The rain was still falling when we set out the next morning. We buried the remains of the fire before we left, making sure there was no evidence of us being there.
West was still being careful about which paths he chose as we hiked through the forest, always heading north. The trees were bigger in this part of the woods and spaced apart from each other with less underbrush, expanding our visibility farther. The forest floor was covered with soft dirt and rotting leaves which muffled our footsteps, making us silent to everything around us. The rain padded down, drowning out everything, the constant sound I had been hearing for the last two days.
I glanced at West who was trudging along ahead of me, no sign of the wounds he had when we first met. The cuts and bruises may have been almost gone but I knew the gash on his back was still unhealed, along with a few of his ribs. He hadn’t bothered to pull his hood up when we set out in the morning. Again, I had no idea why I had because there was no point.
“Have you seen Swiss Family Robinson?” West asked suddenly. Even as he said the words, the memories came rushing back. The first time I had seen that movie I instantly had a crush on the oldest brother, Fritz. All the exotic animals and tree houses caused my eyes to become glued to the screen until the very end.
“Yes,” I said, sighing. “I’ve loved that movie ever since I was five.”
“Me too.” He smiled widely. “These trees reminded me of their tree houses. Do you think we could make one?”
My eyes roamed to the branches above, looking for the perfect places to nestle a house between them.
A small laugh escaped my lips and I nodded. “Yeah, my brother would have it up in no time. Knowing him he would have two levels and a deck.”
“We could have two houses with a rope bridge between them.”
“Can we have a zebra?” I asked.
West glanced back and stopped, smiling again as always. “Of course we can have a zebra. It wouldn’t be right without one.”
We stood staring at each other and I couldn’t help notice that it was becoming a habit, and I had no idea why. Usually when you stared at another person for a length of time it would become awkward . . . but this wasn’t like that. It felt as if we were both studying each other for some unknown reason, not yet found, hidden somewhere out of reach. I realized I started looking forward to these moments, just so I could look into his eyes as he stared into mine, different, yet the same as before.
“West, do you have any brothers and sisters?” I asked, beginning to walk again, this time alongside him.
“An older brother and a younger sister,” he answered immediately.
“Is your brother here too then?”
“Yeah, he is,” he answered in a quiet voice, though his eyes were on the ground now.
I suddenly felt bad about asking, worrying it was too hard for him to talk about. I couldn’t even imagine what he was feeling right now. He had no idea if his family and brother supported him in his decision or not. He probably felt like a traitor to his own family, and not to mention his entire country. It was a large amount of weight to be held on one person’s shoulders.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I shouldn’t have asked. It’s not really my business.”
He stopped and turned to face me, the rain dripping off his hair and down his face.
“Reese,” I said. “It is most definitely your business. I don’t want to keep anything from you.” He shrugged absently. “Especially because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. If you hadn’t decided to risk your life saving me, I would be dead. But most of all . . . I don’t like keeping things from the people I trust most. It isn’t right.”
“But I don’t want to ask about things you don’t want to talk about. It took a lot of courage to do what you did. You went against everyone you knew and I have no idea how you’re dealing with it. And . . .” I shook my head, telling myself to stop making it worse, “I’m sorry, I’ll stop.”
I lowered my eyes and started walking again but West caught my arm, his fingers curling around gently around my wrist. My legs stopped, shifting my weight as I peeked out from under my dripping hood.
“No,” he said. “I want to talk about this with you, Reese. You want to know how I’m dealing with turning my back against my family and friends? I don’t think I am. My mind keeps wandering to the subject but I always ignore it.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his wet hair. “But now that I’m thinking about it . . . I really think my family knows that I did it for the right reasons. Even if the army told them some lie to turn them against me, I know they won’t believe it; they know me too well. They trust me. And I also know I did the right thing; those people didn’t deserve what they were getting. Nobody in this country does. The army just wanted to make examples out of somebody.”
West had helped people that were going to die for no reason, and I could only hope that Ethan wasn’t anywhere near there. And I had a new hope. A hope that there were more people like West, willing to stand for the right thing. People with enough courage to stand for what they believed in, no matter what anybody would say or do.
“What about your brother?” I asked.
West sighed heavily. “Honestly, I don’t know. Devon can hide his emotions from anyone, including me. So, I don’t know what he feels about the situation, but I just hope he understands.”
I nodded slowly and we continued walking again, side by side as before. The rain was softer now, almost like a mist, making the forest seem like a mystical land.
“What’s your brothers name?” West asked, as we crossed a small stream, jumping from rock to rock.
“Ethan,” I said.
“Does he look like you?”
“No, he has sandy blond hair and he can make you laugh just by smiling at you. It’s the goofiest thing you’ve ever seen.” I missed him so much it made my stomach ache. West was quiet again, probably thinking of his family, too. How could we not think of them? My parents were probably dead and West’s were on a different continent, both very far away and both constantly on our minds.
“West, what do you think is happening out there? In the cities I mean . . .”
I turned my head to the south, even though it was far behind us and unable to see, though I still looked, hoping to see something that wasn’t there. The only picture that came to my mind was thick billowing smoke drifting from the city from the first day, proof of the disaster which had occurred there.
West said, “When I left the South City it was in bad shape—horrible actually—but I’m not sure about the rest. Fortunately for us, we had the element of surprise.”
“Do you think the war is already over?” I asked, afraid of what his answer might be. West stopped and studied me again, looking through sorrowful eyes.
“Probably not.” He kept his eyes on everything but me, uncomfortable with talking about the events he took part in. And I hated asking about it, and bringing him out of his joyful mood. Then a thought came to my head and the words burst from my mouth before I could stop them.
“West, why did you . . .” I dug my shoe into the wet dirt, not sure about asking the question on my mind. West eyed me curiously. I tried again, “Why did you come with me?”
“Well, I have no where else to go and—”
I nodded my head quickly, trying to hide my face. “That’s true.”
My heart slowly sank as I walked on, not quite sure what I was expecting him to say. His hand stopped me again. I couldn’t deny it to myself; I savored every moment that West touched me. My skin prickled and my blood raced when he did, causing my heart to pump faster in my chest.
“I wasn’t finished,” West murmured, his voice so smooth.
When my eyes finally drifted back to him, West was giving me a small smile. His eyes shone brightly, dragging me into them like a sparkling star, unable to tear my eyes away.
“I stayed with you because you’re, well . . . Reese.”
“You didn’t know my name until the second day,” I mumbled, raising an eyebrow.
West laughed but his smile stayed wide. “No, but I didn’t need to know your name to know that you were different. You are so unlike anyone I have ever met. The first time I saw you I hesitated before reacting to the situation. And I hesitated because I don’t know a single person who would have saved a complete stranger. Above all, a stranger that was supposed to be your enemy.”
West must have seen the doubt in my eyes because he stepped closer, moving his hand from my wrist, placing it on my cheek, his fingers sliding through my hair and past my ear. He had never touched me that way before, so intimate and yet so natural, like the moment had happened before, but I was sure it hadn’t. He had a strange effect over me—one that I couldn’t explain.
I was having trouble breathing again.
“I’m not lying to you,” he said. “I never do.”
“I know.” The words barely made it out of my mouth; half whisper, half air.
He dropped his hand, smiling brightly. “Good, and don’t forget it.” And with that he walked away, leaving my frozen body where I stood in the rain. What just happened?
I sighed heavily and tugged my hood from my already wet head. I watched for a moment as he kept walking. Then he stopped, turning towards me, almost knowing that I wasn’t behind him. “You coming?”
“Yeah,” I answered nodding.
We ate our lunch while walking; more ravioli. It got a little watered down from the rain as we ate, but still tasted good. West had a look on his face as he stared at his can of food that said he wished it was pizza ravioli. He slowed to a stop and looked around.
“What is it? Hoping a pizza shop will appear?” I asked sarcastically.
He smirked at me. “No, I . . . need to use the bathroom.” He winced awkwardly.
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “Well, pick a tree then.” I said, waving my hand around.
He walked off to the right, glancing at the trees as he went and peeking back at me, probably figuring they were too close from where I was standing.
“Don’t get lost!” I called as he dropped out of sight over a small hill. I leaned against the nearest tree, and thankfully the leaves reflected most of the rain, keeping the nonexistent me dry.
I was beginning to hate rain, with a passion. But on the bright side, the woods were peaceful when it rained. The rain drops pattered on the soft ground and leaves, making a rhythmic song. I think I was beginning to secretly love it.
It felt odd being in the woods alone again, I almost felt too exposed. An odd feeling but a true one. Soft footsteps came into my hearing range and I was about to say, “About time,” but paused. My stomach turned over for an unexpected reason. Something I was not ready for.
The footsteps were behind me.
Coming from the wrong direction.
My heart rate quickened, past the point of separate beats, just one long continuous thump with my hands already shaking. My body stiffened with my muscles locking in place. I was holding my breath, not even daring to even breathe. The air around me was suddenly cold and every drop of rain felt like ice to my skin.
My ears strained to hear how many sets of feet there were behind me but the rain was falling harder now, muting out all other sounds but the drops themselves.
Very slowly, I glanced around the tree, my breathing shaky and uneven. About a two hundred feet behind me, down a slight slope which was covered with the same thick trees, were a dozen Union soldiers combing the forest. The rain drops glinted off the guns grasped in their hands while they searched the forest floor for footprints, trying to find any evidence of people passing through recently. The very sight of them caused my stomach to churn within itself.
Though among the soldiers there was one man that caught my attention. He didn’t wear a uniform like the rest but a black jacket and jeans, out in front of them all, leading the way. He wasn’t very tall but the attitude he held made up for it; someone who I already disliked. He reminded me of a snake who was about to eat a helpless crippled mouse, even though it had already eaten.
I turned back around, pressing my back to the tree again and my mind went into overtime. West was still nowhere to be seen, and I wanted to keep it that way. I had to keep it that way. I would do anything to prevent them from finding him, even something that put me in danger instead of him. West had had the courage to do the right thing, and I wanted to believe I did too. I didn’t have time to think about my actions, so I just acted.
My pack dropped with a dull thud at the base of the tree and I dug my handgun out, breathing deeply, summoning every ounce of courage I had within me. I desperately needed it. West was the only thing going through my mind at that moment. I couldn’t bare the thought of him being in those people’s hands again.
They would kill him.
I knew if I simply started running they would immediately know that I was trying to lead them away, and my plan would fail. So, I had to act normal until the moment I pretended to notice them, then I would make my break. I had no idea if it would even work, but I had to try.
Especially before West came back over that hill. Before he could ruin my plans and try to help me escape instead of him. I knew where I was headed, and I wanted to keep it that way, and he wasn’t going to be apart of any of it. Not if I could do something about it.
I already knew this was a one way street.
So, I just did it.
I stepped from behind my tree and walked directly to my right so it would be impossible for them not to see me. And it wasn’t. I walked in a straight line, keeping my eyes forward on the trees ahead as a man yelled out. His voice was harsh and loud. I turned my head sharply, looking at them for a half second before taking off in a dead sprint. I urged my legs to run as fast as they were able to, jumping over broken branches and dodging around trees.
A man yelled orders and I could hear them running after me; their heavy feet drowning out mine through the pattering rain. I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t try to shoot me. Their desire was not to kill me, but to keep me alive so they would be able to ask questions of where their main target was.
West was the one they wanted.
The trees whipped past my face as I ran as hard, begging my legs to move faster. Every step I took brought the soldiers farther and farther away from West. I knew they were going to catch me, it wasn’t something I could escape from. Thankfully, I had already accepted my fate. They were behind me, probably a hundred feet back, crashing through the forest like a stampede of wild animals.
Over the sound of my fast breathing and footsteps came another order, and followed by the shouting was a gunshot. It was something I hadn’t been expecting. The bullet sliced through my left knee, triggering it to buckle immediately, and I was down before the sound even left the forest. The air rushed past my ears with the ground coming up too quickly and I hit the dirt face first.
At that moment my adrenaline was at a peeking point, unable to register the pain from my knee to my brain yet. So I quickly dragged myself up before my mind had time to process anything. My left leg was useless, dragging behind me like dead weight, so I put all my weight on my right as I brought my handgun up, aiming at the closest soldier, my vision wavering.
I wasn’t going down without bringing someone with me.
I slowly pulled the trigger and the bullet hit him straight in the chest, bringing him down in a flash, his body twisting in the air in an unnatural formation. I didn’t stand there staring. Knowing I couldn’t run—but not wanting to be shot again—I dove for the nearest tree and sat against trunk gasping for air, just waiting for them to find me. I blinked the rain out of my eyes, and tried to take in what just happened in the matter of seconds.
Then the pain hit.
It came as fast as a bolt of lightning with all the energy that came with it. If a surgeon had appeared suddenly in front of me, I would have agreed to have my leg taken off, even if I had to give him money. And even though it was my knee that was shot, I felt it everywhere at once. My heart was working in overtime and every beat practically slammed painfully into my head, and I winced every time it did. The air around me seemed to disappear as my lungs tried to work properly, unevenly gasping for something that wasn’t there.
I gritted my teeth and looked down at the blood dripping down onto the already wet ground. The color blended in with the dirt in an ugly combination. I kept my eyes down as footsteps came around the tree, kicking my gun from my hand. There were only four pairs of feet, with the rest of the soldiers behind me waiting for more orders.
“Where is he?” The voice was rough, like sandpaper to my ears. I tried to keep my body from shaking as I let my gaze drift upward slowly, just testing the man’s patience. I was caught now, so why not piss them off more than they already were?
It was the man in black who had spoken. He stood over me with his dark eyes glaring down at me, waiting for the answer I wouldn’t give him.
And I gave him the most believable smile I was able to and said, “Where’s who?”
My head whipped around fast as his fist slammed into my jaw. I tried to ignore the pain but everyone knows thats virtually impossible. The only thing I could do was hold back the tears that were threatening to come out.
I was in pain, but that didn’t mean I had to cry about it.
“Don’t mess with me girl, it will be the last thing you ever do. Now . . . tell me where he is.” The last two words were almost a growl as his eyes became harder. “We know you’re the one who saved him, so don’t try to lie to us.”
I looked at him again but this time I glared, already hating this man. I even hated him before he had punched me. I would hate anyone who would try to find West. My breathing started to slow but the pain was still lingering, and I didn’t expect that to leave anytime soon.
“He’s gone,” I gritted through my teeth.
He bent down slowly into a crouch beside me. If anyone would have asked me, I wouldn’t have denied that I was afraid. I knew I described him as a snake before but I changed my mind. He was a poisonous snake, with eyes so dark they could have been black, probably matching the color of his blood.
“Then we’ll just have to make him come,” he said, “won’t we?”
The man moved his hand before I realized what he was doing. It came down on my wounded knee and squeezed with everything he had. A short yell of pain escaped my mouth before I could lock my jaw, making it impossible for me to do it again. The man knew if he made me scream, West would magically appear.
In which, he was right. I would have done the same thing if West were in my situation. In a way, I already had. He squeezed harder, making the blood pour faster and the pain increase than I could’ve imagined, but when he realized I wasn’t going to play along, he stopped. The man stood with a scowl and wiped my blood on the other soldier’s uniform, like it had some contagious disease.
My vision spotted with black.
He turned to the men waiting behind him. “I’m going back to where we found her. If he was with her, he’d leave tracks. Take her back, and if I’m not there within the hour, I’ll meet you at the outpost.”
He turned around, spitting on the ground next to me as he walked passed, and disappeared past the tree and out of view.
“You and you,” I heard him yell behind me. “Come with me, and if you can’t keep up, don’t bother coming at all.”
And just like that they were gone. Going to search for West.
Going to search for that single break in the clouds, that one crack where the sun can shine through. They were going to search for the one person that had changed my life. I couldn’t stop the a tear that ran down my cheek.
I would probably never see him again.