She awoke for a brief moment and saw Ryan, and she just thinks that it was all just a bad dream. The sight of him was reassuring enough to send her back to sleep.
When she next woke up, Ryan wasn’t there, and she was hit with the realisation that he’s gone. He was gone, and he wasn’t coming back.
Wasn’t coming back.
Wasn’t coming back.
She slipped back into unconsciousness, and decides that she doesn’t want to see a world without Ryan.
“How’s she doing?”
“Do you think she’ll get better?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
She woke up properly, and when she opened her eyes it was night. It took her a moment for her eyes to adjust, but when they did she could see the sleeping bodies of the others and the lonely form of the person who was on watch.
She sat up and remained quiet for a long while and she decides that she needed to try to live again. If not for herself, then for them and for Ryan.
“You’re awake.” Isabelle said, her voice quiet as not to wake the others.
“Yeah.” She said, her voice cracked from disuse. “How long…” She didn’t know what she was asking; if it was how long she’d been out or how long it had been since they’d left the city, or how long it’d been since Ryan had ceased to live.
“Six days. We were getting worried about you. Riley said that it was just your body shutting down to give your mind a break, but things were getting difficult with you out and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to keep you around for much longer.”
Gwen knew what Isabelle was implying, that she had been a burden, that they had to look out for her more than usual and they would’ve had to carry her. It would’ve slowed them down almost immeasurably.
“I’m sorry.” She said with guilt colouring her tone, but Isabelle shook her head.
“It’s fine. You’re up now and that’s good enough. We’re getting pretty close to the coast now anyway, and it won’t be long until we find your camp.”
Gwen nodded, but she didn’t feel the excitement she had felt only a week ago about returning to camp. As much as she loved James and Chris and enjoyed the company of the people who she had gotten to know over the last few years, it would feel wrong returning without Ryan, and she couldn’t help but fear for the wellbeing of everyone. She didn’t think that she could handle any more heartbreak anytime soon.
“Go back to sleep. I’ll wake you in the morning, and then we can get a move on.”
Gwen nodded again and slowly lay back down, staring up into the sky. The moon is shining brightly, mocking her grief and laughs at her.
Sleep doesn’t come easily but when it does, she’s plagued by Ryan’s dead eyes.
“I’m a monster.” Ryan’s voice whispered into her ear, again and again and again, and no matter how many times she begs him to stop, he never does.
The others are worried about her, she knew that. Kel always seemed to be by her side, never once speaking, just smoking his cigarettes and she appreciated it even though she thought that the others sent him to make sure she didn’t self-destruct or something. She liked the silence between them, because she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to have a proper conversation when a dead man keeps whispering in her ear.
“It’s not the end of the world.” Ryan tells her, still whispering like the others will hear him if he speaks any louder.
“It is to me.” She says quietly.
After a week, Kel still walked next to her, but he still didn’t talk. The only difference now is that he’s out of cigarettes, and he was constantly fidgeting, chewing on his nails and scratching at his skin like if he keeps on doing it he’ll finally get release from withdrawal.
“You look insane.” Isiah told him one day, and Kel just laughed and rubbed at his temples. He’d been having headaches for the last few days, a side-effect apparently, and it made Gwen feel even more terrible.
It was her fault that Kel was going through withdrawal. If they didn’t have to leave the city, Kel would’ve had easy access to them and would’ve been spared from withdrawal. She just added it to the list of things that made her an awful person.
She wished they never made it to the city.
“We’re not far from the coast. A few hours at most.”
Riley had replaced Kel that day, because the man had slowly become irritable and prone to fits of anger, and she knew that they all silently thought that they couldn’t risk him lashing out at her in a fit of withdrawal induced anger, but she thought that it might be better if he did.
She was sick of this tip-toeing around, like saying the wrong word was going to send her shattering to pieces. Did they really think her so weak?
But she can see the answer in their eyes.
Finally, they made it to the coast, greeted by soft breezes and a salty taste to the air that tried to comfort her like an old friend.
It meant that she was finally close to camp, to being home, but she couldn’t find it in her to be excited. She would have to tell them how she failed and that Ryan was dead. The anxiety burned the back of her throat and unsettled her stomach in an overwhelming. Who had died? Who was still alive? Surely there had to be casualties, but who?
Who? The question haunted her. It could’ve been Chris or James or even Zeke, if not all three of them. It could’ve been Victor, and where would the group be then if they had lost their leader? Who would take his place? Would Laura still be alive, and the children, and how about Elizabeth, the sweet girl they had shared their tent with?
The questions made her feel sick. She wasn’t sure how she would manage with losing any more people, and yet it was something that she had to deal with. Soon she would be left by Riley, Isabelle, Isiah and Ariana in the camp that she had once called home and she wasn’t even sure if they would accept her, if they would feel betrayed.
“Don’t stress.” Kel said, chewing at his fingernail.
“It’s that obvious?” She asked and he hummed, nodding.
“It’s really obvious. You’re stressing me out with how stressed you are.”
“Don’t be. It’s fine.”
Don’t be. The words Ryan had said so many times. The last words he had said to her. The last words he would ever say.
And instead of thinking about the camp, she wondered about Ryan again. The loss left her feeling like she had been cut up inside and it hurt to think about him but she had gotten past the first few days when she had been calling out his name and then crying when he didn’t answer.
She wondered if he had been in pain after they had given him the cure, wondered if he had lost his ability to see colour. She wondered if he died while living in the beauty of colour, or if he died in a world that was grey, and she hopes that he had died in a world of colour and spent his last moments in awe of the world.
She shook herself. It wouldn’t do to fret over Ryan’s death. There would be plenty of time to do that later, now they had to go find the camp and quickly. She knew that the others were getting anxious, that they were worried that people from The City would find them, and that they wanted to just get her to her original camp and then run as fast and far as they can.
“Where will you go when we find the camp?” She asked Kel, who shrugged.
“We decided it was best to separate. Isiah and Ariana will probably want to go further East, and I think Riley said something about going North, Isabelle and I haven’t decided yet.”
“We might stay at the camp for a while.” Isabelle said, smiling at her surprised look. “We want to make sure that you’re safe back there, and it might be a nice break from running.”
“How long will you stay?”
“Who knows?” Kel said. “We could stay for a few days, we could stay for months. It all depends on The City, and if your camp will have us.”
“Why are you guys separating? I’m sure you could manage better as a group.”
“That’s the thing.” Isabelle said. “They expect us to be in a group, and hopefully they’ll give up when they realise it’ll just be a waste of time and resources sending people out after us in three different directions.”
“Oh.” Gwen said. The idea was smart, but she couldn’t help but worry. Riley would be on his own, and she didn’t know what power The City had and how many people they would use just to find them. What if they saw through the plan, and found them but they couldn’t fight back because they were outnumbered? And Riley didn’t seem to be much of a fighter, how would he survive on his own?
“You doubt our plan?” Isabelle guessed although she didn’t sound angry, more curious. “If you are, we’d appreciate your input.”
“I just-” She stopped herself, not sure how to phrase what she wanted to say. She ran the risk of insulting everyone if she didn’t speak carefully. “Won’t you be weaker separated? What if they find one group and they can’t fight back because they’re outnumbered? And Riley’s going out by himself. What if something happens to him and no one’s there to help him?”
This time, it was Ariana who spoke. “It’s the best way to be undetected, despite the fact that we’ll be weaker than them, and Riley can hold his own even if he might not look it.” She ignored the severe look that he sent her way. “Don’t worry about us, Gwen. We appreciate the concern, but we’re strong.”
“But how strong are you?”
Ariana smiled at her. “You aren’t the only one that’s been through hell. We’ve been dragged through it and had to crawl through broken glass and ripped ourselves open just to get to where we are today. We learnt to adapt.”
Gwen didn’t feel any less worried, but she nodded. She had to wonder what they had been through to make them so strong. They were like soldiers that had been forced to harden up because of a war.
But in a way this was a war, but she didn’t know who it was between.