Yesterday’s rain has dissipated to make way for the heat of the afternoon and the air is thick with humidity. My shirt clings to my skin and I’ve already begun sweating by the time Ayana and I spot Naomi leaning on the heavy door of a large black van.
A small lanky man crosses our path, making long looping strides towards the two of us and I see Ayana’s shoulders tense with anticipation. I eye the source of her tension with interest. He’s skinny and his shoulders stoop with the effort of holding up his tall frame. His skin is pockmarked and a heavy sheen of sweat adorns his prominent brow. When the man is within range of hearing she calls out, “Get lost Lev. I’m not in the mood today.”
Regardless of her request to stay away, or perhaps because of it, he moves nearer, squinting his eyes at her and lifting his thin lips into an amused smile. Ayana takes several steps back. Lev ignores her obvious discomfort with his proximity and steps closer.
“Where you off to with the freak?” he says, voice full of venom. He spares me one sidelong glance before his narrow eyes return to Ayana.
“Not your business. I thought I told you to get lost?” she retorts hotly.
Lev laughs a little at that. “Come on, don’t be like that. I’m willing to forgive you for your little slip up yesterday.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she responds in a blank tone.
“You watched the little freak beat the shit out of him. I saw you hold back Merritt— is that anyway to treat Darrow after he was so niceto you?” Ayana winces and appears to shrink into herself, her proud shoulders folding under the weight of his perverse gaze. Lev is trailing a narrow finger up and down her arm. When he approaches her face and reaches out to brush her cheek I see her previous vigor return to her eyes. She smacks his hand aside with a disgusted noise.
“Don’t touch me, pig,” she snaps.
He scoffs, although he does take a small step back. “Please, him and me, we’re the only ones that would touch you. The rest of the boys are too worried about getting dirty.” He jeers.
This is one of those rare times when my natural response might actually be the correct one. Protect your own. I stamp hard on his foot, and when he howls in pain I make a grab for his throat. I’m holding him, my small hand not nearly large enough to do any significant damage, but it isn’t really strangling him that matters. I see the terror in his eyes and the nervous beads of sweat gathered on his forehead.
“I think it would be a good idea if you left now,” I state, my words clipped and monotone.
“I’ll go, I’ll go! Okay? Just let go!” screams Lev. I tighten my hand on his neck, digging my short nails in deep before losing my grip. He jerks out of my grasp and, hand placed apprehensively around the place mine had rested, begins running full speed in the opposite direction. He briefly trips on an upturned root and I chuckle at his hasty departure. That’s my idea of funny.
When I turn to face Ayana her brown eyes are wide, she opens her mouth to speak but can’t seem to settle on anything to say. She glances towards Lev’s quickly retreating form and back to me. I don’t really know what the right thing to do is. I settle on a passive shrug.
Either Naomi hasn’t witnessed the scene or she’s willfully ignoring it. We resume walking towards her when I decide I know exactly what this situation calls for. Information exchanged for services rendered— I have the opportunity to make an ally.
“You know I can teach you to fight, if you want,” I say. “To be strong so they won’t harass you like that.”
Her shoulders tighten and her voice is edged with vigor, “I am strong.”
I stop walking and turn towards her, bringing myself to my full height. “No. You aren’t. You’re weak and afraid and they can smell it on you. When you decide you want to change that you come find me.”
I take off ahead of her, pacing quickly. Naomi spots me and waves. She pushes herself off from her relaxed stance against the vehicle.
“Eve, good afternoon. Thank you Ayana, dismissed.”
Ayana does not salute, but nods and departs, shooting me a peculiar uneasy look in the process.
“Are we going somewhere?” I ask, perplexed.
She nods, her thin mouth fixed in a grim line as she fiddles with a set of jingling silver keys.
“I’m taking you to the ashfields.”
The dark vehicle bumps along the road. I place a hand on the dash to steady myself, but after a particularly violent rattle the seatbelt locks up across my chest. I make a noise of discontent and Naomi slides a sideways look towards me.
“Sorry. Most of the roads are falling apart, I try to avoid the bigger holes but…” she shrugs. “It is what it is.”
Frankly I just want her to keep her eyes peeled on the road. I say as much and she laughs.
“We’ll be off the road soon, don’t worry.” She says.
I look out from our tall perch— she really isn’t kidding about the condition of the roads. Plants have long since broken through cracks and there are large sinkholes every couple feet. The landscape here, the shape of the trees and the shade of the leaves are all familiar. The underbrush is thick and vividly green and trees are beginning to overtake the asphalt roads completely, creeping vines and crawling roots expanding past the metal grating that spans the side of the road. Slight tinges of red and yellow are beginning to overtake the leaves in the first signs of an oncoming winter. Another pothole jolts the vehicle. Occasionally we pass a run-down building by the side of the road or an old billboard with rotted words that have become illegible.
“Are all the roads like this?” I ask.
“No. The main stretches of highway are used for transportation of supplies and soldiers for the People’s State. They’re kept in better condition for the most part so there’s never any major delays. For obvious reasons we tend to stay away from those roads, stick to the ones that are more off the beaten path.”
The vehicle carries us on in continuous jarring movements.
We’ve been driving for about forty-five minutes when Naomi pulls off the main road and we begin a jolting drive down a meandering dirt path. At a certain point she pulls up to a red rusted metal gate with a worn sign that reads, “No Trespassing”. She puts the van in park and turns to me. “We walk from here.”
The sun is still low on the horizon. By my estimate we have about four more hours of daylight. She leads me forward through the forest, picking her way around roots and fallen trees. The path narrows and a steep incline leads the two of us upward, my feet struggle for purchase on the slippery earth. The only sound among us is feet rustling the leaves and the heavy pant of our labored breathing.
As soon as the thought occurs to me, I stop.
A forest isn’t supposed to be this soundless. I cock my head to the side, listening. Up ahead Naomi has stopped as well. My breathing slows and the sound of blood pumping in my ears dies down, without that noise the forest is dead. It feels wrong. No bird chirps, no small animals scurry away. The world is too still, too quiet here. The telltale signs of life are absent. I imagine that if I stayed here long enough in the cover of silence I would be absorbed into the muteness of this world, listening to the sound of trees grow.
I can’t bring myself to speak. Even the softest whisper would be a scream in this place. After a while Naomi jerks her head in a signal to keep moving and I wince as the crunch of leaves breaks through the hush with the force of a whip cracking across skin.
The path opens up in front of us to reveal a clearing of a bald faced rock. I see that we’ve gained several hundred feet in elevation. Naomi steps forward, pointing one pristine, elongated finger in a westerly direction. I follow the direction of her hand to see the bright gold of the sun glaring out over a desolate forest of ash and dust.