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Chapter 2

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When I woke, the sun blinded me from the east, threading through the trees with morning. Yesterday was still a living nightmare, and I wanted so badly for it to go away. I hoped it was a nightmare and I would wake with the smell of Mom’s pancakes and sound of Ethan’s laugh.

Thinking of them and what happened yesterday made me want to cry. Seeing as I didn’t have time or strength for crying, I sat up and stopped thinking about it. Every muscle in my legs and back were sore and stiff. Even though I didn’t want to, walking again would only do me good. I hadn’t noticed last night, but I fell asleep in an ocean of ferns—which was good if anyone followed me from the house yesterday. But I doubted they did. What was one person to them?

Either way, I had to get farther away from the city. Away from soldiers and any form of danger.

My heart wanted nothing more than to find Ethan, to protect him and make sure hewouldn’t get hurt. But I couldn’t help Ethan until I helped myself. I found my cell phone at the bottom of my bag but there was still no service. I tossed it back in, not ready to give up on it.

The stream nearby reminded me of my dry mouth. I shouldered my pack and shotgun and kneeled down next to the water barely a hundred feet away. I only had two filtration bottles so I filled them both, knowing the amount of streams in this part of the country.

The woods were so quiet and secluded it seemed impossible there was war raging only miles away. Or however long I ran for. I took a long stretch and redid my ponytail so it was tight. My hair was dirty, making my dark hair look course, but I didn’t have time to wash it.

A branch snapped some yards away and I froze, even stopped breathing for a moment so I could listen. Feet crashed through forest not caring about the amount of noise they made, just as long as they got there, coming from straight across the stream from where I stood. Questions raced through my thoughts—what if it was the United army? What would happen if they found me?

My legs should have been running in the opposite direction, but my body wasn’t responding. I was frozen, only able stare in the direction in which they were coming with my heart pounding in my head full of wishes I hoped would be true.

Shapes of people started to flash in between the tress, just glimpses of jackets and running legs. Move, I told myself over and over. There was still a chance to run and not be seen.

Three people came into view as they stopped at the edge of the creek, just above the rise of the bank. Their chests heaved and their eyes darted over me then searched the forest to see if I was alone. Two girls were standing behind a tall guy with striking blond hair. They weren’t soldiers, which calmed me somewhat, but something about the man’s stare put me on edge.

His eyes took me in quickly before moving his gaze over my shoulder, where my pack lay against my back along with my gun. My foot found the strength to move but only a single step backwards.

One of the girls whispered in the guy’s ear and he nodded, never taking his gaze away from mine.

“Yeah, I know,” he told her.

“Well, then do it!” She spoke loudly this time, her eyes darting back to me, making me more nervous than I should have been. We were on the same side. Why did it not feel like that?

He shook her away and jumped down into the creek. The water came up to his knees as he put his hands up, palms out, showing me he was unarmed. The gesture was supposed to be calming. It didn’t help.

Another person came crashing through the forest, farther down the creek behind me. I took a quick glance as another guy jumped over the creek in one swift movement and landed on his feet. He just stared at me, but unlike the others, he had a gun.

“Look . . .” the tall blond started talking again, and when I looked back he was closer than before. Too close for my liking. “Just give us your stuff and we’ll let you go.”

So, that’s what they wanted. Everything I had on my back. The other guy crept closer, trying to get behind me, and I wasn’t sure if I was fast enough to get my shotgun in front of me. I took another step back, keeping the distance.

I shook my head. “That’s not going to happen.”

No?” He half-laughed the word. His eyes lingered over my shoulder and I followed his gaze. But it was too late. Soft footsteps were only heard after he was already behind me. My attempt to move away was cut off when he wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me back towards him, pressing me against his body and trapping my arms. I let out a short yell as his other hand clamped over my mouth, cutting off the sound.

His hand smelled like gun power and smoke.

The guy who stood in the creek now approached us, a smug expression across his face. “How about handing your things over now?” he proposed.

I only narrowed my eyes. Just as he took his last step forward, a voice rang out across the woods.

Gabe!” A man’s voice rang out.

The three in front of me turned their attention to someone in the forest, out of my view. They looked at him and then glanced away, trying not to look involved now that he was here.

“We need all we can get,” Gabe answered, still holding me. “We left with practically nothing.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean we can steal from people who are on the same side as us. We’ll get our supplies a different way.” The man finally walked around us and faced Gabe with an unyielding stare. He was older than the rest of them, graying hairs just starting to show, and obliviously the authority figure to them. A dad or uncle maybe? “This isn’t the right way. You know better.”

Fine,” he muttered. The older man stared until I was released. I stepped away as fast as I could, but they made no move towards me.

“I apologize,” the man said. “The last twenty-four hours have been hard. As you know already.”

A single nod was all I could give him. The two girls crossed over the creek to join their companions, and then they turned together, leaving me as if they had never came. My heart still hammered as I watched them leave and long after I couldn’t hear them.

The more I thought about what just happened, the more I became ashamed of myself. Dad taught me better than that and I knew I was better than that. I wouldn’t let it happen again.

The wind moved through the trees, silently brushing past me. A reminder that I was alone again. I needed to find Ethan and my parents, to have them near me again and to remind me there was something worth fighting for. Because right now, I had nothing. Nothing but the hope of seeing them again.

I set off again, but this time at a fast walk, trying to put as much distance between me and those people as I possibly could. The ground felt hard under my tired feet, almost as if I was walking on cement, and it hurt every step of the way. I kept waiting to hear thunder again somewhere behind me where the city was, but everything was quiet—eerie. Like every human had disappeared and left me alone in the world.

Our house was located on the west side of the city, so in order to avoid any human contact I was had to head straight north. I wasn’t sure exactly how far I’d come last night but I figured the city was a quite a few miles behind me. At least I hoped it was. The terrain was still flat and densely wooded so I knew I hadn’t travel too far.

The sun was straight above me when my stomach growled. I didn’t want to stop, but thinking back made me realize that the last time I had eaten was the day before yesterday.

I spotted a big oak up ahead so I slumped down at the base and dug though my bag, finding some jerky and crackers. Everything about me was numb. I didn’t feel like myself. It felt like I was a stranger stumbling along in the woods, lost without anywhere to go.

Nobody was looking for me. The only people who would were my parents, and they were probably gone now. I’m not sure how I knew, but I did. It was a strange feeling but a true one. An empty one. A horrible one. One I wished wasn’t true.

If Ethan was here, he would’ve said. “Look on the bright side, Peanut. At least you haven’t gotten mauled by a bear yet.”

Then he would smile and shrug.

I wanted to cry again, holding the tears back by standing up—about to push myself forward—but I didn’t get ten steps before I heard the squealing of brakes not twenty feet to my left. Tires crunched on the gravel under the weight of a vehicle, along with a low rumble of an exhaust.

I quickly dove behind a big oak just before a large truck came into view, coming to a stop at the end of an old access road directly behind me that I hadn’t noticed until now. The engine rumbled for a minute then cut off, making the woods quiet and still once more. The tree pressed against my shoulder blades and the urge to make a run for it grew until my legs shook. This might be my only chance.

Yet, I didn’t move. What if it wasn’t the Union but our own army?

At the base of the tree there was some dense underbrush. I slowly lowered myself down to the ground and peeked around the tree through the branches. The scent of dirt filled my nostrils and my heart thumped into the earth, a pulsing rhythm that kept me calm in a moment when I shouldn’t be.

A large grey truck sat in the clearing with a canvas covered back, so out of place in the middle of these woods. Another second went by and the truck doors opened, squeaking at the hinges as two men stepped out, stretching their backs before slamming the doors shut.

They were Union soldiers. Both had black and green camouflage uniforms with rifles over their shoulders. The man with graying hair lit a cigarette and took a long drag, sighing as he blew the smoke out through his nose.

The other solider was a bit more on guard, scanning the area with only her eyes, a defensive stance with her rifle in from of her. She glanced over my hiding place once but didn’t hesitate. I crouched there like a stone as I watched, knowing if I moved it would be over before I could stand.

A question repeated in my head—what were they doing here? There was nothing out here.

The man with the cigarette sighed and said, “Get him out here.”

The woman smiled and said, “A little anxious are we, John?” Then went to the back of truck. The tailgate dropped and two more soldiers jumped down. Then one more came out between them with his hands cuffed behind his back.

My question was answered.

They were here to execute someone.

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