We all sat around in the old warehouse, all five of us. That was all that was left of our once hugely influential organisation.
“We’ve lost another one this month,” Beth said, staring deep into the flames of the fire we had built from the fallen rafters that had once given the ceiling the strength it had needed to span the 70 metres or so from one wall to the other.
“You probably all know him,” she continued after no one else offered to add a more cheerful tone to the conversation. “Aaron Shepherd, the one from Kailan.”
Everyone was silent.
Beth was right. We did all know the boy from the mountain city.
Times were hard at the moment. The world was a dark place. The once great web of connections, the people that made up Everest, in New Europe and abroad, had slowly been fading away until it came to the present moment which found five hungry teenagers crowded around one fire that threatened to go out with every breath of wind that found its way through the lattice-work that were the supporting walls of the building.
We were all that was left.
Everest had been powerful; a secret organisation that could almost rule the world, with members from all over the planet in different levels of parliament, pulling strings and making the most powerful politicians dance like puppets.
Recently though, one by one, our members had been vanishing, pulled from the Earth never to return. Our parents had all been taken, leaving us all alone. There was Beth whose father had once been one of the most powerful men in the world. That was until Everest’s fall from power. We didn’t know where he was now. He could be dead for all we knew. There was Connor whose mother had opposed the new rising superpower and caused almost the entirety of her family to be murdered in the dead of night. I say almost. Connor had somehow escaped, though he doesn’t talk about that night so we could never ask him how. There was Ethan whose brother had died in an ‘accident’ four months ago and had sought us out until he found the last remnants of his comrades. There was Erin whose whole family had disappeared in broad daylight and, although plenty of people saw them pulled into a car and taken away, have never been since. And then there was me.
I, who have no family left to lose, am surviving for the sole sake of bringing back the organisation I loved and the families of my friends. But Aaron had been the first teenager to go and that shook us all a bit. Until now, we thought we were safe.
Yes, the world had once been a bright place for us. We were loved and part of an organisation that let us do whatever we wanted. Everest had been at the centre of the modern world and worked hard to bring anyone from the pre-modern world to join us. We had worked for the continuation of peace and, I’m proud to say, there hadn’t been any sort of conflict since the 2022 economic meltdown that prompted our founding.
Until 10 years ago when all the parliaments had been dissolved leaving us powerless as ARC took our planet from our fingers.
ARC: the opposing force that has destroyed our lives.
They led people to believe they were an environmental group who believed that people were polluting the planet and they had a solution to global warming. In truth, they were just hungry for power. At first they could only convince small, uninfluential countries to hand over their power to them but slowly, as support for environmental change grew, so did ARC’s power. Then, without warning, the president of France submitted all power to ARC and their reign of terror began. Within weeks they had control of half of Europe. By the end of the year they had conquered it all. It only took them another year to steal both Asia and the Americas. Three years in and the world was the play-thing of an organisation that wanted nothing more than to stifle and abuse.
It was then and only then that they unveiled their so called ‘plan’ for ensuring the continual health of the planet. Everything was stolen away. Every appliance we had been warned might produce greenhouse gasses was confiscated. Every power plant that had produced the electricity we used to heat our homes and light our way in the dark was closed. All farming was brought to a stop and people were forced to scavenge for food or grow their own. Every weapon and car, every immunisation and drug, all forms of industry... everything taken away, leaving the world bare. The famine spread quickly. Unemployment rose to nearly ninety percent in only a few short days. With no one earning any money, it became almost worthless and people commissioned blacksmiths to melt their coins down and make cooking pots or cutlery; things that until then had seemed so easy to obtain but, without factories to make them, had become a finite resource.
Anyone who resisted was shot and if a whole country resisted, then entire cities would have to be destroyed, until everyone was so scared of ARC there was no resistance. If ARC had to destroy every city in a country to quell the rebellion it would do it. Then it could build a new country in its place and inhabit it with stolen people from around the globe. Then it would force those people to make the very products the world so desperately needed, only to steal them away again. The rebellion of one family member resulted in the murder of the whole family. Nobody talked in the streets anymore. Everyone was too afraid who might be the enemy when one word could mean the end of your existence.
New Europe was the evidence of this approach to city construction. Of course, officially it was still called Europe. But the people who actually inhabited this desolate place had such fond memories of the old Europe they had not wished for their beautiful place to be contaminated as it now was. This couldn’t be Europe. This must be some sort of New Europe.
“But this time there’s a difference,” Connor said without looking up. “Someone saw him taken away.”
Connor paused and glanced around the circle to see if our faces had brightened with the idea.
Erin’s face showed the despair that came from losing your whole family. Her mum, dad and brother had all been taken that day, more than five years ago now.
“I thought he was visiting his uncle in the mountains.” She was the most anxious of us all to find her loved ones and wanted to hear any hope of the return of her family.
“He was and that was why he was reported missing so quickly. His uncle wanted to see him at three-o’clock but he didn’t show. If you knew his uncle you would know that there’s no way anyone would deny him anything. So, when he didn’t turn up his uncle sent out a search party to look for ‘his little monkey butt’. Eventually one of his cousins came forward. Apparently she hadn’t really thought it was strange at the time but she had seen him heading towards his uncle’s hut. He had walked behind a hut and never appeared at the other side.” Connor concluded in the sort of no-nonsense sticking to the facts way that only he had ever managed to do.
“Is that it?” Ethan shouted, leaping to his feet, “That’s our big lead?”
I hurried to my feet after him. Ethan was strong and fast but he had the shortest fuse out of anyone I’d ever known.
“At least it’s something, Ethan! It’s more than we had yesterday isn’t it?” I put my hands on his shoulders and slowly pushed him back to his seat on the rocky floor.
“Yeah, but he made it seem like it would be easy. That someone had actually come up and said: here I am, your parents are here, come on in and get them. We won’t stop you. Anyway, it’s not like...”
I couldn’t hear him. He always mumbles when he’s sulking.
“Sorry what was that?”
“I said..." The rest of the sentence faded out again.
“Ethan! Would you just come out and say it!”
Ordinarily I would say I was a calm person but just then I was getting frustrated. What right did he have to be more angry than we were? Everyone was in the same boat.
“He said: it’s not like you can talk; nobody stole your parents.” Connor translated, leaning in to hear what Ethan was saying.
We were silent then. In fact, no one spoke for the rest of the night. Everyone just, sort of, shuffled awkwardly for a moment before standing up and busying their selves doing nothing at all. What had hurt the most was that he didn’t realise how much of every waking moment I wanted to be like them, to save their parents so it could go back to the way it had been when we were kids, playing down by the river. Together.
It was dark.
The darkness crept out from the woods and floated across the floor of the warehouse. It was a physical thing and I could feel it on my skin. It settled around me like a cold blanket. It spread across the world until there was nothing else. It had dominated all.
We were sleeping at the warehouse, nestled among the rubble that lay on the floor. I couldn’t sleep. Ethan’s words were still ringing in my head. Did he know what it felt like to be the odd one out? At least he had parents to find. I could still see their faces if I concentrated hard enough, those beloved people who had given me life. Two smiling people as they had placed me on the train: A mother with dark hair falling in sheets around her forgotten face; a father with my honey coloured hair and little twinkling green eyes behind his rectangular glasses, the only features I could remember.
I lay there, tossing and turning on my mattress of plasterboard, woodchips and rat shit, haunted by the images behind my eyes. Any chance at sleep I had was quickly dropping to nil. I pulled the straw off and walked to the doorway, but before I reached it I stopped.
There was someone there.
Running in a crouch I reached the doorway and peered around the corner.
It was Ethan. His words flashed through my mind again for the thousandth time and I scowled. I turned to walk away.
“London! Wait.” Ethan's voice.
“W-would you like to sit with me?”
I smiled. Ethan had always been too proud to apologise, so this was probably the closest I was going to get.
“Sure,” I said as I turned around and walked back to the fallen tree that passed for a seat.
Then silence fell. The blue night air highlighted the ghostly limbs of the trees around us. The whites shone in the moonlight and all was still. A single night bird’s call threatened the silence but even that soon faded away. After a few minutes of nervous twitching on both our parts he began.
“Can’t you sleep?”
“Yeah, me neither.”
The conversation looked like it might end there but Ethan wasn’t quite finished yet.
“I hope it’s not because of what I said.”
I had been wrong; that was the closest he ever got to an apology. Soon after he stood up and walked away without another word, leaving me with nothing but the silent darkness for company.
NEXT UPDATE: 22.03.2015
[A/N: Hey all, this is Aurora in case you can't tell. I just wanted to thank you for making it to the end of the first chapter. I wrote this story quite a few years ago now but I still love getting new opinions on it. I have the whole thing finished and will update weekly. However, just because I have the whole thing doesn't mean you have no say. If you leave me a comment, somewhere along the way, about something you think makes no sense and I can see where you're coming from, I will change it. I'm 100% open to reviews and criticism and, generally, don't hesitate to fix something. However, this doesn't mean that if you send me a comment saying 'Ethan should dye his hair purple!' that I will do it. Ultimately, I will have the last say but I would love to hear from you all the same. So, don't forget to drop me a line! I always reply and I love hearing from you. Thanks again and happy reading, Rori]
When you wake up covered in dew you are always cold and the morning after my midnight chat with Ethan was no exception. I had fallen asleep on the tree-seat. The dew settled into my hair forming pearls that grew until they could run into my eyes. My dew coated eyelashes splintered the morning light as it pierced my eyes. I stretched my aching limbs. My side had cramped awfully from sleeping slumped sideways. Groggily, I staggered into the warehouse where something seemed to be happening.
Everyone was yelling at each other; Connor screamed at Ethan, Ethan screamed at Beth, Beth screamed at Connor, Erin screamed at... Wait, oh no, where’s Erin? As I ran closer I began to hear their voices and not just watch as their lips flapped.
“Oh dear God, they’ve found us!” wailed Beth.
Her dark hair was dishevelled from sleep as she wrung her hands in distress.
“Shut up! She’s just getting food!” Ethan shouted.
He seemed not to have slept at all and I found myself wondering where he had gone after our chat.
“Will you please calm down and think about this rationally?” That was definitely Connor; always aiming for rationality.
I was running closer still until I was right in the middle of them. They were almost faceless as they formed identical expressions of fear and anger. They were just bodies in a circle.
"Shut up!” I screamed as loud as I could.
I had complete silence though I wasn't sure what to do with it. I turned round to stare into each person’s face in turn.
“What’s going on? Where’s Erin? Why are you all at each other’s throats and why didn’t anyone wake me up if there was a problem? I should be consulted! I’m a part of this team!” I felt like I was on the verge of tears myself.
What was happening? We were usually such a good team. We were like a family; sometimes upset at one another, or grumpy with our siblings but when threatened we stand together. This was my family now. To be this dysfunctional meant something horrible must have happened.
Beth just stood there staring at me. Then she broke-down.
“Oh! London, it’s terrible! They’ve found us and they’re going to take us and, and oh! It’s just too terrible.” She clung to my shirt until it stretched.
An idea was forming in my mind but it wasn’t quite ready yet.
I turned to Ethan on my left. “What about you?”
“They haven’t found us,” Ethan said impatiently. “I asked her to go out and find some berries when I woke up. You know, so that we could actually eat when we woke up?”
I didn’t bother asking Connor’s opinion because my idea was ready.
“Here’s what I’m thinking and you’ve got to hear me out because it will sound cruel at first. Your parents were taken by whoever is taking everyone else right?” A quiet chorus of “right” came from the others as I looked at them all in turn. “And, assuming Erin was taken, she will go there too, right?”
No one bothered to answer. They could see where this was leading.
“So, all we have to do is use human bait.”
I had been wrong: this was sounding cruel no matter how I explained it and I still wasn’t done yet.
“Three of us start walking, it doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s not here, and the other person stays where we are now. If they found Erin, chances are they've already found this place. So, if and when the person here gets taken, we’ll be able to follow them using a carefully hidden tracker that they have on them. They’ll be completely safe.” I assured them when confronted with the worried expressions they were all showing. “We’ll be as close behind as we can be without being seen. The only problem I can see is that I can’t remember how to make batteries or a tracker but I’m sure we’ll get around that, we’ve managed bigger problems before.”
I don’t think I could have explained it better or to a greater advantage but they still weren’t convinced and Beth opened her mouth to say so but, just then, there came a groan from just outside the door and she quickly shut it again.
There was silence for a moment. Nobody moved. Everyone had turned to stone. Cautiously, moving only his eyes, Connor looked to the doorway. Although I was surprised by the sound at first, I was pretty sure it would just be Erin and she’d fallen down a hole or something. Still I remained rooted to the spot in fear of being wrong. It was obvious that Connor had had the same idea and this new thought had animated his petrified state. Cautiously, I left my position as well to accompany him to the door.
It wasn’t Erin.
“Aaron!” Connor exclaimed all hint of the fear we had all felt only a moment before gone from us all. “W-what are you doing here?”
“We thought you’d been taken!” I said, taking up where Connor had left off. I had never met him in person before but he was pretty well known by reputation alone.
He was so thin. His clothes were worn and didn’t look like they had ever been very warm. His hair was long, almost to his shoulders, and pitch-black. It was cut in layer upon layer upon layer, dead straight and flew about his wild face. His pale face was coated in the patchy stubble of youth. But above all, I noticed his eyes. He looked tired and weak and rugged but his eyes were sharp and clear and electric blue. They demanded respect.
“I was. Now, get me inside!” Aaron’s voice was soft and raspy, but it still held the full authority of a military general and we didn’t hesitate to obey his order.
It was a pleasantly shocked group of teenagers that greeted Aaron Shepherd, the boy from Kailan. Everyone was silent and twitchy. It was the sort of uncomfortable feeling that I had always associated with telling someone something they don’t want to hear and yet this situation seemed to be the polar opposite; Aaron had something we very much wanted to hear. The only sound came from our surprise guest eating the last of our food supplies. When he had consumed everything we had, Beth finally began the conversation.
“So, you have to tell us how you escaped. We’re running low on members and we need every person we can get.”
Trust Beth to avoid her own personal reason.
“You’re going to try and smuggle everyone out? You? Ha! That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard! A group of teenagers take on ARC?” He laughed and I winced.
“Oh, please!” I pleaded. “Everyone here has lost a family member to ARC.” Everyone except me but I wasn’t going to mention that. “And it’s not just selfish, the whole world needs Everest!”
“Revenge, huh? That’s your game? Who are you anyway? I knew every member of Everest before I had been taken and I’ve never seen you before in my life.
It was an insult. I was a nobody. But I shook the thought from my mind and carried on as if I hadn’t just been deeply stung.
“I’m London. We mustn’t have met yet but I’ve been part of the organisation almost since I was born.”
I held out my hand for him to shake but he just ignored it.
“You’re called London? Oh, your parents must hate you!”
Jerk. My parents don’t hate me, they’re dead! They died in a train crash when I was three.
Of course I didn’t say any of this. I just looked at my toes and felt the warmth behind my eyes as the tears formed. Beth, Connor and Ethan all knew about my parents and yet none of them said anything.
They just wanted to know how to get theirs back.
Now, it was my turn to have someone sneak up on me as I sat on the tree-seat. Beth came and sat down next to me. Finally I couldn’t hold them back any longer and the tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t do anything except cry into Beth’s jumper as she held me close. When I eventually had control Beth lent in and whispered that it would be all right, Aaron hadn’t known and he would feel like dirt when he did, especially since he’d made me cry.
I thanked her, told her I was okay, and she left. Five minutes later Ethan came out.
“Hey,” he said, a little too merrily for my liking.
“Hey,” I said, nice and gloomily.
“Beth said you were upset.”
That kind of statement deserved a grunt and that’s exactly what it got.
“Hey, I’m sorry we didn’t stick up for you back there.”
What’s this? Ethan actually apologising? Impossible! But no, he had said the S word.
“It’s just, if we had told him then it would have been awkward and we wouldn’t have gotten what we needed to know.”
I sniffed. I would have liked to have been angry but unfortunately, I could understand. So, I swallowed my pride and asked, “Did he tell you what you needed to know?”
“Uh-huh, it was just as we thought: ARC.”
“So we’re going to rescue Erin?” I asked, my voice rising with all the excitement that comes with breaking someone out of a secret organisation.
“Sorry, London.” There it was again! An apology from Ethan! Maybe the sky was about to fall in. “Apparently he escaped with the help of every Everest member there. No one could find the way back in except him and he refuses to go.”
“Oh, that sucks.”
I was silent for a few moments.
“But, what if I ask him? I mean, I don’t expect to have any more influence than all of you put together but maybe I can guilt-trip him into agreeing.”
Ethan bit his lip in thought and I suddenly realised how attractive this boy was. How had I never noticed this before? Well, even I wasn't exactly sure but I knew that if he hadn't been covered in dirt, if he had been allowed a shower a change of clothes, he could have turned heads on any street. And, somehow, this amazing boy and I were friends. Funny how the world works out. It's a pity Ethan has less brain power than my socks...
“Sure. It’s worth a shot. I’ll send him out.” He said eventually. He stood up and turned to leave but I stopped him.
“Don’t tell him I asked him to come out. And... Ethan? Thanks.”
He really did walk away then, muttering ‘for what?’ under his breath.
It must have taken a lot of gentle persuading on Ethan’s behalf because it was a full half-hour before Aaron emerged from inside. His dark-haired head poked cautiously out around the door-frame. He walked over to the freezing stream and lay down in the wet grass. In a moment he would start to feel the cold and I couldn’t help feeling he deserved it.
I went and leant over him.
“Oh, it’s you.” He groaned.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“What do you want?”
He rolled over until he was looking in to the stream. “Okay, shoot. I won’t be able to hear your whining over the sound of the water.”
“I just wanted to tell you that what you said really hurt but seeing as you can’t hear me there’s not really any point.”
“Alright, I’m listening,” he said, rolling over. “What part of what I said hurt? The part where I crawled inside and begged for food? The part where I told you what you wanted to know? Oh, no, it must have been the part where I passed out from exhaustion and starvation!”
I winced. His sarcasm was painful.
“Umm, no, it was the part where you said my parents hated me.”
“Why? They must hate you to name you London. I mean, who names their kid after a lost city? Everyone knows London’s been deserted ever since ARC started getting any power.”
“It hurt because you reminded me of bad times.”
He sat up.
“They died when I was three.”
He stared into my eyes. I guess he was trying to work out if I was lying or not, though I can’t understand why anyone would voluntarily claim this experience. Finally he looked away and lay down again, pretending he didn’t care but I could tell that he was feeling just a little bit guilty.
“What do you want, a parade?” he muttered then stood up and walked away.
NEXT UPDATE: 29.03.2015
The next morning was bleak. Since Aaron had eaten all our supplies, all we had for breakfast were the nuts and roots Beth had managed to find outside while checking for footprints or any other signs anyone may have been pursuing Aaron. The near winter wind whipped branches into a frenzy outside but we all sat moderately warm and comfortable around one fire contained in an oil drum. I brought up my idea again as it seemed almost impossible that Aaron would agree to show us how to get in but it was received with as much enthusiasm as it was the last time and I had to let it drop.
There was silence.
It seemed as if it was a thing that I could hold with my hands if I just reached out and touched it. The silence settled over us like snowfall until any sound we had thought to make died, suffocated under the drift. After a few unsuccessful attempts to make some conversation I walked away from the group to sit outside on the tree-seat where the silence wasn’t as oppressive as inside. I could see Aaron follow me with his eyes from his spot at the other door. His eyes were narrow slits and showed an expression of pure suspicion. They peered out at me from behind the mask of gentle fog, rising slowly from his breath.
After a few minutes Ethan came and sat next to me. He was so close, his thick, patched coat brushed against my arm. I didn't dare look up into his face, all hard edges and symmetrical features, lest I forget what I knew about him and start thinking something stupid.
“How did you get on with Aaron last night?” he whispered.
Obviously I wasn’t the only one who could see where Aaron was looking. If he hadn’t been looking, Ethan probably wouldn’t have whispered. There was no way Aaron could have heard him from the other side of the building but, as I've said, Ethan wasn’t the brightest person I’d ever met.
“Not very far...” I replied at normal volume. “He walked away just after I told him about my parents but he’ll be back, I can tell.”
I glanced over at the boy at the other side of the warehouse. He leant back against the wall. His arms crossed over his chest. He let his wild, black hair fall over his eyes. I could almost believe he was sleeping standing up, had I not been able to feel his sharp glare from behind that fringe.
“I think he knows what our plan was. He’s been glaring at both of us since he came in last night,” Ethan whispered into my neck.
Somehow, he’d become even more cautious since Aaron had looked away.
I bit my tongue and forced his voice from my head. “Mm-hmm, I know," I said casually. "I’ll go talk to him in a minute, see if I can make some more progress.”
“Good idea. I’m really grateful to you, London, because even though it’s not like you need to find your parents,”
“You still do everything you can to help us find ours.”
There was a short pause, and then he said, “Anyway, I should probably go talk to Beth about what we’re going to eat since Mr Greedy got here.”
I gave a soft laugh.
As Aaron saw me coming he walked around the corner.
Did he always have that scowl or was I just lucky?
I followed him round and sat on the grass beside him, all without saying a word. And so we stayed for three minutes or so, the snowfall silence falling again, until he spoke.
Yes, you stupid jerk who ate all our food!
“I’ve been hungrier...”
Another five minutes of silence. I was getting cold under my blanket of snow. The sound of those trees whipping in the wind was strong in our ears as we sat with our back to the outer-wall of the warehouse. The light was grey as it shone through the winter clouds above and the world had been turned black and white.
“Ethan knew you were out there when he said I should go outside last night, didn’t he?” Aaron said.
I pulled my coats a little tighter around my shoulders as I felt the cold of the metal wall seep through my layers.
I had two choices. I could say ‘no’ and keep lying until I ran out of imagination, or I could tell him the truth and see where it got me. I went with the latter option.
“You guys aren’t... you know?”
“What?” I frowned.
“You know, ‘an item’?” he said, using his fingers as quotation marks.
As his meaning dawned on me I smiled. Then laughed. The idea seemed so ridiculous and his little quotation marks were so cute and childish that I had a hard time believing this was the same man who had been glaring at me since his arrival the day before. I mean, sure I had just realised Ethan was about five times more attractive than I'd given him credit for but... just no.
“Eew, have you actually had a conversation with Ethan?” I said, still laughing. “He’s as thick as a post!”
How was I supposed to know that Ethan was just around the corner?
Aaron knew though; he could see his characteristic dark-grey hair sticking out from behind the doorway and it made him smile. It was the first time I’d seen him smile since he had been here. He was shocking me again. He may be a jerk but I still had to admire his smile. My stupid teeth were crooked and wouldn’t whiten no matter how much I brushed them. Then I saw Ethan and found myself blushing so much I had to go sit by myself beside the stream until I cooled down.
A whole week passed and nothing changed. Actually, that’s not quite true. Ethan stopped talking to me. I’m okay with that though, his conversations were never that interesting and it gave me the opportunity to forget my strange epiphany. We stayed hungry because Beth could never find enough food to fill Aaron’s black-hole of a stomach. The sky still opened itself onto once every few days so we would wake to find our drinking water frozen, the crops we had sown dead, and the snow tumbling into our only shelter in drifts taller than I was. We stayed cold because Connor still couldn’t find anything to fill the holes in the walls and Erin didn’t come back. It was obvious she was not just getting food.
What made things worse was that winter was fast approaching and we wouldn’t survive unless we found some way to keep warm. It was cold enough as it was. Ethan joined Connor and together they doubled their search for wood, both to seal the walls against the deadly drafts and to keep our meagre fire alive. Beth and I went to the nearest village and bought some sheep, nails, a hammer and some scissors. The prices were even lower than we had expected. Now, everyone just wanted to get rid of the things that were costing them money to maintain and live a more sustainable life off whatever they could find. I still remember when that used to be some people’s dream; to move away from the city and set up somewhere in the countryside with a pig and a vegetable garden, to unwind and de-stress and live for themselves. Now, everyone was forced into it and those who had once wished for such a life were dreaming of dirty crowded cities and office jobs from nine till five.
We gave the hammer and nails to Connor and used the scissors to half-hazardly cut the sheep. Then we tried to spin the wool into yarn using two rocks.
It didn’t work too well.
As I sat by the half-frozen stream trying to knit a blanket using two sticks and our terrible wool, Aaron came and crouched behind me. He didn’t say anything, I just got that piercing feeling of being watched and felt the warmth radiating from another living thing. He gave me such a shock I turned around to scold him but he got in first.
“You’re doing it wrong, see?” he said, pulling the sticks from between my fingers and quickly doing two or three stitches with the oily wool. Evidently he had been watching over my shoulder.
“My mum and I used to knit all the time.” He stopped, realising what he’d just admitted to, blushed and waited for me to laugh.
“Sorry, it just kind of slipped out. You must think I’m really weird now.”
“Aaron, I’ve always thought you were weird,” I replied coldly, taking my knitting back and settling myself more comfortably on the coat that separated me from the icy earth below.
“You’re going to think I’m kind of cruel too when I ask how your parents died,” he said quietly.
I had wondered before what Aaron would be like if he stopped being angry, sarcastic and generally jerk-like before. Now I knew. He would be like this.
“Umm.... It was a train crash,” I said shortly.
He didn’t move. He just looked at me with this sort of expression that was a strange mix between expectation and apology.
It looked as if I was going to have to continue.
“I was always supposed to join Everest and, as soon as I was old enough, my parents took me to Base Camp. It was only on the way home again that our train crashed. They died and I survived, though it was for my sake they were on the train to begin with. When they found me I was completely unharmed, not even a scratch. I was also still holding my membership chain. The operator recognised the emblem and took me back to Base Camp. Everest brought me up and now I’m here.”
There it was; my earliest memory and I was telling it to the person I usually couldn’t stand to be around for more than five minutes. I looked over at Aaron and found him smiling. This time I wouldn’t allow myself to feel any envy for his smile.
How dare he?
This was the reason I was so miserably alone and he was smiling?
I should have known better than to think Aaron could give up being a jerk so easily. As soon as he saw me staring he stopped smiling.
“Shit, that sounds harsh,” he said.
I glared back.
I was no longer interested in anything he had to say. I stood up and stormed back inside, leaving my work by the stream.
I found I was running out of people to talk to at the warehouse. Ethan wouldn’t talk to me because I called him stupid and I wouldn’t talk to Aaron for smiling at the most inappropriate time. So, I talked to Beth. After all, because I had stormed off in the middle of my blanket making, we still had a lot of work to do. We sat in the sun and knitted greasy, dirty blankets. I told her about mine and Ethan’s plan to get Aaron to agree to show us how to get into wherever they were holding everyone. I told her about my conversation with Aaron and how it had caused Ethan to hate me and I told her about how Aaron had been so insensitive and made me hate him even more than I already had. She was a good listener; patient and attentive. When I had finished, she began to talk.
“Okay, you asked what I thought and here it is: I think you should celebrate! Ethan and your plan worked! Yesterday Connor and I were counting our money and comparing it with our food supplies and Aaron came to talk to us. He said you had asked him to go back and he had thought about it and decided it was probably for the best since you had no parents to look for…”
I really wished people would stop pointing that out.
“… and you still wanted to find the place so it wasn’t just some selfish motivation.” Beth finished, oblivious of the pain she had inflicted.
We had a meeting, the first since Erin had disappeared. I seemed like the only one who still remembered her. I suppose that's the only way to survive in this world. Forget those who are gone and focus on living or you'll quickly join them.
Winter was upon us now and the snow no longer had time to melt before the next dumping. It stood around in great mounds, melting slightly and then refreezing overnight to form waves of ice decorating the yard.
We were deciding who would go to take on ARC. Obviously Aaron would have to go, because he was the only one who knew the way in, but the rest was up to chance. I really wanted to go. Who wouldn’t? It was the adventure of a lifetime. Something that only ever happened in stories; where a few brave souls go out to challenge the oppressive doctrine and return as heroes. Of course I knew that such a fairy tale ending was unlikely to happen but the excitement to try and restore to us something of what had been lost was so gripping and addictive that I could barely sit still as we counted the votes. So when Beth nominated me I was ecstatic! Then I realised I would have to travel with Aaron, maybe for weeks, and my spirits fell.
Beth still wasn’t done.
She nominated Ethan.
Why was she doing this? She knew Ethan wasn’t talking to me! But so it was to be.
Another two weeks needed to pass before I could begin to rescue Erin, she was as important to me as a sister, just as Beth was, and Connor and Ethan were my brothers. These two weeks were filled with preparation. Beth and I made another trip to the shop and spent the last of our money. We bought knitting needles (no more sticks!), a loom and three alpaca fur coats. Without much surprise, we obtained much of it for free just from the starving people who could no longer afford to maintain them. We also swapped two of our five sheep for a cow and a butter churn from a farmer who had lost his farm to a flood and needed to sell his animals quickly. We then travelled home and proceeded to kill one more sheep, dry the meat and shear the other sheep.
Connor was assigned to milking and churning the milk into butter, Beth went to find more foraged food, I had to spin the hacked-off wool into yarn, Ethan continued to find bits of wood to weather-seal the warehouse for those left behind, and Aaron... Well, he just did whatever he wanted. Beth suggested that we immediately begin to knit more blankets for the trip but I had a better idea. Until now Aaron had just sat down the whole time shouting orders at everyone else, but not anymore! He was dumped with knitting duty and, as he could knit twice as fast as both Beth and I put together it was done better and faster, and he went back to moping around very quickly. Finally everything was done and all we needed to do was leave. The butter was churned, the blankets were knitted and the bags were filled with nuts, roots and berries from the surrounding woodland. There was even some bread, as Beth had managed to find some wheat in an old storehouse downstream. By the time this was all finished, however, it was too late into the night for us to leave and the extra two weeks of preparation had taken us deep into the heart of winter, so departure would have to wait until morning when the sun gave off at least a few, meagre rays of warmth.
When we woke, we had been snowed in (again, I might add) and it took Connor and Ethan almost a full hour to dig us out, though they had nothing to use but their hands. When they had finished, they were so cold we had to use precious time, fuel and matches making a fire to warm them. Their hands were so pink and bright we could have used them instead of torches to light our way. When that was done, we set out. Aaron talked little and Ethan not at all so it was a tedious journey the entire day. The next day was much the same and the day after that. Eventually I lost track of how many days I hadn’t opened my mouth and had to be happy with saying it had been many.
We marched over the snow. Sometimes we would sink to our knees and the going would slow tremendously. It could take us an hour to move five hundred metres. The sun was barely warm now and even during the day the air would rarely reach above freezing point. The pine trees that crested to tops of the hills did not help in making us much warmer. Sure, they protected us from the worst of the wind, but they also kept us in shade most of the day and the benefits of one were cancelled out by the handicap of the other.
The wind was slowly blowing by the trees and the awful sound it made as it flew between the thin needles was haunting. Like someone screaming. The whistle of the wind and the high-pitched scream it would create always remained in my ears at night when I struggled for sleep. Occasionally we would escape the trees and the screaming would subside but then we were forced to brave the wind at its full force and the snow it would cut from the ground and throw into our faces.
I’m not sure how long it took, but eventually Aaron spoke loud enough for me to hear. He trudged right up next to me and started talking as if I hadn’t been ignoring him for weeks. Unfortunately what he had to say was not really that interesting. It was more... creepy.
“The train your parents were on, was it the 9:15 from Albercan?” he said over the crunch of snow beneath our feet.
The wind had dropped for the moment and we were spared the haunting sounds between the trees.
How could he possibly know that? But before I could ask him, he was heading back to his usual place at the front of the line and I was forced to battle the newly awakened wind, and the snow that had just begun to fall, alone.
I had only to suffer one more day walking in silence before Aaron talked to me again. It happened in a very similar way to our last conversation though this time there was a lot more to it. We had cleared another crop of trees and were, once again, traversing the open plains that, until recently, would have provided crops to the surrounding area in summer.
“Okay,” he said, thrusting his stinging hands into his pockets, “I can’t stand this any longer. Why aren’t you talking to me?”
I had long gotten sick of ignoring Aaron but I was so used to not talking to him I had almost forgotten I was doing it.
“You really want to know?” I shouted over the sound of the wind.
He nodded and I smiled at what I was about to say.
“I wasn’t talking to you because I hated you.”
He looked hurt and that surprised me. I thought I had seen his every face but I’d never seen him hurt. I liked him like this and waited a moment to relieve him.
“You were horrible to me. You were smug and sarcastic, cruel and always, always angry. You frowned whenever I tried to talk to you and you found the story of my parents’ death amusing! I had every right to hate you! But..." I took a deep breath and summoned whatever existed of my forgiveness. "I think time has lessened that right and, you’re okay by me now.”
He smiled despite the ice being whipped into his face and so did I. Then he held out his hand for me to shake.
“Thank you,” he shouted.
I took off my glove and solemnly shook his hand. Then I burst out laughing. His serious face was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever seen. It shouldn't have been so funny and I told Aaron so but that just made him laugh even harder.
NEXT UPDATE: 05.04.2015