Highway Chapter 17
I woke up to her screaming. The loudest, most savage and terrified screech I had ever heard came from Veronica’s room. I rushed to her door, figuring the worst. Had someone come in while I was sleeping? But I was such a light sleeper.
“Veronica!” I yelled through the door, knocking rapidly.
She didn’t answer. I tried the handle but the door was jammed. Stepping back, I ran into it with my shoulder, busting it wide open. I searched the room for the reason for her distress. But nobody was there. Veronica was still in bed, but just barely.
She was thrashing around violently, throwing off her blankets. Her hair was slicked against her head, as well as her clothes. She had the most pained expression I had ever seen on her face as she writhed in bed. Was she having another nightmare? This was nothing like the other night. She was screaming words now.
“Don’t you touch him! Get away! Stop!” She screamed.
Deeply concerned, I rushed over to her. Shaking her, I called out her name. She wasn’t responding, still trapped inside a monstrous nightmare.
“Veronica!” I yelled.
She was struggling, and so I put her face in my hands, leaning close enough to her ear she could hear me even through sleep.
I shook her shoulder again. She bolted upright, flinching away from me. She shrieked at me not to touch her. What had she been dreaming about? Gently putting me hands on either side of her face, I pulled her close to me. She struggled to get away, but I kept her close.
“It’s me! Look!” I hushed her, telling her it was just me several times.
She stopped, clearing her vision. Suddenly, she lurched into me, encircling her arms around my waist with an iron grip. She cried my name, burying her face into my chest.
I asked her if she had another nightmare, despite knowing the answer. She withdrew her hands, nodding weakly.
“Oh, baby girl.” I sighed.
Here was the girl I had been with for a week, the toughest girl around, crying desperately. It broke my heart. She had told me no nicknames, but she was my baby girl. She had become so important to me in such a small amount of time. Yet here she was, hurting. And I couldn’t do anything about it. I tried to get a look at her, but she wouldn’t budge.
“It’s just a dream,” I soothed, hoping to make her see she was safe.
She told me it wasn’t. Confused, I just held her and waited. I could feel the wetness of her tears drench my shirt, but it didn’t really matter. I would be here for her any way I could.
When she lessened her hold on me, I pulled her back to look her in the eye.
“What happened?” I asked, determined to be strong for her.
This was when my life changed. She told me about her family, the ones she didn’t remember. She spoke of her brother, and I wondered why she was crying with such a happy tale. But then she spoke of her father and mother, and one fateful night. She said it all, her voice distorted and broken.
She was shattered, and I didn’t know how to pick up the pieces. I was stunned into silence, shocked by her tale. I had seen a lot of violence in my time, but I have never heard of something so graphic and traumatizing.
I was angry, for no person deserved that, especially not her. But seeing her now, splintered and empty, it tore up my heart. I felt a part of myself explode with pain, correlating directly to hers. She was my baby, but she was crushed, and I didn’t think I could help her this time. Her sorrow became my sorrow, her melancholy affecting us both. My vision began to blur, and I realized I was crying.
I hadn’t cried since I found the path, for there wasn’t anything to be truly sad about. But something about Veronica had changed me, and she had claimed a part of my heart as her own. She looked up at me, surprised I was weeping too. We could both feel the salty warmth come down our faces, and it connected us.
I pulled her close once more, apologizing over and over again. She asked me why, and I told her she didn’t deserve it. I had known life to be very cruel, but never like this. She cried for hours, clenching and unclenching my shirt. I rubbed her back and ran my fingers through her hair. This was the only thing I could do for her, and so I would.
She made some remark about being the cause of her brother’s death. Incredulous and bewildered, I told her that wasn’t true. She came back at me, biting out that it was, and that I shouldn’t try to protect her or I would be next. What had gotten into her? She was making ridiculous statements. She was blaming herself because she didn’t know what else to do, but it was not correct in any sense. She said it again, quietly.
Thinking this was getting out of hand, I marched towards her. She backed away until she ran into the wall, and I leaned over her. She had just experienced a violent dream so I was worried she was scared, but she trusted me enough to know I wasn’t going to harm her. J
ust like the first day we met, I made direct and up close eye contact with her. Summoning all of the sternness I could muster, I told her she was in no way responsible for his death, and to never say such a horrible thing again. Chastised, she looked away.
“Look at me,” I requested softly.
She didn’t, so I hooked my fingers under her chin and gently turned her face towards me. I asked if she really truly believed she killed him. She looked as if she were about to agree, and then faltered as our eyes met again. She turned away, and I knew she didn’t really believe it. She just had nobody else to blame but herself.
I swept back the sweaty hair from her face. She leaned in again, and wrapped her arms around my neck. It wasn’t in fear or sadness, merely because she wanted to. I led her to bed, thinking it beneficial for her to lie down. As I turned to get her blankets, she caught my hand.
She asked me if I could stay with her tonight, stuttering. My heart beat painfully, and I told her that I would. I had no intention of leaving her, perhaps not another night ever again, but especially not on this one. I would be here until she decided to leave.
I carefully positioned myself against the headboard, trying not to jostle Veronica. She laid her head against my shoulder, and I tucked her under my arm. I placed my head on top of hers, listening to her breaths get progressively calmer.
She asked me the date, and I replied. She told me it had happened ten years go to this day, and I held her just a little tighter. She asked me why she couldn’t remember her brother’s name. I didn’t know, but usually repressed memories came back in time. I told her I was sure she would remember in eventually, because it seemed they both loved each other very much. She nodded.
She told me she was scared to sleep, and so I started to hum a lullaby. Realizing a bit too late it was the one she had been singing the night of her nightmare, I expected the worst. But no outburst came, no tears were shed.
After a while, she began to grow limp. I was worried about her dreams, but her eyelids simply fluttered and closed peacefully. If she did have a nightmare, I would be there to wake her up before it even got remotely serious.
Expecting Julian to be late, I guessed we could lie like this until about eight. That would give Veronica four hours of sleep, and anybody could tell she needed it.
I looked at her and I was sad, for I could only think of her leaving me when she awakened. It wouldn’t be out of spite, but drifters just didn’t generally stay close to anyone. I would wish her happy travels with a smile on my face, but I would always remember and have a place for her in my heart.
For now though, she was here. She was with me in the moment, and that was all that needed to be focused on. I would help her while I could, and enjoy her company as much as possible. With that thought in mind and a sleeping girl tucked under my arm, I let myself drift asleep.
I woke up when the sun rose, but didn’t stir. Veronica lay peacefully. She had somehow ended up snuggled on my lower thigh, her sleeping form stretched out. Her feet were hanging off of the bed, and I repressed a laugh.
The sun streaming through the windows cast a soft glow on her form, her messy hair creating a halo around her face. Even with mildly puffy eyes and exhaustion written on her face, she was still achingly beautiful to me. She was sleeping soundly now, even looking peaceful. Perhaps she was done with the nightmares now that she had remembered. I hoped with all my might that this was the truth.
The city’s roar served as background noise, but I could mostly hear the birds chirping outside the window. Oftentimes we would flock to nature and animals, and they would do the same to us. There is no greater gift in life than connecting to nature all around you. It is what makes us whole.
To my surprise, right around 7, Veronica stirred. I froze, concerned I had awoken her. She shifted, and then opened her eyes sleepily.
“Matt?” she asked, blearily looking around.
She seemed to take a moment to remember what happened last night. Her cheeks flushed, her face turning red. Why was she embarrassed?
“Did I? Did I fall asleep on you and stay that way all night?” she asked awkwardly.
She thought that I was going to treat her differently because of last night.
“Yeah,” I replied, “But I slept on you all night too.”
She looked really uncomfortable now, for she had never expressed such emotion to anyone before. She had faced serious repercussions for displays of far less.
“Veronica,” I said, “Nothing is different, okay? Stop looking like you did something mortifying.”
She seemed unsure, so I decided I would just have to show her throughout the day. I stretched, and told Veronica we should get ready.
“Julian is always late. If there’s a time for something, he’s going to be late. I would expect him to come by around 8:30. He’s one of my best friends, but sometimes that man is just so irritating.”
She stifled a laugh, and it was good to see she still could smile. When I looked at her eyes, they were infinitely sadder, and it sent a pang through my heart. But somehow, she still managed to smile. I marveled at her strength, especially for one who didn’t know what to do with her emotions.
Packing our stuff, we lazed around on the balcony. I made a coffee run, and we were drinking it while we felt the cool breeze blow through our hair.
The city was already bustling, but it was generally quiet, for a lot of the inhabitants were still sleeping. Veronica and I were passing the time by telling each other silly jokes. Soon, our laughter filled the little balcony. Veronica seemed to pep up a little bit now that she had caffeine and stupid puns in her system.
Around eight, we shuffled down to the entrance, waiting for Julian.
Veronica said, “He’s really strange, but you seem to like him a lot. I’ll see if he ‘grows’ on me, like you said.”
She smiled slightly, and I laughed.
“That’s Julian, alright.” I chuckled, “Like a parasite. He just kind of latches on.”
I pantomimed a parasite latching onto my arm. Veronica hid her laugh, and I heard a throat clear behind me. There was Julian, tapping his foot as if he were irritated.
“You don’t scare me anymore, Julian,” I said, “The only thing you’d do is push me in a river again. And if you haven’t noticed, I’m a lot taller than I used to be.”
He scoffed, asking me if I thought him incapable.
“I did it. If I can, he can.” Came Veronica’s voice from behind.
They snickered together as she recounted the story. They were both rascals, and I had only noticed that it was going to be a problem. Absolutely wonderful. This was going to be a long few days. After waiting for the two sudden companions to quiet down, we left town.
Veronica seemed happy to be on the road again, despite her probable dislike of walking so much. She was unusually quiet. I assumed it was partly due to the fact Julian was there, and partly because she was tired. I also think she was still waiting for some sign I treated her differently. Hopefully she would understand in time that it only made her more real to me.
“Hey, Matt,” she called, asking me what some flowers were.
“Matt?” Julian asked from behind, confused.
I forgot about the name. Realizing he hadn’t seen me since I was younger, I explained to him that Veronica gave me a name because I didn’t really have one. I gave her another strange look, one that told her my name didn’t matter that much. Interesting enough, I thought of myself as a Matt now. I didn’t originally care about my name, but now it felt like a part of me.
“I would have gone insane if the whole time I knew him I just called him things like hey you. Or person. Or perhaps really weird blonde guy.”
I gasped in mock sadness, saying, “Ouch. Low blow.”
Julian surveyed us a moment, then said, “I would have just called him snotball. Or delinquent kid.”
Veronica smiled, and I gave him a light punch in the arm.
“I think I like you, kid,” he said.
Veronica’s face darkened slightly, because she hated nicknames.
“Just a fair warning, Julian. I wouldn’t give Veronica a nickname. She’ll make you regret it.”
She looked at me as if I was dirtying her reputation, but hid a smile. We walked on, Veronica thinking Julian’s antics to be normal. She was right, but it meant she didn’t laugh at him as much.It had only been us out on the road before, so introducing a new person into the mix was a little strange for her. She walked on my side, close enough she turned when we did but not close enough to be touching.
We stopped to fill our water bottles, and I looked over my shoulder to make sure I wouldn’t end up wet again. Please don’t dump her in a river, I thought. If Julian did something stupid because it was funny, Veronica would be mad at him. If she was mad at him she wouldn’t want to hear what he was saying, the whole point in him coming along. Fortunately, we continued without an incident.
We talked about the natural world as always, with Julian imputing things. When we reached our camp, the sun was going down.
“Veronica, would you make the fire?” I asked her when Julian was getting more water.
“By myself?” she asked, doubtful, “What if I mess up?”
I smiled at her reassuringly before saying, “You’ll do fine. You’ve done it the past few nights, and you can do it now. I promise.”
She was nervous because Julian was here. She kneeled by the tinder, hesitantly holding the flint and steel. Taking a deep breath, she struck down perfectly, causing a shower of embers that caught fire immediately. She bent down and blew gently on them, kindling it. It caught fire with the rest of the material, and she had created a glowing circle of warmth. Julian applauded, complementing her.
“You already know how to light a fire? Your friend over there took nearly two weeks to light a fire, and he was mediocre at best.”
She looked at me expectantly, and then started laughing, falling back on the ground and rolling.
“Hey!” I said, offended, “It was windy all the time! Two weeks isn’t that long of a time.”
He scoffed, but flung his arm around me and pulled me into a friendly hug. Meanwhile, Veronica was still laughing. I cleared my throat, and she stopped, sitting up and wiping her eyes.
“Sorry, sorry,” she apologized, still smiling, “It’s just funny to think of you not knowing anything.”
They continued to talk about my earlier years, much to my dismay. But still, she was getting along with him, even if it was at my expense. Julian was a silly guy, but he knew a lot about the world. He’d been a drifter since he was a teenager, and had taught my teacher. We sat by the campfire and told stories.
We laid out our sleeping bags, with me in the middle and Veronica and Julian on either side of me. Veronica didn’t take out Ozzie, something not entirely unexpected.
The firewood pile was running low, so I volunteered to gather wood. I hoped Julian could use my absence to his advantage, and teach her something she wouldn’t be comfortable learning with me there. I also hoped that something was something beneficial, like connecting to people, and not something like how to hijack a car.
While I was searching the ground, I reflected on last night. She had been very vague about her father’s disappearance, probably because she didn’t know. It troubled me, for I had not read any stories in the newspaper about such a tragic story. I always picked up a copy in town, to keep up on the world news.
This meant that in all likelihood, he was still alive and out in the world. The thought made me nauseous, and I had to take a few breaths to settle my stomach. Hopefully he was far away in a distant continent, or perhaps not even alive still. I wondered if Veronica had contemplated the idea. I wished she hadn’t and never would, for it would only cause her distress.
I headed back to the campsite with a bundle of wood. I entered the clearing, surprised to see Julian alone. Panic seized my heart for a moment. I had become hyper aware for her safety.
“Where’s Veronica?” I asked my voice low.
Julian looked at me, saying, “Calm yourself. She’s up on that hill over there.”
I looked and saw her dark figure, arms wrapped around her legs.
“Did something happen to you guys last night?” Julian asked as he tended to the fire.
“What do you mean?” I asked nonchalantly.
“Don’t play games with me, kid.” He responded, looking up from the fire. “You know what I mean. Something is not the same here. You both look at each other differently than you did yesterday. Especially her.”
He gestured his head towards Veronica. Sighing, I realized that this man was going to be the death of me. He knew me better than any other living person on the planet, and that meant he knew when I had something on my mind.
“Why is she over there? Did you say something to upset her? Julian, the purpose of you coming was to teach her something, not bother her!”
He looked at me sharply, and shook his head.
“Don’t you yell at me,” he scowled, “I did teach her something. It just might not have been what she wanted to hear. Either way, don’t act like you know everything in life. You may not be the same kid as when I first met you, but experience counts for more than you think. And my experience tells me that she has changed since yesterday. I’ll be damned if that girl doesn’t love you. And whatever happened last night was the shifting point in your relationship.”
I looked away, wondering if this was true. I know I cared for her immensely, but did she feel the same? The way she had looked at me last night made me think that she did. But he said he had taught her something. Did he tell her that she loved me? And she didn’t want to hear it?
“Julian, do you realize what you could’ve done? Veronica is not a very trusting person, understandably. She has up barriers to everyone. You can’t just break down walls like that right away! I just got her to open up to me, to let down the walls a little, and now you tell her she loves me? Do you understand what kind of a shock that is? If I’m lucky she just won’t want to talk about it. If I’m not, she’ll just shut down on me completely.”
Realizing my anger was getting the best of me, I pinched my nose in between my fingers, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
“She needed to hear it. Now that she knows, she can think about it. It’s something you have to do with new drifters. I did it with you. Remember when I told you what you didn’t want to hear?”
I nodded. I was acting tough, pretending I was better than everyone else. He pulled me aside late one evening, and told me I needed to wisen up. He said that the world wasn’t fair, and that I would never get anywhere by pretending I was tough. I wouldn’t get anything, except maybe a beating by a group of people I thought I could handle.
It made me so mad, I remember, but it was true. I had been beaten up before I had met him, underestimating my opponents. I would normally have just brushed it off as another stupid old man, but his abruptness and brutal honesty caught my attention. I was still as headstrong, but I thought about my actions more.
“Why do you have this annoying habit of being right all the time? You’re impossible. I guess I should go talk to her.”
He gave me a thumbs up, and I slowly ascended the hill.
Veronica was sitting there, her head rested on her folded arms.
“Hey,” I called softly.
Her eyes flickered over to me, and then returned to their original position.
“Hi,” she responded.
“Is this seat taken?” I asked, gesturing to a grassy spot next to her.
“Not that I know of,” She answered.
I sat down, thinking about what I should say.
“Listen,” I began, but she cut me off.
“You know,” she started, “I don’t quite understand how life works anymore. It was always complicated, but the past few days have been crazy. Isn’t it strange, the things that happen? I guess you could say fate has a sense of humor.”
She was still looking straight ahead.
“Yeah,” I replied, “You could. Life isn’t something that can be figured out exactly, just something that can be researched and that one can come to a better understanding with.”
She agreed, and resumed her silence. Just as I was about to speak again, she shuffled.
“Did you ever have a teacher, Matt?” she asked, “Something akin to our arrangement?”
She was avoiding eye contact, and partially withdrawing. It bothered me she had used the word arrangement, and not something like our relationship, or friendship. I knew her better than most, but this was still a very slippery slope.
I didn’t have the best past in the world, what I cared to remember. I also didn’t feel excited to explain my teacher. Still, she had shown me something very personal last night. There was no doubt she felt like her world was spiraling out of control, confused about her feelings and worried that she had lost a major barrier. I sighed.
I was going to have to tell her, because that way she would know about me like I knew about her. We had to even the scales, or she would balance them herself by withdrawing completely.
“Yes, I did.” I responded, settling in for the questions.
She looked at me, mildly surprised.
“What was he or she like? How did you meet? Do you still see them like Julian? Was it Julian? If you don’t mind me asking.” She asked, adding in the question with embarrassment.
I chuckled at her enthusiasm, and thought about Julian being my teacher.
“No, it wasn’t Julian. I would have killed him. Or we would kill each other. He’s just a friend of my teacher.”
She was attentive now, and I knew this was the time to get her to trust me. I was going to have to be honest, and tell her about my past.
“The first thing you have to understand Veronica, is that I wasn’t the best person when I was young. I’ve learned so much since then, but that’s how I started.”
She nodded, completely polite and on her best behavior. Taking a deep breath, I continued.
“My parents died when I was about your age, in a car crash. I didn’t have anyone to really take care of me, except my aunt. We didn’t get along very well, and I moved out as soon as I turned eighteen. I wanted to have control over something, so I got into things like drugs and alcohol. I hung out with the wrong crowd, and I did some bad things. I don’t remember everything, but I remember one night. I broke into a store, just because I needed something to do. I took too long, and got caught by the police. I was charged with attempted robbery. It was the first crime I had actually gone through with, and so they went easy on me. After I spent a few weeks in a rehabilitation center, they let me go. You see, I was angry all the time. I couldn’t understand why, but I was. It consumed me, and made me do things I regretted. I got into fights with people on the streets, trying to take out my anger on someone. Eventually, I left town because so many people were mad at me. I had just turned nineteen. I was on the road for weeks, wandering, confused and angry."
I paused, taking in a breath before continuing.
"One night, I was got in a fight with a man from a town I was visiting. I had clearly underestimated him, and wasn’t doing so well. I was in trouble, for the man was older than me, and he was very angry. Right in the middle of the fight, right before I was smacked around, a stranger intervened. He called to the man, drawing away his attention. I was sure the stranger was about to get beaten to a pulp, but he talked the other man down. It wasn’t until he walked into a nearby streetlight that I saw what he really looked like. He was as tall as Julian and I, but he had bigger muscles than me. He had dark hair, longer in the back than the front. He was dark skinned, but it was more like a serious tan. He was bigger than the man who was fighting with me, and it was easier to talk him down because he was obviously stronger. After he left, the stranger asked me if I was okay. I was mad he had interrupted my fight, despite me losing, and I cursed him out. It was strange, because he just rolled his eyes and picked me up from the ground, lifting me by my shirt. He told me that I should get my wounds attended to, but I shrugged him off. At this point I was frustrated, and I looked for something to calm myself down. I liked to smoke back then, and he offered me a cigarette. He told me about the path, although a bit more forcefully than I did with you. I remember thinking he was crazy, and almost beating him up. He was stronger though, so I just listened. Thinking I had nothing better to do, I decided to follow him. The stranger eventually became my teacher. My life was a mess, and he was the one to pick it up. Julian was his best friend, and so I spent a lot of time with him. He was the only one that could keep me in line, and I respected him for that. It made me mad, but it was also a nice change. He was special, and I needed someone who was different. As for seeing him still… he isn’t with us anymore.”
Veronica was listening with intense focus, sitting in front me on her folded legs.
She said, “I’m sorry, Matt.”
I knew she was talking about my past and the fact that he was gone. It surprised me she didn’t ask how he died, but I realized she was respecting my privacy like I did with hers. It was a sweet gesture, one that showed respect for my feelings.
I looked over to where Julian was, conveniently “sleeping.” I couldn’t tell if he was, but I doubted it. Thanks Julian, I thought to myself. Still, Veronica was listening intently, and she wasn’t withdrawn.
Figuring I should tell her the whole story no matter how unpleasant, I asked, “Do you want to know how he died?”
She jumped, startled by such a question.
“Um,” she stalled for time, “only if you feel comfortable talking about it. Don’t feel any pressure.”
She bit her lip, a quirk I was associating with her nervousness. I gave her a soft smile, ruffling her hair much to her displeasure. I began to tell the story, her lying on her stomach with her arms crossed on my legs, looking up at me. Funny how she thought I would want comfort. How could she tell it was sad? I guess I wasn’t the only one who knew who.
“It was the best time of my life since my parents died. My teacher, Johnny, had really changed me. I wasn’t as angry anymore, I stopped smoking, and I learned to finally follow through with things. He was the ultimate positive influence, gentle when needed, but also very strong and strict. He knew how to stop me when I was angry, and he could back up any threats he made. Still, he understood I needed help, and taught me more things than I can count. Then, a month before I awakened, there was a terrible night.”
As I explained, I began to flashback, remembering the events through dusty memories that hadn’t been touched in years.
I had been pissed about something. It had to do with a boy stealing my radio in town. I was infuriated, for Johnny had given it to me as a present, and now it was gone. I was generally good with my anger now, but something on this particular night made me livid. I marched into town where the little rascal was, and I beat him to a pulp.
I felt bad afterwards, even offering to take care of his wounds and made sure he got home safe. My teacher had instilled the feelings of guilt, and it was now affecting me. He took off, and I went back to camp. When I came back, my teacher knew something was wrong. When he extracted a reluctant answer to his questions, he merely sighed, admonishing me for fighting. It had been a while since my last fight, and it was uncharacteristic for me now.
We talked for a bit, and then stopped to settle for the night. What I didn’t know however, was that the boy I had beat up was in a gang of bandits. Unfortunately, he had gone back and complained to his friends about me. So right before we went to sleep, they came rolling by in a group of 6 people. They were after me, and tried to poke a fight. My teacher tried to be reasonable, and made me apologize to them as well as apologizing himself. For some reason though, they didn’t like us.
Maybe it was because we were drifters, or because I had beat up their friend. Whatever it was, it made them closed to all negotiations. They wanted me, but not alive. I had messed with some pretty violent bandits. They tried beating me up, but I incapacitated one of them. Johnny intervened, of course, because he cared about my general well being. He wasn’t generally the most violent guy, but he did what was necessary. I was street smart and so was he, and we took out 4 other guys. We didn’t kill them, we wouldn’t ever, but we knocked them out. But as I was finishing my fight with my last guy, I heard a gunshot. I turned around as fast as I could, only to see the last man go down. I wondered where the shot had come from.
My teacher suddenly dropped to the ground. He had been shot in the chest, but he was still alive. I rushed over to him, trying to assess the damage, but it was already too late. The bullet had severed an artery, and he was bleeding out fast. He was dying. I tried to drag him to town, to get help from the doctor, but he was too heavy and I wasn’t strong enough. He stopped me halfway there as I collapsed.
“Listen,” he said, barely breathing, “You’re a good boy. You act tough and are too headstrong, but you are a good person .You’ll be a fine drifter one day. Don’t go off the path. I promise you’ll have a fulfilling life. I’ve put too much effort into you for you to fail now. Don't get into fights, or at least ones you can’t handle. I can’t be here to save you anymore. I’m sorry. I should have stopped you. Either way, you’re alive. I’ve had a good life, and it’s time for me to go now. Find Julian. He’ll teach you everything else you need to know. I’m happy I got to know you, and it’s been one of the happiest experiences of my life, teaching you. Now be a good boy and get away to get some sleep. How do you expect to travel in the morning if you don’t sleep?” he ruffled my hair in a fatherly fashion, and then went limp.
“I hadn’t lost anyone so close to me since my parents died. Julian found me the next day, sleeping next to him. We dug a grave together, and buried him in the soil that he loved so much. Julian took me under his wing after that, and I awakened a month later, on my 20th birthday.”
I finished. I looked to Veronica, only to see her crying. I didn’t mean to make her cry. I lifted her face, wiping away her tears.
“Don’t cry,” I said, concerned, “It’s okay. It was a long time ago.”
She shook her head.
“I’m sorry, Matt,” she murmured, “It’s just so sad. I’m sorry it happened to you.”
She wrapped her arms around my neck, squeezing me tight. I hugged her back, burying my face in her strawberry hair. After a moment, I pulled back.
“The lesson for you in this story is that you can’t blame yourself.” I said, referring to her perceived guilt. “It was me who attracted the bandits, but I wasn’t solely responsible for my teacher’s death. He didn’t blame me, nor did anyone else.”
I brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.
“I had a hard time dealing with that guilt,” I continued, “For a long time. Even after I was awakened, I still felt bad. But I learned to forgive myself, and to understand it wasn’t all my fault. Julian helped me a little bit, forcing me to ‘get over myself’ as he put it. The point is that I know it’s hard not to blame yourself, but you need to. I guarantee nobody would hold it against you now. Do you understand?”
She nodded, still misty eyed. She gave me a sad smile, and I gave her one in return. She seemed so attentive and involved now, and I hoped it meant she wasn’t going to withdraw from her sudden feelings. Now that we knew about each other, it leveled the playing field.
“Come on,” I said nodding to the camp, “It’s getting late, and we both need some sleep.”
She agreed, and we headed down the hill, Veronica’s shoulder brushing against mine. Julian appeared to actually be asleep now, and so we settled in quietly. She poked Ozzie’s head out of her backpack and made him wave, attempting to make me smile. I muffled a snicker so I didn’t wake up Julian. She was already making me smile.
We watched the stars from our sleeping bags, and waited for sleep. When I looked over at Veronica, she was dreaming peacefully. Smiling to myself, I thought about how lucky I was. I had wonderful traveling companions, and my best friends sleeping at my sides.
For all I knew, the future could be terrible. I could be alone. I could feel lonely. I could even not make it. But right now, none of that mattered. Right now, I was just going to love my life.
I looked to the stars, admiring their beauty, and felt a warm feeling spread throughout my body. It was the feeling of complete and utter peace.