Jack and I have a range, a territory, though we haven't discussed it. It cuts a wide swathe west of the Puget Sound almost to the Pacific Ocean, south of the mountains. When we go west, I catch a glimpse of the ocean through the trees every now and then. In the distance, it is gray and immense and whispers a siren call, singing of familiar places. I can ignore the call. It used to be where I lived, but I still haven't found my home. I laugh to myself sometimes, thinking of life in the colony. My ridiculous father and all his aspirations for me. I wonder if he ever pictured me wandering through wilderness with a guy just a few years older than me, sometimes racing for our lives. Nope, I don't think he could have. It's a far cry from the sterile safety beneath the ocean.
Jack and I have an unspoken agreement—we can't roam too far from the magnetic pull of the settlement. That was the closest thing to home either of us has had for a long time, and what we felt there is still rooted deep in our bones. When I close my eyes at night, I see the hazy summer sunlight lingering on the oca fields, shining off the windows of the school building. Sometimes Nell is out back, dipping candles. Other times she's inside darning socks or making herbal tea. She's always happiest, though, when she has her hands deep in the soil, planting hydrangeas. Red is usually there beside her, a hand on her shoulder, on her arm, or lingering over her silver hair.
When I wake up from dreams of Nell, Red, Dave, or even Mary, I know why I haven't found home yet. I'm starting to suspect it isn't a place.
This realization also makes Jack both a comfort and a worry.
We find a small hollow surrounded on all sides by thickets of blackberry canes. We stash our packs up a tree and unroll our sleeping bags among the rattling brambles. The berries are long gone, and the dried, shriveled leaves will fall any day now.
We found the sleeping bags in an abandoned cabin in the forest. The cabin had been ransacked and almost every other usable item taken. There were a few bowls and plates left in the cupboard. We had no use for those. What good are breakable dishes when you have to stash them in a pack and tote them around? There was one piece of beauty left in tatters—a torn rug with a few tassels left intact. I took one beautiful red thread from the rug and put it in my pocket before Jack could ask me about it. I was kind of embarrassed to find something like a thread nostalgic or sentimental or whatever other word I could use. I don't think I could explain how the scarlet color touched me.
We eat a dinner of roots and canned salmon before the sun starts settling into the horizon. Yesterday we found the abandoned remains of a supply drop—tins of food, bottled water, and granola bar wrappers torn open by some animals. It was all scattered around a scanner, and we've been on edge since then because we can both guess what happened.
There are dozens of scanners out in these woods, ready to snatch any tracker data they can and send it back to the hungry capital. Their small black forms rise up out of the morning mist like ghosts. Neither of us have trackers, but we still shy away from them. Some of the scanners' black glass faces have been smashed in, small shards of glass glittering under the foliage.
“It's a federal offense to disable a scanner,” Jack says, tentatively touching the small of my back to guide me away from one. We stay as far away as we can. They're like bad omens.
What would happen? I don't really need to ask the question; I already suspect the answer.
“You'd be put in a labor camp.”
Of course. Slave labor. The government's solution to just about every infraction.
Someone with a tracker still embedded in their arm had been wandering around the scanners for too long, and the government found them.
I don't have a tracker—my arm is unblemished, and it's one of the markers that I'm not from here—and Jack doesn't have one either. His father cut it out for him when they escaped the midwestern city they came from. Jack's scar is small and neat. I study it when he doesn't think I'm looking—the thin white line almost fading into nothing and a few fine hairs cross it. Jack was lucky to have a doctor for a father, someone trained to use a scalpel and stitches. I've seen some tracker scars in my few months here that are twisted, puckering things. But no one minds the scar, not if it keeps the government away. Jack caught me looking at his once and asked what I was doing. Not in a suspicious or unfriendly way, of course—I don't think Jack has a mean bone in his body—just curiously. I blushed. My pale complexion doesn't let me get away with anything, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders. Then I sighed when he turned his back. He was hoping it meant something more than it did.
So we're on edge, burrowed as deep into the hollow as we can manage, as far from the nearest scanner as we can be. The whir of machinery tells me these scanners are active, and there have been agents here within the last week or so. Jack barely whispers a word to me in the fading light, and there's not even the question of building a fire. It will be several days before we'll chance one again.
But Jack will write on my hand. He started doing it about two months ago. It wasn't out of pity for me, since spelling my words is one of the few ways I can talk to him. He does it when we need silence and because, I think, he craves the contact with me.
This is why Jack is a comfort—he is my companion, my partner as we try to avoid the government and other nomads like ourselves and tell ourselves we can't go back to the settlement. He helps hold me together when there are some nights all I'd like to do is curl up in my sleeping bag and weep.
He holds me together, and it's nice because I do the same thing for him. He's had a hard time in New America. People kill for a good doctor, and he has been the cause of death. There are times when I've heard the sleeping bag next to mine rustle softly with silent sobs.
We hold each other together. I'm grateful for that, grateful that I can help him as much as he helps me. It's even, fair. I never had that in the settlement, when those good people did nothing but give and give and give. Now away from that, I don't just take.
But tonight as the sun goes down, as the shadows lengthen and then disappear altogether, and as darkness settles into the trees, I feel Jack's eyes watching me.
This is why Jack is a worry—Jack is in love with me. I'm almost sure of it.
I could love him too, easily. But I'm not ready for it yet. I can't let down this invisible wall I started building during my first vocation in the colony when I felt like everyone was charting me, studying me, probing me. It's a wall I fortified when I went to Seattle for the med drop and everything went wrong. I carefully checked all the chinks as soon as I saw Jack hurrying toward me through the long grass the day I left the settlement. When I came to the Burn, I had never been in love before—never even let myself contemplate being in love—and the first time I thought I was, it was a disaster. Now I'm more respectful of love, and I want to be careful. I don't want to hurt Jack if I'm not ready for it yet. Not Jack, who is my world right now.
So as I feel Jack's eyes watching me, I keep mine closed and try to keep my breathing regular. The crickets sing slowly as the weather turns colder. The night air chills over my face, and I'm so aware of Jack's body lying next to mine that my heart pounds against my ribs.
“Are you still awake?” he whispers so softly I wonder if he meant for me to hear.
I can't lie to him—him, out of everyone, I've promised I won't tell any more lies to. I've been building the courage to tell him about my past, tell him about the colony. I know it might mean I'll lose him, but it's something he deserves to know, something I want him to know. The thought of just coming right out and saying it—figuratively, of course—scares the daylights out of me. But I will tell him soon.
So when he asks me if I'm awake, I nod my head. Even if I don't know how to respond to him if he's in love with me, I can't lie.
“How long do you think we'll go walking on ice like this?”
My gut clenches. I'm not ready for this conversation yet. I unearth my hand from the sleeping bag and hold it out for his. The warmth from his hand eases into my cold one.
What do you mean?
“You know, Terra, sometimes I don't think you're afraid of anything.”
I smile sadly because I'm all too afraid. Afraid of what I could feel for Jack, afraid of what he feels for me, afraid that if we go to sleep tonight, we'll wake up surrounded by wild animals, nomads who want our supplies, or agents. I squeeze my eyes shut and squeeze his hand just as tightly.
Jack nudges closer to me so that I can feel his shoulder through the layers of sleeping bag. “Me too.” Then he laughs, and it has a haunted, hollow ring to it that makes me shiver. “I sometimes wonder if we'll ever stop being afraid. If one of these days, something will give and the world will be right again.”
I sigh in relief. He wasn't asking about us, and I squeeze his hand more tightly. I should have known he wouldn't bring it up. He's been skirting around it for so long, waiting for me. I do love him for that—for his discretion, for his respect of my feelings.
Then I think about what he said, that the world will be right again.
Do you think it could happen?
“I always dream it might.”
Something to hope for?
Jack releases my hand and burrows down into his bag. His voice is muffled. “Something like that.”
And a pain twinges in my heart with everything he didn't say. The world righting itself is the only thing he can hope for right now.
Then we both hear a twig snap and we freeze, our conversation instantly forgotten. The night is completely dark now, and the trees let very little light filter down to us. I can barely see Jack who is twelve inches from my face, but still I strain my eyes, trying to see if an animal or something worse made the sound.
We lie in tense silence for so long my muscles ache to relax. We barely breathe, and somehow without my noticing, Jack's hand has found mine again, and I'm squeezing his so hard my fingers hurt.
I'm about to glance over and raise my eyebrows to see if he thinks all is clear, when I hear the sound of boots outside the thicket. Jack's hand trembles.
I listen, trying to discern the sounds that creep up around us. The crickets hush as the boots come nearer, stirring through soggy undergrowth and fallen pine needles. It sounds like more than one pair of feet. My legs ache to run, to sprint away as fast as I can—and I have become a good runner in the few months I've been here—but running would most likely kill us both. The agents always have soldiers with them, soldiers with night-vision goggles and razor-accurate scopes. Even if they are just nomads around us, we could easily run right into their arms in the darkness. And the nomads I've come across haven't been friendly.
All I can do is lie here and pray.
The boots stop on the other side of the thicket by our feet, and I'm thankful our sleeping bags are dark green. I can hear heavy breathing and the soft throat rasp of someone trying not to cough. Then a whisper.
“I can't help it. We didn't make the last med drop, and this cough is getting worse.”
Two men, though there could be more out there. I don't dare turn to look at Jack now. I don't want to make any movements in our fragile hiding place. The blackberry canes would rustle, and we'd be found in a heartbeat.
“You're sure they came this way?”
“Yeah, I saw them not more than two hours ago. They looked ready to camp down for the night.”
“The guy and the girl?”
“I said yeah.”
“Then where are they?”
I have to bite my cheek to keep from gasping. They're looking for us. Jack is paralyzed next to me. These men have been tracking us—who knows for how long.
“I don't know. Look, here are their packs.”
I almost cry, thinking of our supplies we so carefully scavenged and then rationed. The beam of a flashlight flickers all through the blackberry canes, sending wild shadows bending across us. Through the thicket, two men stand close together. One holds Jack's pack, and the other holds the flashlight in his mouth so he can see while he rifles through my pack.
“Some cans of food. Some rope—that's handy. A piece of paper in plastic.”
“What's it say?”
My heart sinks. The letter from Jessa. I've kept it all these months. I should have burned it or torn it in a thousand pieces after Mary found it and used it against me, but I haven't been able to. I close my eyes and feel the heat behind them as I try to keep the tears at bay. This is not how Jack should find out. He deserves to hear it from me.
“Does it matter? Check out the other pack.”
I breathe deeply, thankful for this one mercy. Then I remember that Jack has mostly medical supplies in his pack, and if these are nomads looking to raid our supplies, they'll be looking for a lot more than supplies if they discover Jack's a doctor.
The man with the flashlight unzips Jack's pack, and Jack's breath catches in his throat. I long to reach for him, to comfort him somehow, but we both have to lie through this together but alone. I'm alone as I see Jessa's letter flutter back into my pack from one man's dirt-covered fingers, and Jack is alone as he watches to see if he'll be the cause of more death just because he's a doctor.
“Look at this. Bandages, rubbing alcohol, pain killers.” The man holds up a jar half-filled with Nell's salve. “What's this?”
The other man leans close and peers at it, his lip curling. “Don't know. Looks nasty. Think they made the last med drop?”
“Could be. Could be that they know how to use all this stuff too.”
“You think one's a doctor?”
“They wouldn't go far from their supplies.”
“That's what I'm thinking.”
“See, I haven't lost them. We'll just stick close and see if we can find them in the morning.”
The flashlight flicks off, and the darkness falls on us so fast it's almost a shock. The sound of their boots slugging through the damp forest floor fades into the distance, and I finally risk bringing a hand to my mouth.
Nomads, then, and they'll be watching for us tomorrow.