Our big Bronco cruised down the middle of the road, going as fast as we wanted, in whatever lane we wanted. Trees and fields stretched on for miles in all directions, the green of the grass so radiant under the clear sky that I had the urge to stop and take a long walk though it, feeling the tips brushing under my palms as it moved with the breeze. But I was to happy to even move, too happy it didn’t seem possible that it was real.
It had been three months since the war had started, changing our lives forever, and now it was finally over. A lot had happened during that time, things that none of us would ever forget.
Four weeks ago the United army had surrendered—turning their backs and going home. In the end, it was Devon who had made the difference. He had gathered another force, practically a small army, and they had made it into the North City just before the sun had come up that morning. And that was all it took for the men on the opposite side of the line to see they were beaten. They were fighting more of their own men than there were of us.
It just didn’t make sense to keep going anymore.
When they finally did leave, they left behind only fragments of cities, remnants of once strong buildings and towers. The destruction and loss was overwhelming to comprehend. The East City had been hit the worst, beyond the point of repair. So now people were focusing their attention only on the South and North, trying to rebuild what was once there. But to be honest, I wasn’t worrying about those things—the world would be rebuilt with or without me. I only had one thing on my mind . . . and that was my summer vacation that I never had.
I looked up at the blue sky with the cool breeze on my face, leaning on West’s chest, slouched in the backseat with my legs practically hanging out the window. If I had a mirror, I would imagine my face being very content. Drunkenly happy almost. I could feel his fingers playing with the ends of my hair, and his deep steady breathing as his chest rose and fell.
Ethan was lounging behind the wheel with his hand resting over it like he’d been driving his whole life. His other arm was limply hanging out of the window, not caring that the air was a bit too cold for it—none of us did. He wasn’t able to hide how happy he was about finally driving, still underage and without a license.
And Seth . . . well, there was point after that morning when I had doubts that he was going to survive. So had the hospital staff. There was a whole two days where I couldn’t sleep, not knowing if he would still be breathing when I woke up. I felt numb those days, not knowing what to do, or even how to act normal. There was a lot of pacing within those forty-eight hours, and wandering the streets when I couldn’t stand to stay in that building any longer.
All three of us were beyond exhaustion with the lack of sleep and stress of worrying. Then, when that third day came and we were finally able to sleep because he had finally woken and his internal bleeding had stopped. He had fought alongside us all this way, and he wasn’t going to be stopped by just one bullet. Not after everything he had been through to get this far.
Now he sat in the passenger seat with his feet propped up on the dashboard with a content smile on his lips. It just wouldn’t have felt right if he wasn’t here, like half of our group was missing.
We stayed like that for hours, never talking or switching positions, just enjoying being able to drive down the road without having to worry about road blocks or someone stopping your car with a gun in your face.
We left the city far behind and never looked back. I was already starting to miss Cruz and his stubbly face. We would see him again in a month or two, but that seemed too long from now. I fingered the piece of dark red cloth tied around my wrist at the thought of him. I had never noticed that everyone in his squad had one. They had all earned their right to be called ‘one of the boys.’ He’d given me another slap on the back when he had told me, probably just to see if I would fall over.
In the early afternoon, Ethan slowed down and pulled into an abandoned gas station. The windows were smashed in and everything inside was ransacked. We all got out and stretched our legs while my expert driver of a brother pumped the gas. I watched, with West’s arms wrapped around me from behind, as Seth got two backpacks from the back, checking again for anything missing. Ethan topped off the Bronco and came around, swinging his backpack onto his shoulders.
We stood there for a total of five seconds until I broke away from West and gave Ethan a long hug. I was never one for hugs, but it’s funny how things could change so quickly.
I pulled away and then gave Seth a hug too before stepping away.
“See you in a month then?” I asked them both.
“It’s a date.” Ethan gave me a big grin. “Hopefully the house is still there, if not I’ll build us a fort!”
“It better be a big fort.”
He rolled his eyes. “Of course it will be a big fort.”
I caught Seth’s eye, silently telling him to take care of Ethan. And then they left, walking across the street and into the woods. It was only a month, I reminded myself, and the dangerous of war were gone. We would see them again in the South City. Seth wanted to see Abria again before heading down, and I wasn’t going to stop him.
West came up behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist. He asked, “Ready?”
West took my hand and led me back to the Bronco. We pulled out of the gas station with an emptiness in the air. I slid across the seat so I could sit next to him, curling under his arm and bringing my feet up onto the seat. We watched the road curve around bends and past fields that seemed never ending, enjoying the time we had together.
“Are you sure you know how to get back?” I asked. “We never exactly took roads getting there.”
He laughed a bit and shook his head. “Yes, I do. I made sure I remembered so I could get back to you before you left. I wasn’t going to make a stupid mistake like forgetting the way. But I guess it didn’t matter in the end . . .”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “We’re together now.”
He answered with a simple kiss, turning away to look at the road.
I was almost nervous with anticipation for what laid ahead in our path—after my summer vacation of course. It would be a long time before things would be back to the what they once were, even though it would never be the same again. Our old house would feel empty without my parents there, and it was hard for me to think about. I wasn’t sure that my mind had grasped the fact that they were gone forever, and probably wouldn’t until I stepped through our front door again.
“Will you ever go home again?” I asked quietly.
He didn’t say anything for a while. I knew Devon was going back, along with everyone else who helped stop this war, to face whatever waited for them there, but promising to come back to help restore what they had destroyed. West, on the other hand, was the one that might be in danger if he went back.
People would never forget about what he did.
“I’m not sure,” West finally said. “I would love to see my parents again, and my little sister, but . . . some people over there really hate me. I’m not sure if I’m even able to go back—they may not allow me to.”
“Maybe time will change their minds.”
“Maybe,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess we’ll have to see what happens, but if I don’t ever go back . . .” He took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at me, “I don’t think I’ll mind. Wherever we are, it’ll feel like home as long as you’re there.”
It was amazing how I felt the same way. It was a warm feeling, one you never want to walk away from. Like staying indoors on a cold, snowy day. A feeling of security . . . and rightness.
We drove until we couldn’t drive anymore, and pulled over on the side of the road with the gravel crunching under the tires. I spread out in the backseat while West took the front, mumbling something about not being short enough. I was barely short enough for my legs to stretch out. Sleepy in cars is never a comfortable idea, even big Broncos.
This would usually be the point where I say I had a hard time falling asleep. But it wasn’t. It was never hard falling asleep when West was close by, it was as simple as that. I’d never slept so well in the last few weeks than in my entire life.
My life had changed so much over the last three months just because of one person.
One day I woke up, thinking my summer would pass by just like all the others before it had. Then when I left our house, alone and unsure what to do, I still didn’t feel any different. Everything around me was different . . . but I wasn’t; I was still the same girl. West had changed me before I knew it, flashing before my eyes without me realizing it.
We started up the Bronco right as the light was inching over the trees and continued down the empty stretch of road. By early morning, the trees began to thicken and the fields become more sparse. West slowed down and turned onto a dirt driveway, weaving through the woods like a snake for about a mile. Neither of us said a word as the white house came into view through the trees, set in the woods like it belonged there forever.
He cut the engine. We sat there, listening to our breathing and the birds outside the windows, hiding somewhere in the trees. It felt good to be back where I had spent so long in recovering. It felt like a second home to me, and I couldn’t suppress my happiness. And what was more was that I had West with me, making it seem like it couldn’t get any better than this.
We climbed out of the Bronco and shut our doors, walking around to the front, staring at the quiet house.
He put his arms around me, putting his head close to mine. I could smell his sweetness when he was this close to me and I breathed it in, closing my eyes for only a moment to make sure we were really here after everything.
I still couldn’t believe it.
“I love you, Reese,” he murmured in my ear. “So effing much.” I smiled because he didn’t use the same word choice. I turned and kissed before he could say another word. When our kiss quickly deepened, he swung me around and pressed me against the Bronco. I could his hips against mine, and it wasn’t enough.
We stopped and turned when the front door opened, hiding our smiles like nothing happened.
Carrie paused with one hand on the door as she stopped halfway from coming out. She stared at us with wide eyes and a gaping mouth. I took a step forward, West still holding on to my hand, a smile appearing on my face. She broke into a wide grin and turned her head into the house, “Malcolm, get out here!”
She met me at the bottom of the steps and gave me a long, tight hug, her hands on my back like she never wanted to let go. Malcolm appeared at the doorway and slowly stepped out just as Carrie had done and paused at the top of the steps.
“I promised I would come back,” I told him, still being sucked out of air.
He smiled, nodding. “Yeah, I remember. And I didn’t have any doubts.” He came down and hugged me as Carrie was fussing over West, just like she used to do before he’d left.
“You’re not bleeding anywhere, are you?” she asked, cocking her head and looking up at him.
He pretended to think about, rolling his eyes up to the sky. “Not that I know of. But I’ll let you know.”
“If I catch you bleeding on my floors one more time, you’re gonna hear it.” Then she said, “Come on inside guys, I’ll get you some breakfast.”
We followed them into the house and filled them in on everything that happened. They took everything in pretty well since the surprising fact that neither of us ended up bleeding to death. Casey—Carrie and Malcolm’s daughter—had come home after the war had ended. It just so happened she was also there for the final battle, right alongside us even though we never knew it. She was home for only a week or two then continued south, to help rebuild the crumpled city. Just as we would be.
Though we’d just gotten here, I was already eager to go, when it was even against my nature of loving vacations. I silently thought maybe we wouldn’t stay as long as we’d planned.
“Actually,” Malcolm looked to Carrie before continuing, “we were thinking of leaving too. It’s our country just as much as anyone else’s, and we should be a part of helping out.”
My eyes lit up as soon as he finished his sentence. “You mean you’ll come with us?”
He shrugged. “We aren’t doing much here anyway.”
West gave me a glance and he knew what I was thinking. “That’s good to hear . . . because there may be a wedding in the near future.”
Their pre-excited, shocked faces were hilarious. I smirked and just gave a nonchalant shrug, only two-seconds before Carrie practically jumped over the table to hug me again. But what I wasn’t expecting was the sadness that was radiating inside of me.
It was starting to hit me that my parents weren’t going to be there. I felt like crying right then and there, I but I held it in, burrowing it inside for another day when I was alone.
As I sat back down, with Carrie chatting away, West was looking at me curiously but didn’t say anything. We all discussed prior events until we were all talked out and drifted off in different directions.
I was put in the same room I had before and West was right down the hall. The daywent by at a relaxed pace as we watched another movie and lounged around. After dinner when it was dark, West and I went outside and wandered around until we were standing on top of the small hill, looking down at the pond we once sat under. We flattened ourselves on the grass and stared up at the stars. It was so clear in the country, away from the city and pollution. It seemed to go on forever in all directions.
“I keep waiting for something bad to happen,” I said. “I always seem to in the best of times.”
“And something probably will,” he said, and I looked over. “But the only way I’m leaving you again is if somebody drags me away.”
I knew he was trying to be funny, but I found it hard to laugh. Almost because I felt like anything could happen. But I was really starting to believe that this was the end of our bad streak of horrible events. It seemed unreal but true.
“Are you okay?” he asked, holding me closer.
“I think so.”
“Will you please know so?” he whispered, almost desperately.
“Yes. It’s just . . . I don’t know. When I’m with you I’m constantly scared of something happening again, probably because it always has. It’s like a habit that won’t ever go away. Our whole relationship started with something happening. And it hasn’t stopped until now, but I haven’t realized that nothing is going happen. It just hasn’t hit me yet.”
He stayed quiet for a while and I never said anything else. The air had a chill to it again, reminding us fall was almost here.
“You know what? Even if something does happen, we’ll get through it. If you haven’t noticed, we’ve been through just about everything by now.”
I shivered involuntarily. “Either way, I hope the feeling will go away soon. I want to feel safe.”
West pulled me even closer until we were pressed against each other and I laid my head on his chest. “Do you feel safe now?” he murmured into my ear.
“Yes.” And I really did. His heart was beating under my fingers, strong as it always was.
“I’ll always keep you safe,” West said. “I promise.”
We stayed there for the longest time, and even though the air was cold, we never felt it. The night was perfect right now, and nothing could change that. Nothing ever would change that.
Because no matter what happened during the night, the sun would always come up in the morning.
Illuminating everything that was once dark.
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