Sunlight

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Chapter 4

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I couldn’t sleep. I jerked awake every hour with my heart racing—thoughts of my family haunting every glimpsing dream. In the early hours before dawn, I gave up sleep altogether. So as I sat there in the dark, I had no choice but to finally think about how I got to be here and what happened before I woke up the morning this all started.

We were having dinner when the third bombing happened.

The television had been on all night, and even after we sat down to eat, I could tell Dad was listening to the news without trying to be obvious. His forehead was continuously wrinkled in thought and his eyebrows drawn in tight. His fingers tapped the table—a restless trait he’d picked up from his own father, and unfortunately passed down to me.

I only realized my own leg was bobbing when the muscles began to ache.

Dinner was something left forgotten on the table. No words were spoken within the first ten minutes, and neither did anyone move. Mom and Dad were sitting together on the couch, close enough to be touching but not touching. Ethan sat on the floor, his back pressed against my chair.

I watched the news with déjà vu. Weeks of the same events happening all over again, but there was difference this time—and why Dad was so worried.

Mom got up from the couch and nodded toward me. “Could you help me with the table?”

“Sure.” I untangled myself from the chair and Ethan. Our dinner now sat cold in the dining room and even though it was half eaten, nobody had an appetite anymore. The news echoed from the other room and my thoughts couldn’t stray away from it.

“Are you nervous about your graduation on Saturday?” she asked, piling the dirty dishes. I followed her into the kitchen with a shrug, hiding the fact I actually was.

My classmates and friends all thought it was great and were excited about their changing futures, but not me.

Graduation was the beginning of everything they had taught us in school.

Step one: Graduate High school.

Step Two: Go to college.

Step Three: Get a job.

It was step two that I had the problem with. That’s where my brain paused over the uncertainty of it.

I had a secret: I didn’t want to go to college.

Not yet anyway. Not when I was still young and my life was still full of possibilities. Going to college meant moving onto the next step, something I wasn’t ready for yet. And I didn’t know if I ever would be.

Mom was near the sink, filling it up with hot water, and the steam started to fog the window above it.

“I just filled up the dishwasher,” Mom said, brushing some hair away from her face with her wrist. “But could you wash the pans in the sink?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

When I sunk my hands into the hot water, I felt like staying there forever. The heat calmed my insides and I no longer thought about graduation in two days, or the nervous news reporters on the television. I caught sight of Mom out of the corner of my eye, wiping down the counters with her mind elsewhere. She was on edge, just like Dad. It made me wonder if it had to do with the news, too.

“Mom.”

She turned around with a questioning look like she misheard me. “Sorry, honey, what did you say?”

I nodded towards the counter. “I can do that if you want. You should go sit down with Dad. I’ve got this.”

Her eyes were bit blank at first, like she wasn’t taking in what I’d said. Then something clicked and she returned to normal.

“Oh, well it’s okay, I’m almost finished.”

“Mom, really,” I said, nodding for her to get out of the kitchen. She just smiled gratefully. Before leaving, she walked over to give me a kiss on my forehead. Her footsteps disappeared into the living room, and then the hushed sound of my parents voices echoed softly down the hallway. I continued washing the dishes, happy to do something that took my mind of off everything.

It kept my mind occupied with the fact our annual family camping trip was after graduation. Being in the woods, not quite lost but right on the brink of civilization and being free—for a whole two weeks—made me excited to even think about it.

There was nothing more I wanted at a time like this.

“Hey, Peanut!” Ethan’s voice rang down from the top of the stairs. I could picture him so clearly—head hanging over the railing, hair almost in his eyes, listening for my response.

“What?” I called. “I’m doing the dishes!”

Ethan was about to respond when my mom cut him off. “Ethan, if you want to talk to her, come downstairs. We’re trying to watch the news.”

She sounded annoyed and I smiled.

Ethan turned fifteen-years-old a few weeks ago, but he was far from maturing any time soon. He was my little brother in every way possible, and it seemed like that wasn’t ever going to change.

I focused my attention on the pots again until Ethan leaned on the counter next to me. His light sandy hair hung over one of his eyes. I had the urge to brush it away, but that kind of behavior wasn’t considered sibling approved, even if we were at home and miles away from his friends.

“You wanna watch a movie?” he asked.

The tone of his voice made me turn my head—it didn’t have a happy ring to it. It wasn’t normal for him to suggest we watch a movie and not name the title in the some sentence. He would have the movie picked out before he’d even asked me. But as he asked me now, there was no title and his eyes were staring at the counter, his mind elsewhere.

It was the news whispering from the other room. It was the state of our country for the last few weeks.

He just wanted to take his mind off things, same as me.

“Do I get to pick the movie?” I asked.

He grimaced but said, “Yeah, I guess so. You always pick classics though.”

“That’s because they’re good movies.” I pulled the drain in the sink and dried my hands. “Let’s watch Die Hard. You haven’t seen that one.”

“Is it another classic?” he asked dryly. He held in a laugh and a smiled appeared in its place.

“Of course it is,” I said, smirking back. “But I promise you’ll like it.”

He rolled his eyes but didn’t complain. We walked down the hallway, about to go upstairs when I paused, staring into the living room. My parents were still there, waiting for the news anchor to stop so they could relax and not worry about the country’s problems anymore.

But the newscaster kept talking, having no end in sight.

Ethan waited next to the bannister, ready to take his mind off the things he shouldn’t worry about. Instead of going upstairs, I walked into the living room.

“Hey Dad?” He turned, suddenly aware that I was there. “We’re still going camping after graduation, right?”

His dark eyes softened and he nodded. “Of course we are, I wouldn’t change that for anything. We’ll be going into the city tomorrow to get a few supplies, did you want to go?”

“No, I think I’ll sleep in one more day.”

He shrugged and smiled, the hidden wrinkles around his mouth showing. “Whatever you want. It’ll be nice to have one more day to yourself, but no matter what happens, we’ll be leaving after graduation. I promise.”

Ethan and I lay on our stomachs across his bed watching Die Hard on the little twenty-inch television a few minutes later. Shadows danced off the room every time the scene changed, casting flickering shapes against the walls.

“Do you think everything will turn out all right?” he asked, still watching the movie.

“About what?”

He rolled his eyes. “You know what.”

I gazed back at the television. “I don’t know. I’m half hoping everything will be blown over by the time we get back from camping.”

“Yeah, me too. I kind of can’t wait until summer is over. It’ll feel more normal going back to school. I hate being stuck in the house, watching the news all day. It’s like we’re all waiting for something to happen.”

I snort. “Speak for yourself.”

“Still haven’t decided about college?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Kinda, yeah. When will you tell Mom and Dad?”

“Not sure.” I changed the subject and said, “Hey, did you know classic movies used to be only black and white?”

At that, he turned to me. “Black and white? I promise not to complain about your favorite movies if we never watch one of those.”

“Deal.”

Now two days later, I was sitting in the woods far away from my family and not knowing if they were still alive. Silent tears wet my cheeks and I stared at the stranger across from me. Not hating him but hating why he was here to begin with. About what he brought with him.

We hiked through the woods until nightfall yesterday, keeping a steady pace despite the terrain. We never spoke, just pressed on until we couldn’t any longer. He tried starting up an odd conversation about ravioli, but soon gave up the attempt when he realized he was making himself hungry.

Honestly, I didn’t know how he did it. He was so beaten I didn’t think it was possible for him to even walk, let alone hike through the woods all day. But he did, and he did it without complaint. Almost every minute of every hour, I wondered how long he had until he would collapse—just double over and black out from the amount of damage they inflicted upon him.

It made me worried for reasons I didn’t know.

I was worried for him. Worried for a stranger that I had just saved from being executed hours ago, whose name I didn’t even know. But above all, I was worried that he would fall unconscious and never wake up again. I realized I didn’t want him to die.

We had found a secluded place between two fallen trees that night, and fell asleep instantly, even though it didn’t last long for me. After my initial exhaustion had left, I became restless.

Now it was barely morning. The once dark sky turned into a faint yellow, stretching its long fingers above the trees, bringing just enough light to begin brighting the forest around us. Green moss inched up the trunks of trees, giving off an earthly glow as the night became brighter. It caused the forest to feel more welcoming. Less like a place where a war was raging miles away.

Everything was dead quiet. Even my new companion.

I looked over where he slept like he hadn’t in days.

As I thought about that more, it was very possible that he didn’t. His dark hair was matted down with dirt and dried blood, some parts sticking out stubbornly. I subconsciously traced the outline of his face with my eyes, seeing beyond the cuts and bruises. Something about him made my heart beat faster.

When I realized I was staring, I quickly took a deep breath and averted my eyes. Heat rose to my cheeks, something I didn’t feel too often. I had to stop thinking about it. About him. I carefully touched the cut on my head, feeling the dried blood. I hadn’t gotten the chance to clean it yet. At this point, I would’ve given anything to take a shower.

The stranger started to wake and I stole another glance before he noticed. He pushed himself up to sit against the opposite log. His movements were stiff and careful, but his eyes as bright as ever.

When he saw me, he smiled. “You look horrible.”

“You’re one to talk,” I countered

He glanced down at his shirt and the dried blood on his arms. “Yeah, you’ve got a point.” A moment passed and he started again, “Look, I want to make it clear. If you don’t want me around, you can tell me. They might be looking for me and they might not, but you shouldn’t have to get in the middle of it. I just . . . I didn’t want to be alone yesterday.”

When my eyes met his, I didn’t know what my answer was. I wanted to admit it was nice not being alone either. I was taking a big risk staying with him, something that could get in the way of me finding Ethan and my parents—which was number one on my list, over everything else. But truthfully, I made my decision when I pulled the trigger yesterday.

“I guess I’ll just have to take the risk,” I told him. “It doesn’t mean I trust you yet, but it might be better if we stick together. For now, anyway.”

“You don’t mind having an ex-Union soldier traveling with you?” It was something that could’ve been said as a joke, but he meant what he said. He really wanted to know.

“Tell me I made mistake saving you,” I said. “Then maybe I’ll change my mind.”

He doesn’t say anything.

“Well, did I?”

With a small shake of his head, he said, “No.”

“All right, then.” I stand up and take a minute to stretch my legs. “Are you sure you’ll be able to hike through the woods like that?” I flicked a finger over his torso. He looked down with his brow furrowed before shrugging it off.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s just a flesh wound.” He cracked another smile at his horrible attempt at the old accent. It made me smile at the forgotten movie reference. Movies from that time were unpopular now. No longer mentioned or even remembered. It made me feel better knowing that we had at least one thing in common, and a rare thing at that.

“Well, at least you still have your arms,” I said.

“And my legs,” he pointed out. “For now.”

I shouldered my pack, trying to rid of my smile. I shouldn’t be feeling happy at a time like this. It was too easy to forget why I was here.

“Hey—” He paused, and I waited but he didn’t say anything else. He stood and grabbed his bag from the ground. “Um . . . I don’t know your name,” he finished a little guiltily.

The side of my mouth turned up, realizing he was right. “Reese.”

He smiled but it was a laughing smile. “Really? That’s not what I was expecting.”

“Well, then, what’s yours?” I asked.

“West.”

“Well, sorry to break it to you, but I definitely wasn’t expecting that either,” I answered, narrowing my eyes.

“Yeah, alright alright.” West laughed and it sounded wonderful, just as good as his smile and eyes put together. Was there anything bad about him? I cut my thinking process off right there.

He also stood and looked into the woods thinking. “I don’t know about you, but I could really use a shower.”

It was like he read my mind. I almost wanted to shout for joy. But instead I said, “Yeah, well, good luck finding one out here.”

West shot me a grin and motioned for me to follow behind as he swung his rifle onto his shoulder. It was slow going through the thick woods; we climbed over logs and tried to avoid bee infested bushes. After a short while the tress thinned and I was able to walk beside him. Our pace wasn’t as fast as the day before, now that we were tired and sore. He still had a slight limp and I would catch him grimacing every now and then.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” I asked.

He glanced over, pointing a single blue eye at me. “Are you concerned?”

I whipped my head back towards him. “No! I mean—well, maybe.” I turned my head back towards to the forest in front of us, feeling my cheeks redden again. “I just don’t want you passing out or anything,” I mumbled quickly.

“I’m not going to pass out,” he reassured me. “I really am fine. Nothing a shower can’t fix.” I watched from the corner of my eye.

“How do you know if you aren’t still bleeding somewhere? You could need stitches.”

“Are you saying you know how?” he asked. “To give me stitches?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

We stopped walking, staring each other down.

“I’m not bleeding,” he said. “I think I would know if I was.”

Boys. They think they’re so tough that they can’t even admit when they’re hurt.

“Well, how do you know when your shirt is like that?” I waved another hand at his bloodied clothes as he glanced down at himself. “Look . . .” I glanced around. “I would just feel better if you made sure.”

“Made sure of what?”

“That you’re all right.”

“Why do you care so much?”

“I don’t,” I quickly responded.

“It seems that you do.”

“I don’t. I just want to know that I didn’t risk my life for nothing.” I stared him down, trying to glare but not pulling it off.

The muscles in his jaw worked as he held back a smile. “Fine.” He dropped his pack and gun, reaching over his shoulders to pull off his shirt.

My eyes widen in surprise, realizing he was stripping in front of me. I quickly spun around and heard him take a sharp breath. I stared at the trees before me and tried not to think of the West behind me . . . with no shirt. I shook my head, wondering if my head was hit a little harder than I thought. I wasn’t usually so . . . flustered over a boy.

“Um—” He paused. “Could you . . . maybe come look at this for me. I can’t see if it’s still bleeding or not. It feels pretty deep.” There was a twinge in his voice that I couldn’t place. Was it embarrassment?

“Uh, sure.” So awkward. I stayed where I was and there was a definite pause.

“You know that I didn’t take my pants off right?” West asked sheepishly behind me.

I smiled at his comment and nodded, finally turning around to face him. “I know, I’m sorry, it’s just . . .” I couldn’t finished my sentence, my words already forgotten as I saw him standing before me.

There was a half naked, very toned boy before me. If it wasn’t for the amount of damage that had been inflicted upon him, he would have been perfect.

“Are you all right?” West asked.

I shook my head at the slight anger building up within me about what they did to him. “Yeah, I’m fine. And I don’t think you should be the one voicing that particular question.”

He studied me but said nothing. Maybe it was because I had just reminded him that his own country hated his guts. When a frown spread across his once happy face, I realized I didn’t want it there. I liked the smiling West that brought my thoughts far away from here.

I walked up to him—trying to distract him of his thoughts—and asked, “What did you want me to look at?”

He turned around, showing me his back and I had to stifle a gasp. It was just as bad as his front—bruised and bloody—except there was a deep gash running across from his shoulder down to his hip. The black and blue of his skin seemed to outline the wound, making it stand out more than usual.

“It’s doesn’t seem to be bleeding anymore,” I mumbled, unable to take my eyes from it. “But it needs to be stitched. It can get infected if it’s left open like that.”

“But it’s not bleeding?”

“No,” I answered blankly. As West turned I was able to see the damage on his front again and I looked at the ground. The memories from yesterday came back to me, especially the overwhelming feeling of killing those men. Only, I felt differently about it than I thought I would.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You should have told me if you don’t like the sight of blood, I just—”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

I looked into his eyes again and no longer felt shy about talking to him. The blue seemed to melt away my ridiculous feelings and strengthened my insides.

“I killed people yesterday.”

“Obviously, or I wouldn’t be here.” He smiled and grabbed his filthy shirt off the ground.

“I know, it’s just . . . when I did, I felt absolutely horrible, but now . . . I don’t feel as horrible.” He looked at me questioningly and I asked, “Is that bad?”

“What do you think?” He opened his bag and started looking for something inside.

“I think . . . no, I don’t—I did at first—but now I feel differently.”

“Well, what changed your mind?”

“What they did to you, it’s not right. And also, what they were going to do to you.” I looked down, my face expressionless. “I guess what I’m trying to say is . . . I’m glad you’re not dead.”

A twinge of a smile crept across his lips as he looked up again, his eyes bright. “Thanks. But then again, they could have been doing that to me for a good reason. You don’t even know the reason for it. You said it yourself—you can’t trust me.”

It was true. “I know, but I’m going to stick with my gut on this one.”

Awkward moment of staring. It was like he was staring into the depths of my being.

“Well are you going to do it, or what?” he finally asked.

“Do what?”

West tossed something to me and I caught it. It was a first aid kit. He smiled sheepishly and sat down on a log, baring his back to me. I used a bottle of water to clean most of the dried blood away, and then used whatever the small first aid kit had to clean the cut.

The moment I put the first stitch in, he tensed and balled his hands into fists.

“I’m sorry,” I hesitated to do more but he shook his head for me to keep going.

“How did you learn to do this?” West asked, probably trying to distract himself from the pain.

“My mom is a nurse, and a couple years ago my dad cut his hand open. But instead of going to the hospital, she showed me how to stitch him up in the kitchen. They’re the type of parents that believe in independence, especially when it comes to taking care of yourself.”

From where I stood, I could just make out the small smile that spread across his lips. “Lucky for me,” he said. Then after a moment of silence—with me still putting thread through his skin—he asked, “Where are they?”

I focused on moving my fingers and what Mom taught me, not ready to think about them and where they might be. I had to believe I would see them again. “They were in the city when . . . it happened. They went to pick up camping supplies.”

I couldn’t stop seeing their faces every time I close my eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking they were dead. And it was too hard to think of Ethan. I realized my hands were shaking when West slipped his fingers around my wrist. I didn’t even realized when he turned to look at me. His face held an expression unknown to me. It reminded me how much of a stranger he still was.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I really am.”

I peeled my gaze from his, shaking my head. “I don’t want to talk about that right now.”

West took his hand away and faced away again, keeping quiet as I finished stitching the gash along his back. When I finished, I muttered for him to put his shirt back on, my thoughts far away from where they were earlier. He dug through his bag for a clean shirt, but with his hair and skin still patched with blood and dirt, it didn’t make much of an improvement.

Seeing him there, in his Union cargo pants with a gun over his shoulder, I couldn’t believe that I was here with him. He was supposed to be the enemy—the same people who attacked us and possibly killed my parents.

What was I doing helping one of them?

West suddenly paused, his bag halfway around his shoulders. “Did you hear that?”

He stared into the woods to my right, his eyes searching for something I couldn’t see.

“No.” It was probably just a squirrel.

The question of why I saved him kept coming to mind. Why did I? At the time, it felt like the right thing to do, like I was meant to. But what if it was a mistake saving him?

Did I do the right thing?

Then I finally heard something in the direction he was staring.

There were people coming our way, and through the trees I caught glimpses of green and tan camouflage. It was a squad of US soldiers.

I didn’t know if I should run—because West was still standing next to me—or call out to them, to give him up as a prisoner of war. I could vaguely hear West urging me to move, but my legs were locked in place, still undecided.

When I heard the shout for us to freeze, it was too late.

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