After the Tilt: Book 2

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Chapter 33: River Run

I woke up to the pain of my whole body bumping and bobbling and bouncing up and down. It took me a few seconds to realize where I was. I had been hastily thrown over someone’s shoulder and they were running along side the river. It was dark, but somehow in the distance it seemed like the sky was a lighter shade of dark. I rubbed my eyes; I had black spots in my vision.

The freezing rain had further engorged the river, the water was rushing by carrying chunks of ice, branches and other debris. I couldn’t see any canoes. I pushed my hand against the back of the person carrying me, it was slick. We were both soaked. I lifted my head just high enough to get a better view.

To my surprise, it was Yuki.

“Put me down!” I shrieked. “I’m ok now.”

We came to a sudden stop. Still hanging upside down, I bumped my head against their back.

Eli’s head peaked from the side.

“Good morning!” she cheerfully said.

Her sweater was covered in blood. The holes left by the bullets still visible. But Eli looked like nothing had happened.

I sighed in relief.

“You and I make a hell of a team! I take the bullets and you keep me alive. Oh, and if you are wondering, here’s the picturebook! I took great care of it.”

She produced a book from behind her back, just as Yuki dropped me to the ground rather roughly. My ribs were sore, and I had cramps in my legs, but I was against all odds, alive. And that was good enough for me.

I noticed that Yuki was still on high alert. I looked around and could see nothing but scattered trees. In the distance, countless columns of rising smoke marked the location of the orphanage. I squinted. The grey of the smoke against the black of the night, made it seem like the sky really was a different shade of dark.

“Let’s rest here,” Yuki commanded. “We need to figure out what to do next! I have no idea where the canoes were heading.” They frowned: “Our best bet is to follow the river.”

I stood up and could hardly take my eyes away from the sky.

“The sky,” I hesitated.

“It’s different,” I finally said.

Eli looked up. Over our head, a million stars forever shined. The freezing rain had gone and with it, the cloud cover. We both stood there for a while, taking in the beauty of the untainted night sky.

“It’s the beginning…. The end of the dark night…. It’s called the astronomical dawn. Summer is coming.”

“When?” I asked eagerly.

“When…” Eli was thinking. She let the words slowly slip from her lips. “I wonder, when… could be a few weeks still…but it’s coming. With a little bit of luck, we’ll live long enough to see it.”

She made it sound so cheerful…but it had the exact opposite effect on me. It filled me with total dread.

If we lived long enough…. If… if… I sadly thought.

The air was cold and damp. Still, Eli took her sweater off and gave it a quick rinse in the river. All three of us were a sad sight, covered in a mixture of sleet and blood. Drenched to the bones.

Yuki too, headed for the river. They hand scooped water and drank a big gulp of it. They let out a sigh of relief and came back to sit under the cover of the trees. The look of annoyance was gone from their face. Their jet-black hair now blue under the moonlight.

“I’m hungry,” Eli complained as she sat down next to me.

She wasn’t kidding, her stomach was madly rumbling.

“I’m always starving after using my characteristic. That’s clearly a design flaw,” she joked.

I sat next to her. I didn’t have any food with me. None of us did. I quickly looked around at the frozen landscape. Everything was covered with a shimmering sheet of ice: the trees, the ground, the rocks….

Eli’s stomach rumbled again. Yuki was now laying on the glazed over grass. “Might as well take a day off kids; enjoy the cold water and hope we find Fiori before the government finds us.” The cynicism heavy in Yuki’s voice.

That was very unlike them.

“I’m so hungry,” whined Eli. “How can I enjoy anything!”

“I bet the water is full of fish,” Yuki casually suggested.

“Fish!! Oh….” Eli turned her gaze toward the river. “Fish…. Yummy fishy… come to me little yummy fishy….” She bounced gleefully to the riverbank and pulled her sleeves up.

I rubbed my forehead…. How hungry does she have to be to even consider going into the frigid water?

“Wait Eli!” I called out. “You can’t go in; the water is too….”

SPLASH

“Eli!!!!!!!!! Oh! C’mon Eli! Get out of the water, this is dangerous.”

She wasn’t listening to me.

“Yuki! Do something, she has to get out of the water!”

Yuki didn’t even open their eyes. “She’ll get out when she gets cold.”

“What if she gets sick?”

“You don’t get sick from the cold; you get sick from living in close quarters with other people.”

“She could go into hypothermia!”

“No. Not her. She won’t because she can’t!”

“The current might sweep her away!”

“It might. But then that will be one less mouth to feed. One less kid to babysit.”

This was not a joke. They meant what they meant. It sent a shiver down my back.

“I don’t get it. You put your life on the line to save me but you’re fine with letting her drown.”

Yuki sat back up and joined me in my contemplation.

“My orders are to keep you alive. Nothing was ever said about Eli.”

“Hana asked you that, didn’t she?”

“I didn’t take orders from Hana.”

“Evian? Fiori?”

They kept quiet.

“That must be it! So, Fiori asked you to babysit me,” I said mostly to myself.

“You’re gutless Fenn. That is what is going to get you killed! She’s fearless. That is what is going to get HER killed. But I am only instructed to keep you alive. I wouldn’t take that as a compliment. It is more of a reflection of your temperament. We trust that she will do the right thing to survive….”

“But he doesn’t trust that I will….”

I left it at that. There was nothing else to say. So, I watched Eli frantically splashing around in the river, trying to catch a fish.

“She’d be a lot more effective if she didn’t disturb the water so much! She’s scaring the fish away. She won’t catch anything that way!” Yuki frowned but didn’t stop her. We both just stared until Eli came to that same conclusion on her own.

“What was so important about that book?” Yuki asked.

“It was Lianna’s,” I absent mindedly replied.

“Lianna’s?” Yuki queried.

“My sister,” was all I answered.

Yuki didn’t press the subject. I knew I owed them a much better explanation after putting their life at risk, but for now, that’s all I wanted to say.

Eli suddenly shrieked. Yuki was up on their feet before I even realized who had made the sound. She was still in the middle of the river. She had both arms raised in victory; a fish clutched tightly in one hand.

“I did it guys!!! I did it! This hungry girl gets to eat a yummy little fishy!” She ran back toward us proudly holding her prize. It wasn’t big, but it would be enough for the three of us. Eli was laughing, dancing, squealing in anticipation.

Yuki pulled a knife from under their pants, it was strapped to their calf. They proceeded to fillet the fish. I could tell it wasn’t their first time. Eli was impressed.

“Wow!! So that’s how you do this! You need to teach me one of these days! Then I’d never go hungry.”

This was as fresh as fish gets. Yuki handed a piece to Eli. She devoured it. As I grabbed a piece of my own, I noticed the want in Eli’s eyes. So, I let her have mine. Yuki too, gave up their share. In the end, Eli ate the entire fish. Once she realized what she had done, she promised us an even bigger catch and jumped back into the water.

It didn’t take her long to return with three more fish, which provided us with plenty of food for dinner. The timing was particularly welcomed as my head was starting to throb. It had been over 24 hours since I had last eaten. Although we had plenty of water, that alone wouldn’t keep us alive.

Yuki started cutting the fish.

“Ahhhh, I wonder if you could start a fire!” whined Eli.

She was talking to me.

“I mean, you can absorb fire, wouldn’t it make sense that you could release it back? Like maybe you could shoot fireballs from the palms of your hands. Like that: PEW! PEW! PEW!”

“That’s not how it works. You heard Meyer. I didn’t absorb the fire. I absorbed the energy released by the fire. So technically, I shouldn’t be able to release fireballs from the palms of my hands. It should be more like energy balls. Like that: PSSSHHEW! PSSSHHEW! PSSSHHEW!”

We both started laughing. It felt so normal, so good.

“If you both insist, I can make a fire. I have a lighter you know,” said Yuki with a most casual tone.

“WHAT?” said Eli in disbelief. “All this time you had a lighter, yet you let me eat raw fish!”

“You never asked for it to be cooked. You devoured the whole fish so quickly, I didn’t even have time to offer,” retorted Yuki.

I had to restrain myself from laughing.

“Let’s do it! Let’s light a fire!” pleaded Eli.

Yuki nudged her on the head. “Rule number one, when hiding, do not light a fire. The smoke and smell could give away your location. It’s basic you know… so you’d better get used to raw fish, because that’s the only way I’ll be serving it.”

“So basic,” whined Eli while rolling her eyes.

Yuki had a point. A fire would make us an open target.

All three of us ate the fish, raw. Eli didn’t complain again. My headache didn’t go away but in the quietude of the moment, the pain was easy enough to ignore. We didn’t talk. What could we have discussed… the weather, the never-ending night or our life at the orphanage? We were surrounded by doom: our past, our present, and undoubtedly our immediate future. Shivering in the dark, my back against a tree, it was easy to imagine my death. It was comforting too… knowing THIS would have an end. Dying didn’t scare me. It was living that hung over my shoulder like a burden. Living meant, choosing, caring and losing, all intertwined in a vicious cycle of grief.

Dying is a lot easier than watching other people die, I told myself. Basically, I was a coward. Yuki had nailed it, I was gutless.

As I sat there, it became clear. This might very well be my last night on earth. I let out a lengthy sigh: a mix of sadness, disappointment and relief. I hugged the book to my chest. There was one thing I could do. One thing I had to do. If this was going to be it. If this was where my story ended, I had to make sure Hana’s hope lived on.

That night, I gave Eli the records of her procedure. Records that had been recovered by Evian during the raid on Ortus University. The same documents Hana had tried to acquire two years prior to that. Somehow, they had eventually fallen into her hands and made their way to me.

The reports were short and hastily written to a point that some parts were illegible. In my solitude, I had spent countless hours reading and rereading them. The content was hurtful. I couldn’t help but to think that it was better for them to not know. But our situation was quickly deteriorating, who knew how much time we still had. I handed the precious documents over to her. She gasped as she saw the title. She hesitated before finally taking the papers. She stepped away from Yuki and me. It was clear, she wanted to be alone.

“Is that what was so important?” Yuki asked.

“Yes and no. I don’t know what she’ll find out in that report. I don’t know if it’s of any value to her. Heck, I don’t even know if the reports are real. But somehow, it didn’t feel right leaving them behind. You asked me earlier about the book. The book is important...” I stopped.

Eli was frowning. Maybe there were tears in her eyes. It was hard to tell from where I was sitting. Yuki was quiet. Lost in their thoughts.

“The book is important,” I began again. “Not for what it is, but because it is the only reminder I have left, that I once had a family.” I stopped once more. A sharp pain suddenly hit me, like my head wanted to explode. I could hear it. A voice. But I wasn’t dreaming. It was calling me. The louder the voice got, the stronger the pain in my head became. I couldn’t quite make out what it was trying to tell me, though I was fairly certain it was Evian attempting to get into my head.

“Are you alright?” Yuki worried. “You suddenly look so pale.”

“I’m good. I’m fine. I’m just tired… I think… I just need to close my eyes for a second… get some rest maybe….” I pressed my forehead into my hands and closed my eyes hoping to relieve the pressure. Instead, I felt the floor open beneath my feet. I was being sucked into a void. It was darker than dark. Sure enough, Evian was there; right in front of me.

“Get away from there! Far away!” he said with a strained voice. He looked battered. “They are following your blood trail; they WILL find you. GO! NOW!” he screamed.

I jumped to my feet. “We have to go,” I gibbered. “NOW!”

Yuki’s eyes widened with dread.

“How!” they whispered.

“Blood trail!” I blurted.

We all turned our heads to see the line of crimson colored blotches, shining in clear contrast to the pure white of the frozen landscape.

Yuki grabbed the gun and all three of us darted into the cover of the forest. We frantically ran for a good hour before we allowed our selves to rest again. We reached the rocky side of the nearby mountain range and sat on a boulder to catch our breath. Eli took that moment to hand me back the reports she was still clenching in her hand.

“Thank you,” she said.

But she sounded bitter, the disappointment was obvious.

“Have you read it,” she probed.

I nodded.

“Right,” she said. “So, you know then….”

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