Chapter Twenty Nine
She was sick of leaving people behind, of leaving them to the enemy or to the sickness, or whatever it was that taking their lives. Sick of people dying because of her, of people trying to save her. She was sick of it, of running, of fighting for her life, of watching friends and foes die every single day. She hated that she woke up every morning, wondering if today was the day that she would lose control and murder her friends. She didn’t want to run anymore.
She was sick of wondering which one of her friends would be the next one to die, or if she would be the one that would fall that day. She was sick of being sick, of being infected, of having the disease.
She was ready to give up, to surrender herself to the disease and let it take her, and she just hoped that it would kill her instead of turning her into a murderer.
But she knew she would never be that lucky.
So she kept on running. For them.
“The sea is close!” Ariana called, not once looking back. She was tired, like the rest of them, wearied, but she wasn’t ready to give up. She was strong, and Gwen thought that she would run side by side with Nick, that the two of them would make it to the edge of the world and balance precariously on it.
“Where do we go from there?” James asked, panting slightly. He swallowed, though it looked painful. They had been running non-stop, no water, no food, and no rest. They were dehydrated and starved, exhausted.
“We hope that they don’t follow us.” Kel said. There was a whistle in his breathing, and he had started to fall behind. The smoking was starting to catch up on him, and Gwen feared that he would be the next one of their group to be left behind, to die.
“And if they do?” Gwen asked.
“Then we’ll die knowing that we tried our fucking hardest.” Nick growled, wiping sweat away from his forehead, though Gwen wasn’t sure if it was from the heat or from the fever.
“I think I’m ready to die.” Gwen said quietly, though her voice was still audible to the rest of the group. They were silent, and she could just barely hear the other group. They had backed off some upon finding Lukas, but they were still following. Though the rest of them were silent, Gwen knew they agreed.
“Might be peaceful.” James said softly. “I’d like that.”
“We’d all like that.” Kel said, wheezing a little bit. He was getting worse, his lungs struggling to take the strain of continuous running. Gwen could sympathise, she felt as though her lungs had ceased being lungs, felt as though every breath of air she was breathing was to inflate a punctured balloon. Her muscles no longer ached, but they throbbed in time with her heartbeat, and she could swear that she could hear her blood pumping underneath her skin.
The closer they got towards the sand, the more trepidation Gwen felt. What would happen here? It was either a situation of dying or living. She knew the probability. It could go either way, but she was sure that the scales were tipping in the direction of death. She wasn’t scared though; the idea of death no longer scared her. Instead, it enticed her.
“Kel, Nick.” Ariana said. “Now.” She swung around, leaving her position from the front of the group, grabbing at the gun in her waistband. She looked at the three teenagers, and offered them a smile, slightly sad, but with a proud touch to it. “Keep running.” She said. “We’ll cover you. Make it to the end for us.”
“No.” Gwen said, stopping. She felt both Zeke and James’ hands grabbing her arms, pulling at her and forcing her to keep running, but she stubbornly stood her ground. “I don’t know what you have planned, but you’re not doing it, whatever it is.”
“Gwen,” Kel said, his voice slightly raw, “this was always the plan. From that moment that we first left the city with you. We’d die for you if that meant that you’d live a minute longer.”
“I don’t want you to die for me.” She said, her voice slightly hysterical. “I don’t want anyone else to die for me, or because of me.”
“This is our choice, Gwen.” Ariana assured her, but her voice was firm. “We’ll meet again someday. In the next life, though I hope not too soon.”
“Don’t.” Gwen said, her voice harsh with emotion. Tears were welling up, the dam about to break. They had lost so many in the span of a few days, and now more people were able to run towards their death, just to extend her life by mere minutes.
“Let us.” Nick said, sharing Ariana’s smile. “It’s what we want to do. The three of us have nothing; at least you three have each other.”
Kel continued on before she could argue. “Our group is gone, Gwen. Riley is gone, and Isiah and Isabelle-” He shrugged. “We don’t know if they’re still alive or not, but they’re strong.”
“Farewell, my brothers and my sister.” Ariana started.
“We can only hope that the life following this one is easier.” Kel continued, and the three of them shared a look. They were running before Gwen could even stop them, running towards the other group rather than away.
She cried out, her voice cracking and breaking with the force of her screams, and she fought against Zeke and James for a moment before their combined strength forced her to run or meet the pavement
She didn’t want to run anymore, but James and Zeke refused to loosen their grips on her, and they forced her onto the sand. It sunk beneath their weight, their footprints leaving imprints. She wondered if they’d be the last sign of life from them, if the footprints were the last mark she was ever going to leave behind.
It would be washed away from the shores, without a doubt, erasing her mark. Erasing her existence too, maybe.
“There’s nowhere to go.” Zeke said, his tone low. Distantly, Gwen could hear the gunshots, and counted them. She knew that between Ariana, Nick and Kel, they only had eighteen bullets. Eighteen bullets against an entire group who probably had six times the amount of bullets.
They would be dead soon. Gone in the name of a sacrifice.
“We can keep on running that way.” James said, though he didn’t sound convinced. He just sounded tired and weary.
“I don’t want to run anymore.” Gwen said firmly, though her voice trembled with grief. The gunshots were becoming less frequent, and her heart began to race at the thought that they would soon become silent, at the thought that Kel, Nick and Ariana would be nothing more than corpses on a road, forgotten. “I’m sick of running.”
“The water.” Zeke said softly. “We could go into the water. They won’t follow us, and if we can, we swim until we find land, somewhere safe, and if we can’t then we drown. It’ll be over then.”
She looked at both of them, her hands grabbing theirs. She waited for a moment, holding her breath. Her heart gave a jolt and then gave way when she heard the gunshots cease. It was strange, the way that the silence signified death.
“Let’s do it.” She said, and took a breath. “If we don’t make it, I want to say thank you. To you two, to Kel, Nick and Ariana, to Lukas and to Dave, to Oliver, to Cheyenne, Chris, Nia, and everyone else we left behind. I want to say thank you to Ryan, to the camp, to Isiah and Isabelle, to Victor and to anyone else.”
“This might be the last time we ever talk.” Zeke said. “And I want to say goodbye, and I’m glad that it’s with you two that I’m dying with.”
“We’ll make it through this.” James said. “And even if we don’t make it out alive, we did it for them. We tried for them. That’s what mattered.”
And then James pulled them forth into a run, leaving no more words to be said. There were no farewells and wishing for better places, just the wind blowing in their ears.
The water lapped at her ankles, freezing her skin and making clothes stick to her skin, but she kept on running, until her feet could no longer touch the sand. She kicked with her forward with her feet, and squeezed the hands of the two men that she would either live or die with.
She had no more words left to be said, and instead she was silent. She closed her eyes, and just breathed for a moment, tasting the salt in the air, and accepted that this might be the last time she’d ever get to breathe.
She opened her eyes and the world was grey.
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