Chapter Forty Six: the fork in the road
Word Count: 1,592
Safe, she thought, as she drifted slowly into unconsciousness; but even as she entered her dream, she knew they were not safe – not in her dream, not in the Arena. They would never be safe. She dreamed of nothing except Tyberos. She could feel his fingers tight around her throat, the pinch of his nails digging into her flesh, the hard pounding of her heart as her lungs screamed for breath; the entire dream, she was paralyzed – it did not matter why, she simply was and it was more than enough to terrify her. She couldn’t feel anything below her shoulders and though she hoped she was fighting, hoped she was kicking and flailing and giving him a good struggle to keep her down, she knew better. She was limp and helpless and she was going to die.
She woke panting riotously, sweat soaked, and her throat sore from screaming. Silas’ hand was clamped over her mouth, all of the strength in his arm being used to hold her down, to keep her against him. He was speaking softly into her ear but she couldn’t make out the words over the rebellious thudding of her heart. She stopped moving the instant reality consumed her. She knew where she was, she realized, she wasn’t in immediate danger. As her muscles relaxed and her adrenalin stopped burning hot and fresh in her veins, his voice floated into her awareness. “It’s okay,” he chanted, his voice raw from the repetition, “I’ve got you, you’re safe. It’s okay.”
He lifted his hand from her mouth when he realized she’d ceased scrambling for her freedom, and for a long time they sat in the shadows of their hideaway in complete silence. She didn’t want to explain the dream; he, clearly, didn’t know how to ask about it.
Her mind was reeling – she didn’t know when the claustrophobia took over, but once it did, she was out of their little nest in less than a heartbeat, flinging her body out of the cavernous hole and leaping into the night air to land with a muffled thud roughly twenty meters below. She could smell the acrid scent of vomit from somewhere behind her and she took a few steps forward to get out of range.
Gulping down lungful after lungful of air, she rubbed her palms on her face and tried not to let her frustration take over. All of her senses on high alert for any noises in the woodlands surrounding her, she fought to regain control of her thoughts as they whirled like raging beasts in her head. She was more conflicted than she had ever been in her life, but what was so hard to handle about the split urges she was grappling with was that she didn’t even know why she was suddenly so alarmed.
Silas was not far behind her and she felt his landing quake in the ground beneath her boots. She wanted to look at him, to see the sanctuary of his eyes, but she couldn’t bring herself to turn her head to him.
Everything felt wrong. The air smelled strange, the sky was too light, the dense foliage seemed artificial. Even the steady rhythm of her heart felt out of place, out of sync, somehow. She couldn’t tell if she felt nauseas or hungry, hot or cold, tired or awake. She knew, only, that she was out of place. That something vital had shifted; some piece of the game, some delicate string in the patterned weave of her life, had been unexpected and imperceptibly moved.
It was a haunting unsettling; it buried itself in her heart and refused to budge. It whispered that something was dreadfully wrong. That she was definitely not safe.
“What’s wrong?” His voice was like a crack of thunder in a summer storm; it broke through the air with the same violent power, shaking her very skeleton. There was no accusation in his tone, no demand, no pretense; he actually spoke gently, but her whole body was tense with anxiety and paranoia.
At first, she wasn’t certain she could convince her mouth to move. After a moment, she said, “Everything. We aren’t safe.”
“We are, actually,” he said, his words low and calming; she could feel him stepping closer to her, hesitant as if he were approaching a wild animal. “We’re just fine, here. I haven’t seen anyone all night, and while you slept I set up the traps.”
“That’s not enough,” she said, her mind running with the only logical thought it could muster: set more traps. Set traps everywhere. Trap everything. Everything.
Ever patient, he said, “Only two of our sides are open; East and South is nothing but cliff edge into ocean. North is a steep climb further up this line of mountain, and West tappers off into desert. We’re safe.”
“We aren’t safe,” she repeated, her eyes jumping from branch to branch above her head, perpetually scanning the area for whatever it was she was missing. Her fingers twitched unconsciously, her nails scraping against her thighs, where her hands hung in a deceptively casual posture.
“We’re as safe as two people can be in the Arena, Rory,” he soothed, no longer stepping forward. He’d come close enough, barely an arms length away, barely a shadow in her peripheral vision.
“No, we aren’t,” she said, and even though she could hear the edge to her tone, she could do nothing to hold it back. She was growing intolerant. “If we were as safe as two people could be, we wouldn’t be together at all, Silas. Being together puts us at a disadvantage as it is – having to watch out for two heads instead of one – not to mention that we double our stress, double our weight, and double the size of our hiding spots.”
“You say not to mention,” he mused, almost as if trying to lighten the mood, “and yet you mention it.”
“You know I’m right,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest and looking at him for the first time since she fled their nest.
“We also double our eyes, double our strength, and double our chances,” he countered, only the barest ghost of impatience creeping behind his words. Already, her attention had wandered from him and returned to the branches above them, scouring every leaf and cluster of branches in search of hidden enemies.
She couldn’t process his argument. Though she was aware there was merit to his sentences, her mind simply would not accept them. Rory shook her head as if she could physically reject his remarks. “But we’re so easy to track,” she murmured distantly, devoting her attention to the sounds of the forest. Every crack of a twig, every shuffle of paws in leaves, had her unshakeable interest. Everything was a potential danger.
“What are you saying, Rory? That after we’ve spent this long trying to find each other, after we’ve survived the last few days, now you want to split up? We might never see each other again,” he was trying to circle his way into her sight, but as he moved so did she – an intricate dance of avoidance that she seemed to be performing effortlessly as she twisted and contorted her body at every sound or glimmer of light.
“It’s hazardous for us to be together,” she reiterated, only partially aware that her mouth was forming the thoughts in her head into actual words. “We’re twice as easy to track.”
“I’m not going to walk away from you,” he said, no longer moving to stay in her orbit. He crossed his arms over his chest and the movement drew her eyes to him. “I came this far to keep you alive, I’m not going to stop now.”
Again, her lips moved but her mind lagged behind, “If I didn’t want you to find me, Silas, you wouldn’t.” The confidence was strange, and un-beckoned, but she held it between her gritted teeth and planted her feet sturdily beneath her.
“This isn’t about that,” he said.
“You don’t even know what this is about,” she snapped, regretting the anger that laced her tone.
“Neither do you,” he answered, and they both knew he was right.
They were at a standstill.
After a while, he said, “I’d rather work twice as hard to survive than have to watch you die on the screen, Rory,” and though there were traces of anger and frustration in his words, there was also loyalty. Even desperation, she realized, and though her heart ached at the words, she kept her distance. If he touched her, she didn’t know what would happen; she felt certain she would fall into him, lose herself in the stories his fingerprints kept in silence, and likely forget all about her paranoia – but something inside of her was tethered to her newfound dread, something inside of her wanted her to be fearful, whether it was necessary or not.
All she could think was, I’d rather not die, and she didn’t know what compelled such selfishness inside of her. The morning before she would have leapt from the edge of the cliff to her death if she thought it would make it easier on him. Who had she become overnight? What kind of compassionless monster had burrowed into her bones and possessed her soul?
She thought she might be sick all over her boots if she didn’t get herself in check.
What kind of mess had she made for herself, already? It wasn’t even dawn, yet.