Authors: Brenda L. Harper
What was wrong with her?
“I’m Wyatt,” he said, holding out a hand as he moved close to her again.
“Dylan,” she said. She had no idea what he wanted her to do with that hand. He watched her a moment, confusion darkening the already deep blue of his eyes before he simply dropped the hand.
“We should get moving,” he said, glancing up into the sky. “It’s nearly noon already.”
“Where will we go?”
He gestured to her left. “There are some ruins that way that I need to check out. Then we’ll make the journey back to my home.”
“Brennan. It’s about fifty miles that way,” he said, gesturing toward the trees.
As he spoke, Dylan again saw a flash of images in her mind. A dark place where people with dirty faces gathered around a small fire. They were exhausted, but happy. Laughter filled her mind as the image faded. The laughter of strangers.
No, Dylan. Not safe.
The words floated through her mind, as though an afterthought to some other statement. Dylan glanced into the air above her head, but the breeze was gone.
“We have to go,” Wyatt repeated. “Grab your stuff if you’re coming.” With that, he marched off into the trees, leaving Dylan to her own decision.
She looked at the river, watching the sun reflect off the cool liquid, warming it with its touch. A part of her wanted to stay, wanted to bathe in those depths for the rest of her life. The memory of her intense thirst was still strong in her mind. But the idea of being alone, of being stuck here when her food ran out, frightened her almost as much as the uncertainty of a future without Genero, without all her friends, without the guardians. Of a world filled with men like Wyatt.
But what choice did she really have?
“I have to survive,” she whispered. And she knew, like it or not, Wyatt was likely her best chance.
She grabbed her bag and followed him into the trees, crossing terrain she had not crossed before. Her bag was heavy on her shoulders, her muscles sore, but her skin less so than the night before. She slid out of her outer clothing as they moved out into the sunlight again, not surprised to see that her skin was just as creamy as it had been before she left Genero, despite the artificial redness it had been when she stripped out of her clothes the night before.
They walked in silence. Dylan found herself walking a step behind Wyatt, watching the movement in his back, his legs, as he navigated the terrain as though it was something he did every day. For all she knew, it
something he did every day.
“How did you find me?” she asked.
He glanced back at her. “You left quite a trail. I wanted to see if…” Again, he did that hesitating thing, that thing where he stopped himself from saying something he thought she could not handle. But the image that came into her mind said everything his words never could have. Human bodies, ripped to pieces. Faces unrecognizable, arms and legs torn away. It was horrifying.
Dylan stopped moving. She bent low, wrapping her arms around her belly. He knelt down in front of her.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Two days,” she muttered.
“Your body is adjusting to the water you drank this morning.” He touched her shoulder lightly. “Try not to vomit.”
“Vomit?” she asked, glancing up at him through the veil of her still damp hair.
“Throw up.” He touched her arm where it was pressed against her belly. “Don’t let the water come back up. It won’t do you much good if it isn’t inside of you.”
“Oh.” She stood again. “Evacuate,” she said, using the word they had taught her in the dorms. “You don’t want me to evacuate my stomach.”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t. I just had a cramp,” she lied, saying the first thing that came to mind.
He half nodded. “Try to keep up,” he said before he brushed past her and began walking again.
He set a pace that almost forced Dylan into a slow jog. She managed to keep up, trying to pay attention to the terrain in case they got separated and she had to make her way back to the river. The thing was, however, that much of the terrain looked exactly the same. There was little to differentiate each tree, low, thorny bush, and blade of grass from the one before it.
I hope you’re paying attention
, she thought to her invisible friend.
She was rewarded with just the slightest breath of air against the back of her neck.
“Can we slow down?” she asked Wyatt roughly an hour later as her lungs began to burn in her chest.
Wyatt turned to her. “Sorry,” he muttered, slowing his pace to a slow trot.
“What is a ruin?” Dylan asked a moment later.
“It’s a place that was once a city in the old society.”
“They had cities like Genero?”
He glanced at her. “They didn’t have domes.”
“But they were cities?”
He ran his fingers through his dark hair, making curls separate and multiply where they bounced over the crown of his skull. “They had great metropolises that were filled with tall buildings, single family homes, and shops where people could buy all the things they needed to survive.”
“What are ‘families’?”
Wyatt stopped, a slow chuckle falling from his lips. “I forgot. You don’t have those in Genero.”
“You have one?”
“Everyone has one.” He studied her face for a long second. “Until someone takes it away from you.”
“What do you mean?”
He shook his head and began walking again. “You’ll find out someday.”
“The people you live with…” Dylan felt the flash of image more than really saw it as it moved from his thoughts to hers. “That’s family?”
“Yes,” he said simply.
“And everyone has one?”
Dylan lifted the hair from her neck and tied it into a knot at the back of her neck. She had to rush to keep up with him because he had picked up his pace again. She felt anger rolling off of him, could feel it coming from his movements, his thoughts. But she couldn’t read him the way she always had the girls in D dorm. His thoughts came to her randomly, in images, but the words, the statements most people made to themselves in the privacy of their own heads, she could not hear those.
He’s different from you, from your friends.
Again the words just formed on their own inside her mind. Dylan glanced up in the sky, but was so used to not seeing anything, she didn’t look for long.
How is he different? she asked.
He does not come from Genero. He is made differently.
Dylan allowed her eyes to move over Wyatt’s back, to admire his form. She had never seen anything quite so perfect. His muscles were thicker, harder than any of the girls’ Dylan had ever known. They moved so perfectly, moved in a way that made her think he could fight off any danger that might find them in this isolated terrain. It made her feel safe in a strange sort of way.
A little like the sense of security that flooded her when the image of his family floated through her mind.
Why don’t I have a family?
Her invisible friend did not answer.
They stopped just before sundown, making camp in a small copse of trees. Wyatt disappeared for a long stretch of time, leaving Dylan alone to start a small fire. She drank one of her bottles of water in three gulps, but left the other bottle for the following day, trying to tamp down the voice in the back of head that wanted to remind her of the pain that came with dehydration. She closed her eyes and imagined herself in the water again, calming her thirst along with the pain that had begun again in her skin, the achiness in her muscles. In seconds it all began to disappear, leaving her feeling almost refreshed.
“What are you doing?”
Dylan opened her eyes. Wyatt was looking down at her from just a few feet away, a skinned animal hanging from each of his hands. She cried out, scooting back just slightly on her bottom as one of the animals began to jerk and tremble in his hand.
He turned away from her and grabbed a stick from a group of dry wood she had gathered for the fire. He shoved the stick through the mouth of the animal and held it up, using a paring knife to cut the animal’s belly and remove the organs, which he then threw into the fire. The smell was immediately overwhelming, making her mouth flood with saliva and her stomach growl.
As she watched, he balanced the animal on one of the stones she had used to contain the fire according to his instructions. He then did the same to the other animal, shoving the stick through its mouth and gutting it in two quick movements. Then he used more sticks to balance the animals side by side over the fire.
“Rabbit,” he said to her. She must have looked confused because he gestured at the animals. “They’re jackrabbits. There are hundreds of them around here.”
“They’re safe to eat?”
“Better than that dry stuff they give you girls when they send you out here.”
Dylan laid her hand over the top of her bag. “You search their things.”
“I take what I can use and leave the rest.” He continued to crouch next to the fire, fussing over the sticks holding their meal. “There’s never more than the food, water, matches, and a knife.”
“Should there be?”
He shrugged, his wide shoulders moving with more grace than she would have thought they could. “Don’t you have personal items? Things that matter to you?”
Dylan thought of the compass in her pocket. “It is selfish to cherish a material item over the sisterhood.”
“Is that what they teach you?”
“Don’t they teach you that?”
Wyatt glanced back at her, the vividness in his eyes making them glow almost surreally in the firelight. “When you don’t have anything to cherish, there’s really no reason to teach that cherishing material items is a sin.”
“What do you mean?”
Wyatt turned back to the fire, turning the rabbits slowly. “I bet you had books. Lots of books.”
Dylan thought about the library at D dorm, the books that lined the walls there. “Yes. But we did more of our reading on the computers.”
He made a sound, like a soft snort. “How could you get the real feel of a book if you don’t hold it in your hands?”
“The words are the same.”
“A book is more than its words.”
Dylan didn’t understand. But the tone of his words suggested he wasn’t trying to draw her into a debate. It was his personal belief, and nothing she said would change it. Simple and complicated both at the same time.
“Why are you going to the ruins?” she asked after a few moments of silence.
“To see if there are any provisions there we can use.”
He turned the rabbits again, lifting one to check its progress. “We need things like tools, good metal, books. Sometimes we can find things like that in the ruins.”
“Doesn’t your council provide those things?”
Again he made that soft snorting sound. He laid the rabbit back against the rack and stood, burying his fingers in the front pockets of his broken coveralls as the studied her. “Not all cities are the same.”
“Do you have a council?”
“We do. But our welfare is not their first concern.”
“Then what is their purpose?”
Wyatt bent low and picked up a dried leaf, tearing it to pieces between his long, thin fingers. “To make us work ourselves to the bone until we die.”
“That doesn’t seem right.”
He glanced at her. “At least they don’t send us out here to our deaths.”
Dylan stared at him, again the image of her dead sisters bursting through her mind in painful clarity. She grabbed her head as a pain flashed through her temples with the image. She leaned forward, laying her head on her knees as a moan of pain slipped from between her lips. Wyatt was immediately at her side, running his hands slowly over her hair. The pain disappeared as quickly as it had come as sparks of pleasure pulsed from his fingers through her mind.
“Oh, wow,” she whispered, pulling back from his touch.
One look at his face, and she could see that the same flash of pleasure had rushed through him. His face had paled and his eyes were wide, the blue even more clear, even deeper, than it had been before.
“What the hell?” he muttered.
Dylan reached up and touched her head again, but the pain was completely gone. The residue of pleasure still lingered, but the intensity was gone. She looked up at him, and he was staring at his hand, turning it as though there was something about it that would tell him why this…whatever it was, had happened.
“Has that ever happened to you before?” she asked.
“No.” His eyes moved slowly to hers. “Has it happened to you?”
She shook her head slowly, never breaking eye contact.
He held up his hand, held it just an inch from the side of her head. He was going to touch her again, she could see the intention in his stare. But before he could, one of the rabbits slipped from its brace and fell into the fire, scattering sparks across their bodies.
Wyatt jumped up, a word she had never heard before slipping between his lips as he grabbed the scorched, ash-covered meat from the fire.
Don’t trust him.
Dylan looked up into the trees, her heart pounding as the words reverberated through her mind.
They reached the far edge of the ruins midmorning.
Dylan had never seen asphalt, had never felt the smooth surface of a road beneath her feet. It was broken by grass and other plants Wyatt called weeds, but it was still there, the darkness of the crushed rocks visible below all the green. She ran the toe of her boot across it, watching small rocks break off here and there. They were sticky in her hands, the heat of the sun making them worse than they might have otherwise been. Again, that’s what Wyatt said.
Then she saw the sign with writing on it.
Now entering Lubbock, it said. Population 229,573.
Over two hundred thousand people lived here once. It was a staggering figure, a number that was so large Dylan couldn’t even imagine what it looked like. There were sixty girls in her dorm at any one time. No more than eighteen hundred in each compound. No more than five thousand in the entire city of Genero.