Ethan shook me awake in the morning and I found myself rested, something that was becoming rare. I hadn’t had a full night of sleep since . . . I couldn’t remember. I had no doubt that it was because Ethan was with me again. I hated sleeping in the woods alone, not knowing if he was still alive. It was relief being with him again.
I stretched my legs and looked up at him.
“Want some hotdogs?” he asked, waving the floppy piece of meat in front of my face. I snatched it out of his hand before he had the chance to yank it away.
“Thanks.” I grinned, and Ethan rolled his eyes. I sat up while he went over to the smoldering fire to grab another for himself.
“Where did you get these anyway?”
“There’s a house like . . .” he wrinkled his nose thinking about it, “a mile east. There was no one there except for the food. Seth didn’t want to stay there though. He didn’t think it was safe enough.”
I glanced around, noticing he wasn’t here. The train door was open again and the sun was coming over the thick horizon of trees. No fog today, but not like it made any difference to me.
“Where is he anyway?”
“He wants to set out again today, so he’s checking the area.”
“A little paranoid I assume?”
He laughed a little. “He just likes to be careful.”
Seth seemed to be a good guy and I was glad Ethan had been traveling with him. If West had been this careful we never would have made it past the South City. But then again, I probably wouldn’t have been caught if we had been more careful. There were so many ‘what ifs.’
I couldn’t think about him.
I quietly sighed and watched Ethan pack up his bag. “Have either of you heard anything about the North City? I heard it might not be overrun yet.”
“Yeah, we heard the same thing,” he said. “Seth is eager to get there and see for himself though. I guess he has a sister living there or something.”
“It seems like everyone has someone there looking for,” I murmured. I stared into the cold remains of the fire. It seemed like I would never find West though, no matter how long I looked. It was only over a month now, and it already felt like a lifetime. It still hurt to picture his face, knowing that I might not see it again so clearly. “It’s like a never-ending nightmare.”
“What did you say?”
I looked up to see Ethan staring at me with wide eyes and I shook my head. “Nothing.”
That wasn’t something I meant to say out loud.
Then he said, “You said everyone has someone they’re looking for.”
“Well, yeah. I was looking for you, wasn’t I?”
“I guess . . . but what did you say after that?”
“It was nothing, Ethan, really.”
He opened his mouth to press me about it but decided against is. He zipped up his bag in the silence that hung between us, and swung it onto his back.
“Come on, Peanut,” he said. “Seth should be back soon.”
I nodded silently as he jumped down from the train. He knew something was wrong. Ethan was too good at reading me, but for some reason he let it go this time. It was unusual for him to let things drop.
Then I had to remind myself. That was him before the war.
A few minutes later we were trekking through the forest heading north. Seth was in the lead, Ethan trailing behind him. I was glad to be in the back, still having the habit of glancing over my shoulder. Ethan did talk a lot, but he seemed to know when he was beginning to bother Seth and stopped. I was entertained with just watching his body language as he talked while walking ahead of me. I missed him too much.
Long past noon, my knee was beginning to ache again and I wasn’t able to hide my small but defined limp. I knew it was still healing, and there was no getting around a little pain after a long day of traveling. It was just the way it was.
“Reese?” It was Ethan.
I looked up and noticed they were already on top of the small hill, waiting for me to catch up.
“Yeah?” I asked, coming to a stop.
Ethan took a step towards me, his eyes filled with concern.
“What?” I asked again.
“Are you hurt?”
“No . . . I’m fine. Why?”
“Reese, you’re limping. Is something wrong?”
I glanced at Seth behind him, curiosity crossing his face. “Ethan, it’s not a big—”
“It is a big deal,” he interrupted and walked down the hill, coming to a stop in front of me. I didn’t notice until now, but he’d gotten taller. “You say that it is’t a big deal, but to me, it is.” Seth followed him down the hill but stayed a few feet back. “I don’t want you to hide anything from me, Reese. Please. I’m your brother for gosh sake. I know something has been bothering you, and it’s not just your knee. You haven’t been yourself.” He smiled, something small. “I think you’ve forgotten how well I know you.”
He wasn’t talking like he was a fifteen year old. At that moment it felt like I was the younger sibling. As I looked into his hazel eyes, I actually wanted him to know what had happened; I didn’t want to be alone with my own memories. Maybe the pain that was brewing inside would lessen if I told someone.
I took a deep breath. “You’re right, you should know. I shouldn’t keep things from you. I’m sorry.”
Seth listened in, but his back was half turned like he wanted to give us some privacy. Then I just said it, wanting to do it before I decided to change my mind, and not say anything, ever.
“I was shot.”
Ethan’s eyes narrowed and his brow creased. “You were shot? How?”
“I was helping someone escape.” My heart ached like something pressed against it; the weight of my bottled emotions, yearning to come out. I wanted him back so badly that I could scream.
But I only stared into Ethan’s eyes while I told him, my voice barely more than a whisper. I couldn’t get it to come out any stronger. “The army had been looking for him. He was a traitor to them, and I decided to lead them away before they could find him again.” I shrugged a little and looked down. “I just figured I would rather have it be me than him. I’d been traveling with him for a few days before when they finally caught up with us, and that’s when it happened.”
“Why did they want one of their own?” he asked. “What did he do?”
“He had helped some people from the South City escape. People that were going to be killed.”
I saw Seth’s head rise from where he was, and he looked at me.
“So, they shot you while you were trying to lead them away?” Ethan asked carefully.
I nodded. “Then they took me back to their outpost for day, I think . . . I can’t remember how long it was. But he had come back for me, and we escaped again. Then, we ended up staying with a couple; she was a nurse so she was able to fix my knee, but we had only stayed there for about a week when—” My throat felt swollen but I was able to say, “When he left.” I finished quietly, focusing all my attention on keeping the tears away.
“Why did he leave?”
“More United soldiers were coming for him and he wanted to wanted to lead them away, and hopefully kill the man tracking him. So we wouldn’t have to run anymore. But—” I looked down at my hands through my blurry vision and saw that they were shaking. “He promised.”
My breathing was becoming labored, my chest constricted with every breath. “He promised he would come back.” I was whispering again. It was almost like I was trying to convince myself that he was still going to keep his promise. It had been too long. Where else could he be besides a cell or . . .? I left the thought hang off; I couldn’t finish it.
I wouldn’t finish it.
Ethan pulled me into his arms. I shook without tears, not wanting to break that promise to myself. Crying wouldn’t make West come back.
I wasn’t supposed to feel this way anymore. I figured after I’d found Ethan again that feeling would go away, and maybe someday my feelings for West would slowly disappear, too. I was lying to myself when I told myself he was still alive. I didn’t want it to be true, but where was he?
Ethan held me tightly in his arms until my breathing calmed. I felt so embarrassed at myself. Especially with Seth there; someone who I barely knew. I wasn’t giving him a very good first impression.
“Jeez, Reese,” Ethan said into my hair. “I leave you alone by yourself, and you go and get yourself in trouble. You have serious problems.”
I pulled back and looked at him as a smile broke across his face.
“You’re so weird,” I said with a groggy voice.
He shrugged and pushed his hair out of his face. “Are you going to be all right now?”
I answered truthfully, “I don’t know.”
Ethan took my hand and we started walking again, with Seth in the lead. My heart felt lighter; I didn’t have to hide anything anymore. Then I noticed Seth was walking slower than we previously were.
“Seth you don’t have to walk slower on my account.” I rolled my eyes. “Actually, let me rephrase that. Don’t walk slower.”
“I don’t want you to be in pain,” he said. “Didn’t you just say you were shot?”
“I’m not in pain . . . well, sometimes I am, but that’s just the way it is.” I wasn’t arguing my case very well. “I deal with it, all right?”
He just kept walking at the same pace. Instead of arguing with him, I squeezed Ethan’s hand harder, and pulled him after me as I quickened my stride. As we passed Seth, Ethan gave him a small shrug.
“You’re acting childish,” Seth said behind us.
“Well, sometimes you need too to make a point,” I countered. I turned suddenly and faced them both. “Look, I don’t want you guys to treat me any differently than you did before. If I need to stop, I’ll tell you.”
Ethan gave a small laugh at my last statement, and I knew exactly why. I would normally just hide things like that and never tell anyone.
“Ethan, I promise I will. Just pretend I never said anything. Please?”
He glanced at Seth before nodding. “All right.” Seth also nodded and I was satisfied. Ethan rolled his eyes before taking off in front of us. Seth hung back, walking alongside me.
“Reese, I feel like I should tell you something. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other, and it’s not right that I know things about you, when you know nothing about me.” His eyes kept flickering to me like he was unsure.
“That seems . . . fair.” I felt embarrassed that he had seen my emotional break down. “What did you want to tell me?”
“Ethan doesn’t even know this,” he said, “but I think you should.”
“Are you serious?” I asked grinning. “I was aware that Ethan knows everything about everyone.”
He huffed a laugh. “He does seem to know things. But no, he doesn’t know this. This was something that I was hoping to forget, but then I realized I shouldn’t. It was just one of those days you want to forget, but you know it’s better if you remember.”
Now I was curious. “What is it?”
He waited a moment before speaking, making sure that Ethan was far enough ahead.
“It was the day of the attack, that evening after the bombs went off. I was trapped inside of a bus. The doors were wedged so I couldn’t get out, and the windows were to thick to break. I was the only one that had survived in there . . .” His eyes studied the ground as we kept walking, like he was reliving that day over in his head. “Everyone around me was dead, and I didn’t know what to do. My leg was sliced with a piece of shrapnel and I was having a hard time stopping the blood. I know you felt the same thing that day. Like living in a nightmare. There was nothing I could do but wait.”
My heart pounded as I listened to his story, and I knew I had it so much easier than everyone else. I was able to escape when others weren’t.
Seth continued, “After what seemed like hours, the streets were quite. It was so eerie, and dark. Then the foot soldiers started roaming the streets, looking for any survivors. And if there were any, they shot them. Their orders must have been to take out as much of the population as possible in the initial attack, to lessen the possibility of any resistance. They saw me trapped in the bus and one of them pointed their gun at me, with just the window separating us. I really thought I was going to die . . .”
“I know the feeling,” I said. I glanced at Ethan who was still ahead of us, still out of hearing range. “I was practically bleeding to death in their cell, and there was nobody there to help. I don’t think they cared if I died or not.”
Seth nodded. “I guess that’s what war does to some people.” After another short pause he continued, “But the man never shot me. They pried open the door of the bus, tied my hands, and dragged me out into the street. There was already a small group of prisoners with them, and they added me to their collection. By the end of the night there was a dozen of us. They told us that by the next morning we would be executed, without giving us a reason.”
I already had an idea on where his story was going, and I found myself eager to find out if it was true.
“An hour before dawn, a soldier came to our holding area. It was just an abandoned storage room. I thought they had come early to get us, but then I realized it was only the one guy. He opened the door and told us to leave before the others would come back. I didn’t believe him at first, maybe thinking he would just shoot me in the back as I left.
“But he never did. He led us out of downtown and we were almost out of the city when the other soldiers realized we were gone. They were close when he told us to keep going. Then . . . he just turned around and started running back the way we came. He did it so we would have time to escape.” Seth looked up finally, and his eyes seemed weary. “I don’t know why he did it.”
“It’s because he believed it was wrong,” I murmured slowly. “He did what he thought was right.”
“So, it was him?”
I nodded. “Yeah, it was him.”
“And you were the one who saved him . . .” He left the sentence hanging and something at the edge of my mind told me he had heard something about that day, before I’d even come along.
“Seth—” he looked over. “What did you hear about that?”
He shook his head. “Not much, other then some rumors. I heard that one of their own turned against them, and before he was executed, a local helped him escape. But I never heard about the reason behind his actions. And I was confused why somebody here would help the people who attacked us. Now it makes sense.”
“What makes sense?”
“Knowing it was him, and why you helped him. You wouldn’t have saved him if he was an actual traitor. You would’ve known the difference. But you saw that he was good, that he was different from the others, didn’t you?”
I nodded silently, not denying what he said, because it was true. “Thanks telling me,” I told him. “I never really knew the details.”
He shrugged with a smile across his lips. “Like I said, it was only fair.”
The rest of the day was uneventful as we traveled at a steady pace.
As was the day after that. And as we got closer to the North City, my anticipation grew stronger. We had no idea what we would find there, and the end result was always on our minds. It was the last hope for our country.
Around noon a few days later we stopped for lunch, which consisted of jerky and a few wild apples that we had found a mile back. Ethan was on his back gnawing at his food while Seth leaned against a tree fingering his small knife.
I scrunched my nose for a moment, thinking I had smelled something, but a small breeze blew it away before I could sniff again. I glanced up at the branches far above me, a strong gust of wind pushing them harder. I could feel a storm coming.
The smell came again, this time longer, so I was sure of it. I looked at Seth who was staring at me with the same expression.
“Did you smell that?” I asked.
We both stood and Ethan got up, oblivious to what we were talking about. “What it is?” He threw his apple core into the bushes and grabbed his pack from the ground, knowing something was off.
His eyes became alert again as he scanned the area. “Like . . . cigarette smoke?”
Even though it wasn’t, my heart still jumped as the memories of Dersa came rushing back. He had smelled like cigarette smoke and gun powder. My body still gave a small shiver just thinking about him.
“No, wood smoke.”
Seth brought his gun around in front of him and started forward in the direction it was blowing from. I followed him and made sure Ethan stayed behind me. I thought it odd that Seth had the same curiosity as I did. During the time I had known him, he had always been extra cautious, but now he wasn’t. At this moment, we were all being a bit risky for curiosities sake.