryan is well enough, then we need to move. It’s only a matter of time before they check here.” Ariana says.
“He’s strong enough now.” Riley confirms. “We’ll leave this evening. See if you can find any camping gear around the cabin.”
“Where will we go?” Gwen asks.
“Riley mentioned that you wanted to go find your camp, to the east, so we’ll head that way. Once we get you to your camp, we’ll separate from you two and head south.” Kel tells her.
“Is it really necessary to split up?”
“Yeah.” That’s all he’ll say on the matter, no matter how much she prods. Later, she thinks that they might not want to risk their lives for two stupid kids for any longer than they have to.
The first night away from the cabin is long. Ryan might be strong enough to travel, but the nightmares leave him shaky, and he isolates himself from them and never wants to talk about what he saw. He doesn’t ever seem to want to sleep either, always stays up with whoever’s on watch.
It’s not healthy. He’ll run himself into the ground into six foot deep hole, but no amount of coaxing and bribing will convince him to sleep. He just offers a tight smile, and shakes his head, telling them that he’ll be fine in a little while. He hasn’t just missed the point; he’s completely disregarding it.
“What’re the nightmares about?” She asks one night, when she’s on watch and sitting with him. He’s leaning to the side, leaning against her and completely ignores her requests for him to sleep.
There’s a pause. “I see myself. I’m a monster.”
“In the dream?”
He hesitates, and Gwen thinks he might be lying when he says ‘yes’.
The words, “Where’s Ryan?” was enough to cause a panic in their camp. They looked around the camp, and his stuff is there, next to Gwen’s like it always is, but Ryan himself isn’t to be seen. They stare at it for a long while, as if they were expecting him to jump out of the bag and scream “Surprise!”
After a few long moments, they decided that they had to search for him before he wondered off into a lake or something else equally life-threatening in a feverish haze, splitting into two groups of two while Riley and Kel stayed behind just in case Ryan did stumble back into camp.
“You need to know that Ryan isn’t the same anymore, Gwen.” Isiah tells her in a hushed tone, as though it’s a secret, even though they all know it. Ryan isn’t the person he used to be, he isn’t who he was when he came into the city.
“It’s funny how such a short time can change a person.” Except it’s not funny. It’s not some joke that they can laugh about. It’s heart-breaking and Gwen feels herself crack and shatter every single time she notices a change in her best friend (or her lover, she isn’t really sure what they are anymore, but she knows she loves him in some way).
They find Ryan almost a kilometre from the camp, eyes glazed and looking right through them. He’s delirious, doesn’t want to be anywhere near them. He backs away from them, flinching away when they come too close. He reminds her of an injured animal, retreating from battle to lick at his wounds.
“What’s wrong with him?” Gwen whispers.
“He’s damaged.” Isiah whispers back and the truth makes her so angry sometimes, because it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
They end up cornering him, and it feels cruel when Gwen forces him to back away into Isiah, who wraps his arms around the younger man. He struggles and fights, makes noises like a sick dog. She fights back tears, watches as Ryan’s struggles weaken and he slumps in Isiah’s arms.
“Let’s get him back to camp.” Isiah says quietly, swinging Ryan into his arms and the scene should be comical, but there’s nothing funny about this situation because the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting smaller and smaller every day.
Just because Ryan was supposably cured from the disease didn’t mean that he wasn’t fixed. He was broken, like a dinner plate that had been dropped and had been shattered into a million, tiny little pieces that cut at them every time they tried to pick them up to put him back together with cheap tape, all the while running from somewhere they had thought of a sanctuary. It had been foolish of her to think that curing him would make him the person he had been before.
“Will he be okay?” Gwen asked, her voice quiet and sad.
When Isiah doesn’t answer her, she feels like she might be the one who’s been broken.
Isabelle and Ariana get back to camp before they do and they look relieved when they see them returning with Ryan. Riley, however, looks concerned.
“Lay him on the ground.” He tells Isiah, and then kneels down next to the man. He checks his pulse and frowns down at the man, obviously searching his body for answers that may never get answered.
“What is it?” Gwen asks, even though she doesn’t want to know. She doesn’t want hear the news, because the other shoe had dropped now. She had heard it hit the ground with a thud that was much too soft for the amount of weight it carried, and she was certain that everything would go downhill from here.
“His pulse is racing.” Riley says quietly, and he glances towards her. “I don’t know if it’s a side-effect of the cure or left over from the disease.”
“If it’s from the cure, does that mean it’s making him worse?” Gwen asks, and Riley nods, looking slightly defeated. He looks like what Gwen imagines doctors look like when they have to tell the patients family bad news.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. The cure should be making him better, not making him worse. It shouldn’t be like this. She should be at school, studying and going out with her friends and enjoying life, and spending Sunday nights at home to eat dinner as a family, and Ryan should be with Zeke and living his life the way he wanted to like the rebel he said he was. She wonders if the world had never changed if Ryan would’ve gone through with his idea of becoming an architect, or if he would’ve found something else that interested him.
“It doesn’t mean it is the cure that’s causing this.” Riley says, but he sounded doubtful. Kel touches her shoulder, and she knows it for what it is. Comfort.
He thinks that Ryan’s getting sicker instead of better, and she hates it, she hates it, she hates it so much, because if it’s the cure that’s making him sick, then it’s her fault. Her fault. Her fault. Her fault.
She feels sick.
Ryan doesn’t improve, but he doesn’t get worse. Gwen isn’t sure whether to consider it an achievement or not.
“Gwen.” Kel says, sitting down next to her. She doesn’t look at him, instead looks at the fire. It was the first time they had been allowed a fire, Isabelle declaring that they were safe enough for the night, and they needed the comfort, except they all know the comfort isn’t for them as much as it is for Ryan. “We need to talk.”
“About what?” She asks, tries to keep her tone light-hearted, but it comes out bitter and biting. She knows what he wants to talk about, and she doesn’t want to. She know what he’s going to say, and she doesn’t want his meaningless apologies and ’it’ll be okay’s.
“Ryan isn’t getting better.” Kel says, and she twists, looking at him.
“And what do you think we should do?” Gwen snaps. “It’s not like we can just make him better with a wave of a magic wand.”
Kel looks at her, and for the first time, she sees the grief in his eyes, and she realises that just because she’s losing someone doesn’t mean that the others didn’t understand her grief, and she suddenly is overly aware of how selfish she was to think that so many people were free of grief.
“You need to make a choice.” Kel says, his voice kind and almost free of sympathy and sadness. “Either let one of us put him down as gently as we can, pain free, or we can wait and see what happens if we force him to keep running.” And Gwen knows what Ryan would want, and what Kel wants and what the rest of the group wants. They think they’re doing the good thing if they put him down.
And it is the good thing, but Gwen couldn’t live with that choice. She couldn’t spend the rest of her life wondering if Ryan would have made it if they hadn’t put him down. It’s selfish and she knows it, but she shakes her head.
“We’ll keep him alive. If he makes it, he’ll make it. If he doesn’t, then he doesn’t.”
Kel nods, and for half a moment, she expects him to lecture her on why she’s doing the wrong thing, but all he does is hold out his hand. There’s a vial of the cure, and after a moment of hesitation, she grabs it. She doesn’t take it yet.
It sounds stupid, but she doesn’t want to take it until she knows that Ryan will be okay.
“I’m a monster.” Ryan whispers to himself now, like a mantra. His eyes are almost always glazed after they found him, and he’s more distant. He looks half-crazed, running his hands through his hair every moment, tugging at it like he’s trying to ground himself by ripping it out. She watches him, watches as he rubs at his eyes furiously and claws at the skin on his arm like it doesn’t belong on his bones. He doesn’t eat anymore.
If the cure doesn’t kill him, then the starvation will.
“Ryan.” She says softly, sitting down next to him. There’s no fire tonight, and it feels cold, but Gwen knows that’s not entirely because of the weather.
Ryan swallows when she touches him, pulls away and shakes his head. “No.” He tells her, “No.”
“No, what?” She asks gently like he’s a five year old who’s stressed out over the smallest things that don’t really matter in the real world.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” He whispers, and he sounds so young. He doesn’t sound like the man who proclaimed himself a champion bear fighter or the person who had such hope when they had been running to the city. He sounds broken. Broken.
“You won’t hurt me.” Gwen tells him, and she sounds sure of herself. “I know you won’t.”
But Ryan seems terrified, doesn’t want to be around her. He pushes himself to his feet and moves away from her, curling himself into the cradle of tree roots.
His sobs aren’t loud, but Gwen can hear them, and she doesn’t want to. Ryan was supposed to be strong, and she doesn’t want to see him this way. She wants to see him looking strong and self-assured and confident.
“I’m a monster.” He says to himself all night, and if the mantra progressively gets louder through the night and keeps them awake, no one says anything.
“Ryan-” Gwen tries, reaching for his arm, but he cries out, and she yanks her hand back.
“Don’t touch me. I don’t want to hurt you.” I don’t want to hurt you.
He’s said those words so often these days. ‘I don’t want to hurt you’. But those words hurt more than Ryan could ever hurt her.
He’s bordering on hysterical when he breaks away from camp, running. The rest of the camp hardly shares a glance before they’re running after him, but he’s gotten the head-start and had weaved wildly around trees. Soon enough, they lose sight of him.
“Everyone meet up here in an hour.” Ariana says, digs her knife into the tree and carves a marker. They agree and split in their separate ways, but Gwen knows that she won’t return in the hour if she doesn’t find him.
She’ll look for him; she’ll keep on looking until she finds him.
She finds him, fifteen minutes before they have to meet up. He’s sitting on the grass, his hands curled in the grass with such force that she’s surprised that it hasn’t ripped out of the ground yet, like if he lets go, he’ll fly away. His eyes are tired and bloodshot when he looks up at her, and they’re not the colour of rain-clouds anymore. They’re the colour of the moon, and looked crazed, like they belonged to a man who lived in a mental asylum.
“Ryan.” She says softly, but he lunges at her, tackles her to the ground, and he has a knife in his hand and his fingernails are caked in blood.
And she recognises that knife as the one Ariana had been using.