Authors: Amy Cross
Ignoring the voice, I focus on moving forward. All I can think about is the fact that my bones are aching. I desperately want to sleep, but at the same time I know I can't stop. The weight in my arms - Rachel, sleeping or maybe just staring - is dragging me down, and as I stumble over a stray branch and almost fall, I feel as if the whole world is spinning around me.
This isn't right.
I feel... off...
Suddenly someone puts a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I turn to find a man staring at me. It takes a moment before I realize that I've seen him before. I don't remember his name, but I have a strong image of him in a bed, with some kind of bandage. I know I should recognize him, but right now my mind seems to be filled with fog, and all I can do is stare and hope against hope that I'll come up with an answer soon.
"Toad?" I say eventually, the name sounding strange and alien.
Leaning closer, he peers into my eyes, as if he's looking for something specific. I don't like the way he's acting as if he's in charge.
"I'm fine," I mutter, turning to walk away.
"You're delirious," he replies, grabbing my arm and pulling me back toward him. "You can't go on like this. We need to stop again."
"We don't have time," I reply, although suddenly I realize that this entire situation is absolutely hilarious. Toad is so serious all the time, when really there's no point worrying. We are what we are, and we're going to end up somewhere, and if we die then it doesn't really matter. Although I try to keep these thoughts to myself, eventually I start grinning. I can't help it. Everything has seemed so relentlessly serious lately, and I just feel as if I need a break.
"What are you laughing at?" he asks.
"I'm not laughing," I reply, before forcing a brief, awkward laugh as a kind of demonstration. "There, that was a laugh. I'm smiling, though, but that's just because you're being so serious." I take a step back, but the ground seems to dip and swirl all around me and it takes me a moment to steady myself.
He puts the palm of his hand against my forehead for a moment.
"You're running a fever," he continues, before checking my pulse. "We need to rest. At this rate, you're going to collapse, and that'll slow us down even more. We'll just stop here for an hour. I'll look after Rachel and you can -"
"No," I say, turning away from him in an attempt to make sure he can't see Rachel's face. "She's mine."
Looking down at Rachel, I realize that she's still just staring at me. I want more than anything for her to act normally, to show some kind of sign that she's not sick, but as tears roll down my cheeks I can't help but realize that I'm just fooling myself. I've been trying so hard over the past couple of days to hide the truth from Toad, and during that time I've been building up a wall of resilience and determination; right now, however, that wall is starting to crack, and I can tell that it's going to come crashing down at any moment.
"Talk to me," Toad says. "Tell me what's -"
"I'm fine," I whisper, holding Rachel tighter. He's going to try to take her away from me, and then he'll probably murder her for being some kind of monster, and if that happens, there's no more hope. Everything seems so clear and obvious right now, as if all the lies have been lifted away.
I just want to go to sleep, but I can't.
"Tell me what's wrong with the baby," Toad continues. "You've been acting strange since we left the farm, Elizabeth, and I need you to tell me the truth. Whatever it is, we can work it out, but only if you're honest with me." He pauses, waiting for some kind of grand confession that I'm never going to offer. "Can I see her?" he asks eventually. "You can hold her, but I want to look at her. Is that okay?"
I don't reply, but as he steps around me to get a better view of Rachel, I realize that I might as well let him.
"You can't hurt her," I tell him, my voice trembling as I hold back the tears. "Please, she's okay, she's just upset."
"This is all she does all day, isn't it?" he replies. "She just stares."
"She's been through so much."
"But it's not normal, is it? A baby should be more active and alert."
"What do you know about babies?" I ask him.
know?" he replies.
"She's going to be okay," I tell him, taking a deep breath as I try to stay calm. "She's a little off-color right now, but she's not a threat to anyone. If she can just have some time to recover, she'll be fine in a day or two. She's not getting the right food. It's not like I can breast-feed her. I tried, just in case somehow it might work, but obviously it was useless. There were no books at the house, so I had to guess about the food..." Pausing, I realize that I might have been poisoning the poor little thing. "I just want her to be okay. That's all that matters. If a baby can't survive in this world, then nothing can and we're all doomed." I turn to him. "You can't kill her. I won't let you!"
"I'm not going to kill her," he replies. "Has she done anything that makes you think she might be infected by the same thing that was in those creatures?"
I shake my head.
"Then you're probably right," he continues. "She's just had a bad diet. I know you've done the best you can, but it's a huge job keeping a baby alive. But even if she's sick, she's still here, and if we're lucky we'll find someone who knows what to do, and then we can turn her over to them." He pauses, before suddenly leaning closer and planting a gentle kiss on my forehead. "It's not the end of the world, Elizabeth. Not yet. Things look bad, but we're out here fighting and we're not going to give up."
I nod, even though I'm worried he's just saying these things because he wants to trick me. The moment I go to sleep, he might take Rachel and hurt her.
"I need to take a look at your right foot," he adds. "You've been limping more and more, and I need to see it."
"My what?" I ask, momentarily confused before I remember the cut from a few days ago. "It's nothing, I just -"
"Let me see it."
"Because you're limping, Elizabeth."
"It's just a scratch from some barbed wire," I tell him, worried that he's trying to trick me into putting Rachel down. "If you -"
Before I can finish, he kneels next to me and reaches down. Although I want to push him away, I figure I might as well just let him take a look, but as he pulls the side of my sock away, I feel a jolt of intense pain shoot through the bone and it's all I can do to keep from dropping Rachel. Instinctively, I pull away, shocked by the pain. I knew my foot wasn't quite right, and I was planning to take a look some time soon, but I figured it was nothing too serious. Or maybe I was just hoping I could ignore it and it'd get better.
"It's infected," Toad says getting to his feet.
"It's not infected," I reply, even though I'm starting to worry. "All that happened is I scratched myself on some old barbed wire on your property. It was days ago."
"And did you clean the wound?"
"Yes!" I reply, trying not to sound too exasperated, before I realize that maybe I didn't clean it after all. I was going to, but in all the fuss and confusion with Rachel, I guess I might have forgotten. "Maybe," I add. "I'll do it soon. Look, it's not as if I'm infected by whatever was in those creatures. It's just a cut, and if it's got a slight swelling, that's totally normal. It'll be fine!"
"You're an idiot," he says after a moment.
"You're a goddamn idiot," he says again, as he checks the temperature of my forehead. "The wound on your ankle is infected, and you've got a fever. If there was barbed wire anywhere near my property, it must have been old, which means it was probably rusty, which means..." He pauses, and he seems genuinely worried. "I need you to sit down so I can look at it properly," he says eventually.
“What kind of infection?” I ask. “Do you mean -”
Not the kind that created those creatures. This is a much more regular infection, but it's just as dangerous. Stay still while I -”
"No way," I say firmly. "I'll wait 'til we find a doctor -"
"What doctor?" he replies, interrupting me. "There are no doctors around here! Now sit down and take your goddamn shoes off, okay?"
I want to argue with him, but I figure I should probably go along with whatever he wants, at least for now. It takes a moment for me to arrange Rachel on a nearby patch of grass, but finally I sit on an old tree stump and start unlacing my right shoe. The pain is much worse than I'd expected, and by the time I peel the shoe off to reveal a yellow-and-red-stained sock, I'm starting to realize that something really bad might be happening here. I glance at Toad, and it's clear that he's worried, but I force myself to focus on the positive. Reaching down, I start to peel my sock down, but it's partially stuck to the wound and I find to my horror that one entire side of my ankle is swollen and bloody. For a moment, all I can do is stare at it and try to pretend that it's not as bad as it looks.
"Your shoes were too tight and too airless," Toad says. "The cut must have been deep enough to let the bacteria thrive, and then the shoes provided the perfect incubation site."
"Do you have anything for it?" I ask, trying not to panic.
"In the old days, you'd have had to go to hospital."
"Okay, so what do we do now?"
He pauses, staring at the wound as if he's not sure how to fix it. Maybe I've allowed myself to become too accustomed lately to the idea that Toad has an answer for everything, but the look of helplessness in his eyes is extremely worrying. I'm waiting for him to come up with an idea, to tell me that everything's going to be okay, but it's as if I've finally presented him with a problem that he can't fix. The problem is, if Toad can't fix it, then I sure as hell can't either.
"What do we do?" I ask again.
"The infection could spread a lot further," he replies, clearly lost in thought. After a moment, he reaches down and tilts the wound toward him. "This is going to hurt," he continues, "but I have to see how deep it's gone." With that, he presses a finger against my skin and starts pulling the wound open.
As a jolt of pain hits me, I instinctively pull my foot away.
"Just stay still," he hisses, grabbing my ankle again and taking another look. "It's deep," he says eventually. "I think it's reached the bone, and there's slight swelling a little higher up."
"What kind of infection is it?" I ask, wiping sweat from my brow. "Give me some good news here."
"I don't know. I'm not an expert. I knew a guy in the army once who had something like this, and..."
I wait for him to finish, but he remains stubbornly silent.
"And what?" I ask.
Again I wait, but again he seems lost in thought. I want to be patient, to pretend that I'm not panicking, but right now I'm terrified. I hold back for as long as possible.
"You're not going to be able to walk on this soon," he replies, dodging the question. "It's going to be too painful. Look how tight the skin is around the back of the ankle and down to the heel."
"It's just a scratch," I point out, trying to keep him from over-reacting. "People scratch themselves all the time!"
"It's a deep scratch on rusty barbed wire. I guess you don't often have that kind of thing in the city, but when you're out here, you need to be more careful. In the old days, you'd have gone to hospital and been treated, and you'd have almost certainly been okay. Right now, out here, I can't even begin to help you! Do you have any idea how serious this might be?"
"Fine," I reply, "then you might as well leave me behind if I'm just gonna slow you down by hobbling! I mean, I don't want to put you out! I know how you feel about people who are weak!"
He stares at me, and suddenly I realize that he might actually be considering doing just that. I open my mouth to tell him he's crazy, but finally it hits me that this is serious. The pain in my ankle is getting worse, and I'm starting to feel the fever that he said I had a little earlier. Looking deep into his eyes, I can see a hint of indecision, and that's when it hits me: my foot
going to get worse, and I
going to slow him down, in which case the only logical thing for him to do would be to leave me here. After all, it's not like we really mean anything to each other. To him, I'm just this girl who showed up a month ago.
I wait for him to say something, but it's as if he can't speak.
"Are you going to go?" I ask eventually, with tears in my voice.
He doesn't reply.
I wait for an answer.
"I'll die," I tell him, trying not to panic. "I'd die anyway, without help, but if I can't walk."
Nearby, Rachel finally lets out another faint gurgle.
"You're gonna leave her too, aren't you?" I continue. "You're gonna just walk off and forget about us, and we'll die here."
!" I shout. "I can see it in your eyes! It's gonna be so easy for you!"