The nameless people invited them to stay for dinner, a hearty scramble of potatoes and mystery meat. She held Jax’s hand under the table. Everything had changed in the blink of an eye. Colliding with the rock, her neck sticky with blood–she could hardly remember the bogs now, didn’t have the slightest idea of how far she got before she collapsed.
It wasn’t a dramatic fade out like in the movies: slowly falling into the silt, a curtain of darkness drifting lazily over her eyes, the sounds of the earthquake fading away as the black settled in. No–she didn’t remember much, but she remembered it was quick. Staggering slightly behind Jax, then abruptly black, a power outage in a bustling metro.
Now she was here, wherever here was. The women had explained how Jax had hauled her in uninvited,
“Barely able to lift his eyes from you for a second! He didn’t notice us lot til’ a good five seconds after he barged in!” A woman clucked, lowering her gaze,
“Even my husband doesn’t look at me like that…all concerned and wonderfilled, like I’m an angel on Earth with a broken wing. I would be charmed, except that he mouthed off to my mute brother-in-law as he was trying to take him for new clothes.”
“Either way, the poor boy thought you were on death’s door! Rita almost worried him to death, talking about how you wouldn’t make it through the hour.”
After that, the women were quieter. They knew just as well as she did: that much blood loss was bound to take its toll, if not now, then sometime soon.
Jax was out cold for a while, long enough for her to try (and fail) at making conversation with Rita. Ash had never been the talkative type, but she was starved for human interaction with a girl–or really anyone other than her lovable “always-dirty-football-player” of a companion. But, apparently, Rita was not the talkative type either. And not starved for basic human-girl interaction.
She was a beautiful girl, cold as ice, with a haughty air that sent shivers down your spine. Without saying a word, Rita had already skyrocketed to the top of Ash’s list of female powerhouses. Everything about her screamed “strong,” like an untouchable goddess or a model in a magazine.
She would have been popular back at school, Ash had thought, the kind of girl that annihilates everyone in the mile run without breaking a sweat, the kind of girl that every boy trips over themselves with desire to get, the kind of girl that dominates every single sport the school offers. Ash let the thought die away, the embarrassing memories of Rita faded and a new one coalesced. It was a vision, an imprint, a sweetness made of golden hair, burning skin, a lingering scent of pine and morning dew.
The kiss. It lingered on her lips, in her mind, the warmth of his skin swirling on her fingertips. Wow. Electricity, energizing her body and rolling across her heart like a lightning bolt striking water. Alive, charged with passion, the physical weakness dissipated for a moment. She was floating on air.
The moment was tantalizing, dangling in the back of her mind like a cat’s toy as she scooped a spoonful of potato into her mouth. But she refused to be a complacent maiden, a two-dimensional character that swoons over a boy after he saves her.
As much as the role was sweet, it wasn’t her. With resolve, she shoved another clump of ambiguous meat into her mouth. But, a light in the swirl of emotion…
I saved him first. The thought soothed her turmoil, a morsel of triumph, as though now their kiss was “justified.” Not that hauling deadweight through a mud bog was equal to hesitantly lifting him from the ground; it wasn’t, but the sentiment made her feel better about the electricity that pulsed through her body, the mortifying way her cheeks burned as she smothered herself with mashed potatoes. It would have happened anyway. Definitely. But it helped to know this.
Hyperaware of the closeness between them, Ash cleared her throat, licking away bitter mystery meat morsels from her teeth.
“So…uh, not to be…”
All eyes were pinned on her abruptly, the only sound in the room the mushy chewing of rations and crackling flames in the woodstove. Jax’s thumb was drawing circles on her palm–which, she could resentfully admit, didn’t help her train of thought. Finally the word leapt to her tongue.
“Ungrateful? But, despite, you know, not having any weapons,” she paused, certain she saw one of the men’s brows raise in suspicion, “at all. No weapons at all.” Bad amendment, unnecessary–paranoia was getting to her.
“Why did you help us? How did you know we weren’t dangerous?” The question hung on the air for a moment. All three men lifted their forks to their mouths, an eerily synchronized motion, the small children twiddled their utensils between their fingers, eyes downcast as though they had learned that it was easier to let someone else answer. From the looks on the adult’s faces, they felt the same way.
It was Rita that finally spoke…grudgingly, as though she had places to be other than here, like a tired teacher explaining third grade math to a high school student. Like Ms. Weatherby with all of Jax’s friends…after a moment, she let the thought drop. That was no way to think of the dead.
“Easy. Not only are you twigs with tight fitting clothes, impossible to hide weapons in, you don’t bear Their mark on your neck. The way this one sauntered in–” she pointed an accusatory fork at Jax, “it was like his throat was glowing with the lack of it, almost boisterously clear.”
“Wait, who are They?” Jax asked, unconsciously fingering his neck.
If the room had been quiet before, it was dead silent now. A young girl’s spoon clattered to the floor, a little boy practically cringing back in his seat. Rita regarded them coolly.
“Cannibals. A traveling band of the worst parts of society.” Ash wished now that Rita would have stopped there, it might have saved her sleep and helped her in the future. But she didn’t. The kids writhed in their seats…the women shooed them away from the table wordlessly. All 5 sprang from the table, bursting through the door into the muck.
“They take women as slaves, men to pull the carts of the Originals–the first members. Young girls are held in cages or forced to clear the path ahead, young boys…” she glanced at Jax, emerald eyes glinting in the light, unfazed.
“Slaughtered for meat. No use for them. Feral dogs trail along their path begging for scraps. They take anyone in their path, teenagers especially. As far as I can tell, they never stop travelling their nomadic quest. Suck cities dry of stored food or supplies, the Originals taking as many wives as they like, burning a star into their arm so they can be returned to them if they escape.
“And Their symbol? A brand on the neck, an exploding sun. No name for the group, just a silent agreement with the world that any survivor they find is their property. No exceptions.”
Ash exchanged a horrified look with Jax, squeezing his hand tighter; it had started to tremble. A tap on the floor told her her foot had begun to jitter. It only did that when something was wrong–very wrong.
She knew she should leave Rita’s speech at that, kindly thank the family for the meal and book it for civilization, wherever that may be. Maybe they could find guns, knives, anything to protect themselves against this gang. But something gnawed at her mind, the curiosity she had never had an affinity for rearing its ugly head. Before she could stop herself, the words spilled out.
“How do you know so much about Them?”
Rita smiled. A hollow smile. The adults all averted their eyes, a man lightly resting his hand on his holster, a pudgy-faced woman doing a 180 in her chair.
No one looked at the beautiful teenage girl, with a smatter of freckles across her cheeks and delicate blonde hair. And no one said a word as she lifted her sleeve to reveal an ugly black burn, a birthmark gone wrong–imprinted roughly, in the shape of a star.
“Thank you so much for helping Ashley and myself. My apologies for my misunderstanding of your husband’s condition–I truly didn’t know.” The woman that had hummed at his side smiled, face barely moving her bun was so tight. She handed him their clothing, still a bit damp but entirely unspeckled by the foul-smelling mud.
“Tell the men that I am indebted to them for my life, and if our paths do cross again, hopefully I can repay you for the meal and your troubles. The wooziness has improved as we speak.” Ash shook the woman’s outstretched hand; if she was shocked by the antiquated gesture, she didn’t show it, firmly shaking it without missing a beat. It was an outdated practice, one that hadn’t been used since the Quarantine long ago.
With that, they left the squat concrete building, glancing back to see the kids ushered inside, the pine door slamming shut before they had a chance to wave goodbye. At least that was one practice that had survived the Quarantine and the Burn. Waving.
Never hello, however. Only goodbye. Maybe that was symbolic of the world as it had been for the last 2 years: mournful.