Chapter 1: Knocking on Death's Door
Two years passed in the village, and now I had to tell Dan I was dying. I couldn’t complete my promises to anyone, but how I wished… No. I… He was sitting there, across from me, studying the map I had created from memory of the city. Every day after dinner he would come to my house to learn about the city, but at some point he would figure it out. I had a long, slow, and brutal death ahead of me according to the physician in the town who probably knew less about actual medicine than…
“Liv?” I jumped when I heard Dan’s voice. His mouth was slightly open with the question in his voice dangling off his lips showing the gap in his front teeth. “Is everything all right? You’ve been kind of out of it today. If there’s anything…?”
I could still hear his different accent, but he used less shortened words now… I had to tell him. He would want to know. I had to tell him, first. Before it was town gossip. “Dan…”
He was my best friend here. Kevin lived with Sandy, and Rod… Rod was a crazy son of a bitch. I found myself longing for Fire. I had known her for such a short time, but she had affected me so strongly.
“What is it Liv? You can tell me anything.” His gray eyes held worry and confusion. I had told him everything. Everything except one thing. Well, actually two things but I was about to make it one again.
“Dan…” I started again and looked down at my hands tangled together on my lap. He sat there, waiting for me to speak with that worried look in his eyes and his curly brown hair falling over his forehead.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, “I’m dying. I have a year. Maybe two. Rod would know better… But… I don’t.”
I opened my eyes and I could see the denial written across his face, “No. You can’t be dying. You’re perfectly healthy. You have lots to live for. You have promises to fulfill.”
I reached over and grasped his flailing hands in my own and held them tightly. “I know. I have an old disease… A disease most people in this town are immune to called tuberculosis. Apparently it’s rare but sometimes pops back up in the population. I will slowly cough up my lungs…”
“No. There has to be some sort of cure. I know… I know you can’t stand him. I know you hate him more than anything, but…”
“No. I won’t talk to him. Not now. Not ever. I would cross the radiation again before talking to him again.” I had kicked Rod out. I hated even thinking about him. I hated how thoughts of him still confused me. I hated how he would look at me. I hated myself for looking at him, for watching him. I saw him play to the rules of this new community freely hooking up with any girl that wanted him. Each one was like a dagger.
A long time ago a girl, his sister, told me he had waited. He had waited years refusing all the other girls in the wall. Who was he? Whenever my eyes met his I could see anger clouding his face. I’d take a deep breath and keep going, but I felt like it was my fault. I should have forgiven him. Maybe if I could find it in myself to forgive him he would… what, be happy? I had never given him a chance. I had kicked him out that night.
Dan’s hand was on my shoulder and he was kneeling next to me, “Are you doing ok, do ya… need anything?”
I shook my head. No. I wasn’t dead yet. I wasn’t so weak yet that I was an invalid. But I liked his hand on my shoulder, his nearness. I leaned into him and inhaled. God I was a fickle creature. How could I love Dan as well as Rod? Why couldn’t I be as cold as everyone thought I was? Why couldn’t I be the ice queen inside like they called me? “I’m afraid Dan. I don’t want to die. I… What will happen to Jade, and all my promises?”
And I would never have a chance to have a family. When I lived in a cell I never dreamed I would one day be free. I never really thought about a life beyond my revenge and the cell, but now, now I had Jade and I could remember Fire smiling as she told me she was pregnant. My own goals had changed so much. I wanted a child, but I couldn’t even let emotion escape the wall I had built.
I pulled back and away from him. “I’ll be fine. Go home Dan, to your father.” I found my eyes traveling to the floor out of habit. “I’ll still be here tomorrow, and the day after… I’ll even keep training with you in the mornings till I grow too weak.”
“Why don’t you go back to your city, to the wall?” He was right. I’d asked that of myself before as well, but I was afraid. I was afraid to face the radiation again. I was afraid I wouldn’t find the city. I was afraid… I was afraid they wouldn’t accept me and they would turn me away. I ran my fingers over the scar burned into my cheek. The exile or execution mark.
“I… I should go back. I made a promise to go back, but I’m not sure if they would actually want me back.” Were these unfounded fears? Would the city welcome me back as a hero and release my family, and what about Kevin’s family? He had a new family here. He couldn’t go back.
“Tell me if you decide to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stood up and headed for the door, and I stood up gripping the back of the chair for support. I couldn’t drag him into my problems and into the city. I had destroyed Rod by dragging him here. If I left I would leave suddenly and without any notice in the middle of the night. I would go on my own so I didn’t drag anyone else down with me again.
I heard creaking and I looked over at the stairs to see Jade creeping down the ladder from the loft. I wouldn’t have noticed her if it wasn’t for that creaky step.
“Jade, aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” She was such a handful, and it was hard for me to raise her well. I was too young to have an eight year old daughter even if she wasn’t really mine. She was headstrong, willful, and quick tempered. She was also one of the best fighters for her age. Sandy called her a prodigy, but I knew the truth. I watched her practice every night. In fact she would often times make me spar with her, and she normally beat me.
“I won’t be very good at silently killing anyone if I can’t even make it down the stairs without you hearing.” Sandy wanted her to be a weapons instructor, but I knew the truth. She wanted to be an assassin. I had told her stories about the warriors who were experts at killing and silently taking out a target and disappearing, and she became determined to become one.
“Are you sure being an assassin is the best way to find and kill the raiders?” She was obsessed with them and her desire to kill them scared even me. I had long planned to take revenge on a king that killed my father as she longed to kill theses raiders, but I didn’t remember being as obsessed as she was. It hit me suddenly; going back would give me a chance to enact that revenge on the King.
Jade sat down on the steps she had just been creeping down. “I heard… I didn’t mean to listen in. I normally don’t because your conversations with Dan are normally just boring lessons about the place you came from, but I overheard him asking you what was wrong and then I heard…”
I sighed, “What did you hear Jade.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you ware dying? When did you plan to tell me you were going to leave me the same way as my parents? Did you not think this was important to me?” All her self-righteous eight year old anger was focused on me.
“I just found out Jade. I was going to tell you… soon. I just…” She spun around and climbed back up the ladder and I chased after her just to find the hatch we installed over the ladder locked.
“Jade, let me in. I swear I was going to tell you!” I could hear muffled sobbing from the loft and I didn’t know what to do or where to go.
Slowly I climbed down onto the floor and let myself sit down against the ladder.
I wanted to cry. I knew I should feel horrified that I was dying, but I felt nothing. I coughed into my hand and stared at the flecks of blood on my hands. Coughing up my lungs. Who would have ever thought that such a disease would exist?
I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. I wanted to see Jade grow up. I wanted to marry and have a family. I had to fulfill my promise to the city. There was so much left for me, but some little thing I couldn’t see was stealing my future from me.
I forced myself to stand up and stumble to a chair. It was such a large cottage and it was just Jade and I living in it now. So empty. And poor Jade. Everyone she grew close to died. Why was I sick? Why had the world conspired against us? I collapsed against the chair and pulled myself up onto it. I was locked out of the loft, so I simply let my head rest on the table, and fell asleep.
I awoke to the roosters crowing the next morning before the sun was even up. Those damn roosters. They never understood that they weren’t supposed to wake people till after the sun was up.
I pushed myself up and out of the chair stumbling away from the pounding in my head. I clutched at it, stumbled back to my bed and threw myself down on it and covered my head with a pillow. Damn headaches. I hated them. Couldn’t I just sleep the day away, never move… I had an excuse. I was dying. That was a good excuse right?
No, I had to keep going on, like I wasn’t dying. I dragged myself out of bed and pulled my clothing on. I couldn’t remember taking it off the previous day. Did I take it off while asleep? I looked over at my bed and saw my pillow had a speck of blood and I shuddered. God, why were there reminders of my condition everywhere?
I glared up at the loft. “Jade, are you up?” Ach, why was my own voice so loud and painful.
“Yes, I’m up. Happy?” she barked from beyond the trapdoor. She was always so grouchy in the morning
“Yup, I expect you to see you down here soon. I better not have to come up the ladder and wake you up.” Sometimes she didn’t want to get up and I had to push her to get ready, but most mornings she was fairly good about it..
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.” I flinched at the sharp tones in her voice. I really had no clue what I was doing raising a young girl. I was twenty, and twenty year olds weren’t supposed to be raising a ten-year-old.
I went down the stairs and outside to the chicken coup that I and some neighbors shared. The cool breath of early morning air filled my lungs and I coughed from the sharpness in my lungs. One of my neighbors, Kayla Winterborn, was already there collecting eggs for her family’s breakfast, but she didn’t notice.
“Morning Kayla.” I smiled and waved at her like I did every morning.
She turned and stared at me and blinked with a blank look on her face. Her body shuddered, she blinked and then there was recognition in her eyes, “Morning Liv. Out getting’ ye eggs early I see.”
I nodded but she didn’t notice. Her face was blank and she was staring off into the distance as she walked away. She recently lost her little girl and she wasn’t quite in this world anymore. She wondered in her own world where her daughter was still alive.
I pushed the chicken at the gate out of the way and entered. I snatched two eggs from nests that hens had already left and quickly went back inside to prepare the eggs.
Jade came down the ladder just as I was finishing up cooking, “I’m sorry Liv, I didn’t mean... I’m sorry, I just don’t… I don’t want ya ta die too.” And suddenly her arms were clutched around me and I could hear sobs muffled against my t-shirt. I bent down and held her close to me.
“Remember what I told you when your mother died? I will live on in your memory. I will always be in your heart. As long as you remember your loved ones and hold them dear they live on in your heart. And you will always have the blanket I wove for you just as you have your mother’s dagger. Remember what I told you about that blanket?”
Her crying became sniffling and I could feel her nodding, “You said… You said we would always be together… that the blanket was a scene from your childhood city, and that it would bind us together, forever, no matter where we went.”
I smiled at her and smoothed back her hair, “Yes my dear child. Death is just another journey. One day after you have done many great deeds you will take that road too. We all have to face it, one day. I gently kissed her on the forehead.
Sometimes I could forget she was still a child. It seemed like nothing would ever faze her. She glared at death and dared it to try and touch her. She was a loner. Most of the other kids her age would hang out and play, but she avoided them. Instead she practiced fighting every spare second. It wasn’t normal behavior for a child, but I didn’t know what to do. Maybe she was afraid to grow close to people, but she had let me in… Of course, this must seem like the ultimate betrayal. She had let me in and grown close to me, and I simply planned to go off and die. Why had fate chosen to unleash this awful disease on me?
When the crying was over I pushed her away but held onto her shoulder, “well look at that. Face. We need to get you cleaned up. You don’t want anyone to see that the tough girl’s cryin’ do you?”
She silently shook her head no staring at me with those accusing eyes.
“Go wash your face and then come back in and eat your egg.” I waited for her to come back, and then we both sat down to breakfast.
I was just clearing up the dishes when I heard a knock on my door. “Yes?” I called out as I approached. Who would be visiting this early in the morning?
“It’s Dan, I wanted to talk to you.”
Dan… my stomach fluttered and I realized my hair was a mess and I still looked like I had just gotten up. Was there any blood on my lips? I wiped my face quickly with my arm and ran my fingers through my hair before opening the door, “Sorry, I umm, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I know. I thought about your… condition, and it would be best if you don’t exercise anymore. Exercise could be really bad for your lungs. It could make you die even sooner.” He was staring directly at me with this dead serious face.
A rumble started in my stomach and suddenly I was laughing. I wasn’t sure what was so funny. It was just… so… ironic? Oh God. I was dying and he was worrying about how long I would last. I realized my laughter sounded hysterical and false even to my own ears. Pain bloomed across my chest and suddenly I was coughing. I collapsed to my knees clutching at my ribs. Water streamed down my face out of my eyes.
And then there were hands steadying me, holding my shoulders and tingles shot through my arms. His hands. “Sorry, I just… I found it funny.”
“I…” He stuttered lost for words his face so shocked that I found it hard not to laugh again. “This is serious Liv!”
Oh God. Deep breaths. Nice and calm. Don’t want to cough anymore. No laughing for you. Deep breaths. A giggle escaped. Deep breaths. There. I had it under control.
“Sorry Dan, I know. I just… How can I be dying?” I hadn’t meant to say it, but it was the truth. I was so young. How? I couldn’t be dying. I had so much to live for. In all the stories the characters don’t die till after they complete their quests and missions in life.
“You’re human, just like the rest of us Liv. You are made of flesh and blood.”
“I know that, it’s just I’ve outwitted death so many times before, and now to be killed by a disease?”
His arms wrapped close around me and I let him pull me against him. “I don’t want to lose you Liv. I… I’ve wanted to say this for a long time, but I’ve been afraid ya weren’t ready… and now… I have to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” I mumbled against his firm and muscular chest. He was so warm and felt so nice just to relax against him.
“I… well, umm, I don’t know how to say this…”
“Just go on, say it.” I was starting to get annoyed with his stuttering and yammering.
He took a deep breath and then all at once let it out, “I think you should go back to the city.”
“What?” I drew back from him. I hadn’t been expecting that. I was going to stay here, with Jade. I would die and my ashes would be scattered on the wind.
“Instead of fighting today I want you to find Rod, and I want you to ask him if the Wall would be able to cure you. Once you have the answer you can either shoot your bow or ride Kingston at a walk. Nothing more. I really don’t want to strain your lungs.”
“But.. But…” How could he want me to talk to Rod? Rod was… Rod was crazy. Rod had moods that changed lightening quick, and I could still remember stumbling across him coming back from the weaving shed late one night, and he was stumbling around drunk.
“Look, it’s Liv who’s too good for me!” he’d called out and blocked my path home.
“Rod, please, move. I need to get home.”
“Thought you were too good huh! I loved you! I loved you and you just walked away.”
“You cheated on me. Please move.” Even now I could remember the fear and panic as he growled at me and came closer. I turned and ran blindly like prey being chased through the streets by the hungry predator, and then he cornered me, and his fist came flying at my face…
“LIV!” It was Dan standing there in front of me.
“I know, I know you want nothing to do with him, so I will go with you. He won’t hurt you. It’s light outside and he won’t be drunk so he won’t be crazy and angry.” Some people cry when they are drunk. Some people laugh. And some throw punches.
I chewed on my lip and nodded. I would agree to go and talk only because Dan seemed so desperate for me to do this.
Jade came running out the door and waved at me as she ran toward school with her school bag flapping against her side. She didn’t seem surprised to see Dan with me.
Dan took my hand and led me away toward where Rod was currently staying with a woman name Ivy. Dan knocked on the plain door of the one story house. A woman with extremely curly brown hair, light brown skin, and startlingly dark green eyes answered the door. For a second she looked down her long nose at us, and then she spoke in a deep, husky voice, “What can I do for you?”
I hadn’t really met her before. I normally avoided the evening gatherings, and if it wasn’t for Dan and Kevin I might have become a hermit. I realized it was the green gown she was wearing that was making her eyes pop. That and the black eye make-up. How and why was she already looking like a goddess of something when it was so early in the morning?
“Umm, Can we speak to Rod?” Dan seemed as stunned as me, except he wasn’t also speechless.
“Yes, of course. I’ll get him.” She swayed her hips as she turned and glided away.
I looked over and saw Dan staring at her butt suddenly I felt like I was going to be sick. I bumped Dan and he jumped. At least he looked decently shamed for being caught staring.
Before I had time to say anything though, Rod was there. His white hair reached his shoulders, and a couple locks fell over his pale face. He looked so similar, but so different. Dark pits collected under his eyes and his brow was furrowed in a frown. He looked angry instead of wise or innocent as he had once seemed to me. I guess I was now the more innocent one. I had seen so much, but I hadn’t become haunted the way he looked.
I couldn’t speak I felt helpless, and at the same time I could remember kissing him, and loving him. I could remember him gently holding me close…
“Roderick, Liv is sick. She has tuberculosis according to the physician.” Thank God Dan was here. I couldn’t have done this without him.
“And, What do you want from me? That old physician’s a quack anyway. And Liv left me after I left my home in the Wall just to follow her, or don’t you remember.”
How dare he speak as if I wasn’t there. I felt strength enter my bones. I was strong I had crossed the radiation waste land before. I had survived being dishonored. I could survive this. I stood as straight as I could. “How dare you speak as if I’m not here? I left you? Ha. As if you crazy bastard. You left the Wall out of your own free will, and you cheated on me out of your own damn free will! Don’t you dare…” Coughs exploded from lungs as I turned away from the men to cough into my hand. When I finished coughing I looked at my hand and stared at the flecks of blood.
I looked back and saw worry on Dan’s face, but a strange excitement lit Rod’s face, “I’ve never seen it before. I’ve read about, about the coughing blood, but I never thought I would see a real live case. We still have the medicine in the Wall, but we haven’t treated it in so long… to think I got to see it…”
“So the Wall does have medicine to treat her then?” Rod blinked as if he had forgotten Dan was there.
“Of course. They have medicine for everything. Don’t know if it will work still or if it’s any good, but they have it. Oh, and Liv, if I read your symptoms right, you only have a couple months to live if that.” That last part was spoken with a gleeful malice as if this made him happy.
I turned and took off only to find myself in a heap coughing more blood. Dan was there, holding me as I sobbed into his chest. I was only twenty. I didn’t want to die.
“Shhh Liv. We’ll go back to the city. Remember, I promised you I would go with you, back to your city one day. Well, looks like it’s simply sooner than later. We’ll go back and get you all fixed up, and then you can come back…”
“That’s… that’s the… the thing Dan. It’s.. it’s a one… one… one way trip for me.” I couldn’t get any more words out. I simply cried until the tears dried up and the hiccups came and went.
Then I heard Dan’s quiet voice as his stubble brushed against my cheek, “Why’s it a one way trip?”
“Because… because I will have been exposed to too much radiation. A third trip would kill me. You can come back though.” My heart clenched at the thought, but I wouldn’t force him to stay with me. Rod had followed me, and he had gone crazy and demented.
“No. I will stay with you. You need protecting. You still barely qualify as passable with a sword. More like laughable.”
I feebly swatted at him, but he easily avoided my weak arm’s attack. “Come on, I think that’s enough excitement for today. I think you can spend today at your loom.”
For a second I wanted to fight him, to insist on riding or shooting, but I was too tried to put up any struggle. Instead I took the hand he was holding out to me and let him pull me onto my feet and guide me to the building where my loom waited.