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In an instant, West was on the ground with his hands being cuffed behind him. The man crouching over him pressed his knee into his shoulders blades, keeping him pinned until they had him fully searched. He didn’t fight them—or maybe he couldn’t.
An unsettling knot formed in my stomach as I watched.
I stood with a gun pointed at my back while someone went through my bag, trying to find my ID to verify that I was a local.
There were eight of them—all in tactical gear and fully armed. And I should have been happy to have them here. West was the enemy and I couldn’t trust him. I kept trying to convince myself that this was a good thing.
So why did I save him?
Why did my heart tell me he was anyone but the enemy?
“Here are your things back,” the soldier said, handing my bag over. I could feel the weight of the gun still inside and I was glad he didn’t take it. I guess we were on the same side after all.
I glanced over at West again, still pressed to the ground with US soldiers standing around him. None of them gave him a second glance; like he was less than nothing.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing here with him?” He moved in front of me, blocking my view so I could only focus on answering him.
For a moment, I contemplated on telling him a lie, but nothing could be better than the truth. The truth was the best thing going for him. “He was going to be executed,” I said. “I stopped it from happening.”
One of the soldiers near West called out, “Captain Steer, what do you want us to do with him?”
“Take him back but put him in a separate room,” Captain Steer said. “McCoy will want to ask him a few questions.” He turned back to me, eyeing me differently than before. “And what made you save him? Do you know him personally?”
“No, I—” I didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know why.”
He stared at me a long while, and finally deciding it wasn’t worth his time, he said, “Okay, look. We’re telling any locals we find to make their way up to the North City. South City is already gone, so don’t try to go back there. If you’d like, you can stay with us until the morning. We’re keeping the United prisoners in an old clinic not to far from here until the transport comes at dawn.”
I just nodded. Things were changing too fast and it felt like I didn’t have control over anything. And West being caught felt wrong. That was what bothered me most.
It was because I still didn’t know the reason behind his execution.
I didn’t know the truth.
The soldiers lifting him off the ground were joking about how somebody made their job easy by beating him like he was. I don’t know what I would have done if they’d started hitting him. And that scared me. Who was I to determine whether someone was good or not?
My conscious obviously thought differently.
I looked up in time to see West looking at me—the spark in his eyes a little less than before. It felt like I betrayed him somehow.
It wasn’t supposed to feel like this.
As they led him past me, West held back a little and said, “If you asked, I would have told you.”
“Told me what?”
They pushed him forward but he looked back over his shoulder, giving me one last glance of those blue eyes. “Everything.”
Captain Steer was talking again—about what, I didn’t care. My heart hammered too fast for me to think straight. And once West was out of sight, I couldn’t breathe right.
The rest of the squad pushed past me, their voices drifting away like any hope that was left residing within me. I couldn’t save West from this.
“Are you all right, smalls?” I flinched at the new voice, noticing the captain was gone now, replaced with one of the soldiers—whom was at least a foot taller than me. He had a thick northern accent and a stubbly jawline. The sleeves of his uniform were rolled up tight around his biceps.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking back where West disappeared. “Have you ever done the right thing, but it doesn’t feel like it is? Like you were supposed to go against everything you were ever taught?” I shook my head, feeling ridiculous.
They had left West’s pack behind, and I walked over and picked it up, not knowing why. It was old and frayed, just as mine was.
“Like saving the enemy?” he hinted.
“Maybe your heart knew something your head didn’t,” he said. “Come on, I’ll show you the way back and get you some food.”
✢ ✢ ✢
The soldier’s name was Cruz—which I was almost sure was his last name. There was a constant smirk on his face and he had a dry sense of humor. I followed him through the small camp of US soldiers until we came to the old building that used to be a medical clinic.
I didn’t see any other citizens—it wasn’t hard to notice with nothing but soldiers surrounding me. Walking past them all, I wondered how West felt when he was marched through here, looked down on just because of the color of his uniform.
Cruz led me to a small clearing under the trees—away from everyone else—setting his gun against a log before sitting down. I was still clutching West’s bag to my chest when I finally realized he was looking at me like I was crazy.
“It’s been a long couple of days,” I said, trying to make an excuse.
“That it has,” Cruz agreed. He dug through his own pack before pulling out a couple of power bars. He tossed me one and I finally sat down against one of the trees. I wasn’t sure if I could stomach food.
I took me a little while, but I finally gained enough courage to ask him. “Do you know if they have a casualty list for the South City yet?”
He took a bite of his power bar and shook his head. “A little too early for that. But everyone who has made it out should know to go north. It’s your safest bet to find whoever you’re lookin’ for.”
I wondered if West would have gone with me that far. I glanced to the building where they kept him. I barely knew him but he already had such a strong hold on me.
“Do you think they would let me talk to him?” I asked.
“Who, the Uni?” He shrugged. “I could ask for you, but I doubt it.” I could feel his eyes on me but I didn’t meet them. “It’s probably better if you forget about him, Reese. Nothing good can come out of fraternizing with the enemy.”
“But what if he’s not the enemy?” I asked, still staring at the building.
Cruz didn’t say anything to that, and the next time I looked over he was sleeping against the fallen log. Even though it was still morning, I felt like I could sleep the day away.
And maybe when I woke up, everything that happened within the last few hours would be a dream.
✢ ✢ ✢
Someone shook me awake out of the nightmares that wouldn’t stop coming, one after another. Cruz stood over me, blocking out the late afternoon sun. I couldn’t believe I slept that long.
“Do you still want to talk to him?” he asked.
I sat up straighter. “They’ll let me?”
“I talked with Captain Steer and he said he’ll give you a few minutes with him. Come on, before I change my mind about helping you.” I our bags by the tree and followed Cruz through the camp.
“Why are you?” I asked, walking fast to keep up with him. “Helping me.”
Cruz kept walking with his eyes forward, but he shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“It seems we have that in common,” I murmured to myself.
The closer I got to the building, the more butterflies invaded my insides. What if West didn’t want to see me? What if he thought it was my fault he was caught? I wanted to see him, but what was I going to say?
There were two guards standing at the door, both talking with each other until they saw Cruz. They straightened and saluted as we passed by. I never asked what rank Cruz held, but it was more than the privates standing guard. Inside the compound, it was dark and cool, bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling that lined the hallway.
The building was old and long abandoned, and out feet crunched on dead leaves along the way. The cement floor was cracked and parts of the roof were missing.
Cruz suddenly stopped by a single, unmarked door. “Just come out when you’re finished,” he said.
“That’s it?” It seemed too easy; the door wasn’t even locked.
“He can’t hurt you, if that’s what you’re thinking. But if you need me, just give me a shout. I’ll be out here in the hall.” Cruz gave me a reassuring smile.
I wasn’t worried about West hurting me, but I could understand why he thought that. But instead of correcting him, I turned the handle and went inside.
A single metal chair was placed in the middle of the room, under a bright bulb that hung from the ceiling. West sat in it with his hands cuffed behind the back of the chair, his head hanging low against his chest. Even when he was being led to his execution, I’d never seen him look so defeated.
But I had to remind myself I only met him yesterday—so I couldn’t claim much.
When the door clicked shut behind me, West barely moved but opened his eyes. He slowly lifted his head and recognition crossed his face. His eyes were still blue but not bright.
“Reese . . . what are you doing here?” His voice echoed flat. West dropped his gaze, closing his eyes again like he was in pain. “Come to say good-bye?”
It was the first time he said my name, and I realized it very well could have been the last.
“West—” He looked up again when I said his name, and the words got lost in my throat.
“Why did you save me yesterday?” he asked. “And don’t say ‘I don’t know’ without really thinking about it first. Why did you do it, really?”
“I just . . . I felt like it was the right thing to do. I don’t have a better answer than that. You ever have your heart tell you something you don’t understand?”
West didn’t do anything but stare at me. His dark hair was still matted with dried blood, odd parts of it sticking out. The bruise along his jaw was less prominent than yesterday. I briefly wondered what he looked like once he was clean and healed.
I had an overwhelming need to save him again.
“I do understand,” he finally said. “I was going to be executed because I did something I shouldn’t have. Something my heart told me to do anyway.” He swallowed like his throat was dry. “After we took control of the city, they took prisoners to be executed as examples to everyone else thinking they could fight us. About a dozen of them. They were to be killed in the morning, but that night I . . . I helped them escape.”
West’s gaze didn’t waver. “I betrayed my own people because I thought it was the right thing to do, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
West saved people just like I had saved him. Because our hearts told us to.
“I wouldn’t take back what I did, either,” I said. And I meant it. West wasn’t the enemy; that much was true. “I’m sorry, that you’re here. It’s my fault, I should have—”
“—Reese, stop. It’s not your fault,” he said, shaking his head. “I could’ve run before they saw me, but I didn’t.”
I looked anywhere but his face. “It still feels like I could have done something.”
West didn’t say anything—he instead tried to roll his shoulder like it was bothering him. The metal of his cuffs clanked against the chair.
“You should go,” he murmured. “If your family is alive, they’ll be in the North City.”
I started to protest, not wanting to give in so easily. “West—”
“Just go, Reese.” He looked up one last time. “Please. It would be better for you to forget about me. You already saved me once and that’s all I could ever ask for.”
Even if I wanted to forget about him, I wouldn’t be able to.
I left, shutting the door behind me, and stood in the hallway a moment, just thinking.
Every time I thought about leaving in the morning—West and I going our separate ways—it felt nothing but wrong.
I saved West once, but could I do it again?