Authors: Chad A. Clark
"How is that?"
"Well, there's more around to distract them, more to keep themselves occupied. Maybe they'll forget being pissed at you if they have something else to focus their energy on."
It wasn't the craziest thing she had ever heard. Corrine did need constant socializing, and all this time with just them had to be making her restless. Maybe if things started to go better for them with this group, the both of them would ease up on her a little.
Rowen nodded towards Lot, who still hovered around a pile of gas cans. Seventeen more people had agreed to go and were already departing. Sophie thought she could see her father's gait as he walked off into the horizon.
"Come on," Rowen said to her, "we still don't know that much about our host, and we kind of got off on shaky ground. Let's introduce ourselves properly and see if we can start making ourselves more at home around here."
"I was in the Marines for about twenty years," Lot said, leaning back against the rotting tree stump. The three of them had been talking for nearly two hours, and Sophie and Rowen had only just gotten him to start talking about himself. It wasn't that he was hiding anything, but they found his good nature quickly winning them over.
"You see any combat?" Rowen asked. The look in his eye suggested to Sophie that he was asking from personal experience himself.
Lot stuck out a lip and shook his head. "Nope. Came close once or twice, but nothing ever really came of it. I've been retired for about five years, would have been six years next week actually." He smirked to himself, likely thinking about how easily time got away from them anymore. Shaking his head, he carried on with his story. "My family was always set up pretty good. The folks were loaded to the gills, but I never really got on with my old man. I split by the time I hit my seventeenth birthday and enlisted as soon as I could. Never looked back."
"You must have seen them again at some point," Sophie said but Lot just shook his head.
"Never did. I don't want to get into the specifics, or go on and on about my sob story. Mostly because I just don't care anymore, but also because they've been gone for a while now. No sense in tramping all over the dead."
He waved her off. "No need. Like I said, we weren't exactly close. They died in a car accident of all things. Limo driver coming the other direction had taken down a few too many martinis at his boss's birthday party. Anyway, I was the only surviving heir and I ended up inheriting all their money. Even after all the bullshit regulations and red tape and lawyer's fees, I still ended up bringing in a figure with about eight zeroes after it."
Rowen whistled and Sophie shook her head, trying to imagine what it would be like to have such an earth shaking change come about so abruptly.
"I never really had what I would call an expensive lifestyle. I paid off my debts, gave a bunch of money to charities, invested some of it. I paid off the houses for everyone on my block. Things were going pretty good, or at least I thought they were."
"Talk about paying it forward," Rowen remarked.
Lot shrugged. "Figured they didn't do a damn thing worthwhile with all their money, I might as well put it to some good. Not that it ended up mattering in the long run."
"How many were in your group originally?" Rowen asked.
"A few dozen. These yahoos had taken over a small hog farm. They'd taken people hostage, making them do work around the farm while they got to take it easy and play games with everyone, torturing people. Sick, fucking...sorry..." He glanced awkwardly at Sophie but she ignored it. "I managed to spring everyone, and we've been together ever since. We picked up the RV's from a local dealership and along the way, our numbers just sort of swelled. We've ended up with nearly fifty people in all, counting the four of you."
"We appreciate you taking us in," Sophie said. "I know we weren't exactly polite when we first met."
"No need to apologize."
"So what was your big plan?" Rowen asked. "Where are you going from here?"
"I still don't know. I'd like to get these people someplace safe and more permanent. We've been doing all right just moving from place to place, but I can tell that it's wearing down on people. There comes a point where you move around enough and you just stop feeling safe, no matter where you are. Problem is, I just don't know where that place is. Until we find it though, we'll just have to keep on moving around."
"We'll do what we can to help," Rowen said. Lot smiled and nodded, but looked up sharply at the sound of yelling from across the field. It was immediately clear that something had gone wrong, and the first image that flew to her mind was that of her father, walking off into the distance.
"There was trouble!" She heard someone yell.
The first thing she saw was her sister, prone and in someone's arms, being carried back to them.
"Oh, my God," she said and she took several steps forward. Her brain started racing, trying to soothe her own panic, and she began talking through the problem. "No, she has to be alive, they wouldn't have carried her back if she wasn't alive, she has to be okay." She looked up at Rowen to get some kind of reassuring agreement but instead saw stricken grief on his face. There had to be something he had seen that she wasn't picking up on. She turned to look again, scanning the faces and trying to think.
She didn't see her father.
It was all she could think to say. He was the rock of her existence. Nothing could have happened to him. He must have just fallen behind.
But they had carried her sister back. They carried
was still alive and could be helped. They had brought her, but not her father. He hadn't come back on his own, and no one was helping him. Why would he have stayed behind? Why would they have left him?
Sophie began to scream.
The first thing Sophie saw when she woke up was the Snoopy sticker on the roof of the RV, and her immediate thought was that she didn't want to wake up to go to school.
The moments of disorientation proved to be bliss, as the memory of what had happened flooded back in. She tried to draw in a breath, but it was like a physical force held her chest down, only allowing the tiniest gasps to get through. Her hand jerked to her left, trying to grab onto anything that would give her the strength or leverage she needed.
Rowen was immediately there, taking her up and trying to grab at her flailing arms.
"You're okay, you're okay. Just calm down. You have to calm down. They have some sedatives, but not very much. You need to relax and get your breath."
Her innate need to not be a burden took over. She lay back down, trying to focus and slow her breathing. She closed her eyes and gradually felt the muscles in her chest start to relax until she could breathe more comfortably. The black spots in her vision also began to dissipate and she was able to better take in her surroundings.
She was lying on a small cot in the back of the RV. Rowen sat next to her, looking down with concern that she had not seen on anyone's face before. Not directed at her, anyway.
Her father was dead.
No one had said it. She hadn't heard the words, but she could see the truth in his eyes.
Her father was dead, and she was now left with only one person in the world.
Assuming that person hadn't died as well.
"Corrine—" She sat up, but Rowen leaned forward to stop her.
"Shhh. Corrine is all right. She was cut up pretty badly, but they were able to stitch her up. She'll need bed-rest, but she should be fine. She's been asking for you."
That was hard for Sophie to believe. It didn't sound like the sister she had grown accustomed to over the past months.
"What happened?" she asked.
"The entire group was ambushed. They had just gotten to the outskirts of the town nearby when a few dozen rovers came out of nowhere and started shooting."
She shook her head, feeling the tears threatening again. The thought of her father, and what might have been going through his head in those last moments was unimaginable. Her gut twisted at how she had left things with him as she watched him walk away. Now the tears did start, causing her breath to shorten as she struggled to maintain her composure.
"There's nothing you could have done," Rowen said, in a rare moment when he mis-judged what she was thinking. "If you were there, you would have ended up getting killed as well. You can't blame yourself."
"It's not that," she said. "I just wish I had tried harder with them. He died thinking that I was angry with him. He's dead, and I never had the chance to make things right. I'll never get the chance to talk to him again and tell him—" She lost any train of thought as her body shook from the force of her sobs.
Rowen did the best he could, holding her tightly to him. He didn't bother with trying to soothe her, or talk her down from her grief. He held her and let her cry. She leaned into him and let it all out. The anger over what had happened to her family, the agonized pain of having to lose both of her parents and see her once close relationship with her sister burn to the ground.
She wouldn't have been able to guess how much time had passed before she calmed down. It was like waking up again and she looked around, confused as to where she was or how she had gotten there. Her reaction to the memory coming back was less severe this time, but she still let out a whimper, clutched in Rowen's grip.
"I know that promises don't count for shit anymore," Rowen said. "I know that you have no reason to believe me and every reason to give up. I know how much you've lost and had to sacrifice. But I will make this all as right as I can. We will take care of each other. I don't know where we will have to go but we'll get there."
She looked into his eyes and knew instinctively that she could trust him, and that he would never betray her or let her down. They might end up getting killed, but she knew at least that it wouldn't be for a lack of his being present and with her. He was going to be a partner in all of this, and maybe that was the best anyone could ask for.
Sophie pushed away from him and sat up. Wiping both hands across her eyes, she looked up at Rowen, feeling steady for the first time.
"I'd like to see my sister."
Sophie put up a hand to block out the sudden light from the outside as she and Rowen stepped out of the RV. The sunlight and birds chirping above them in the trees would have made her think that she was meeting her sister for a picnic. There was a make-shift tent closer to the trees with Corrine lying underneath.
Lot spotted them approaching and walked up. Despite barely knowing him, he stepped forward and hugged her.
"I'm sorry about your father," he said, turning to face the tent as they released each other. "Your sister is going to be all right. Most of the wounds were superficial and we were able to get her pretty well cleaned up. We need to get clear of the area before too long, but I want her to have some time to rest before we leave."
"Can I see her?" Sophie asked, barely aware of the fact that she was whispering.
"Of course." Lot led her to the edge of the tent and then fell back, letting the lingering touch of his fingers on the small of her back guide her the rest of the way in. Rowen held back as well, letting the two of them have whatever privacy could be afforded.
Corrine was sleeping as Sophie approached, and she didn't think that she had ever seen her sister as weak as this. She always had a pale complexion, but now her color seemed to have dropped to the point of looking deathly. Sophie knelt down in the grass next to the air mattress and reached out, brushing a strand of hair from Corrine's face. At the sensation of her touch, her eyes opened and she looked around for several moments before locking in on Sophie, who felt like she was dying on the inside as she watched the look of realized misery blossom onto her face. Her cheeks trembled and soon there were tears flowing for both of them.
"I'm so sorry." It was already hard to understand her. Sophie held her sister and tried to comfort her, kissing the top of her head and holding her tightly. "I'm sorry. I lost him." The continued apology made Sophie feel like the lowest person alive, to think that Corrine thought she needed to provide some kind of explanation for what had happened.
"It's not your fault." She tried to say the words, but wasn't sure if Corrine heard her.
"He saved me." This was something Rowen hadn't told her. "He stepped in front of a bullet." She said more after this but it was drowned out in a fresh volley of crying.
"Did he say anything to you before..." Sophie didn't want to ask, afraid to hear the answer and hated herself for her reluctance. Corrine understood the question without needing further explanation.
Her tears seemed to glisten as the light reflected softly off of them. "He said your name. That was all." Corrine looked up at her through her tears. "I'm sorry. I didn't get to him soon enough and I'm sorry for how we've been treating you."
"Corrine, you don't—"
"We blamed you for Mom and Adam dying. I was mad because I didn't think you understood and Dad and I bonded over that. I know it wasn't right to push you away. All you've been trying to do is protect us and all we've done is get bitchy and snippy with you. I'm sorry."