We left before the sun was up. Neither of us could sleep well, so we stepped out into the early morning and walked passed the houses with only the street lamps to light our way.
“Why do you think the power is still on here?” I asked. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before now.
West walked along beside me, his hands holding the straps of his backpack near his shoulders. “They sent out teams to all the power plants in the surrounding area, but maybe they never got to the one around here. I really can’t say.”
I didn’t have a response to this, so we walked along in silence, heading north by using the stars.
I noticed West had a permanent smile across his lips, and when he saw me staring at him, he stopped.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re . . . smiling.” I grimaced, realizing that was an odd statement. “It’s weird.”
West grinned even wider, not even phased from my question. “What exactly is considered weird?”
“If you haven’t noticed—though, I think you have—we’re sort of in a war right now. What is there to be happy about?”
I felt bad about putting a damper on his mood but it was true, though for some odd reason I was feeling strangely happy myself despite our current situation. But West always seemed happy. He was like one big sun, illuminating everything around him, including me, even though I hadn’t noticed before now. He was like a magnet, something I couldn’t leave, like an orbiting moon with a strong gravitational pull. His eyes were always bright and he smiled so easily.
West shrugged at my question. “I guess it’s because you’re here.” He said it so simply as he turned back to his non-existent path and continued on his way like he hadn’t said anything out of the ordinary. As he entered the woods, I could only stare back at him.
He was happy because of me? What was so special about me? I shook my head and ran to catch up to him, and he smiled again as I walked to keep pace with his stride, and I couldn’t help but grin back like an idiot.
We were quiet the rest of the early morning, and kept on walking until the sun broke over the horizon, its light lacing through the trees. We came to a field and started walking along the tree line with the sun on our right. My legs were finally starting to wake up from the long night indoors. The muscles that were once sore and aching no longer bothered me.
“Reese, did you ever go camping with your family?” West asked.
“Uh, yeah, all the time. Actually—” I paused, thinking of my family again which seemed to get worse every time I did. “We were going to go this week. My mom usually spends her time inventing new ‘all natural’ recipes for dinner and I would disappear with my dad for hours, either fishing or being taught how to shoot. Our goal was to catch at least one fish so we wouldn’t have to suffer through a meal without meat.”
I smiled thinking of my mom and her odd ways. “Ethan usually spends his time either playing with the fire or walking around in the woods with his axe searching for small trees to practice his swing on. He really has a mind of his own . . .” I trailed off, missing him so much that it hurt to talk about him. I shook my head, ridding of them of my mind. “Why do you ask?”
“My family used to go camping, too,” he said. “Almost every summer around this time of year.” He laughed to himself. “My dad once wanted to make a chair out of wood that he cut himself. He found a few small trees, cut them down, and he actually did it. It was big enough to seat a giant, but it was great.”
I liked hearing about his past and the experiences he had. It made me feel closer to him and hoped he would continue. West opened his mouth to say more but suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.
West snapped his hand up, stopping me from saying anymore with his eyes staring into nothingness, just listening intently. I also listened, but couldn’t hear anything past the breeze and birds hidden in the trees.
Then he whispered just one word.
✢ ✢ ✢
My heart skipped a beat just hearing the unexpected word.
West was still standing like a stone, trying to hear what direction our pursuers were coming from. His eyes were practically on fire—though it was blue fire, like ice. I had never seen him so fierce, and it was at that moment when I realized . . . I had no idea what he was truly capable of.
I didn’t know anything about the soldier side of West.
My ears finally picked up a faint beating in the wind, but I didn’t know what direction it was coming from. It sounded like it was everywhere at once.
In the next moment, we both knew we had been fooled. We hadn’t moved yet because we thought the machine was far in the distance but now it was raising over the trees tops on the opposite end of the field. They had misled us by flying low to the ground so we wouldn’t be able to hear them until they were right on top of us. Now they were here, and we had nowhere to hide.
It was the Union.
West spun around, eyes blazing, and grabbed my hand, pulling me into the forest as the black helicopter came straight towards us. We sprinted through the trees, trying not to go in a straight line and avoided any clearings. The helicopter blades behind us made our feet move faster. Adrenaline was pumping through me again, something I was feeling a lot lately, but it was something I could never get used to.
“I’m sorry, Reese!” West yelled over our running feet and the loud machine behind us. He really meant it; it was written all over his face. I didn’t have enough air to spare for saying anything in return but I squeezed his hand, trying to say that it was all right.
Minutes dragged by—I wasn’t sure how many—and my lungs and legs screamed for me to stop and rest.
We couldn’t lose them. We tried many times by switching directions and running for a while, but the forest was always too thin and too spread out.
We were so close to losing them that I could feel it, or maybe it was just my tired legs talking—I couldn’t be sure. They were a ways behind us, catching glimpses of us as we went from tree to tree, running like the wind chased us. Trees flew by in streaking blurs and my lungs burned.
West veered sharply to his right for about a hundred yards, holding my hand tightly, and stopped suddenly under a large oak with thick roots protruding from the ground. He pressed himself flat against the trunk as I did the same, breathing heavily and hardly getting any air. The forest was denser now with the trees bigger and closer together. I was beginning to think we might have finally caught a break.
“This isn’t working,” West gasped in between breathes.
“No—but the forest—is thicker now.”
He nodded. “You’re right.”
We watched from our cover of tree limbs as the aircraft circled back around trying to spot us again. It was getting closer, hovering just above the treetops, just searching the forest floor for any movement. As it got closer to our tree, the urge to run became stronger, but West put his hand on my arm, making sure I stayed as if he were sensing the same thing.
I looked up at him and found that he was already staring down at me. His hair was matted down with sweat, making his skin shine, and I could feel drops running the side of my face as well. My breathing wasn’t slowing any and my lungs still burned. We couldn’t run any longer.
They were so close I could almost see the pilot from where I was. Just the branches separated us from them, it was the difference between being seen and escaping. The blades sliced through the air like they were cutting through my courage. My breathing was shaky, but not from running or fear for myself.
It was fear for the boy beside me.
I was afraid they would find him, and steal him away from me. Because being with West was the only thing good in my life right now. Taking away West would be like taking away sun. I didn’t know if I could go on without him. My family was gone and I had no way of knowing if they were still alive. West was the only person keeping me going right now.
As I stared at the aircraft just above us through the trees, I knew I would do anything to keep him out of their hands. The image of West being beaten while he laid on the ground kept flashing through my mind. It was wrong. My stomach became sick every time I pictured him in their hands again, being committed of doing something that was right.
Then something amazing happened.
The helicopter turned its tail—switching direction—and going on the search again. I watched it leave and would have sighed in relief but I afraid of making any noise. Almost as if they could hear me from all the way up there and know exactly where we were. As childish it may be, I was still afraid.
A hand came up to my face, causing me to jump before I realized it was only West. His touch made my skin prickle and my stomach dance. I let my gaze drift up to his but the hand stayed where it was.
“Are you all right?” West searched my face until he realized his hand was still there and quickly dropped it. “Sorry.” He mumbled barely audible, suddenly interested in his shoes.
“I’m fine,” I said. “You aren’t going to pass out, are you? You’re still—”
“Not fit as a dime?” West smiled, almost glad to have the awkward moment gone. “I’m all right. One of my ribs ache but it’s nothing horrible.” He shrugged it off and gazed towards the sky for a moment.
“That was a close one,” I said, following his gaze.
“Too close.” West was examining the ground again, his expression worried. “And I’m afraid that it will happen again. I’m—” The words seemed to be struggling to come out of his mouth.
“Yeah?” He looked at me finally and his face was unreadable.
“Let’s just worry about that when the time comes.”
West looked to the sky then back at me again, his breathing still heavy. “You don’t have to stay with me, Reese.”
Before he could say anything else I said, “I’m staying, I’ve already told you this. It’s my decision, and I’ve made it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Now stop asking.”
West smiled brilliantly, twining his fingers through mine like it was the most natural thing to do, and jogged in the opposite direction that we were previously headed. The blades from the aircraft drifted farther and farther away, and my hope started to rise again.
When we came to the next big tree we hid underneath the branches and waited again, making sure we weren’t spotted. We never were. The helicopter was much farther away now and searching in the wrong area, far away from where we were.
West looked over at me and smiled again, his face streaked with dirt and sweat, bringing out the bruises and cuts on his face, and suddenly I was self conscious of how I looked. But his eyes were as bright as always, and that was what made me smile. We waited longer, trying to catch our breath and enjoying the almost quiet woods.
They were gone.
“We need to keep moving,” he said. “They’ll start searching on the ground now that they saw us.”
I could only nod warily and follow him out from under the big tree. We started trekking through the woods again but this time carefully picking our paths. A day ago we weren’t sure if the Union army was going to search for us, but now we knew they were, and had to be careful about walking across any clearings or fields at the risk being spotted again.
And that’s exactly what we did.
We walked for a whole day, barely stopping to even sleep. We walked with the same determination; to get as far away as possible, that was the only thing on our minds. It had started to rain the first evening after the helicopter, and hadn’t let up for more than an hour at a time since. It pounded down from the sky unrelentingly.
I had to admit, it would have been miserable time if West hadn’t been with me. We didn’t talk much while we walked but he would make odd comments now and then, making the day lighter, and I found myself smiling while following along behind him.
The first night we only slept for a few hours and were both exhausted. But we agreed to try to find a place to get some well needed rest. Probably not in a house again but at least out of the rain. I hoped anyway.
I followed behind him with the rain pounding down on the hood of my hoodie, making it heavy with water. I didn’t even know why I had it on; every inch of me was so wet that it didn’t make any difference. Loose strands of hair kept sticking to my face and it felt like there was a pond in my shoes.
“You know what sounds good right now?” West asked over his shoulder.
I said, “Nachos.”
He thought about it for a short moment.
“That does sound good,” he agreed. “But I was thinking pizza. I like pizza. Who doesn’t? Bread? Good. Cheese? Awesome. Tomato sauce? So tasty. And it’s all in one!” His voice was almost hysterical.
“You’re really hungry, aren’t you?” I peeked out from under my hood as he glanced back.
West just nodded and said, “Yeah, let’s try to find somewhere to sleep for the night. There’re some large rocks over to the right, maybe we can find some cover.”
I was ready to stop, too. For the last two hours, I had been day dreaming of sleeping.
We didn’t have to search for long. West found a large, flat rock that was leaning against its partner, making a small but natural shelter. As soon as we saw that the ground was completely dry I dropped my bag and plopped down on the ground.
I sighed. “It’s official. I don’t like rain.”
“I’m never going to say another word against the desert again,” he said.
I gave a short laugh. “Yeah, until you’re in the desert.” I was met with silence and turned to find West digging through my bag. “What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Ah ha!” he said triumphantly, pulling out a lighter.
“You really want to start a fire? What about the smoke? Someone could see it.”
“If you’re really against it I won’t, but I just thought it would be a nice change from having another cold night in the rain. And it’ll be hard to spot smoke in weather like this.”
It didn’t take me long to make my decision after replaying the night before in my head.
I stood and smiled. “I’ll help you find wood.”
Most people think it’s impossible to find dry wood while it’s raining. Though when you’re patient and look hard enough, you’ll be surprised. I went back out into the rain—despite all the wetness—and came back ten minutes later with my arms full of wood. Most of it was damp but dry enough to burn.
West plopped down on the opposite side of the fire once he had started it, and leaned back against the rock, his eyes drifting in and out of focus.
My stomach growled, practically echoing for the whole world to hear, and West raised an eyebrow.
“So, what’s for dinner?” I asked, smirking.
He flashed me a wide grin and started searching through his pack eagerly. His hand came back out and tossed me a can of ravioli. My mouth began to water as soon as my fingers wrapped around the metal. We sat there enjoying our food, even though it was cold, and tried to soak in the heat from the fire. The rain still fell outside at a steady rate and the rhythmic sound made me tired, causing my eyes to become heavy.
West appeared to be the same way as he ate his food. He glanced up at me and smiled again, but it wasn’t the one he usually gave me. It was a smile that said he was sorry. Sorry that he pulled me into his own mess and almost got me killed. But it wasn’t his own mess. It became both of ours the moment I stepped into that clearing to save him, and I was glad I did, even though he might not know it.
“Do you think we’ve lost them?” I asked.
“I think so,” West answered slowly. “We’ve seen no trace of them, so probably. Plus, we haven’t heard any helicopters, so they’ve most likely given up by now.” Another pause and I had a feeling I knew what he was about to say. “Reese, I’m—”
“Don’t say you’re sorry,” I interrupted softly, not wanted to appear to harsh. “It was my choice to begin with to stay with you, not yours. I chose to stay with you, West, and I’ve had my chances to leave but I haven’t. I want to stay, despite the repercussions.” He didn’t look convinced. “And just so you know . . . I haven’t once regretted it,” I added, really telling him the truth.
His blue eyes stared at me, trying to see any hint of a lie, and found none. As they lingered I couldn’t stop myself from looking at him—really looking at him. His hair was wet, sticking out everywhere but I could just make out the natural wave in it as it started to dry. The flames reflected off the rain water still on his face, bringing out his strong jawline and smooth skin.
I felt my cheeks warm, and it wasn’t from the fire. But I didn’t tear away from his gaze until he seemed satisfied, and finally dropped his eyes.
“I really believed they wouldn’t come after me,” he said softly, not taking his eyes off the ground. “They have bigger things to worry than a lone, ex-soldier messing up a few of their plans.”
“Maybe they think of you more as a lone wolf,” I suggested.
West smiled to himself while staring into the fire.
“I doubt it,” he said.
“Well, I don’t.” I mumbled to myself but I knew he heard it from the way his eyes briefly flicked upward. “So, where do you think we are? I’m guessing we’re right below the halfway mark to the North city.”
The three major cities on our large land mass made up a triangle between each other. The mountains in which we were headed for are located above the North City, the one that stood directly in our path. I dreaded the long road ahead of us.
“That sounds about right,” he said. “It might be a good idea to find a road and look for some signs to make sure though.”
“Yeah,” I answered tiredly. I was really beginning to lose energy, I could feel it leaving my body with every passing minute.
“It’s weird being away from everything that’s happening out there. It’s like we’re cut off from the world.” He shrugged indifferently. “Except when a helicopter is chasing after you.”
I let out a laugh, it came out louder than I had thought and I clamped a hand over my mouth went it did. West tried to pull off a fake cringe, looking away awkwardly, like someone pretending they weren’t with the person next to them. It was adorable the way he did it and I looked away quickly. Stop thinking that!
“We should probably sleep.” He yawned right on cue.
I laid down on my back looking up at the rock above me, wishing I had a blanket. If it wasn’t for the fire I would have been shivering in my wet clothes. We laid there awhile longer enjoying the fire and not the rain. My eyes started to drift into nothingness, and I heard West roll over on his back. “Reese?”
His voice was tired. My heart rate picked up a notch and I didn’t know why. It always did when he said my name, but this time it was different.
West spoke again. “I—” He paused and I laid as still as I could. I stole a glance from across the fire. He opened his mouth but hesitated again and finally said, “Good-night.”
“Good-night,” I whispered, rolling onto my side, drifting into sleep within minutes.