3. Reality Strikes
(Before the Fall)
She felt winded. Her heel was rubbing. Her back ached. Her legs protested. Yet Alec bound forward, eagerly parting the brush to hike further in. Heidi shoved hair out of her face for what felt like the hundredth time and bounced her booted toe against a fallen log, rotting slowly. The bark gave way a little, and she pulled back, glancing around herself.
"Alec." He kept moving. "Alec, please. Can we stop?" Ignoring her, he pushed through two entangled ferns and disappeared, the only sign of him being the noise he made as he trampled through the undergrowth. Rolling her eyes, she fell back to eye the space around her before slugging off the heavy pack and dumping it, seating herself beside it.
He hadn't stopped the endless hours of preparation. If he wasn't talking about plans and maps, he was talking about supplies. And if they weren't talking at all, they were hiking, or climbing, or tying ropes, or practicing first aid on one another. She cringed at the memory of CPR and shoved it to the back of her thoughts.
They'd stopped using the marked paths in the national park, and started trampling through the untouched forestry, relying on Alec's surprising navigating skills, and her own ability to, at least, read a map with a compass. For Alec, it seemed intuitive. If he knew North, he knew where he was. She sighed, picking at the laces of her boot and dragging the shoe off, followed by the thick sock. She examined the back of her heel, grimacing at the raw skin, a blister already rising in its place. For her, navigation was something she had to work at. She could use a compass and a map, but it took time for her to determine her route through the wild undergrowth. Roads and paths were easy, mapped out clearly in her head. This? Not so much.
Balancing her foot on her other leg, she dug through her pack for the little first aid kit. Alec had insisted they start practicing with realistic weight, but she doubted he knew what that meant. He'd shoved bottles of water in, bundles of clothes, camping stoves, climbing gear, even a brick, for Christ's sake. Her back was in a permanent state of painful knots. Once she'd wrapped the blister up, she gingerly pulled her sock and shoe back on, then unclipped her water bottle from the outer edge of the pack to take a long drink.
"Alec?" She called, expecting his cheery, breathless reply. She was met, instead, with quiet. Only insects and the breeze. A faraway call of some bird. "Alec!"
She could imagine him leaning against a tree, within earshot, waiting for her to cave first and come trudging after him, but she was growing aggravated and tired, and she just wanted to go back to her dorm and sleep. So she stayed where she was, lying against the pack and staring at the canopy. The light of the sun made everything much greener beneath the branches, the leaves shining brightly back at her, and she was partly relieved they'd started hiking off the paths. Aside from the funny looks they got from dog-walkers and cyclists, the sun shone straight through the wide cleared areas, beating down against the back of their necks. Here, it was shaded and cool.
She wiped sweat from her forehead and frowned.
Perhaps not by much.
"Alec!" She shouted, waiting for his huffed reply. She refused to give in first. But he didn't answer, or appear between the trees. She couldn't even hear him crashing through the bushes anymore.
Sighing, she sat up, glancing around herself, half expecting him to be standing there, face twisted in annoyance that she was sitting around. She could hear what he'd say: 'stop wasting time, Heidi. This is crucial.' It seemed to be his mantra these days.
Ignoring the prickle of dread that rattled down her spine at the reminder, she dragged herself wearily to her feet, heaving the bag back onto her shoulders. They smarted at the weight, and her muscles complained, but she forced herself forward anyway.
She'd made it about three minutes in, and her nerves were growing, coiling in her stomach when she still couldn't find him. "Alec?" She shouted, cocking her head to wait for a reply. When it didn't come, she pulled her lower lip between her teeth, anxiety unfurling in her chest between her lungs, making it suddenly harder to breathe.
He couldn't have left her out here... could he? Anger rocketed through her at the thought. She wouldn’t put it past him to abandon her and force her to find her own way back. He'd been on at her about practicing her navigating skills since they'd started the infernal hiking. But no. She pushed her hair off her face, slicking sweat from her forehead again. He wouldn't do that. Especially not like this. Trudging onward, she scoured the area, trying to pick out his dark shirt among the trees.
It happened before she could react. The sudden pressure over her wrist, and then the yank to her left. She went sprawling, a scream at her lips that never made it out her throat. The hand that clamped down over her mouth pressed too hard, forcing her teeth against her upper lip, and she drowned in fear. Oh god, what has going on? She couldn't see what belonged to the suffocating weight pinning her to the ground, and pain darted up and down her spine, the items in her pack jammed awkwardly against her back.
She screamed into the hand, but it only pressed harder, as though the pain was supposed to be a warning to shut up. She obeyed, feeling tears burn the back of her eyes. Her chest heaved, but it was difficult to breathe, the edge of the hand pressed up against her nose, the weight crushing her, the fear drowning her. She whimpered, but the sound was useless. She tried wriggling, frantic, bucking her hips upward, but her movements were compact and restrained, and she began to panic.
She was going to suffocate.
No one would find her.
She was going to die, and it was all. Alec's. Fault.
Rage spiralled through her, disjointed and petrifying as the panic rose. Her breaths were too short, too quick. Shallow and hard. She screamed again, and the pressure of the hand suddenly lifted. She sucked in air, gasping frantically, terrified it would be her only chance. But her body only wanted to breathe, and it was still hard to do shoved so hard into the ground, her body stuck between the pack and the body.
Choking, she tried forcing her arms up between them, wriggling in a panicked, adrenalin-fueled way.
And then his face appeared above hers, eyes round and familiar. Concerned. Like he didn't know he'd been suffocating her. Still was.
"Alec!" she gasped. "You fucking bast-" His hand came down on her mouth again, lighter this time, but she wanted to scream anyway. "Mm-nnmph!"
He jerked his eyes back down to her, and he seemed to realize what he was doing, rolling off her in a flash.
"Shit," he hissed softly. "Oh, shit. Heidi, I'm sorry-" She sprang up, yanking her arms out of the pack, and ignored the pain and discomfort as she staggered away from him. She wanted to at least be able to breathe before she started hitting him.
"That your idea of a fucking joke?" She shrieked, but it came out more of a harsh whisper. She wanted to spring at him, but she was still trying to let her body catch up, so she slumped to the ground instead. Alec chewed his lip, and crawled toward her. She jerked her legs away when he went to touch her ankle. "What the hell was that?" She demanded when he settled.
"I didn't mean-"
"The hell you didn't," she hissed, sucking in several deep breaths that didn't cut deep enough into her lungs.
"I mean it, Heidi. I swear, I didn't know I was hurting you."
He looked sincere, but she was still angry. He'd left her by herself, and then he'd jumped her. She touched her lips tenderly, and they smarted beneath her fingertips.
"Ow," she mumbled, and sighed. "What the hell was that?" She demanded again, but her tone had slumped. He crawled the last few inches toward her and perched beside her, taking her chin carefully between his fingers to look at her lips, thumb grazing beneath them so lightly she barely felt it. He looked upset when she winced, and she felt some of the anger dissipate.
"I heard people," he finally answered, dropping his hand to hers and curling their fingers together. He pointed in a vague direction behind them.
"So?" She didn't think he'd been that paranoid, that hearing voices out here in the woods would startle him so badly. A pang of sadness fluttered through her chest, and she squeezed his hand. "Alec, just because other people are hiking off-track doesn't mean they're dangerous-"
"No," he interrupted, voice hard. "No, I went after them to try and find them. They had guns, Heidi." He let the fact hang in the air, compacting into a solid fear in her chest.
He frowned, dropping her hand to collect their packs. Shook his head.
"I don't think so. But I don't think they were friendly, either. Come on. Let's get back."
She didn’t argue as he helped her pull the pack on, and they didn't talk as they made their way back to the path and then to his car. She could see the muscles in his neck and jaw bunching, his fear growing, but she didn't say anything, too focused on the idea that there were other people out there ready to use guns.
By the time they made it back to the dorms, the sun had set and she felt stupid. Of course there were people prepared to use guns to protect themselves. They should have been trying to get their hands on at least a handgun. Saying goodnight to Alec, she trudged over to the female dormitory's and slumped down onto her bed, her frustration growing.
What did it matter, if they prepared and prepared and prepared, and yet still came up against armed groups? What did it matter, in the face of terrified people prepared to defend themselves with open fire?
The next week dragged on, her anxiety growing. They needed weapons. It didn’t matter if they were could duck in and out of windows in seconds flat, or find their away around the entire national park without maps. If they didn’t have something to defend themselves, they were merely a moving target.
“Drop it, Heidi,” Alec said, his teeth grinding together as he sketched out an alternative route through the streets. “It’s not a debate anymore. We’re not going to-”
She couldn’t stand it. Snatching the pencil out of his grip, she shoved herself between him and the desk, scowling down at his mop of dark hair.
“Heidi-” His voice was low in his throat, but she didn’t care if he was yelling at her or growling.
“You’re right, Alec. This isn’t a fucking debate anymore. We haven’t been thinking. We’re not prepared. We’re just two idiots, thinking we can make it out of here. Well, guess what?” He dropped back into his chair to look up at her, looking like he wanted to start tearing his hair out. Or hers. “If we come up against those militia? Whoever they are? We’re dead. And if we come up against groups of armed people, just as terrified as us? We’re dead, too. They’re not going to welcome us into their group with open arms. They’re going to want our food, our maps, and our medical supplies.”
His jaw jumped. He looked away from her.
Instead of hitting him like she so badly wanted to, she slid down onto his lap and dragged his face back around to hers, digging her fingers through her hair so he couldn’t pull away.
“I’m not asking that you go out and find us an automatic gun, Alec.” He blinked up at her, the anger making him look hooded and terrifying. She curled closer to him, tucking his head against her chest. “I just want to make sure we’ve taken every measure to ensure our safety. Your safety. I couldn’t-”
She didn’t mean to do it. To fall into her own explanation. But she’d been holding onto her fears for weeks now, let them grow inside her like a fungus, wicked and poisonous. She wilted against him.
“I couldn’t handle losing you because we were too naive about this.”
He hesitated, but then his arms curled around her and her head was tucked into his shoulder. She swallowed back the burn of tears, trying to ignore the painful lump in the back of her throat.
“That’s not going to happen,” He murmured into her hair. She felt him press a hard kiss to the crown of her head before settling his cheek there. “I wouldn’t let it.”