Sunlight

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Chapter 18

We came out of woods onto an old highway. The asphalt was cracked with grass growing in between, but Seth didn’t pause in crossing. The road hadn’t been used in years, and it would stay that way. I lagged behind, staring at the few old cars that had been pushed into the ditches. They were barely visible, and one even had a small tree growing through it.

I gave it once last glance before following the boys into the woods, and soon the road was out of sight, and thoughts of the past went away with it. It was always a shock to see real evidence of the past.

We hadn’t gone a hundred feet into the woods before it happened.

Six men stepped out of the trees with their rifles raised high, and we stopped dead in our tracks. Adrenaline pumped through my veins again, ready for anything to come. Seth lowered his gun to show them we weren’t a threat, but he never took his eyes off them. One good thing; they weren’t solders. They were just locals with torn clothes and hunting rifles.

But they still had bullets.

One of the men lowered his gun and moved closer to examine us. He was a big man, with a full clean cut beard and dark brown eyes that gazed over us. He reminded me of Paul Bunyan. All he needed was an ox.

The big man looked over Seth, me, and then to Ethan who was half hidden behind my back.

“You’re locals then?” His voice was deep, matching my first thoughts of him.

Seth was the one the answer.

“Yes.” He paused, and glanced back to me before returning his gaze. “How did you know? We could be enemy spies for all you know. I’m sure you’ve heard rumors of them. How they convince you that they’ve changed sides. We could be one of them.”

The man lifted his hand and pointed to something behind me.

“The kid,” he said. “They don’t have them that young in the army, and the way that girl there is standing, tells me she’s related to him. Ready to jump at my throat if I come any closer.” He smiled warmly and told the others to lower their guns. As he did, thunder rumbled high above us and another gust of wind swirled the leaves around our feet.

“Why don’t you three come with us?” he asked. “We’ve got some shelter and you’re welcome to stay the night, or two, if you need it.”

Seth glanced back, looking over his shoulder for only a moment.

Somehow during the last couple days we formed a silent way of communicating. One look was all either of us needed. We had to with Ethan always there talking about some nonsense as usual. I was surprised to find myself growing comfortable around Seth. I was never one to warm up to people quickly, but he was something that I’d never experienced. He was like my childhood friend I had never had until now.

Seth turned back and nodded.

We followed them in silence with the clouds getting darker by the minute. Periodically, the wind would bring more gusts of wood smoke to my nose, telling me we weren’t far from their camp.

We came to a part of the woods where the trees were tall and old, spread out from each other almost perfectly. There was very little bush and debris on the forest floor; mostly just pine needles and leaves. Up ahead I could see people scurrying from tent to tent, trying to put things away before the rain hit. The wind came stronger, blowing the stray pieces of hair from my ponytail in every direction.

There were about a dozen tents, some of them large enough for families and others smaller, fit for two. They were scattered about, underneath trees and nestled in between bushes. As I got closer to the campsite, three small cabins came into view a little farther back into the woods. They were old and weathered but still intact, strong enough to stand up against any type of storm.

People paused to look at us as we entered the camp, but the big man leading us didn’t stop, taking us towards the far left cabin. The other men scattered off in different directions. He took us inside. It was dark, the only light coming from the two windows on each side of the door, and it smelled of wood and dirt. The cold fireplace looked recently used, but I assumed they only used it at night, when the smoke wasn’t visible from the sky.

“You three can stay in here,” he said. “The cabins are for people who don’t have tents. You can light a fire after dark and I’ll have someone bring you food.”

“You don’t have to share your food with us,” I said, shaking my head. “We have some of our own.”

Without even turning I knew Ethan had made a face behind my back; he’d never once turned down free food.

The man held up his hand. “No, I want to. You look like you’ve come far and in need for some good rest. I want you to make yourselves comfortable. If you need anything just ask around for me.”

“Um,” Ethan came around from behind me, “you haven’t told us your name.”

The big man laughed and scratched his beard. “Yeah, I guess I haven’t. It’s Charley. What are yours?”

“I’m Seth.” He stepped forward and shook his hand. “And that’s Ethan and Reese.”

He scrunched his eyes brows together and looked at me. “Your name is Reese?”

I just nodded not knowing where this was going.

“Hmm” was all he said.

“What?”

He walked over to the window and looked out for a moment then turned back to us. His big form caused the floor boards to creak slightly under his weight.

“Reese is a rare name,” he said. “Especially for a girl. There have been rumors traveling about. I’m sure you all know that their army has been in chaos lately; men have been abandoning their posts and regiments to join our side? I’m assuming you’ve heard all that?”

We nodded.

“Well,” Charley continued, “the guy who started everything is out there somewhere, and they’ve been searching for him.”

My heart skipped a beat. Did that mean West was still alive?

“But they’ve also been searching for someone else, too.” His eyes drifted over me. “Someone by the name of Reese. The person who was supposedly traveling with him.”

Ethan turned to me, but Seth kept his eyes on the floor, already knowing. “Was that the guy you were traveling with before?”

“Yes,” I said softly.

“So, it’s really you then?” Charley asked.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It’s just, we didn’t know if the rumors were actually true or not. But . . . here you are. So, where is he?” A frown spread across his kind face as he took the three of us in, one by one.

“Who?”

“The guy of course. West.”

West. Stormy blue eyes and dark hair. My throat got choked up.

I looked to the floor. “Um . . . we were separated. I don’t know where he is.” It was hard to form the words in my mouth and make them come out the way they were supposed to. I almost didn’t say anything.

Charley didn’t seem to notice though and said, “No matter. I would have just liked to have meet him. You both are . . . well, I don’t know if I would use the word ‘famous’ but, people know your names just about everywhere now.”

That I did not know. I knew people had been following in West’s footsteps, but I had no idea that people knew who we were. Not our names at least. But then I remembered back when Mr. Kothem had asked for my name. And I had given it to him. Now I regretted it.

“Where are you guys from?” Charley asked.

Seth answered, “The South City.”

“Well, that’s quite a ways. Not everyone could make that far with the army between us and there.”

“I won’t say it’s been easy,” he said.

Charley nodded, seeming to know that that was the end of the conversation. “Remember, if any of you need anything, just ask for me.”

Shorty after he left, the rain started up. It reminded me of those gloomy days when it had rained nonstop for a week, my first week with West. My eyes stared into it unmoving, hazing over like a dreamlike state. It made me tired.

Seth sat down on one of the chairs placed near the table and Ethan collapsed onto the bed, followed by an exhausted sigh. I stood where I was, not knowing what to do with myself. It felt odd staying somewhere when we could still be traveling. I still hadn’t decided if I felt comfortable here, around so may people; people who knew my name. It was all too much to take it.

Finally I took the seat opposite of Seth and leaned back in my chair. I felt so tired. My limbs were heavy and my eyes stared off towards something I wasn’t seeing. Ethan was already asleep, sprawled out across the bed like a disfigured spider. Every time he exhaled, the hair hanging over his face would move just slightly.

“You know,” Seth stared as he tapped his long fingers on the wooden table, “we don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to. I know you don’t partially like the fact that they know who you are. I probably wouldn’t either.”

I nodded in understanding. “It just makes me a bit edgy. I had no idea they were still looking for me, and I don’t know when one of them might decide to turn me over for a reward, or if one of them is a spy.”

“It is a bit risky,” Seth commented. “When do you want to leave?”

“Maybe a day or two, but no more. It’ll be nice to sleep in a bed for at least a couple nights.” Then I mumbled, “My back feels broken from sleeping on the ground.”

“Are you sure?” He turned his head so he was staring into my eyes. I had never noticed they were such a deep brown; so soft and warm. Maybe it was because I had never stared at him before, as least not this hard. Even though I had only known Seth for about a week, it felt as if I’d known him a lifetime.

With West it was different. It felt like I still didn’t know him and yet I knew that that was the reason I was attracted to him. He was full of missing pieces still to be found. Ones that I could only find.

“I want you to be safe, Reese,” he said. “Even though you don’t talk about what happened when the army took you, your eyes say it for you.”

I studied him a moment longer before turning away. “And what do they tell you?”

“That you’re hurt, more deeply than other people can see. Your knee is obvious, but there is something more, something that’s hidden. I know it has to do with West.

A silence hung in the air around us, so thick that it was loud.

“I can keep you safe, Reese.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever be safe,” I whispered. I’m not sure why it came out like that but it did. Maybe because it was true, or maybe because I didn’t want to believe it to be. “They’re still hunting me, and they will until they find West.”

That was the first time in a long time I had said his name out loud.

Seth turned away and I could see the muscles working in his jaw; clenching and unclenching. He stared at the wall.

“You shouldn’t feel like you have to protect me. I don’t want you to. If you want to protect somebody, protect Ethan. You know it would mean a lot to me if you would.”

He glanced over at Ethan, sleeping away in the bed, and nodded. “You know I already am.”

My heart felt a little lighter. “I know, and that’s all I can ask of you.”

“Why won’t you let me to help you?” His eyes were narrowed and asking questions I didn’t have answers too.

“What do you mean? You are helping me.”

“Only to an extent, and you know it. You won’t let anyone get close to you. You’ll barely even let Ethan touch you anymore. I know, because he tells me.”

His words hurt me, and my eyes drifted towards my little brother sleeping away. My bitterness was starting to come back again, and the holes that Ethan had once filled, were slowly emptying again. I had no idea it would happen so soon, though. I thought I would at least be happy for a while being with Seth, and especially Ethan again. The first night I had slept well because he was with me. But that was the first and last of it’s kind. I was no different from before I came across them.

I was cold again in my dark, hidden cave, and it was harder for me to find my way out than I had thought.

“I’m sorry I’ve been distant,” I answered truthfully. “But it doesn’t feel right to be close to anyone right now. It doesn’t feel the same as it did before, and I don’t know why.”

“It’s because of West,” Seth said with his head turned away, unable for me to see his expression. “Isn’t it? When he left, he left you hurting, and he hasn’t been back to patch you back up. You broke when he left, and you still are.”

Seth’s words were of a truth I didn’t want to believe, and left a bitter taste lingering in my mouth. I didn’t want West in my mind right now because different feelings would sprout out when I did, ones of anger and something else entirely. Was it possible to love and hate someone at the same time?

I didn’t want to hate West. I wanted him be waiting behind me when I glanced over my shoulder in the woods. To see him standing there with his wonderful smile and striking posture. To see him there and be happy. Not bitter like I was now.

“I don’t want to talk about him, Seth. Not now—”

“You can’t ignore it forever,” he answered.

“Ignore what?” The venom in my voice was clear and I was immediately ashamed that I said it that way. Seth didn’t deserve to be around me when I was like this. Nobody did.

Seth sat back in his chair and sighed softly. When he spoke his voice was calmer than I had been expecting, especially right after I had snapped at him.

“Everything inside you that’s screaming to come out.”

We must have sat in silence for a whole ten minutes. His words were heavy in the air for me to think about.

“I’m not ignoring it. I wish I could just shut away what’s going on inside of me, but it seems impossible. I am hurt,” I nodded looking down at my hands, “you’re right. But I’m not sure if West knew what he was doing to me when he left. I’m not sure if he knew what he was putting me though when he did.”

“You mean how you feel about him? Did you never tell him?”

“I thought he knew.” It hurt me to admit it. “But maybe he didn’t think my feelings were as strong as he thought they were.”

“No, I think he did know, but he chose to leave because he wanted to keep you safe. You both are probably going through the same thing right now, and it hurts West just as much to be away from you.”

I smiled. “I don’t know if I believe you or not, but it makes me feel somewhat better, knowing that maybe he hasn’t forgotten about me.”

Seth shook his head. “No, he hasn’t forgotten about you. How could you even think that?”

I didn’t answer, instead I took the conversation away all together. The subject was coming too close to whether I would ever see him again. “Do you want to make it an early night?” I asked.

Seth kept his gaze level with mine, but just nodded his head after a moment. We dropped our packs near the door and made sure it was locked, bringing our guns with us near our beds. I found some heavy blankets in the small, and only closet, and spread them across the floor, making a makeshift bed for Seth. I kicked my shoes off and pushed Ethan over to the far side of the mattress. He didn’t even flinch. The poor kid was exhausted.

Sleep didn’t come easily. I laid there awhile, long past after Seth fell into a deep dreamlike state. I listened to his breathing until the light left the sky, leaving me in the dark. Another night full of troubled sleep.

And it would probably be that way until I found West again.

I woke to an empty cabin with sunlight streaming in through the windows. Muted voices came from somewhere outside, and a few early morning birds chirped away from a hidden branch. Quickly stomping into my shoes and fixing my hair, I stepped outside onto the damp ground. The sun was barely up, just skimming the forest floor, searching for any patches of black to turn into day. Dew glistened off the rare strands of grass and leaves that were littered across the ground.

I instantly saw Ethan wave for me from the corner of my eye, and I made my way over to the small campfire, trying to ignore the people glancing at me. Many of them were still sleeping, but there were enough of them out to make me conscious of their eyes. In the back of my mind, I was just waiting for one of them to pull out a knife stab me in the back, finding out in that moment they were an enemy spy. One moment too late.

Ethan stood and walked over before I reached the fire.

“Hey Peanut, Abria said she would show you where you can wash up, if you want.”

I glanced over his shoulder at a girl not older than myself who stood and gave a small wave. She was just a bit shorter than me with long dark hair that matched her eyes.

Just thinking about washing my hair made me self conscious of how dirty it was. I could almost feel the grit in it. For a moment, I thought about doing dreadlocks and just be done with it all together.

“Yeah, that would be great actually.”

She smiled wide and said, “Okay! It’s not that warm but it’s better than nothing.” She shrugged.

I was surprised at myself as I gave her a small smile in return, and it wasn’t fake. I guessed the notion of clean hair will do that to someone. “I’ll take whatever I can get,” I said. “Give me a minute and I’ll get another change of clothes.”

I walked back to our cabin and dug through my pack with vigor. Everything in it was dirty. No, it was beyond dirty. I slung my pack over my shoulder, figuring I could wash everything while I was there, eager for clean clothes and determined to have them as soon as possible.

Abria was waiting outside for me and I followed her out of camp. As we got deeper into the woods she veered off and picked her path carefully through a dense part of the forest with more greenery sprouting from the ground.

“So you’re from the South City, right?” Abria asked over her shoulder.

“Yeah.”

“And you really walked the whole way?” she asked. “I could so not do that.”

“Yeah, walked . . . ran,” I mumbled under my breath. “And maybe a half day of riding in a truck.” After I thought back on it, I had traveled a long way. It would have been so much harder if West hadn’t been with me. I probably would have never have made it this far without him. I was somehow stronger when he was around, and when he left, I went back to my regular self. I felt dull and plain. I frowned at the thought.

“Did you get tired a lot?”

I raise an eyebrow at her turned head, trying to think of the point to these questions and finding none. “Um, not really. It’s fine when you travel at a steady pace.”

“Were you with your brother the whole time?”

“No, just within the last week.”

“How long do you think you will be staying here for?”

So many questions. She seemed really nice, but . . . seriously, I felt as if I was taking a quiz. A thought came to me that she may be doing just that, pretending to be my friend, only to get information.

I shook my head. I was getting too paranoid. She was just trying to be nice. I could tell by the sound of her voice. I wanted that bitterness that still lingered in me to disappear, so maybe this would be a good place to start; being a normal human and acting like one.

“Maybe a day or two,” I finally answer. “We aren’t sure yet.”

“Your friend Seth seems nice. He’s really quiet, though.” She dropped her head at that statement, hooking some hair behind her ear.

I smiled at the thought of Seth with Abria being together. “He has his quiet days, but he’ll warm up, I’m sure.”

“You think so?” Her question seemed to have two meanings behind it.

I nodded as she turned to glance at me. “Yeah, I do. How long have you been living at camp?”

“For the last month. My dad thought it would be best to leave the city just in case something happened.”

“Wait—” I tried to process the exact words she used. “You mean nothing has happened there?”

“Well, in the beginning of course, there was the initial attack, but after we took back control they haven’t been back since. Though, everyone there is getting ready for another attack, and they think it’ll be soon.”

“So the army isn’t in control? We heard it was a possibility, but we never had any proof.”

She glanced back at me again and smiled. “Yeah, it’s just us there now. Well, for now. Like I said, they’re not going to leave us alone for long.”

That was good news for us; our enemy only had control of two of the three cities.

We came around a soft bend made up of thick brush and young trees that led onto a shore of a small river. I could’ve jumped across it in two bounds but it looked deep, and the water was calm and flowing. The shore was littered of small rounds pebbles that seemed to match the forest; their earthy colors blending in with everything around them.

Abria turned back towards, me and dug her hand into the pocket of her jeans, pulled it out, and handed me a small plastic shampoo bottle.

“You can use the rest of it. I’ve got another.”

I took the bottle from her gratefully. “Thanks.”

“I’ll go back to camp.” Then she added, “Unless you’ll feel more comfortable if I’m within shouting distance, but Charley and the others make a good perimeter.”

I shook my head. “No, it’s fine. I’ll see you when I get back, and thank you. My hair feels filthy.”

She laughed a little. “I know what you mean.”

I watched her disappear around the bend before turning back towards the water. My heart fluttered with eagerness of having a bath, even though it was no shower. I bent down, placed my bag on the pebbles, and pulled out all my dirty clothes, leaving my pistol on top of my empty pack.

I stood at the shoreline for a moment, debating whether I should do everything at once or not. I kicked off my shoes and plunged into the river with the clothes wrapped in my arms; done with deciding and ready to be wet. The water was cool but felt fantastic, and just deep enough so it came up right below my neck. I just floated there for a while, enjoying the water and the warm sunlight on my face. It reminded me of my parent’s bathroom back home, when I snuck in there when nobody was home, relishing the small amount of luxury.

I came back to reality with that thought, remembering I wasn’t home but somewhere in the middle of the forest while our country was in war. I was abruptly conscious of the surrounding trees and hidden places where a person could hide, just waiting for the right moment to attack. I was really getting too paranoid. My mind was making conclusions before I had the chance to think them through properly.

The first thing I did was clean the filth from of my clothes. I scrubbed them together until all the visible dirt and grit came out and there wasn’t much else I could do. I threw my extra clothes on the shore and took off my shirt and pants underwater, also washing them thoroughly.

Now was the part I was really excited for: washing my hair. The first time was hard with trying to untangle the knots; there were a lot. I washed it three times and used up every ounce of shampoo in that tiny bottle. By the time I was finished there were goose bumps on my arms and the water felt cold after being in it so long.

I waded to shore, slowly pushing against the soft tide, and quickly pulled on my wet shirt and pants along with my shoes. My ears heard the crunch of somebody’s feet on the pebbles behind me, and I flinched. My heart fluttered as I spun around with my pistol already in hand, ready for whoever was there. My veins seemed to be on fire with adrenaline.

To be honest, I was surprised at my own reflexes.

I never used to be this quick.

“Whoa! Reese!”

It was Seth. I immediately lowered my gun. “Sorry,” I mumbled. My cheeks warmed with embarrassment.

He put his hands down and took a deep breath. “It’s all right, I understand. Everyone is a little jumpy nowadays.” He was soaking wet, just as I was, his hair tied back.

“Decided to jump in with all your clothes too, huh?” I asked.

He laughed a little, looking down at himself and shrugged. “I figured it was better to walk around wet for a few hours than have dirty clothes.”

“Same here.”

I picked up my pack and we started walking back through the woods together. My eyes regularly glanced at the tree line, watching for any movement; new habits thanks to the war.

“Do you ever try to imagine what life was like before the Fall?” Seth asked warily, “Before the Three Cities?”

“I think we all do. I guess it was like what it is now . . . just bigger.” I thought about the images forming in my head, but I could never see them clearly. “When I try to picture what it was like, I always think of the old movies that I watch. I suppose it was like that, but I don’t really know.”

“I don’t see how you like watching all those classics over and over again.” Seth shook his head and laughed. “But in some ways, you could be right.”

“It was different from our world, that’s for sure.”

And that was the truth. The facts from the past were vague, and almost forgotten. Schools tended to skip over that part in our history lessons so we would eventually forget. People had no problem not discussing the near extinction of humankind. They wanted to think about what was present, and their future, the fact that the Cities were growing, and the forgotten sites were now crumbling and overgrown. It was something people never talked about.

“Did you ever think about going down south?” Seth asked. “To look at the ruins?”

I smiled. “I used to, but it’s been a while since it’s crossed my mind. I’ve always thought one day that I would make it down there, to see the old buildings.”

“Me too, though, I’ve always been afraid of what I would find.”

“You mean you’re afraid you’ll find out that everything is true?” I asked.

Seth hesitated, staring down at his feet. He nodded. “Maybe. The truth just seems so unreal.”

“Yeah, but so does this war too.”

We shared a smile as we came near the cabins. The camp was bustling with activity now that everyone was awake, so we made a bee line towards our cabin and went inside.

Seth glanced at me as we were opened our packs and started hanging our wet clothes over the chairs. He seemed distracted as he fingered his wet shirt, staring at it blankly. “It’s weird having all these people around,” he mumbled, finally draping the shirt over a chair.

“Ethan seems all right with it.” I could see him out the window, surrounded by other kids his age, laughing at a joke I couldn’t hear. He always seemed at home wherever he was.

“Yeah, he does. Ethan’s funny that way though. Like a chameleon.” Seth flashed a quick grin before returning to his previous state. “I’m thinking maybe we can leave tomorrow sometime?”

I just nodded. We were both still in the place where people made us nervous.

“I’m going to go talk to Charley, to let him know then.”

I just nodded again, staring at the floor.

Seth left through the door, leaving me in a drowning silence. I wasn’t sure how long I stood there, staring at something I wasn’t seeing, but it seemed forever.

After eating lunch a few hours later our clothes were dry and I was sitting a little ways in the woods with Ethan. It was relaxing being away from everyone; finally spending some time alone with my brother like we were back at home again.

Then I told him, “We’re going to be leaving tomorrow.”

He paused a moment before going back to making a pinecone house. He wiped a hand across his face, brushing the hair away from his eyes. He nodded. “Okay.”

“I thought you would put up more of a fight.” I crossed my arms and leaned back against the tree.

“No. I’ll do whatever you guys want to do, I trust you. Especially if you don’t feel safe here.”

“It’s not that I don’t feel safe,” I said, “it’s . . . just

“I know.” He didn’t look up.

I felt restless here. I wanted to say it but he already knew; the benefits of being siblings I suppose.

“Abria really likes Seth,” he stated, trying to put on a little pine needle roof. I was surprised at how steady his hands were.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.” I wanted to add, ‘it was kind of hard not to’, but decided against it.

“I saw them together earlier this morning.”

“Where at?”

He just shrugged, not really caring. So much for my source of information.

We both heard shouting at the same time and looked towards the camp, but the trees were blocking our sight. Ethan stood hurriedly but I stayed where I was, figuring it was probably a couple teenagers getting into a fight. He walked away for a moment and then came running back.

“Reese!”

I pushed myself up, alerted. “What?”

He came to a halt before me, taking short breaths with his excitement, “They’re bringing someone in.”

I wasn’t sure if that was exciting or not. “So?”

He narrowed his eyes and said, “They’re not locals.”

Not locals.

He turned his back and I was right behind him, staying on his heels as he trotted out of the woods. We came into view of the camp.

What I was expecting wasn’t what I saw. I was expecting to see a uniformed soldier with Charley and his friends surrounding him. A soldier found at the wrong place and wrong time.

But that’s not what I was seeing.

What I was seeing had my heart fluttering and my legs stopping in mid-stride.

I suddenly realized I never truly lost hope when I thought I had.

West.

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