After

29 - Sam

I'm convinced it is a skull being crushed underneath my foot. A brittle crack hangs in the space between charred beams and pillars. Up close they look like they've been half chewed, like fiery teeth have chawed into them, sinking an inky blackness into the wood grain like cobwebs. It stinks of ash and smoke here, as if the smell itself has been ingrained into the earth itself, every footsteps we take puffing out another whiff.

I flinch at every step I take across the black burnt, littered floor, hearing another crack with every one, like I'm snapping bones. Bile churns up from my stomach, rushing up my throat, a bitter, sour taste in my mouth.

Hannah is under here somewhere. At least... the remains of whatever she'd become.

I push down the acidic after-taste of my measly breakfast - I'd been too in a rush to think about consuming anything other than a roughly buttered slice of toast. I can't get distracted by what horrific things happened to my best friend, and how every crunch I hear could be the sound of her brittle skull cracking.

"This way," Tag picks his way effortlessly through the burnt lodge remains. I eye him suspiciously. He's done this before.

Josh huffs beside me and, I'm sure if I look, he'll be standing hunched over, with arms crossed tightly over his chest. Like a reluctant, disapproving child.

I don't know if I can trust his judgement. I as hell don't know if I can trust mine.

The only clear judgement lined up in front of me is Wolfie's. And I can't tell if he's just betrayed me or not. But he's all I can really rely on right now.

Cautiously, I take steps forward, following Tag's path. A hand jerks out behind me, grabbing me by the elbow and almost yanking me back.

"Don't listen," Josh warns, eyes narrowing, lower eyelid twitching. I stare at him, a mixture of shock, confusion and doubt churning across my face. I can feel it moving like a spider across my skin.

No.

I'm sorry.

I breathe, shaking my head and pushing his hand off my arm reluctantly. He drops his hand so easily, like he wasn't putting any strength into it at all. His face drops with shame.

"I have to," I whisper, even though I don't even know if that's true. But if Mike's release is on the line and I have the choice to trust Josh - who could snap and twist without a moment's warning - or a complete stranger who seems to know these ruins more than I knew the lodge when it was still standing, I know who I have to choose. Even if I don't want to. The guy's right; Josh isn't reliable. And it feels like I'm betraying him even thinking that, like, with him hovering beside me, he can tap into my skull and hear every single word I'm thinking.

And, by the way he cocks his head and his eyes bulge, I'm almost convinced he can.

I snap my head away, moving faster across the rubble. My body programmed into a natural flight instinct - away from Josh, away from his reactions, as if my shame will just melt away like plastic in fire.

But, no matter what I do, the stench will still be there. Stinking up the air, like the ash and the smoke and the burns.

"Who are you?" I finally speak, my words bouncing against Tag's back who has already found his way to the back wall. Wolfie has been hovering around his legs like the man is someone he thought he'd lost - and now that he's found him, Wolfie isn't taking any chances.

Mike is gonna have a hard time convincing him to come back now.

"That doesn't concern you," Tag mutters as he crouches down next to the wall, his hands lugging away rubble.

"Actually," I take a confident step closer to him, irked that he doesn't even appear to be listening, his back to me. Too bothered by whatever the hell he's doing. "I think you'll find it does. If you want us to trust you-!"

My words snap off when they simply rolls over the man's toned shoulders like they are mere puffs of harmless smoke. I almost want to growl.

As if I haven't said anything at all, so-called Tag - what's the likelihood that that isn't even his real name - scoops away ash and litter from that infuriating space next to the wall. He claps Wolfie on the back of the neck when Wolfie joins in, digging his front paws into the ash and soot, kicking it back behind him.

Josh - who has reluctantly regained his position next to me - cringes as a smudge of that soot is kicked into his face. I wouldn't be surprised if Wolfie did it on purpose. Despite myself, I bite my lip in a grin, cutting off a giggle, very tempted to poke him in the shoulder as a joke. But half of me tugs at my memory, worried that he feels betrayed about my decision.

Josh glares at me, his paw of a hand smearing the soot down his cheek in an attempt to wipe it away. "Not. Funny," he almost pouts. And just as I catch a crack of a smile, a grating sound screeches in my ear. I flinch, the noise almost physically paining me, jerking my head in its direction. Tag has lugged out a grate in the wall, the metal grinding against the brick uncomfortably. Like nails against a chalkboard.

I shiver, the sound physically irking me, still echoing inside my ear canals. The metal crate drops with a clatter, and then Tag his pushing himself to his feet, brushing off soot from his already pretty tattered jeans.

"Come on then," he ushers.

I eye the small space that the grate has left, rolling on my heels. I can feel Josh twitching beside me, unable to stay still, his knees rolling back and forth. Fingers tapping up his arms like insects.

Tag raises his eyebrows mockingly. "What? You want to take the stairs?" My eyes skin over towards the stairs that lead to the lower level - at least where they used to be. Now they're a crumbling mess, a gaping hole like a black, fanged mouth separating the floor from the lower level. "The door's a pretty good option too." As if he's ordering them to, my eyes are pulled towards the only structure that resembles a door anymore. And even saying that is pushing it. The doorway is crushed by a boulder sized lugging of rubble and skeletons of furniture. I cringe.

"Fine," I mutter, I sigh, finally stepping forward, approaching him. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Wolfie looks up at me with those damned, big eyes that beg for me to trust this guy. Guilt twists in my stomach. I send the wolf an apologetic look,

Sorry. Not yet.

Then I reluctantly crouch and squeeze myself through the hole in the wall, coughing as I suck in ashy dust.

And as I tumble on to the surprisingly intact floor of the room on the other side, I hear Tag's muttering voice ordering Josh, "You next, big guy," just as Wolfie scrambles effortlessly after me and Josh responds with a brusque huff.


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