I ran until I couldn't run anymore, and then I fell. With the luck I was having that day; of course I fell down a hill and slid face first across the ground. When I reached the bottom I just lay there drained of every ounce of energy. I struggled to get my pack off my back and dug through the pocket with one hand until I found my water which I guzzled down. I lay on the ground for what felt like hours and then I got up. On shaky legs I kept walking. I had no way of knowing where I was but I figured eventually I'd find a road and someone to point me in the right direction.
By nightfall I still hadn't found a road and decided I would make camp. I found a rocky area near a stream and filled up my bottle then washed the dirty cuts on my hands and arms before climbing behind some of the rocks to stay hidden. I was so exhausted I fell asleep in seconds.
When I woke up the next morning the sun was shining brightly and I'd realized I must have slept till at least noon, but I felt so much better. I took time to eat a piece of the flat bread that Garrett had bought in Richmond. I knew that I had lost a lot of day light but it was worth it to not feel quite so dead inside. I kept walking until I heard movement in the trees, two days ago I would have thought it was an animal but now I know better. I listened carefully; it didn't sound like a whole army maybe one or two people.
"You should probably come out!" I called. I held my gun out. "I have a gun!" There was more rustling. Then a guy appeared, he was probably around Garrett's age. I squeezed the gun tighter, it dug into the cuts on my hand and broke tore the scabs.
"Are you hurt?" He asked. I didn't say anything. "I'm Nate."
"Are you a rebel?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Just a regular guy who happens to have a first aid kit, if you need it." I stared at him, he reached for his gun and I tensed again. "Just sitting it down here." I watched him put it down and then I did the same. Nate walked towards me slowly and motioned for me to sit down, I did and he sat next to me. He opened his pack and pulled out a box full of wrappings and a few bottles. "Give me your hands." He took each hand gently and poured one of the liquids over it, it stung but I didn't make a noise. Then Nate wrapped each hand and my right arm, which had gotten cut up the worst, in gauze. He reached up and dabbed a bit of the stinging liquid onto a cut I hadn't even realized was on my chin. "What happened to you?" He asked.
"I fell," I said.
"Are you traveling alone?"
I didn't yet trust him but I nodded. "I was traveling with others but they were killed by rebels."
"That's why you were so worried I was a rebel. Were they your friends?"
"Not really, I hadn't known them for that long." I thought about Garrett, we should've become friends.
"Where are you going?"
I hesitated. "Up north. Maine," I said coming up with the first state that came to mind. "I have family up there."
"I'm going to Chicago. I have to walk up North for a while if you want to walk with me," he suggested.
"You're not afraid I'm going to kill you in your sleep or something?" I asked surprised.
"I don't know, are you?" His eyes sparkled when he smiled.
"Probably not," I said smiling back.
"What's your name?" He asked.
"Elizabeth," I said without having to think about it, it was my mother's name.
"Nice to meet you, Elizabeth." I liked the way he said Elizabeth and part of me wished I'd told him my real name, just to hear him say it. "We're you getting ready to camp here, or were going to keep moving?"
"I got a bit of a late start today; I was planning on walking a little more, if that's ok with you." He nodded and we both retrieved our weapons. "What happened to your wrist?" I asked when I noticed he had a make shift brace on.
"Just a sprain, I'm clumsy too."
"Hey, who said I was clumsy?" I asked.
"We'll you fell and managed to scrape up almost every bit of exposed skin."
"That doesn't make me clumsy, I just wasn't paying attention. I was tired."
"Clumsy," he said.
"Where are we anyways?" I asked.
"Winchester, Virginia. I can walk with you up to Lancaster, that's about a day's walk from Philadelphia."
"Isn't that out of your way?" I asked.
"A little, but I don't want to make you travel alone."
"Thank you," I said looking down.
The next morning I woke up to a delicious smell. "What is that?" I asked.
"I caught a rabbit. Here, have some," Nate said. I walked over and sat by him and the fire. He pulled a piece of freshly cooked meat off the bone and fed it to me.
"Oh my gosh! Did you season it with something? That is seriously amazing!" I also hadn't had real food in days and at this point I probably would have eaten anything.
"A chef never reveals his secrets. Want some more?" I nodded and he pulled another piece off. I laughed as he tried to feed it to me causing him to smoosh it into my cheek. He rubbed his thumb across my cheek to get the oiliness off, it seemed like he lingered a little longer than was necessary.
"Do you want some bread?" I asked. "It's pretty much all I was able to grab before I ran." I pulled out a piece of the flat bread and ripped it in half. Now it was my turn for my fingers to linger a bit too long on his as I passed the bread to him.
Later that day we managed to finally find our way back onto the road, it seemed like a good thing to me but Nate was on edge. Then I started hearing something in the trees, we both looked towards it but neither of us moved. "Stay here," he told me. He walked into the woods and I drew my gun just in case I needed it. Suddenly I felt hands around my arms and I was being held up against someone. I had only been carrying my pack on one shoulder and it fell to the ground next to me.
"Scream and I'll slit your throat," the man holding me said. Another guy picked up my bag and started going through my things. He snatched my gun away from me. "Nice gun."
The guy holding it looked at me. "What's a nice little girl like you doing with a gun like this?" He asked. I could hear voices in the trees shouting.
"We weren't sure if your little boyfriend was going to fall for the distraction in the woods. Unfortunately for you, he did."
The guy with my pack unzipped the front pocket and pulled out the letter from General Monroe. "Look at this, boss. She's from Georgia and Monroe wants her alive. Wonder how much we could trade her to him for? I bet he'd pay a lot." I saw someone at the tree line and realized it was Nate. He raised his finger to his lips telling me to be quiet.
"Normally we'd just rob you, maybe kill you. But you might just be too pretty to pass up," the man holding me said. I glanced up to where Nate had been but he was gone, my stomach dropped. Had he left me? We had only just met but I thought we were at least becoming friends; friends don't leave friends with looters to be killed, or worse. Then shot rang out and the man behind me dropped to the ground, taking me with him. My head bashed against the asphalt. Before I even had the chance to get up or hurt the other guy, another shot was fired and he dropped dead too. I turned around to see Nate running towards me.
He crouched down next to me and grabbed my arms. "Are you ok?" He asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. They didn't hurt me. Are you ok?" I asked. I reached up and touched a gash across his forehead and then the bruises that were already forming on his cheeks.
"I ran into some of the other looters but I'm ok. You should see the other guy." He tried to smile but winced as it stretched his cuts. "We should go, I don't know if there are any more of them." I turned to grab my things. I noticed his eyes go to the piece of paper from Monroe and snatched it up in a sweep with my jacket and water bottle before he could read it. I looked up at him and he offered me a hand to get up, I took it. When he pulled me up we were so close together we were almost entirely pressed against each other.
"Thank you, for saving me," I said. I started to lean in to kiss his cheek but then I stopped when I remembered how beat up he was. Before I could do anything else though he kissed me once very quickly on the lips and then stepped away like nothing had happened. He didn't say anything and I wondered if I'd hit my head harder when I fell than I thought, made I'd just imagined it. Then he hooked his fingers through mine as he pulled me down the road and I smiled at him, but then again maybe I hadn't.
"Only a day or two from here," Nate said when we passed an old sign that said Welcome to Waynesboro. "We might be able to make it to York today."
I didn't say anything but I was hoping that we wouldn't make it that far. I wasn't ready to split up yet. I wanted to say never mind, let's go to Chicago. Who cares about General Monroe? Who cares about politics and alliances? Not me, I didn't want to be here anyways. I didn't want to go to Philadelphia; I didn't want to get married. "What if-" I thought of my dad who tried to do what was best for the Federation, and Sarah who had this uncorrupted hope for the future, and Garrett and those other soldiers who had died to protect me. I couldn't be selfish. I shook my head "Never mind."
"Are you ok?" Nate asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"What are you thinking about?"
"To whom much is given, much is expected," I said. Nate looked off into the distance. I wondered, not for the first time, what his story was. After a while I decided to break the silence. "Do you have any family?"
"My parents live in Philly," he told me. I wondered if his dad was in the militia, it would explain why Nate had a gun.
"Why are you going to Chicago?"
"I'm looking for someone, but I don't know if I'll be able to find them."
"Sorry I got you so off track," I said.
"Sometimes getting off track is alright," he said smiling at me. "Plus if it wasn't for me, you'd probably still be wondering around in the Virginia forest lost." I stuck my tongue out at him and he laughed. "You know, I normally prefer traveling alone but you're ok."
"Just ok? That makes me feel so good about myself," I said with mock hurt. He smiled and our hands brushed against each other.
We reached York the next day and from there it was less than a day's walk to Lancaster. It was almost time for us to split up. "I bet your family in Maine is excited to see you," Nate said.
"Yeah, probably," I said.
"Maybe I'll visit Maine sometime; I've never been there before."
I nodded. I wished that I could really move to Maine, maybe I'd see Nate again. But once again I had to remind myself that I wasn't here for me, I was here for Georgia. I was here to make peace and if I ran away I could jeopardize everything. For the rest of the day I didn't know what to talk about. I was afraid if I talked too much I'd give in to how much I wanted to go to Chicago, and then do something stupid like actually go. Late that night we arrived in Lancaster. I traded what was left of my bread to get a room in an inn, I was tired of sleeping on the ground and I wasn't going to need the food when I got to Philly.
I debated washing my clothes in the bathroom, I'd been walking through the woods and they were getting disgusting. They were supposed to look nice until I arrived in Philadelphia but that when I was still traveling by cart. It seemed like eons ago that I'd been riding in that cart making fun of Garrett, but in reality it had only been a few days. I decided against washing my clothes, it wasn't like I had anything else to put on anyways and they wouldn't dry by the time I left the next morning.
But my clothes were gross, I pealed my shirt off and my jeans leaving me in a tank top which hadn't gotten all that dirty. I remembered Sarah telling me, the morning I left, that I ought to take a dress to meet the General in. She made me take one of her mother's nicest dresses that she'd had since before the blackout and a pair of flats. I felt bad that I left the clothes in the cart and wouldn't be able to return them. I wondered if I'd ever even see Sarah and her parents again.
I stepped out of the bathroom and looked around. The room was dark; the only light came from the moon outside and a candle that set on one of the bedside tables. The innkeeper had reminded us to blow it out before we went to sleep because candles were precious resources nowadays. The room only had one bed. The innkeeper hadn't offered any other rooms when I'd paid; she probably assumed we were a couple. Not that I could afford any bigger rooms anyways, I'd already used up the last of my food supply and I really hoped it didn't take me that long to walk to Philadelphia.
I thought about what could happen tonight. Tonight and tomorrow were probably the last I'd ever see of Nate, he was off to Chicago and I was off to "Maine". This was typically how relationships worked these days, they happened in hyper speed. The length of a good relationship averaged around a month at the most, anything longer than that was practically unheard of unless you lived in an established town. Even in the Federation, where life expectancy was longer and there were more towns and fewer nomads. I slid into the bed. Though it had only been a week or so since I'd left home, I'd forgotten how comfortable a real bed was. As soon as my head hit the pillow I was exhausted, days of walking and sleeping on the ground had caught up with me. So much for doing anything with my last night with Nate.
Nate blew out the candle and got into bed. He put his arm around me and lay his head next to mine. I was too tired to even say goodnight but I was awake enough to feel him kiss the side of my head.
The next morning I woke up and got dressed. I wasn't looking forward to walking to Philly alone and I was hoping I would bump into some militia to take me there. Nate handed me something in a shiny wrapper out of his bag. "What is this?" I asked.
"Granola bar," he said as he packed the rest of his stuff up.
"How did you get this? Is it even any good still, don't these things expire?" I asked staring at it. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen packaged food.
He shrugged. "I still eat them, they haven't killed me yet." He pulled several more out of his bag. "Here take these too."
"You don't have much food left," I said.
"I can hunt, you can't. You traded what little food you had, you aren't going to make it to Maine without something to eat."
I looked down, I felt terrible about lying to him when he was trying to look out for me. "Thank you," I said finally when I realized he wasn't going to give up.
"I should get going; I need to make it out to Chicago as soon as I can."
"I hope you find who you're looking for," I said.
He hugged me. "Be careful, it's dangerous out there." He stepped away from me and walked out the door. I watched until the door closed behind him and then I started packing my things and the granola bars. I pulled the paper from the front pouch and folded it into a square which I tucked into my jeans pocket.
It was time to go to Philadelphia.