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Chapter 21

I stepped out of the cabin the next morning and felt awake.

I hadn’t slept that well in . . . I couldn’t remember. I took a deep breath and was surprised at the coolness of the air. I looked down at the ground and saw a light layer of frost in the shadows of the trees, where the sun hadn’t yet touched. It was going to be an early fall.

I could hear the others shuffling around in the cabin behind me, and I smiled. I was the first to gather my things out of all five of us and left, though not before giving West a quick smirk on my way out. I felt almost giddy having him around again. Something I haven’t felt for a long time.

Abria suddenly stepped into my view and gave me a sad smile. “So you guys are leaving today?”

“Yeah, we have to get moving again,” I said. “We want to get up to the North City.”

She nodded. “I understand, but if you ever travel this way again, make sure you stop in.”

I nodded as Seth came through the door behind me, and Abria instantly blushed, looking down at her feet quickly.

“Hey, Abria.”

“Hey, Seth.” She glanced up quickly at him as she said it.

“Reese, I’m going to find Charley and let him know we are leaving now.”

Abria spoke up before I even got a breath out. “I can take you to him, I know where he is.” She shifted her weight a little and shrugged. “If you want.”

“Oh okay, sure.” He looked at me a moment to make sure I didn’t want to say anything before following her.

I watched them disappear through the camp. Seth never seemed to notice her blushing every time he glanced her way, or maybe he did and chose not to encourage it. Either way, he was always polite to her.

“It’s getting colder,” Mia announced behind me.

No duh, I thought. I really didn’t know why I was thinking horrible things to say to her. But all I said was, “Yup.”

“Where did Seth go?”

“To find Charley. Are West and Ethan ready?”

“I think so, but every time Ethan puts something in his bag, West just takes it out and hides it when he isn’t looking.” I felt a slight breeze on the back of my neck and imagined her flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I really don’t know why they find it all that funny,” she huffed.

I smiled with my back still turned; I wanted to laugh just thinking about it. If it wasn’t for the person standing directly behind me, I would have been the happiest I’d ever been.

Why did she bother me so much? It was just bothering me not knowing why it bothered me.

“Ready to go?” It was West this time, and it made me forget that I hated the person next to him.

I turned to him, smiling because I couldn’t help myself. “I think so.”

He looked like he wanted to say more but Mia sighed right on cue, failing to suppress her impatience. I desperately wanted to be with him, alone, but unfortunately that moment was going to have to wait.

I had to admit, it was slightly awkward between us. He was finally here after a month and a half, and he had kissed me before he had left—I couldn’t even think about it without my head starting the spin. And then that kiss last night . . .

I turned from him before he saw my heated cheeks.

We walked to the edge of camp and met up with Charley, Seth, and Abria coming out of the woods. We said our goodbyes to them both and thanked Charley. The big man gave us all hugs, followed by Abria. She hugged Seth last, and I was almost sure I saw him whisper something into her ear. Then we were gone.

West took the lead as we started north again with the morning sun leaking through the trees like broken shutters. It reminded me of the morning when the helicopter found us. But now, I felt as if nothing could happen, no matter what was thrown in our way.

I let the others drift ahead as I dropped back near Seth who was holding up the rear. He had his thumbs hooked into the straps of his backpack and his ponytail seemed shorter.

“Did you cut your hair?” He nodded in response. “When?”

“Early this morning, it was getting a bit long.” Then he added, “I’m not surprised you didn’t notice, you were . . . distracted.” He smirked.

“To say the least.” I sighed a little, not sure if I should ask him. “If you don’t mind me asking, what did you say to Abria before we left?” I stole a glance. “You don’t have to tell me, I was just curious.”

“I’ll make you a deal.” He smiled unexpectedly and said, “I’ll answer your question, if you’ll answer one of mine.” He smiled even wider, egging me on.

“Yeah, all right,” I answered, returning his smile, not sure what he wanted to know.

“I told her if everything works out in the end, after the war is over . . . that she might see me again. I really like her, but its not the right time. I don’t think war is ever the right time, and I didn’t want to get her hopes up, just in case something happens to me . . .” He shrugged and left the sentence hanging.

“Really? I had no idea. I mean, Abria’s feelings for you were obvious but it seemed to me that you never noticed.”

“Just for future reference, Reese, I notice everything.”

I raised an eyebrow but he just shrugged it off. “So, what’s your question?” I asked.

“Why do you hate Mia so much?”

I almost stopped walking. “How—”

“I grew up with four sisters.” The answer came without thought.

“That would explain it.”

“Now you know my secret.”

I thought about his question for me, and my feelings for Mia returned with them. “Well, actually,” I said, “I’m not entirely sure myself. But I really do. I feel like a horrible person saying it, but it’s true. She just . . . rubs me the wrong way.”

“Well, do you think it’s because,” he shrugged his shoulders once, “you know, she’s closer to West than you are? I mean not closer, but known him longer.”

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I was always wishing I knew West more than I did. A lot more.

“I don’t know,” I murmured. “It’s just the thought of her being with him this whole time while he was away, and me not being there. It just feels like our time away from each other was all for nothing, and I think I’m blaming it all on her.”

“It’s possible. Your feelings for West are stronger than hers though. And the same goes for him.”

I couldn’t help but look at him. “What?”

“Like I told you,” he said with an all-knowing grin, “I know everything.”

Even though I couldn’t be certain Seth was right, it still made me feel better.

We fell into a lapse of silence and caught up with the rest of our little group. We walked straight through lunch, eating along the way.

There was one thing that bothered me most. Every time I would try and talk to West, Mia was always there to interrupt. We had yet to have another conversation since the night before; it was almost as if she was doing it on purpose. She was like one of those flies that wouldn’t go away. It was making me go crazy beyond all reason.

It wasn’t just talking to him that I missed. I missed being near him. I missed walking next to him, and the feel of his hand in my when he wanted to make sure I was still there. I missed him. And everything about him.

But I put my feelings aside for the day. It felt too crowded in the woods surrounding us.

The day went by quickly and by the end of it I was surprised to find that my knee was no longer aching after a long day’s walk. It was a relief to be pain free for once.

When we found a relatively spacious clearing to spend the night, I backtracked along our path to make sure out footsteps weren’t noticeable if someone happened to cross them. We had to cover our tracks in case Dersa was still tracking West.

I shivered as I looked down upon our invisible path. The woods were so quiet sometimes that it made me feel like I was the last person alive on this planet. My shallow breath was visible as I stood staring into the trees. The cool air was dry in my throat and made me thirsty.

I shivered again and started back. When I walked into the clearing, Mia was the only one there and I internally sighed. “Where is everyone?”

She looked up for a moment before focusing her attention back on . . . well nothing; just something besides me. I clenched my teeth from saying anything.

Mia said, “Seth and Ethan went to find a creek to refill the water bottles.”

“What about West?”

She threw her hand in the direction to the right of me without looking up. “He went over that way somewhere.”

“Did he say why?”

She sighed irritability. “No.”

My mouth pressed into a thin line and I felt like punching her. She was now acting as though I’d left, but truthfully, I was still standing in front of her.

Instead of throwing my fist towards her face, I turned in the direction in which she pointed and left without saying another word. I was seriously starting to think she had a super power; the power to severely piss me off.

I walked for about five minutes and still hadn’t found him. The sun was setting and the woods were slowly becoming dim. The shadows were longer, making them seem like people watched me from the darkness. The trees were closer together here; it was hard to see more then fifty feet in any direction. All I could see were large trunks where ever I looked, catching glimpses of the ones behind them as I passed by.

Everything was beyond quiet.

I stopped walking and wanted to laugh at myself. Here I was, wandering around in the woods when West was probably already back at the clearing. My mind was so focused on thinking of ways of how to get rid of Mia, or seriously hurting her, that I’d just kept walking.

But when I turned, I caught movement in my peripheral vision. By then it was too late and I couldn’t react fast enough.

It all happened within a single heartbeat.

A hard blow to my face came without warning and I was thrown to the ground. When my head hit the ground I closed my eyes against the pain that came with it. I was so stunned that I couldn’t breathe for a moment. My lungs ached for air but none came. It jarred the inside of my head and I could almost feel my teeth vibrating. All I could hear was my own beating heart like a fast rhythmic drum, and my quick gasps for air that I was finally able to have.

When my head stopped spinning, I cracked my eyes opened. The dirt which my face was pressed up against was blurry, slowly becoming clearer as the shock wore off.

The world was tilted. Just like my life.

Footsteps were dull thuds against the soft ground as they came closer. My hearing was slowly coming back. I started lifting my head off the ground but strong hands grabbed my arms before I could move.

One of their hands twisted my arm behind my back, the pain causing me to clench my teeth, and they forced me to my feet. My head hung limply. I could see drops of blood dripping from my mouth from the hit I took. The red drops hit the ground and clumps of dirt clung to them until they soaked into the soil.

I didn’t want to look up at the person standing before me, not wanting to accept that this was happening. All over again. I could hear another soldier to my right but he was the least of my worries.

All I did was stare at Dersa’s boots.

The cigarette smoke drifted to my nose and I fought back a shudder. Fear that had been once dormant, now came back as if it had never left.

I forgot the fear he brought with him.

“Hello, Reese.” Hearing his voice again made me wish this was a nightmare.

I lifted my eyes.

Dersa plastered a fake frown onto his face and took a few steps forward, his snakelike eyes examining me thoroughly. Starting at my feet and making his way up.

“Oh, not happy to see me, are you? Well, no matter,” he waved his hand carelessly. “It’s not like I actually care.”

“What do you want?” I gritted the words through my teeth, only because if I didn’t, I would be screaming at him. If it weren’t for the man holding me back, I would be tearing him apart.

He looked at me steadily. “I think you know the answer to that.”

I heard my name being yelled in the distance and Dersa smiled as he stood facing me. It was the biggest smile I had ever seen him make, and it scared me beyond all measure. He took a step closer and brought his mouth right next to my ear. My skin was tingled everywhere, wanting me to shrink away. His close presence had the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“Your boy is right on time,” he murmured. The soft breeze from his voice made me shiver like it was winter. “I’ve got to say, this is just too easy,” he purred.

Dersa stepped back, jerked his head to the man behind me who suddenly switched position. He brought a knife to my throat and bent my arm around behind my back in an even more painful angle. I could almost feel the blade slicing into my skin and I was afraid to even swallow, terrified that it would sink in. The only thing that was moving was my chest, rising and falling, without a hint of slowing down anytime soon.

I didn’t want West to come here, to be in the same place he had been in before. But this time I wouldn’t be there waiting to save him.

There would be no one to save him. Not even me.

I wasn’t surprised that tears weren’t coming down my cheeks thinking about it. I wasn’t even on the verge of letting a tear drop; I was too pissed off for that. This man was the destructor of all good things, and now he had won his game.

West was coming closer with every footstep and Dersa was still standing there looking at me; just waiting for him to fall into his trap. I wanted to yell out for him to stop, but the blade would cut me off in a matter of seconds.

He came sprinting through the trees, falling into a dead stop with his rifle already raised. For a moment, everyone was as frozen as a pond in the middle of winter. West’s eyes were burning a mental hole into Dersa as he stood there unarmed. But if he made a move against him, the man behind me would move, ending me faster than I could blink.

“Let her go,” he gritted through his teeth. I had never seen West so angry before. It sent its own shiver down my back.

Dersa pretended to think about it for a short moment, then answered, “I think not.”

West shifted his eyes for a fraction of second in my direction. He focused back on Dersa with a new fire in his eyes. “Take me instead.”

Blood drained from my face. Dersa looked between us, and I was practically jumping out of my skin. I was aching inside for all this to stop, feeling like I could explode.

“West, don’t—” The man behind me cut off my feeble attempt of speech, tightened his grip around my arm. I couldn’t feel it anymore. I clenched my teeth from the pain, waiting for it to snap.

West wouldn’t look at me.

“Fine,” Dersa answered calmly. “Drop your gun and I’ll let her go.”

I knew West was debating whether or not he could trust him. I wouldn’t trust that man if he was the last person on this entire planet. Surely he would know that.

“Do I have your word?”

I was so shocked that I couldn’t breathe. He was actually going to trust him.

Dersa sighed a little, looking a bit annoyed. “Yes, you have my word.”

West hesitantly lowered his gun and dropped it on the ground with a clattering thud, and my eyes were stinging with rage.

The moment his gun hit the ground, three more men poured out of the woods and surrounded him. They had been waiting for him to do what they had planned. In a matter of seconds his hands were tied behind him. Everything was happening too fast for my mind to comprehend.

“Let her go,” West said. He still wouldn’t look over at me.

“Yes, I suppose we did have a deal.” Dersa fingered his lips thoughtfully. He motioned to the man behind me. But he did the thing I was expecting. Instead of letting me loose, he shoved me forward. The ground came up too fast and the air left my lungs when I hit hard. He bound my hands together, pressing me to the ground so I could fight back.

I hear West struggling somewhere above me.

“Dersa, you lying bastard.” West was so furious the word came out as a growl. The man behind me pulled me to my feet again, keeping a strong grip around my arm. West tried to step forward but with the hands holding him back, he couldn’t move. “We had a deal.”

Dersa was losing his patience; something he didn’t have much of to begin with. “A deal?” His eyes were suddenly blazing with hatred. “This is what I think of our deal!”

He shot forward, closing the few paces between them, and punched West in the jaw like a cobra striking its prey. West’s head whipped around from the force and I could feel my teeth grinding together. The anger rising within me was something I’d never experienced before. But I didn’t want it. Anger was what turned people into something that wasn’t right. People like Dersa. I tried to push it away, not wanting myself to go there.

But like glue stuck to the bottom of my shoe, the anger was stuck to my heart.

“Don’t. Touch. Him.” The tone of my voice caused Dersa to turn suddenly. The anger turn of his lips were slowly curling into a smile. He took slow steps forward and I forced myself not to back away, even though my insides were screaming for me to run. Neither of which I could do.

“Why, Reese?” he asked. “Would you rather have me touch you?

The air caught in my throat. Fear consumed me again, rising up, threatening to choke the life out of me. Dersa took a step closer, almost closing the distance between us, and the only thing I could do was look at West. He was the only person I wanted to see right now.

I felt Dersa’s hand on my neck and I shuddered, still not looking at him. I looked past his shoulder at West, who struggled against the men holding him. Then I promised myself I wouldn’t give in to Dersa so easily. I brought my leg up to kick whatever region was possible, but his hands were quicker, stopping it midway up.

“I’m not that stupid, Reese,” he said.

He shoved my knee down and came within inches of me. He drew the back of his hand my cheek. I felt like crying, but I had to stay strong. Every second he touched me had my insides crawling.

We were interrupted by the sound of footsteps approaching.

Someone else was coming through the woods and Dersa turned to meet them. At the first sight of blonde hair I clenched my fists together even though nobody could see them behind my back.

I knew it . . .

“Where are the others?” Dersa asked immediately.

“They’re gone,” Mia said, coming into view, “but they aren’t important and shouldn’t bother us any longer.”

“Fine. But if they become a problem to us,” Dersa pointed a finger at her, “you’re taking the fall. Let’s move out. I want to get back to the rest of the group as soon as possible.”

I fixed my eyes on West as the man shoved me forward to get me moving.

And my heart became frozen.

His face had a black expression on it. Like . . . well, like someone who had just been betrayed by a friend. Because that’s exacting what happened. West thought he could trust Mia, but he’d been wrong. She had ratted him out to the very people we had been trying to escape from.

He glanced at me as the soldiers pushed him forward, and what I saw scared me.

His once bright eyes, strong and hopeful, now had no hope in them at all.

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