“Are you excited to see your camp again?” Isabelle asked, smiling at her. They had seen tracks that could only have come from a sizable group and they had deduced it to being her camp.
“Uh.” She said, shrugging the slightest bit. “Nervous more than excited.” She admitted.
“Just… worried, I guess. I mean I left with Ryan and he had been pretty important and we had left without a word. I don’t know how they’ll feel when they see that I’ve returned without him.”
“Did you have any friends when you left? Any really good friends?”
Gwen smiled a little. “Two of the boys are my best friends, they’re like brothers to me and I had a few friends here and there.”
“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about. Those two boys are going to be so happy when they see you’re alive, and your other friends are going to be so relieved.”
“Except…” Gwen hesitated. “Zeke, Ryan’s best friend. I don’t know what to tell him.”
“You tell him what you need to. He deserves to know.”
Zeke. Out of everything that scared her about the thought of going back to the camp, Zeke was one of the biggest factors. She remembered Ryan telling her that he and Zeke had been best friends ever since they were little and that they had been near inseparable, and now she had to tell him that his best friend was dead because of her.
“It’s not fair.” Gwen said, biting her lip. “I wish he didn’t have to die.”
“It’s not over yet.” Isabelle told her. “You can make things right. You can make sure he didn’t die for no reason. Promise me that you’ll make sure that you remember him, in the best ways and the worst ones. He tried his best and that wasn’t good enough. Maybe your best is.”
Gwen offered her a smile, and wasn’t quite sure about how to reply to that.
Her camp was close. She could hear the sounds of them talking and working though they weren’t quite visible yet.
Despite her trepidation, she finally felt excited at the prospect of being so close, that soon she would see her best friends in the whole world and finally be somewhere that she could call home, even if it wasn’t somewhere permanent.
She walked a little bit faster, and couldn’t stop herself from grinning when the camp finally came into focus. She could start to see the people a little clearer and she swore that her heart nearly stopped when she saw someone on the border of the camp turn in her direction.
They called out her name, and ran at her. Within a few seconds, she found herself in the arms of James and her own arms were wrapped tightly around his frame.
“Holy shit.” He whispered. “You’re alive. You’re alive. We were so sure that you had died, that you were gone forever.”
She laughed, this breathy laugh that wasn’t weighed down with grief, and pressed her head into his chest. “I’m alive.” She reassured him, and then pulled away.
James looked older, even though she hadn’t been gone that long but he was still James, still the boy that she had left behind, and she felt happy for the first time in days.
“Is Chris…?” She trailed off, not wanting to finish the question.
“He’s alive.” James was quick to reassure her. “He’s just gone out on a supply run. He’ll be back soon. Who are these people?”
“These are the people that helped me get back home.” She quickly introduced them by name, noticing the way that James’ eyes lingered slightly too long on Isabelle.
“Thank you, for bringing her back where she belongs.” James said. “If you’d come down to our camp, we can fix up some food for you, get you some fresh water, somewhere to sleep. You look like you need it.”
And they did. They all looked exhausted, and had been running themselves haggard for the last few days. Their dinner had been scarce, the woodland life seemed to avoid them and it had been quite some time since they had found fresh water.
“That sounds incredibly good. Lead the way.” Ariana told James, who grinned at her, and wrapped his arm around Gwen’s shoulders and started walking.
The trepidation came back to her. What would the members of the camp think when she came back into the camp? Would they be happy? Surprised? Angry? Would they ask about Ryan?
They probably would. Ryan had been one of the most important members of the group, and surely the fact that he had gone missing a few days after she had would’ve raised questions.
“How is everyone?” She asked, noticing that there seemed to be a few less people than she remembered. “How are you and Chris?”
“I’m doing okay.” James said. “I got into Night Watch.” She couldn’t help but smile at the proud look he had on his face. “Chris is struggling, but he’s getting better. He was asked to do patrols and supply runs, so he’s pretty proud of that. We lost some people after you left. Ryan just went to go get water one day, and then he was gone. No sign of him.”
Her chest constricted and she bit her lip. Not only would she have to tell them that Ryan had died because of her, but he had also left them behind because of her, he hadn’t gone missing.
“What else?” She asked.
“One of the younger kids was infected, but no one wanted to put her down. We left her be, hoped that she wouldn’t be as infectious because she was younger, but she was the opposite of that. She infected two of the other teenagers, another one of the children and Laura.”
“Shit.” She breathed, shaking her head. She hadn’t liked the other teenagers, but she certainly didn’t want them to get infected and it was terrible that not only one, but two children got infected, and Laura…
Laura had been kind to her, and Gwen would’ve easily called her a friend. “What happened to them?”
“What do you think happened to them?” James asked her, although not in an unfriendly way. “We gave them mercy, there was no other choice. Let’s not talk about this. Where have you been?”
She hesitated. “It’s a long story.”
“Is it a story you’ll tell us later? About why you left? Surely you had your reasons, but they’d better be good. It fucking hurt when you left us Gwen.”
“Yeah. I’ll tell you later, I swear.”
“Just to warn you,” James told her before they walked into camp. “I don’t know how they’re going to take you coming back. We thought you were dead.”
She nodded, and took a breath before following after him. There were people walking around and doing their jobs but none really took any notice of them, though there were a few curious glances in their direction.
“James!” One of the older members that Gwen had never really taken the opportunity to talk to called, running up to their group. “Who are these peop-” The man cut himself off. “You’re Gwen, right? The girl that went missing.”
She nodded, and he shook his head. “Wow. Okay. So much for being dead.” He said but strangely enough, he didn’t seem too shocked. “These people I haven’t met though, I’m sure about it.”
Riley stepped forward, holding out his hand. “Riley, from the City.” The man looked a little concerned at the mention of The City, but shook Riley’s hand.
“Hayden.” The man said, running a hand through his hand. “Listen; let’s take this somewhere more private.” He nodded towards members of the camp that pretended to not be listening.
He led them away from the camp, towards a water source. “You city folk aren’t gonna be a problem, right? We can’t deal with any more problems.”
“No.” Riley said, shaking his head. “We’re…” He hesitated, not sure of the word to use. “Refugees, I guess. We ran from The City.”
Hayden nodded. “Right. Fair enough, but there isn’t enough room for all of you to stay, if that’s what you want to do.”
Kel stepped forward this time, introducing himself. “The only ones who are considering staying here are Isabelle,” He gestured to the girl. “And myself, and that won’t be for long.”
Hayden looked unsure. “I’ll have to speak to the camp leader. If you’ll stay here, I’ll bring him to you.” Before they could answer, the man walked off.
Victor had aged ten years since Gwen had last seen him. His hair was like salt and pepper, his face wrinkled with stress, and his eyes no longer held any of their former warmth. He hardly glanced at Gwen when he walked towards their group.
“I’m Victor.” He introduced himself. “I’m the leader of the group. I’ve heard that you’ve brought Gwen back, and two of you wish for a place to stay?”
“Just for a while.” Isabelle said.
Victor looked at her, raising an eyebrow. “And your name is?”
“Isabelle.” She said, not flinching under the stony look.
“Well, Isabelle, I would be happy enough to allow for you to stay here considering you bought back someone who was well loved in this camp. Who will be joining you?”
“I will.” Kel said. “My name is Kel.”
Victor eyed him, looking like he wasn’t too sure about trusting Kel in their camp, but nodded. “Right. Well, it’s beginning to get late. If the lot of you would like to stay for dinner, you are welcome to, and you’re all welcome to stay for the night. Consider it as a thank you, for bringing Gwen back.”
“We appreciate it.” Ariana said, smiling at the man, who gave her a half smile in return. It didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Dinner was a quiet affair, gathered around a campfire and eating whatever they had been given. It didn’t look appealing, but it had been a while since they had consumed a decent meal and they took it without complaint.
The other members of the group, those who Gwen had known by name and had a few conversations with but couldn’t really consider them as friends, stared at the group but none of them made an effort to talk to her, and some shied away from her when she walked passed them. It was like they were afraid of her, and she hated it but knew it was for the best. The more people who avoided her, the more people who would stay safe.
“Supply runners are back!” One of the members on watch called. Next to her, James set down his food and quickly stood, grabbing at her and pulling her to her feet before jogging to the border of the camp.
“Chris is back?” She asked, to which James nodded.
She smiled, and jogged a little faster, almost breaking into a sprint when she saw figures, just out of focus. James easily kept up with her but she paid little mind to him. Finally, the figures came into focus and her face broke into a wide grin.
“Chris!” She called out, watching as the man spun around. His face was an expression of shock, but she paid little mind to it, quickly making the gap between them smaller. She felt her body collide with his, and though at first he hesitated the slightest bit, his arms wrapped around her tightly.
“Damn girl.” He whispered. “If you were playing some sick game of hide and seek, you’ve won.”
She laughed and hugged him a little tighter. She smiled at him, taking in his features when he pulled back. His features were sharper than they had been since she’d left, like he’d missed a few meals here and there, and his hair was shorter, but he was still Chris.
“Don’t ever do that again.” He said to her, sounding close to tears. “Fuck. I thought-” He cut himself off.
“I’m okay.” She reassured him. “Are you okay?”
Their moment was ruined when James cleared his throat. “Good to see you back safe.” He murmured to Chris who nodded at him.
“Let’s get back to camp. I’m starving.” He whistled, and the two others who had been with him turned towards the noise.
“Grab the stuff and drop it off at the trailer. We’ll sort through it later.” They nodded, and without saying another word, they each grabbed a bag and dragged it off.
“Come on, I want to eat and I want to know where you’ve been.”
Gwen watched as he walked off, and hesitated for a moment before following after him. She wondered if he truly wanted to know everything that happened, and the fear rose again, choking her. Would they think her a murderer? Would they be able to trust her if she told them the truth?
Would she be able to tell them the truth?