After West left, leaving the room in a claustrophobic silence, I laid down on my pillow and stared at the white wall. My thoughts were numb. I felt cold even though it was summer. I could no longer feel the warmth coming from the mattress where West had been sitting, and that was all I could think about.
It was like he was never there.
My tears dripped off my chin silently. My stomach ached, but it wasn’t from the lack of food.
It scared me knowing he might not come back.
It scared me more than anything. Now that he was really gone I felt so . . . alone. Even before this war, I’d never felt that way. It never ached this way or this bad.
Before I had met West when I was alone in the woods, it felt different; I was focused on finding Ethan and my parents and that was my only priority. Everything had changed when I had met him. And even though I still wanted to find my brother, I wasn’t alone in doing it.
Now I was again.
It was like starting where I had left off.
As I thought about West—possibly not coming back—it made me think about Ethan, too. I almost panicked. I tried to block the terrifying thoughts from coming, but they pushed through my mental barrier anyway. What if . . . Ethan wasn’t alive? And I was just chasing false hope this whole time? What if it was just me now, forever?
The realization was terrifying.
I curled up into a ball and tried to block everything from my mind. I shivered. The blankets weren’t giving me any warmth. Or maybe they were but I just couldn’t feel it. My hair clung to my face as I lay there staring at the wall, wishing everything wasn’t happening the way it was.
I fell asleep like that.
My mind shut down and I had horrible nightmares.
Horrible because West was in them.
Horrible because when I woke, he wasn’t there anymore.
It was just me.
✢ ✢ ✢
As I sat there at the table, I tried to keep my thoughts at bay. I needed to keep him out of my mind; it was too painful to think of the boy that changed my life. I stared at the natural patterns of the wooden table before me, loving the way they swirled and blended together perfectly. I didn’t want to think about him.
West. I blinked, shifting my gaze over to my half empty glass of water. Drops of condensation clung to the sides. My mouth was dry, but I was content with staring at it for the moment.
I looked up with eyebrows raised. Carrie was studying me with a small smile on her lips.
“Would you like anymore food? You haven’t eaten much.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m fine.”
My eyes went back to my glass of water and she went back to eating.
For the last seven weeks I hadn’t talked much, and I felt bad about it. Carrie was so sweet and caring, and here I was being so sullen and far away. I didn’t mean too, and felt horrible about it. I just . . . drifted away sometimes without realizing it.
“Where’s Malcolm this morning?” I asked, trying to be conversational. Her eyes lit up when she realized I was going to talk with her; which made me feel even worse. Was I really that bad?
“He decided to go hunting with winter coming and all,” she said. “He figures we could freeze some deer meat.”
“That’s probably a good idea. If you want, I could help you package it if he brings one home.”
She nodded. “That would be a big help, thank you.” Carrie went back to eating her food. I looked down at my own I realized that I hadn’t eaten much, but my stomach was still aching.
I picked my head up quickly. “How’re your neighbors doing?”
“Both of them are doing well, they’re going to be hunting too so we’ll be able to share with each other if the other gets low. You remember Katie’s oldest son, Marcus?” I nodded, remembering. He had come over once to visit since I’d been here. “I guess he left last week to go up to the North City.”
This was news, something to take my mind off of unwanted subjects. “Why? He is going to try to find out what’s going on? To see who’s in control?”
“He’s going to try anyway. He said he’ll come back once he finds out anything.” Her voice seemed to falter towards the end and I knew by the sound of her voice that she hoped he would also find out any news about her daughter, Casey.
I nodded in return and moved my fork around on my plate, separating my eggs from the potatoes. I realized then we’d been eating a lot of potatoes lately. They were probably low on food, and I was just another mouth to feed.
Carrie picked up her plate and moved over to the sink, her feet barely making a sound. She turned back around and I knew she wanted to ask me something.
And she did; the very one I didn’t want to answer.
“So, when are you planning to leave, Reese?” I cringed at the question, and she noticed, “You know you can stay here as long as you want. We love you and love having you. You know that.”
I looked out the window and nodded. Summer was well on it’s way out and it felt as though I had missed half of it. The warm season was short this far north. Back when people had lived down south, it had been said that summers used to last longer than they did here.
But that was a long time ago, and miles away from here. It was just history now.
“It’s just . . .” she paused, hating the conversation almost as much as I was. “I know West wanted you to leave, just in case they decide to come look for you, too. And I don’t want them to find you.”
“I know,” I said still looking away, my heart pounding silently in my chest. “But you said I still had a couple of days.”
“Yes, I did say that. But you’re ready now. Your knee is almost as strong as it was before, but I just wanted to make sure, to give you more time if you needed it.”
I knew I was ready, too. I took walks every morning and evening, and even jogging every few minutes. It was finally healed, even though I still had a slight limp. I could stay three days; that was all he gave me until I had to leave.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t stay, I had promised him I wouldn’t, and I had hoped if I didn’t break my promise, then maybe he wouldn’t either.
“I’ll leave in three days,” I said. “That’s how long he gave me.”
Carrie seemed content with that answer and started cleaning the table. I stood and took my plate over to the sink, but she shoed me away. She always did; she was weird when it came to cleaning.
I went back to my room and dropped onto the bed face up. I didn’t want to leave. Leaving would admit that he wasn’t coming back. He said he would catch up with me when I finally did leave, but he had been gone for more than seven weeks. I trained myself to not think of it to deeply. It hurt to think of him. It hurt more than I had thought possible.
Every time I thought of him I would drift away for a moment, just remembering his eyes, his hair, the shape of his face. I would get this empty feeling in my stomach and tears would threaten to come.
I felt so weak when it happened, and I hated it.
I hated how one person could have such a hold over me. I was constantly reminded of him, just from everyday things. The first time Carrie had asked me if I had wanted pizza I had almost broken down right there in the kitchen.
They were careful around me, and that made me feel fragile. I hated feeling weak. I was in the past, but things had changed from then until now. I had changed. I didn’t want the need to rely on anyone anymore. If I had been strong enough, maybe West wouldn’t have left. I would have finished Dersa that very day if I had had the strength to do it. There were questions like that repeating in my head constantly.
But I couldn’t change the past.
West was gone.
I was alone.
That’s the way it was.
Tears brimmed my eyes and I closed them, shutting them away and refusing to let them come. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry anymore.
Crying wasn’t going to change anything. I could feel myself becoming harder, and it was probably a good thing I was leaving soon. My coming bitterness wouldn’t effect Carrie and Malcolm anymore than it already had.
I was certain of one thing though. I was slowly suffocating. I was a plant without my sunlight, and soon there would be nothing for me to feel anymore.
✢ ✢ ✢
My last three days came and went without any change.
Meaning West still hadn’t showed.
I got up on the morning of my departure and packed my Jansport of what stuff I previously had. Carrie had also given me some food, even though I tried to refuse it, but she could be stubborn when she wanted to be. Malcolm had cleaned and checked my gun, making sure it would fire when I needed it to. They had thought of just about everything. Twice over.
I took one last look around my room and sighed quietly, admitting to myself that I would miss everything here. The hardwood floors creaked as I stepped out into the hallway, and I headed to the kitchen one last time.
Malcolm and Carrie were both already at the kitchen table, picking slowly at their breakfast; more potatoes and eggs. I placed my backpack near the wall and lowered myself into my regular seat. My wooden chair squeaked a little when I sat down—which happened to be the only sound in the entire room.
I started eating my food even though I wasn’t hungry. My stomach was knotted and my eyes were itching to glance out the window, to look for the one person I was desperately hoping to see.
I glanced up at Malcolm who was staring intently at his coffee. His brow was furrowed in thought, but not saying anything. I chewed slowly while studying his graying hair and warm eyes. I would miss him. He was always so nice.
I inwardly sighed and slouched back in my seat. Why did I have to stay with the nicest people on the planet? It wouldn’t have been this hard to leave someone who was rude and smelled like rotten tomatoes. But no! Of course we had to end up staying with the sweetest couple ever.
They reminded me of my parents, which made it even harder.
After breakfast, we all knew it was time for me to leave.
It was such an awkward situation.
“Well, I’d better go,” I mumbled. It seemed to echo off the walls as if I had yelled it from a hilltop.
I slowly stood from my chair, walked over and shrugged into my pack. Carrie and Malcolm both rose too and followed me out the door, like a funeral procession. I stopped at the bottom step of the porch and stared out into the woods to where I would shortly be headed.
“Reese?” It was Malcolm.
I cringed with the thought of finally saying goodbye, but reluctantly turned around and faced them. Carrie had her arms crossed, one hand playing with a long strand of blond hair, her foot twitching, almost looking like she was about to tackle me with a hug. I shifted my gaze over to Malcolm who had his hands in his pockets. He took them out suddenly and his arms engulfed me in an embrace.
He held me tightly in his large arms and whispered into my ear, “Come back to us someday, alright?”
I nodded into his big chest, trying to swallow in the lump that had risen in my throat.
“I will. I promise.”
He released me and took a step back to give Carrie her turn. She stood there, still looking at me, but she finally sniffed, dropped her arms, and gave me a hug. I stole a glance at Malcolm from over Carrie’s shoulder who gave me a sad smile.
She pulled me back at arms length and hooked a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “Are you sure you have everything?” She asked, in a cracking voice. I knew she was on the verge of crying.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“And you still have your food?”
“We love you, Reese, and—” She seemed to be struggling with herself. “If you see West, tell him we love him, too. All right?”
Now I really had to leave. I knew Carrie hadn’t meant to say, ‘if,’ but I was too aware of the wording. Right then, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t exactly feeling sad, but rather . . . angry. West had promised he would be back, but he hadn’t. I’d kept my promise, and it was only fair that he should keep his, wasn’t it? Was I just being selfish thinking of it that way? Now I had to leave without him.
“Thank you guys, for everything. I would probably be crippled if it wasn’t for you Carrie.” She gave me a small smile and a tear escaped, running down her cheek. “And West probably would have never bothered to stitch his arm up if you hadn’t been there to make him. And Malcolm, thanks for picking up two strangers on the side of the road.”
A grin broke out across his face. “That’s what I do best.”
I hugged them both once more, then quickly turned my back and made a line for the woods. When I reached the trees, I paused and turned around. They were still standing in front of their house, Malcolm’s arm around Carrie, both smiling back at me. I gave them a quick wave, then disappeared into the woods.
I barely took a twenty steps before my silent tears finally came pouring out. I had promised myself I wouldn’t cry over him anymore. But I couldn’t not. My feelings were a mixture of sadness, worry, and anger.
I fumed silently as I walked on. I still had a long way to go until I would get close enough to the North City to see what was going on, so I didn’t want to travel like a sobbing snail. I pushed West out of my thoughts and focused on the woods. I had to push him out, or else I would have broken down even more.
It was a beautiful, late summer day and the trees were bigger here than the ones down south. They casted long shadows and had thick dark trunks that stretched far into the sky. But the terrain was also getting a little harder. I was constantly walking up and down hills, and it was a relief when there was a stretch of flat ground. I tried to take it easy on my knee by going at a slower pace, but with constantly climbing hills by the end of my first day, it was staring to ache.
Two days passed like living through a fog. I barely remembered any of it. All I was sure of was that I no longer cried. I wouldn’t cry. I forced myself not to.
The ground still hadn’t flattened out and the trees were still large and towering. My knee didn’t ache as much. It was slowly getting stronger, and that put me in a better mood.
I tried not to think about West much, but it was like trying to ignore the stone that was stuck in your shoe. I hadn’t notice the first day, but every now and then I would subconsciously glance behind me, just hoping to see him standing there.
I was always disappointed at what I saw.
The nights were the worst.
After it got dark and I would find a tree to lean against, the forest seemed so quiet. It made me even more aware that I was alone, and it didn’t help that I was in the most rural and most unpopulated part of the country. There weren’t even farms this far out.
It truly felt as if I was the only person left in the world.
I was settling down for another night against a big oak tree. The old roots protruded from the ground on both sides of me, giving me a little more security. I didn’t sleep much; I never did. It was hard sleeping in dark and silent woods when I was alone.
My eyes were still open when the sky began the gray, and I could see more than five feet from my face.
I could tell by the sky that there wasn’t going to be any sun today. I didn’t matter either way to me; there never seemed to be anyway.
I pushed myself up and moved my toes, trying to warm them. It was getting cold during the nights. I was finally descending from the highlands back into the countryside and greener forests, so I hoped there would be warmer weather again. I wasn’t ready for the cold just yet.
As I made my way downhill, there was a gap in the trees, and something on the horizon caught my eye. I stopped at the crest of the hill and stared at the ruins of a city that was once thriving. I could see the green from the forest taking back what was once theirs, and nobody was around to stop the ivy from growing forever.
I always tried to imagine what the past had been like. When the whole world was still full of people and cities were alive. I couldn’t though. The world with our two countries was all I ever knew.
By midmorning I finally made it back to flatter ground and my knee was starting to ache again from traveling days on end. My hair was in a snarly mess so I quickly pulled it into a new ponytail, taking a quick breather. I glanced behind me again. Nothing. I slung my pack around my shoulders again and noticed its lighter weight; I was running low on food. I didn’t have much to begin with but I had been traveling for some days now.
After another hour of walking went by. A thick layer of fog descended from the low mountains and immersed everything in a thick white blanket. It seemed to cling to everything. It reminded me of an old horror movie when a little girl is standing there in the field, lost and frightened. And then they would cue in the zombie. Typical horror film; something Ethan and I would laugh at.
While thinking of Ethan, I wasn’t looking where I was going, and walked into something hard. Solid hard. It knocked me back on the ground and my palms scraped on the small pebbles imbedded in the dirt. I looked up at my impostor.
It was a train.
I stood without taking my eyes off it. The fog was obstructing my view from seeing the rest of it but I was sure it was long. Trains that traveled from city to city always were. My eyes wandered the length of it, wondering if there was anything hidden away inside.
I suddenly heard a click behind me, and my muscles locked in place. It was the sound of a gun.
“Do not move,” a man’s voice said slowly.