The terror that had fallen dormant earlier on quickly came back to life, roaring up like a fire that had been fed but not quite sated. “I’m… I…”
Ryan looked at her, eyes dark and shadowed with anger. “Answer me.” He demanded. “I’ve got half a mind to put you down right now.” Though Gwen couldn’t quite see, she knew that his hand would be resting on the gun that had already taken the life of another person, fingers ready to take her life too. It scared her how only a few moments ago, he had been joking about fighting bears and now he was ready to sever the strings that held her together.
“Not long!” Gwen cried. The thought of death being so near seemed to make her aware that she was terrified of dying, no matter how much she had said that she was going to dispose of herself. “I only started seeing colour a few hours ago. I promise.”
“When did you plan to tell anyone about this? You’ve put this whole camp at risk, you could’ve gotten us all infected! Did you not learn anything from yesterday? What’s infected must be dead!”
Gwen shook her head, swallowing back sobs for the second time that day. They seem to catch in her throat, making choked sounds that sounded similar to the noises a wounded animal in distress made. “I wasn’t going to stay.” She whispered. “I was going to leave. Put myself down before anyone had to know.”
Ryan scoffed at her. “And what about your friends? What about the camp? You think people would want to leave one of their own behind if they went missing? Your friends sure as hell wouldn’t. They’d stay here and they’d look for you. They’d get themselves killed in the false belief that you’re still alive.”
“And what else can I do?” Gwen’s voice hit a hysterical note. “I can’t exactly go up to Victor and say ‘Oh hey, by the way, I got infected, we’re cool yeah?’. You know as well as I do that he’ll gun me down like I never even existed in the first place, like I was never even a person! I’d be like an animal stuck in a trap, so forgive me for trying to keep my humanity until I take my last breath!”
Ryan pressed his lips together, falling silent. He stood tense, but his hand had fallen back to his side though Gwen knew he was very aware of its presence.
“Exactly.” Gwen said quietly, her voice hardly audible in the silence that sounded similar to that of a tree cracking and hitting the ground. “I don’t want to die that way. No one wants to die that way.”
“It has to be done.” Ryan said. His voice was rough like a cats tongue. He didn’t seem angry anymore, just tired. “And you might as well do it now before Victor finds out, or you become one of those monsters.”
“I’m… I’m not ready.” She said. “Not yet. I know it’s a disease, and it’s terrible, but… the colour is so beautiful. I want to enjoy it before I have to end it.”
“Death isn’t beautiful.” Ryan told her, sounding far too much like someone who was an expert in that department of grief. “I don’t care that the colour is beautiful and you want to enjoy it while it lasts, the chances are that you’ll keep on putting it off until you’re one of them. I’d rather have you die now, sane and aware, rather than having you becoming someone who has no piece of sanity left. You could attack the camp. You could attack your friends. If you don’t infect us, you’ll kill us.”
“Ryan.” Her voice took on a broken note. “Please. Just return to camp and tell them I got lost, that you looked for me but you couldn’t find me. That you heard something and that you went in search of it, say the trail went cold, and when I’m dead, you tell them the truth, and you tell James and Chris that I’m sorry, and to be strong. Don’t make me go back there and be slaughtered.”
Ryan was silent for a moment. “You’re a risk to the camp.” He told her softly. “You have to promise me that you’ll be dead by the time the camp leaves, before you become a monster.”
“I promise.” She whispered. “Go.”
Ryan glanced at her for a moment, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that this happened to you.”
“So am I.”
He nodded at her, swallowed and picked up the basket. He stared down at it for a moment, as if he were looking to it for strength and reassurance. His hands tightened around the plastic, and slowly he started to walk away from her. He paused, and started to turn before shaking his head and leaving.
And once Gwen knew for sure he was gone and out of earshot, she let herself break down.
That should have been the end of it, she should’ve gone off and enjoyed the colours, and then she should’ve died but that’s not how it went. Only days later, she found herself standing at the edge of the water, staring down into the water with shame, Ryan standing behind her.
“I’m not strong enough.” She told him, never looking back at him, too afraid to look back and see the disappointment in his eyes. “I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.”
“What’s your plan?” He asked, his voice was soft, calm like the voice a mother would use to soothe her child. He didn’t sound frustrated with her like she had expected him to. In fact, he sounded like he had known that she wouldn’t have been able to remove herself from the world.
“Kill me, Ryan. Please. I’m not strong enough.” She said, voice hitching. Like Ryan, her voice was also soft, hardly able to be heard. “I don’t want to become a monster. I don’t want to be like them.”
She heard him inhale sharply, and she hated herself for putting that weight on his shoulders, but she hated the world more, hated the cruel games that had made her come to this, standing there and begging for death.
“Please.” She said.
For a long moment, she didn’t think he would do anything, but soon enough she heard movement behind her, though it was slow – like he was trying to give her the chance to run away from her fate – and the click of the safety of a gun being turned off. She didn’t close her eyes; the idea that the last thing she would ever see would be darkness terrified her to no end, and instead she kept them open, staring at the world and taking her last glance of colour, willing herself to be strong, and she waited and waited and waited.
“I can’t.” Ryan said eventually, and she turned to him, ready to yell at him, to beg, to plead, but he looked anguished as though he were being asked to do something that went against all his morals – and in a way, he was. He lowered his gun. “You’re just a kid. I can’t be responsible for the death of kid.” He shook his head, visibly swallowing and looked as though he were remembering something unpleasant. “Please don’t make me do this.”
“Ryan, please.” She begged. “You’re strong enough to do this.”
“No.” He said, and the word was broken and weak, but still it held his resolve. “I’m not.”
She took long strides towards him, tears threatening to fall. Standing right in front of him, she tried again. “Please.”
“But you said yourself; I’m a risk to the camp. You know I’ll be the death of everyone in the camp if you don’t put me down.” She found herself grabbing his arm, pulling it up and pointing the gun towards her own face. Her hand shook with the horror of staring down the barrel of a gun, of the horror of quite literally staring death in the face.
He shook his head angrily; pulling his arm out of her grip and switching the safety back on, letting it fall to the ground. The sound of it making contact with the grass seemed much louder than it actually was.
“Let me go get someone else, then. I can’t do this. I won’t do this.”
“No, Ryan, I don’t want anyone else to know. I know it’s not fair, and I hate it too, trust me, I’m the one standing here asking for you to kill me when I’m scared out of my mind, and I don’t want this, but it has to be done. Do this for me, you’re strong enough. You’re a champion bear fighter, aren’t you?”
That got a small smile out of him. “I lied about the number of bears before.” He said and the words were weak, they didn’t sound like they belonged to him.
“I’ve actually fought almost 2,000. I was a pro, in the competition to be a world champion.”
Gwen laughed softly at him, though it held little humour. “See, you’re strong enough to do this.”
The smile fell off his face. “Fighting bears isn’t the same as killing a kid, Gwen.”
They fell into silence – something that happened far too often between the two of them, and Ryan closed his eyes, sighing. “I can’t let you stay here, not this close to the camp. I’m loyal to Victor and I swore to him and everyone else in the camp that I would assist in keeping it safe of all threats, but I can’t leave you out here alone. It doesn’t sit well with me, and shooting you is out of the question.”
“So what’re you going to do?”
“Let’s run.” He said after a moment’s pause, surprising her. “We’ll run together, see if we can make it to the city. That means that I’m eliminating the threat and keeping the camp safe, while keeping you safe.”
“But then you’re at risk.”
“I’m already at risk.” He told her bluntly. “I’m breathing the same air as you. Everyone who was in that car is at risk, but now, it’ll be a miracle if I’m not infected by the end of this. The city has people there, people who are searching for a cure, and people who can help, if we make it there, we help them to the best of our abilities and hope they’ll help us in return, and if we don’t-” he shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t exactly matter. Sure, Victor will put out a search party in a few hours after the alarm is raised, but we’ll have a head start, and if we don’t make it, they probably won’t ever find our bodies anyway.”
“You’re insane.” She told him. “The city is miles away in the other direction, and we can’t exactly steal one of the cars, and not only that, but there’s no hope of a cure, that’s what we’ve been told since day one. Even if we did make it to the city, would it be worth it?”
“Maybe.” Ryan said. “Just because we’ve been told there isn’t a cure doesn’t mean that there’s no possibility of one.”
“And what if you get infected because of me?”
“I told you before, if I don’t get infected in the next week, give or take, then I’ll be a miracle.” He smiled at her, but it wasn’t a happy one. It reminded her of the time when her mother had tried to tell her that the world would never be the same again but they would survive, or the time that her fish had died, but that it was okay because they could go to the pet store and go buy two new fish to replace it. It was sad and half-hearted, almost broken. It wasn’t a look she ever wanted to see on anyone. “There isn’t much left in this world for me.”
“What about Zeke?”
“Zeke is my best friend, my brother, and I love him like family and at the start, he was all I needed, but now… This aimless driving and trying to outrun this disease is killing me.”
“I don’t want to infect you.” She whispered. “I couldn’t live with that guilt.”
“You could.” He said. “It’d be like giving someone a cold.”
“When you say cold, I think you really mean the plague. What if the disease takes me fully and I kill you? Doesn’t that scare you? I’m a risk to everyone, I shouldn’t even be here. I could lose it at any moment and disembowel you.”
“I just told you that there’s almost nothing left in this world for me anymore. Let me take a chance and try to achieve something, and if I don’t, then it doesn’t really matter, does it? Let’s go.”
“Are you sure?”
He flashed a grin at her, full of confidence. “Positive.”