Friday, February 21, 2014
The red phone booth appears in the clearing, still bright under the moonlight despite its age, and I know I’m close. There’s a chance now that I might make it. I run a little faster, arms and legs pumping, chest tight with the effort to breathe.
Two hundred feet. Maybe less.
The night has lasted forever and just a few minutes at the same time, the events of the last several hours alternately playing in slow motion and high speed in my brain. Three hours ago I was coming out of the booth with Ryder, Tuck, and Vi to explore the ruins for the first time on our own. We hadn’t exactly asked for permission, but then if we had, we wouldn’t have gotten it. The ruins are for soldiers and scavengers, not for us—even if the four of us are only a mere year away from being drafted into service. Three hours ago leaving New Sanctuary hadn’t seemed like a good idea exactly, but it had seemed like an adventure of the grand kind found in the few books kept in the school building: dangerous, but somehow not when taken on together. All it took was Ryder’s hand over my own, covering it completely, his fingers lining up with mine to make my resolve not to go dissolve.
We’d jogged the miles to the ruins in silence, but not because anyone in New Sanctuary would hear us. Once we passed through the iron and steel door in the giant stone wall surrounding it and through the red phone booth into the snow beyond we were in Wanderers’ territory. They didn’t tend to hang around the wall in winter—that much is true. The cold seemed to make them sluggish and prone to hibernating in the tunnels under the Ruins, but there was always a chance that one would be awake and hungry and so we were careful to step lightly and keep our mouths shut tight. Still, Ryder managed to look back at me a dozen times, smiling encouragingly every time I faltered, hesitated. Out of the four of us I am always the fearful, doubting one. I would’ve never left New Sanctuary this way had he not asked me, had I not been afraid that if I didn’t, he might start asking someone else.
The Ruins were terrifying in the moonlight, but magical too—all dressed in snow and ice. If I didn’t know what hid inside them I might’ve been tempted to linger at the frosted windows and open doorways, to sift through what was left of the world before.
“Over there, on the left,” Ryder said, his voice sure and calm even now, maybe especially now. Growing up he was the first of us to scale the wall on a dare and walk the length of it while Wanderers howled down below, fruitlessly trying to scrabble up the stone. I climbed it just the once, the day he asked my father if he could call on me. We kissed up there, sitting on the stone, but even in broad daylight I was too nervous to enjoy it fully. I felt Wanderer eyes on me every minute until the kiss went from exciting to excruciating since we were so exposed. Ryder leaned over then brushed his lips against mine as if he’s reading my mind and checking to see if despite my coming along tonight I had changed it. I put my hand on his neck and pull him closer, let the tip of my tongue trace his upper lip. I couldn’t help smiling when he let out a shuddery breath. Let Vi compete with that.
She was watching us, her eyes every bit as dangerous as any Wanderers and I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes New Sanctuary has its risks too.
We trudged forward in a line towards the building Ryder wanted us to explore. His father had been out there last week and the building looked like the one marked on his map—low and rectangular with a sign marked “Costco” on the side of the bricks near large glass doors, broken out enough in places to allow us to crawl through. The building was dark inside. Quiet. I shone my flashlight on the entrance, through it to the gloom beyond. There was no sign of eye shine or the unmistakable howl of Wanderers. This didn’t mean we are safe though. The building was long even if it was not high and there were no windows or doors beyond the entrance, save for a few rolling metal ones around the back.
Ryder and Tuck pulled their guns off of their shoulders, held them at the ready. Vi followed suit. I refused their offer of a gun myself, choosing instead my father’s knife—so sharp that he could cut scrap metal as easily as butter. I liked the way it felt in my hand. Guns don’t sit in between your palm and fingers the same way. It means that any Wanderer that might come for me would get very close before I could use it, but somehow I still felt safer with it. Father had spent most of my childhood teaching me how to use it. Even Ryder is impressed by my skills.
Vi went into the building first. She looked back at Ryder and winked before she plunged into the dark, becoming nothing but a moving shadow, a silhouette. Ryder shook his head and laughed, whistled low under his breath so that I had to strain to hear it. I didn’t like that whistle so I went next, except I didn’t wink at him on my way in, I elbowed him instead.
Tuck and Ryder entered together, their guns already sweeping the space as if the steel had the capability to sniff the Wanderers out. Ryder leaned towards us, jabbed his fingers toward the sign that read Jewelry and motioned for us to follow him. Vi glared at me then, but she didn’t say anything.
We approached the old counter on tiptoe and leaned over the open display. There was a mess of debris inside, but my flashlight picked up the glint of the old watch right away. The diamonds circling its face were still bright. Ryder grabbed my free hand and pulled me towards it. My heart beat a little faster. I’d hoped that this was what we were coming for, but there was always the chance that he wanted to try for the last of the canned goods or medicines.
“What do you think?” he asked as he plucked it from the dirt and dried leaves…and bones.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed and it was. It was just as lovely as the men described it that night around the campfire when they told tales of this place and what they’d seen. The watch was originally meant for Ryder’s mother. His father had been here a dozen times to try and get it for her, but the first few times it had been mounted tight to some kind of velvet board and then the last few times they’d been ambushed by Wanderers. He’d planned to come back in the summer when the sun was out longer and the sky would light up the front of the store enough to keep the Wanderers at bay, but in the past few months Ryder and I had gotten closer and somewhere along the way he wasn’t planning the scavenge for his wife anymore, but for me. The watch was to be Ryder’s engagement gift—except Ryder never liked the idea of his dad getting the watch on his behalf. I was going to be his wife and he wanted to get it himself.
Vi snatched the watch from his hand and draped it along her wrist. “Lovely. Like a medal or something. I like it.” Her eyes cut to mine and I had the urge to slap her cheek and snatch the watch myself. But it felt odd to fight her for it. It felt like Ryder should be scolding her and taking it back instead. He stared at the watch on her wrist for a second as if mesmerized before he held out his hand palm up and waited for her to give it to him. She stared at him and something passes between them: intimate and awful in its longing.
When Tucker started to scream they were still looking into each other’s eyes and I was gripping the knife so hard that my knuckles hurt. Tucker’s gun went off, a brief burst of orange sparks lit up the dark around him, enough for all of us to see the Wanderer before it drug him off.
We drew together and formed a tight circle, each of us facing out the way we’d been taught. My heart was a galloping horse inside my chest. The first howl split the quiet and then there was just the sound of Tuck shrieking as somewhere in the dark he was ripped in two. We moved together as swiftly as we could towards the door while still holding our circular formation. There was the sound of claws against cement and the stench of sweat and musk and fur.
When we were close enough to the door Ryder yelled “Run!” and we took off for the outside, feet slipping in the snow a bit. I felt something brush my foot before I gain traction and I screamed, but when I looked around for help Ryder and Vi were gone. There was only the snow and the dark outline of the other ruins. When the screaming started this time it was two voices making it. I let out a sob and ran for the trees and the field beyond.
They are gone, they are all gone and now there is only me.
There must have only been three Wanderers because now I am suddenly alone. I run a bit faster, but my legs feel heavy and wooden and my throat is so tight I can’t breathe. I head for the wall and the bright red booth. I can see it now, a dot the color of blood peeking out above the snow.
When the screaming stops I know I am out of time, but I am close enough to make it. Maybe.
My lungs are on fire. I need to stop, but I don’t, even when the fuzzy black circles start popping up in front of my eyes.
Branches snap behind me and then there is the ragged sound of them panting. They are close.
I run faster.
The booth is before me a moment later and then I am through the door though for a painful moment my fingers shake so badly it feels like I won’t be able to open it. I close the door just as the first of them smashes into it. Quickly, I slide the steel bars across the door—all three. The thing, as if sensing it’s already too late lets out a howl so long and loud that it reverberates inside the booth and I cover my ears, my knife clattering to the floor. I grab for the door at the back of the booth, the one that leads into the tunnel to New Sanctuary, but it’s locked. It won’t be opened again until morning when the first scavengers go out. I am stuck here until then.
Outside the Wanderer settles, stops bashing the door with its bulk and begins to pace. I push myself into the corner of the booth farthest from the outside door and try to calm down. The booth was reinforced long ago to withstand their attacks. I am safe enough inside.
I am not expecting to hear my name or see the familiar silhouette of Ryder outside the door. The creature looks up at him and howls and I watch as he puts out his hand to pet it. His head lolls to one side at a funny angle where he was bitten.
“Sarah, let me in,” he says, his voice rough, but warm like always, coaxing. Tears pool in my eyes and spill out onto my cheeks, my jacket.
“Please, Sarah. It’s not too late.” He puts a hand on the booth and something clatters against it. I lean forward in spite of myself and peer through the occluded glass as best I can, but I don’t have to see it to know what it is. The watch.
It was supposed to be mine. He was supposed to be mine. Maybe he didn’t love me the way he loved Vi, but he needed me, he’d always needed me in a way she never understood. We were soul mates—the kind born of friendship and history. I ached to open the door all of the sudden, to reach out and take his hand, to let him put the watch on me and take me with him and the others, even if it might mean being one of them.
How can I stay in New Sanctuary without him? How can I leave it to patrol the Ruins knowing he might be out there waiting? That I might one day have to kill him?
I put my hand on the door and he mirrors my movement from outside. He leans his forehead against it and I can see the circle of skin pressed to the glass, the faint outline of his hair.
“Sarah, please,” he says and there is still so much of him in his voice that I begin to move the first steel bar off the door without thinking about it. If I am brave I will open the door enough to stab him through it and end the transitioning. I move the second steel bar slowly out of the way. I can be brave enough, I have to be. I stoop down and grab my father’s knife. I put my hand on the last bar and slowly slide it out of the way too. Ryder’s hands pry open the door the moment the bar clears it, the watch still dangling from his fingers. Our eyes meet. For a moment he is Ryder, the Ryder I rode bikes with and skipped stones with. The Ryder I kissed less than an hour ago. But then the irises of his eyes begin to go red, as red as the booth that we’re standing in.
“Sarah,” he growls.
I reach out to him, my hand closing around the wound at his neck as I bring my knife into his chest then drive it upward. He howls—a very un-Ryder like sound and the watch drops from his fingers to the floor, falling between us. I push him back through the door, careful not to look at his face—more Wanderer now in the moonlight flooding in from outside.
I pick up the watch and with trembling hands try to throw it into the snow, but in the end I can’t and so I slip it into my pocket and wait for sunrise.
Story by: Amy Christine Parker
Photo by: wintersixfour