It wasn’t until three in morning when the camp was finally quiet enough for me to make my move. I was high on adrenaline, thinking of everything that could go wrong and what would happen if I was caught. I kept telling myself that I was doing the right thing. That I wasn’t betraying my country and becoming a traitor.
Was it wrong for doing something that was actually right?
I quietly got up from where I’d been pretending to sleep and strapped my backpack around my shoulders. Cruz was still quiet a few feet away, and he had been for the last few hours. Earlier that night I told him the truth behind West’s execution, but I never hinted at my want to free him. Nobody would understand if I did.
I crept towards the camp, using the shadows of the tents and trees. There were still a lot of men awake, around campfires or playing cards by battery powered lamps. But with the moon hidden by clouds, I found it easy to make it past them without being seen.
But when I was about one-hundred feet from the old clinic, there was nothing for me to hide behind from where I was and to the door, where a guard stood watch. I didn’t come into with a plan, and now I wished I had.
Just when I turned around to find another way in, a hand clammed over my mouth and pulled me deeper into the shadows. I started kicking and thrashing, whatever I had to do to get away. But a familiar voice whispered in my ear.
“It’s all right, little one,” Cruz said. “It’s just me.” His hand slowly came away and I turned around to see him smiling. I glared back. “If I knew you’d react like that, I never would have done it.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing, but I’m afraid I already know the answer.”
I glanced at the building again. “So you’re here to stop me then?”
“Actually . . . no. I don’t know what it is with you and that boy, but something is telling me not to ignore it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have to understand, Reese, that it’s my duty to stop you from doing—” he smiled big “—whatever you’re about to do. West came here with the enemy, but something is telling me that he’s not one of them. When you told me you experienced something similar yesterday, I thought you were sort of crazy. But I can’t believe that when I feel it, too.” I watched as the muscles in Cruz’s jaw clenched and unclenched—it was the same thing Dad did when he was thinking something over. “So that’s why I’m going to help you.”
“You—what?” The last word came out a bit loud and I winced, looking around to see if anyone heard. “You can’t do that,” I said. “I don’t want you to become someone I’m about to be.”
“But if all goes well, nobody will find out a thing,” Cruz said. “They’ll wake in the morning and find West gone, and when they come looking for you, you’ll still be asleep, not knowing a damn thing.”
I was thoroughly confused. “I don’t understand.”
He grinned then, and I wondered what kind of friend I’d just made.
✢ ✢ ✢
Just as Cruz said, the guard moved off at exactly four o’clock. His replacement never showed up, so he was forced to go and find him . . . another thing Cruz had predicted.
The moment the soldier was out of sight, I made a run for the door. I had about five minutes tops. If I was lucky. I quickly unlocked the door with the set of keys that Cruz had so happened to drop on the ground before he left me. And as he said, if every went well, he would have them back within the hour.
Once I was inside the building, I breathed a little easier. It was totally dark inside, so I dug my small flashlight out of my bag and clicked it on. I followed the hall until I came to West’s door. I found the right key and slid it into the lock, my hands shaking slightly, then slipped inside.
The light hanging from the ceiling was still on, throwing my long shadow against the wall. I slowly turned around and held myself back from rushing to him, like my heart wanted me to. The only West I’d known was the one with a blood and dirt streaked face, and I wanted to know him more than that. I wanted to know the real West.
He slept with head hanging low, and exhausted as he was, he never heard me come in. His chest slowly rose and fell, causing mine to slow with it. But I couldn’t waste time here watching him sleep, no matter how much I wanted to.
I crouched down next to him. “West?”
He woke slowly, as if coming from a deep dream he never wanted to wake from. “Reese?” He glanced around, like he expected someone else to be here. “Is it morning already?”
“No, not for a few hours.”
West’s eyes softened and his shoulders relaxed. He thought the US soldiers had come to take him away. “Then what are you doing here?” he asked.
I had a take a moment to find my words. “I’ve come to get you out of here.”
He immediately shook his head. “I can’t ask that of you. Not again.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Stop.” His blue eyes were almost too strong to stare into, but I continued. “I’m doing this and you’re going to let me. Because if I don’t, I know I’ll regret it. Just let me do this and you can thank me later. All right?”
“I’ll do something more than thank you,” he said, being serious with a small smile creeping out.
Without letting a blush creep onto my cheeks, I said, “We’re short on time.” I took out the keys again and ducked behind his chair, trying to find the right one for his cuffs. Every time my skin brushed against his, my heart kicked harder against my chest. When the cuffs finally clicked opened, I went straight for the door and cracked it open, making sure there was nobody there.
West had a hard time getting up from the chair, his muscles still sore from the beating he took and the amount of time he’d been sitting there.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I will be.”
“Well we don’t have to go far,” I said, opening the door wider. “So follow me.”
He gave me an odd look but didn’t argue.
I silently recited Cruz’s directions and walked to the end of the hall and hung a right. And just as he said, an unmarked door was on my left. It creaked open and revealed a steep set of stairs—something I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down.
With my small flashlight being the only source of light, we slowly made our way down into the basement, where the air was dry and cool. Cruz said there was another small room exactly fifty feet in front of me. I shined my flashlight over it and started forward.
“Is there a backdoor down here that I don’t know about?” West asked behind me.
I pushed open the door. “Actually no. This is where you’ll be staying tonight.”
He stared at me in the dim light, and without telling him, he already came up with the conclusion. “So, instead of trying to run tonight and risk getting caught again, I’m not going anywhere.”
“You need to stay here until I come get you in morning when everyone else heads south. They won’t think to look for you in the same building they kept you in.”
He smiled and glanced around the room. “I actually think it might work. And they won’t expect you helped me, either.”
“I’m not worried about that. But this seems to be the best option.” I pulled some water and food from my bag and handed it over. “Are you all right with this?”
“I’m all right with anything that gets me out of here.” I turned to leave. “Reese—”
When I glanced back at him, he just nodded once, and then I went back upstairs before the guard decided to come back.
✢ ✢ ✢
When morning came—not long after I fell asleep—I woke to shouting. Captain Steer was walking towards us, his face red with fury. Cruz stood up and blocked his way before he could get any closer.
“He’s gone,” Captain Steer growled. “The boy that was with her. He escaped during the night.”
Cruz glanced back at me, his face voided of all emotion. “I’m sorry, Captain, but Reese has been with me all night. You can’t blame something like that on her. Maybe you should ask the guards on duty last night if they ever left their posts.”
The captain glanced behind him, motioning for a man to come forward. “Yates, did you leave your post at all last night?” The captain stared at me, waiting for the answer he thought would come. Something to prove me guilty. But when the soldier paused, he looked over his shoulder.
“Well . . . yes, sir,” Yates said. “Davis was late for his shift and I had to go search for him.”
I really felt bad for him, getting the brunt of Steer’s yelling. But during that time, Cruz glanced at me and gave me a look that said all was going as planned.
“Yates, why don’t you do me a favor and get the prisoners ready for transport.” He leaned in closer. “Do you think you can handle that?”
“Good, we’re leaving at oh-seven-hundred.”
He gave Cruz one more look before walking away.
“They didn’t find him,” I said, backing up to sit down on the log.
“Are you doubting my planning abilities, smalls?” He shouldered his assault rifle and spit on the ground off to the side. The prisoners were being escorted of the building and into the waiting trucks. Even though I knew I wouldn’t see West, I still looked for him.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He flashed me a smile before moving off with the rest of the army. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if I ever would have freed West.
Cruz had left some supplies for me, so as I waited for the army to move out—trying not to act like I was stalling—I repacked my bag. And as the last of the soldiers moved south, leaving me alone with my backpack around my shoulders and West’s at my feet, I gained enough courage to move towards the building.
The door creaked open and I stepped inside, my feet crunching over the same leaves as yesterday. The morning sunlight streamed through the hole in the ceiling, and everything was so much quieter with everyone gone. I followed the hallway, past the room they kept West in. I didn’t know what I expected, but the door leading to the basement was still shut. I followed the steps down and hesitated before opening the door the small room.
West sat in the corner, his arms hanging relaxed over his knees.
“They’re gone,” I told him.
I leaned against the doorway and watched him get up, his movements still careful.
“Where did they go?” he asked.
“The army is heading south,” I said. “I think they’re going to try and retake the South City.”
West nodded like he’d been expecting that. “So, where are you headed then?”
I tried not to notice when he said ‘you’ and not ‘we’.
Did I want West to come with me?
“Everyone is being told to go to the North City. If my family is alive, that’s where they’ll be.” My hands shook at the thought of them, and I stuffed them away into the pockets of my jeans. I still couldn’t imagine my life without them. “Look . . .” I pushed away from the door and handed him his backpack. “I wouldn’t mind if—I mean it’s okay if you want to—”
I finally looked up to see him smiling at me, knowing exactly what I was trying to say.
“Reese, are you trying to say that you wouldn’t mind me coming with you?”
“Well . . . yes. That is, if you want to.”
I waited for his answer with a dry mouth, my heart beating too fast.
“You don’t even know anything about me,” he said.
“It’s a long way to the North City.” I allowed a small smile to appear. I couldn’t help myself.
When West smiled back, I couldn’t ask for more.