I trailed behind as West walked along his invisible path for about two hours. Trees passed by us in a blur of more trees. Our footsteps made dull thuds on the ground, alarming small animals of our presence, causing them to scatter up trees and in between shrubs. The woods thinned out incredulously soon and we were suddenly staring down a street lined with houses.
West looked at me thoughtfully and then back to the houses. Finally, he said, “What do you think?”
“Are you serious?” I asked. “Are we really going to break into a house? What if Union soldiers come?”
Then I thought of the showers inside and wondered how hard it would be.
He turned and faced me, his stormy eyes serious. “I wouldn’t have brought it up if it wasn’t safe. Look . . .” He pointed down towards one of the houses. “See the front door? That mark on it means the army has already been through here, and is probably not coming back.”
I glanced at the houses to find that he was right. Each door was marked with red spray paint. But I couldn’t stop the slight shiver that trailed down my spine.
“Where did they take them?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. “Probably a refugee camp. There was one set up outside the South City.”
“So, you really weren’t joking when you said you wanted a shower, huh?”
“Nope.” He smiled and started down the street, and I followed him shaking my head, not believing what we were about to do. I couldn’t say anything to stop him because I wanted a shower, too.
We walked down the paved streets while glancing at the passing houses. They were all the same, and only way you could tell them apart was from the lawn decorations or the color of the shutters.
He stopped in front of one—the only with lawn gnomes—and stared at it for a moment. He then gave me a side glance and crossed his arms.
“Well, I know our realtor showed us a lot of houses,” he said and I looked at him questioningly. “But . . . I just really think we’ll be happy with this one. Now, don’t get me wrong.” He held up a hand. “I really liked the one with the pool, but this one has certain qualities that just spark.”
I had to force myself not to laugh; clenching jaw and trying not to smile. I played along by sticking my nose a little higher and surveyed the house with pursed lips.
“Well, I do like the white fence I suppose, and the shutters are gorgeous.” I angled towards him. “Are you sure this is the one?”
West thought some more and brought his hand up to his chin, eyeing the house. He shifted his gaze back to me like he was making a difficult decision.
“Let’s go for it,” he said suddenly. “And the dog will love the back yard.”
Dog? I had to hold in another laugh, but a smile broke out across my face in its place. He saw it and seemed satisfied with himself like that was his goal the whole time.
I followed him up to the door, which was strangely unlocked, and followed him in. It was clean inside with hardwood floors and smelled like lilacs. I took a deep breathe and sighed, but I noticed he had his nose wrinkled.
“You don’t like it?” I asked.
“It smells funny,” he said, stating the fact.
Boys are so weird. I just shook my head.
With a quick glance over at me, he made for the stairs, taking two at a time. I realized he was heading for the shower too late to stop him. I heard a door shut and the shower turn on, proving my theory.
I sighed and went back into the living room to wait my turn. I sat down at the large couch that faced a large television. Even though we’d been joking outside, those short minutes of forgetting was actually refreshing. In a bad, guilty feeling kind of way. I had no clue where my family was—or if they were still alive—but here I was, making jokes about the house we broke into to take a shower.
Nothing about the world right now seemed right, and yet I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Five minutes later, the shower turned off and I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. West came around the couch, rubbing his hand through his wet hair, flicking water drops everywhere as he did. He also had changed into a clean pair of jeans and a crisp white T-shirt shirt. It was remarkable how much he had changed his appearance within the last few minutes.
He noticed me staring and asked, “Did the shower make me look that much better? Personally, I thought it would have done better than this but . . . that’s just me.” His tone came as a joke again and he grinned.
It made my heart jump.
There was no way I had enough guts to tell him how stunningly gorgeous he was. He still had bruises along his jaw, added with a few healing cuts, but after having the blood and dirt washed away, it made me blush a little when I gazed up at him. I could see the outline of his chest through the thin cotton of his shirt, the line of his collarbone, and the sleeves tightened a bit around his biceps. He wasn’t big like a body builder, he was . . . well, perfect.
His short dark hair looked as if he had just gotten out of bed. Different chunks were pointing in different directions, like waves crashing against a cliff. But it matched his unique eyes perfectly. Like two storms colliding together.
I quickly stood up from the couch so he wouldn’t notice my reddening cheeks, and turned for the stairs, making sure he couldn’t see my face. “I’m gonna—shower,” I said hurriedly.
I dashed up the stairs before he could say anything, and shut the door of the bathroom. Pull it together! But I couldn’t, not when I was around West. He made me smile at every little thing, and laugh at unexpected moments, even when my life was crashing in around me. And that was only within the first day we had spent together.
I wanted to slap myself out of it.
But I was able to push him from my mind when I caught sight of the shower.
✢ ✢ ✢
The shower was . . . amazing to say the least. I let the water run over my head and down my back, absorbing every moment of it. I wanted to stay in there forever. The steam warmed the air, and I breathed in the moisture, letting it calm me and my sore muscles.
When the water started to turn cold, I stepped out and quickly dried myself off with a towel I had found in the small closet. As I dug through my bag, I vaguely wondered if these people had a washer and dryer for my dirty clothes; I wasn’t sure if I would get the chance again after this.
I spent more time in the bathroom than I normally would; I was stalling.
My mind seemed to be wrapped around the strange blue-eyed boy downstairs, and it wouldn’t pull away from him no matter how hard I tried. I thought about him while I was walking up the stairs, I thought about him as I washed the dirt out of my hair. Even now, as I stared out of this little bathroom window, looking out towards the forest in which we had come from, I was thinking of him.
I abruptly stepped away from the window and sat down on the toilet, putting my head in my hands with my wet hair draping over my face. I breathed deeply, trying to shake him from my head, but his face kept squeezing its way through my weak mental barriers no matter how hard I tried. I shouldn’t be thinking of him right now, even though I was. I should have been thinking of Ethan, and my parents. Not a boy downstairs whom I barely knew.
Two days ago I wouldn’t have imagined I would be here, in this house with someone from the same country that had attacked us. Was I even doing the right thing by staying with him? It didn’t feel wrong. But was it?
I shook my head violently, erasing my mind of all overwhelming thoughts at the moment, and stood up. The air in the bathroom was hot and humid from the abnormally long shower I had taken, and I was starting to feel uncomfortable from the lack of fresh air.
After I pulled my hair into a ponytail, I stepped out into the hall. The television was on downstairs, blaring gunfire and the squealing tires of sports cars, and I briefly wondered if I would be able to sneak up behind West without his knowledge. He deserved it after all; since he snuck his way into the shower before me.
I slowly made my way down the stairs—being thankful the steps weren’t old and creaky. West sat on the couch with his back to me, totally engrossed with his movie that he never even twitched his head in recognition that I was there. My stomach squirmed with anticipation, and for some odd reason I found myself smiling. I lowered my bag at the base of the stairs and quietly walked up behind him, bringing my head right behind his ear.
Then I said, “I wouldn’t have guessed you were into chick flicks.”
He didn’t even flinch.
“Oh, this isn’t a chick flick,” West said with a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s an action movie.”
I stood up speechless, staring down at the back of his head.
A buzzer went off in the kitchen, and I skirted out of the way as a grinning West got up and made his way into the kitchen behind me.
What was it about him that made him so different from everyone else? Not to mention he was still injured and seemed not to be bothered by them, but there was something else that put him apart from all the others I had met. Others, meaning boys. West was surely different but I couldn’t wrap my mind around what exactly.
My eyes found the television. and I was positive this wasn’t an action movie, but I took his place on the couch anyway. It was still warm from his body heat, and it suddenly made my stomach dance.
I moved over.
As West came back into the room, and around the couch, he handed me a plate.
“Pizza?” I asked, staring down at the triangle squares with my tongue already watering.
His mouth was already full so all he could say was, “Uh huh” in response. He was oddly concentrated on the food he was eating.
It felt as if I was back home again; eating pizza and watching a movie. Only, Ethan wasn’t here to make unannounced comments about the acting. As I thought about him it made me miss him more, so I stopped thinking about him altogether. Then in doing so, it just made me feel guilty for not thinking about him.
I just couldn’t win.
We lounged around until the movie ended, and I was fully aware when West tilted his head towards me, leaning on the back cushions so casually. The sun was low in the horizon and the room was beginning to dim with a warm glow.
“You wanna watch another one?” His voice was hinting a little too much for me to say no, even if I would’ve decided to say that, but I found myself wanting to stay. I was oddly comfortable where I was at the moment, and didn’t want it to stop. It was like the world outside of this house could go on without us. I think we needed a break from everything out there, even if it was only for a night.
“As long as I pick out the next one,” I agreed
He shrugged uncaring. “Sure thing, but it won’t be as good as mine.”
I huffed. “Anything will be better than the one we just witnessed.” I stood and walked over to the cabinet that held the movies and scanned through them. I recognized most of the movies—there were very few that I didn’t—and was pleased to see a few older titles among them. That’s what I was really looking for.
People rarely watched older movies these days, now that technology was advancing, people loved watching up-to-date movies with extraordinary graphics, passing over the classics without a second glance.
I slid the movie from the shelf and wondered if West would know it. It was amazing that he had known—let alone quote—Monty Python and the Holy Grail the previous day. Ethan wouldn’t even watch that one with me anymore, saying it was too lame.
West’s face had a curiosity about it as I turned back around, probably because I couldn’t hold back the small smile spreading across my lips.
“What did you find?” he asked, eyebrow raised.
“A flux capacitor,” I said staring into his eyes. They narrowed slightly as he leaned forward.
“You mean . . . the one that will only work if you’re traveling at approximately eighty-eight miles per hour?”
I held up a finger. “Only if you have plutonium,” I reminded him.
“Great Scott!” he whispered and I let out a laugh. His eyes were bright as he grinned again.
As the beginning credits rolled out, West asked, “How is it that you’re the only person that I’ve ever met that even knows what these movies are? Besides the people old enough to be my grandparents that is.”
“It’s actually the same way with me. I usually make my brother watch them with me but he gets bored. But I don’t see why.” I threw up my hands in a dramatic gesture, “Movies these days are practically all remakes of older versions. Unlike the older films where they were so . . .”
“Original?” West finished for me and there was a moment of silence between us as we looked into each others eyes. I nodded and looked away, a little intimidated by his presence.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what it is.”
We watched in silence as Marty McFly rolled up on his skateboard and attempted to blare music from a gigantic speaker. My mind was only half paying attention though, and the other half was aware of West shifting into another comfortable position. I wouldn’t have noticed, or paid attention, if it hadn’t brought him closer to me.
It was like that for the entire time. I watched the movie but I was also watching West out of the corner of my eye. He was almost memorizing to watch. Towards the end of the film, I found myself eager for the parts I knew would make him laugh, just so I could hear him and see his smile. He was contagious.
I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t watch guys out of the corner of my eye while watching a movie. I was on foreign territory and didn’t know how to turn back.
I jumped a little. “What?” It was dark outside and the movie was indeed over.
“Are you all right?” He lifted an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” I answered a bit too quickly.
West nodded slowly. “Okay, well . . . do you want to sleep? Are you tired?”
I actually wasn’t so I shook my head. “I’m not, but if you want to sleep, I can . . . sit in the corner quietly or something.” Then I realized what I said. “Not stalkerish, of course.”
What was coming from my mouth?
“No, I’m not tired yet either.”
We sat in silence, watching the clock turn to midnight. The only light came from the lamp in the corner.
“It’s too quiet here,” West murmured.
“I know,” I said. “It’s so strange.”
“Do you think you’ll find your family?” he asked softly, not entirely sure if he should be asking something on such a raw subject. He looked over at me and I avoided his gaze, already feeling the emotions rushing back. I opened my mouth but no words were said.
“I’m sorry.” West shook his head and ran his hand through his hair. “I had no right to ask you—”
“I don’t know,” I replied suddenly.
He stared hard into my eyes. They were so strong that I had the urge to look away. Then his face changed to something I wasn’t expecting. Remorse. Then his eyebrows slowly stitched together with his breathing coming on faster. I would’ve given anything to know what was going on through his head. Then before I knew it, he stood up in rush.
“This was a mistake,” he said, not looking at me. “I shouldn’t have come with you.” He kept shaking his head and looked like he wanted to jump out of the window. “I don’t know what I was thinking . . .”
“W—What?” My tone gave away the panic in my voice. His mood had changed so suddenly that I wasn’t ready for it. Why did he want to leave so suddenly? Had I done something?
There was a moment of silence between us and I couldn’t let myself pull my eyes away from him, dreading that this might be the last time I saw him.
“I’m sorry, Reese” West said. “I don’t want to ruin your life more than I already have. You’ll be better off without me.”
West took a step past me but I grabbed his wrist, hoping to anchor him to where he stood. I didn’t know what else to do, but I knew I didn’t want him to leave.
“Stop,” I said. “Please, don’t go.”
He turned and faced me but with his eyes on the ground.
“Please don’t leave.” I sighed softly but still clung to his hand, worried maybe that he would pull away from my grip. “I don’t know how you’ve come to think that I’m better off without you, but you’re wrong.”
“You don’t even know me.” He shook his head slightly. “I’m not safe to be around, they’re looking for me, and if they find me, you’ll go down too.”
“I know you enough for me to trust you,” I told him. “And if they find us . . . I don’t care. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
He shook his head. “You don’t know me. How could you want to risk that for someone you don’t know. For your enemy.”
“Well, that’s not saying much on the account that we haven’t known each other for more than two days.” I just stared at him, not willing to give up so easily. “But I never would have saved you if I thought differently. Sometimes our hearts know better than our heads.” Then I said again, “Please, don’t go. I don’t think I can do this alone.”
West’s expression soften and he sat down and I pulled my hand away. “I want you to promise me that whenever there comes a point when you no longer want to travel with me, you have to tell me.”
“I promise.” I promised because I was sure that time would never come.
“I still hate the thought of you being in danger because of me. I don’t know if they’re looking for me, but I can’t count out the possibility.”
“They really hate you that much?”
“I think they hate the thought me more,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Because I know your country isn’t at fault. Those bombings that have been happening lately, they had nothing to do with you guys. But the government needed to blame someone and everyone was more than happy to point a finger.”
I thought of all those nights Dad watched the news, almost knowing something like this was going to happen. And it was all for nothing.
“I didn’t want this war to happen; a lot of people didn’t and still don’t. But they didn’t give us a choice by drafting everyone that was the right age. Nobody had a choice in going. They may have forced me to sign up, but I promised myself I wouldn’t kill anyone. Then, after the initial attack, they had that group of people they were going to execute. And I couldn’t let it happen.” West shook his head and looked down. “They hate the thought of me because I had the courage to stand against them.
“They know there are others like me, not wanting this war and thinking everything with it is wrong. But they don’t want to loose control of the army they have. So, after they found out what I did, they made sure it stayed quiet. I was locked away until they could take me somewhere to be killed without anyone knowing.”
Everything started making sense now. They wanted to kill West because he stood for something good. And if one person made the move, everyone else would follow. That’s what they didn’t want.
I looked up to see West smiling at me; a small one, one I haven’t seen before.
“What?” I asked.
West shrugged. “You’re just a mystery to me. But I’m glad for it, or else I wouldn’t be here. ”
Then I smiled back and said. “I’m glad, too.”