Highway

She had a painful past, one that made her put up barriers against everyone. When she is alone, she feels an odd connection to nature, as if there was something she is missing out in the wild. She brushes it off, but it never leaves. But when a mysterious man who knows more about her than he should wanders into her town and offers her a better life, she decides she has nothing to lose. As her life starts to look up however, she begins to have strange dreams. Suddenly, she is faced with questions about her life. What do the dreams mean? Who is this man? Could she really open up to someone, or would she get hurt again? As her past begins to haunt her, she must decide who she’s willing to trust. Will she shut out another person to protect herself? Or will she finally let her guard down and learn to love again? Only time will tell.

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23. Not Even Death Can Stop Love

Highway Chapter 23

 

            I was falling. There didn’t seem to be an end to the fall, and so I just waited. Was I dead? It didn’t feel as if I was alive. I looked down to my side, but there was no wound waiting.

Suddenly, I wasn’t falling, instead sitting on a bench. What?

The room around me was so bright, and I had to shield my eyes before they got adjusted. Once I could see again, I looked around. I was in a room that was entirely white, sitting on the bench, with nobody else in sight.

Well, I thought, if this is the afterlife, it isn’t anything like I had thought it would be. There were no windows, but there was a door.

Hoping I wasn’t violating some unspoken afterlife rule, I got up and walked over to it. I opened it, marveling at the sight in front of me.

Stretching out in front of me was a vast valley, one full of life. Small lakes littered the ground, full of beautiful clear cerulean water. Many types of plants grew, ranging from the tallest sycamores to the smallest wildflowers. Pinks, blues, red, yellows. Every color imaginable was spread out before me, and my eyes tried to draw it all in.

The birds were chirping, flying around with their friends and family. Butterflies flitted around my head, their colorful wings reflecting in the sunlight. I saw a mother deer stop to drink some water, her young fawn not far behind. He had a coat dappled with white, his little legs still shaking. Fish swam across the lakes, their glittering scales gleaming.

What was this place? It was absolutely beautiful, a place of peace and happiness. Nothing bad seemed to happen here. Not even the predators were attacking any prey. The sun’s shining rays came down across the valley, spreading warmth and joy. All the animals looked up to it, basking in its radiance. Right through the middle lay a beaten down dirt trail, looking inviting.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” as voice asked.

I jumped, whirling around. But as I lay eyes on the figure, I froze. For standing there in front of me, a smile on his face, was my teacher.

“Johnny?” I asked, confused, “What are you doing here?”

He rose an eyebrow, but chuckled.

“Calling me by my first name at last, huh? You used to insist that we didn’t use names.”

I laughed, remembering that. I didn’t want to have a past, and so I never used my name. But he still didn’t explain why he was here.

“Am I dead?” I asked, thinking I already knew the answer.

He pondered the question, pacing around the small hill we were on.

“Well,” he began, “That’s a hard question to answer. You aren’t dead yet, but you might as well be.”

So I was dying? I remembered seeing Veronica before I passed out, but I thought I was dead already.

“So is this the afterlife?” I asked, wondering how it could be any other place.

It was so breath taking; I couldn’t help but feel it had to be. He nodded, sitting down. He gestured for me to join him, and I did.

“You got taller,” he commented, and I agreed.

It was silent for a moment.

“How do you feel about this?’ he asked, looking at me, “Do you remember what happened?”

I nodded, watching the scenes play out in my head.

“How do I feel?” I asked, “Well, as good as to be expected from being dead. I don’t hurt, if that’s what you’re asking.”

He sighed, shaking his head. Another moment of silence followed.

“I meant how do you feel about being dead, essentially.” he said, “It’s a shock to most people. Then again, you knew you were dying.”

I didn’t say anything, trying to figure out what he wanted me to say. When I didn’t respond to his comment, and sighed again.

“So I hear you have a new apprentice. What’s that like?”

I thought of her, and smiled to myself as the memories came rushing in.

“She’s great,” I said, “You would have really liked her. She’s the spunkiest, craziest girl ever, but I wouldn’t want her any other way.”

The corners of his lips turned up in a smile as he heard me talk.

“It sounds like you really care for her.” He said.

I agreed. But the more I thought about her, the more I began to feel a strange sensation build up in my chest. Now I couldn’t get the image of her crying out of my head. It made me upset to think of her being sad and not to think of her being happy. If I was dead, I wasn’t supposed to be sad. Wasn’t the afterlife supposed to be an extremely happy place?

“She’s really special to you, isn’t she? After all, you died for her.”

His sudden question made me start, and I tried to mumble out a reply.

“Well, yeah,” I said, “of course I do. She’s my apprentice, right?”

He smiled softly, shaking his head.

“You care about her more than an apprentice, my young friend. You know, but you won’t tell me. You’re confused now, right?”

I felt as if we should be discussing old times, not talking about my relationship with Veronica. Why did he even know how I had died? Why didn’t I have any pain? Was it an afterlife thing? I thought it strange that I didn’t have any physical pain or wounds, but I was starting to feel an ache in my heart.

I brushed it off as missing Veronica. Of course I would miss her, for she was the only person I had loved for a long time.

“I’ll be fine.” I said, facing him, “I miss her a lot, of course, but it’s all okay. She’s safe now, and that’s all that really matters. I might have died, but at least I’ve ended up here. I’ll stay here, right? Or is this kind of like a transfer area?”

He didn’t answer, and stood up to walk around again. He examined the sun, pausing to let its rays warm his cheek.

“I’m here today,” he said softly, “To greet you. Yes, it’s true that you are on the other side, or will be very shortly. But it isn’t the same with you as with others. When people die, they are met by someone who they trust. This is why I came, and not someone else. But you, you are different.”

He gestured for me to walk with him, and I did. We wandered through the forest, listening to the wildlife overhead.

“What do you mean, I’m different?” I asked.

Dying seemed a pretty non complicated thing to me. You are living, and then you’re not. He hushed me, bringing me along a path.

I saw some baby snapdragons along the way, and I thought of Veronica. She had been so excited to ask me what they were the day I splashed her, she almost forgot to be mad at me.

Johnny led me through the forest, expertly finding his way around the foliage. We passed several small communities of animals, all frolicking about peacefully. After a walk where I tried to extract information from Johnny in vain, we came out of the forest.

We were up on a canyon now, high above the forests below. I could see the small room from up here, and insignificant speck now. We sat down again, leaning our legs over the wall. Could you get hurt if you fall if you weren’t alive anymore?

“Listen, “Johnny began, “You had a little accident. When her father struck you with that knife, it wasn’t supposed to hit you.”

I looked at him, confused. An accident? Since when were there accidents? I always figured that you died for a reason. It may have seemed like an accident, but there was usually a reason.

“What are you saying?” I asked, my mind growing slightly fuzzy.

“I mean your death wasn’t supposed to happen yet.” He said, “You were supposed to keep living after this night. You died by mistake.”

I suddenly found this funny. I had been accidently killed. Ha! I was quite possibly the only person to be an accident. Johnny was looking at me strangely, probably because I was laughing.

“Oh, that’s funny,” I said, “How is someone’s death an accident? I died to save Veronica, that doesn’t seem like an accident.”

Once again, she invaded my thoughts. Her beautiful hair tumbling down, the gorgeous dress she was wearing.

“The point,” he said firmly to get me focused, “is that you aren’t ready to be here yet. Now I’m not saying you can’t be here, because you obviously can be. I’m just saying you aren’t scheduled to be here yet.”

I looked at him quizzically. Did they need to book me a room or something?

“Well I can’t really help being here,” I said, slightly irritated, “Sorry if that’s an inconvenience. I didn’t want to be here.”

He gave me a reproving look, and I turned away. I was 25 years old, but he was still my teacher.

“I see you still have the ability to be snarky,” he said wryly, “I wasn’t saying that it was bad you are here. I suppose I should explain your situation a bit clearer.”

He looked out from the canyon, observing the wildlife. He was glowing, although I couldn’t tell if it was just because of the sun’s rays. He looked exactly the same as when he had died, perhaps in even better condition.

“You are suspended in time here, and always will be. But in life, time still moves. Right now, you’re just barely alive. You’re close enough to death to be here, but you haven’t actually left yet,” He said.

When I didn’t say anything, he continued.

“So, there’s still a chance that you could be revived. But that choice is entirely up to you.”

I gave him an incredulous look. I could come back to life because I wanted to?

“Seriously?” I asked, and he nodded, “That’s amazing! I didn’t know that! But you make it sound like it could be bad. Why wouldn’t you go back?”

He didn’t say anything, and I wondered what was wrong.  I stood up, leaning against a nearby tree.

“It’s just hard because life is hard. I’m sure you’ve noticed how beautiful the land is. This is a drifter’s paradise. And if I asked you right now to go back, you would hesitate. You already aren’t as sad as you should be about your death.”

He replied. That was ridiculous, I was sad. But was I really? I did find it strange that I kept being drawn in by the world around me. Although I kept thinking of Veronica, it did seem like a lost cause. But wasn’t that normal for death? Before I could say anything however, he shushed me.

“You think that you died because you needed to save her, that’s what you told me. But this wasn’t entirely true. You didn’t need to die to save her, but it’s an excuse now. This world is affecting you as we speak. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to live here.”

I tried, but the land was beautiful.

“That’s unfair. You can’t ask me a question like that and not expect me to say yes. Like you said, it’s a paradise.”

He stood up as well, coming to lean next to me.

“Yes, it’s wonderful. But don’t you feel like something is missing? Perhaps a certain little girl? I’ve known you for years, and I’ve never seen you talk about someone so fondly.”

I couldn’t think straight anymore. Why wasn’t I just saying I wanted to live again? Something about the land around us made me question my decision, and I felt a voice in my head say to stay. Why go back? Veronica didn’t need me anymore. She would be sad, but she would be fine.

Why was I thinking such strange things? She was bawling her eyes out when I died, screaming at me. I tried to lessen the impact of my death as much as possible, but I didn’t know how it would hurt her. Wouldn’t it hurt me too? I had found it strange how fine I was with leaving her behind.

But that ache was forming in my chest, and I kept thinking of her. Everything I saw reminded me of something about her. I couldn’t stop replaying her face in my mind, her tears splashing on my face. Each one that fell seeped into my heart, causing pain.

What was I doing? This land was beautiful, more gorgeous than I could ever describe, but it wasn’t worth it. I would come back some day, and I would enjoy every moment, but I couldn’t stay here if I didn’t need to.

“I can tell you’re thinking it over. This place has a certain pull, for it wants to keep you when you’re dead. It’s such a wonderful place, but it isn’t for ones who want to still be alive. The pull is hard to resist, but I’m sure you could come back to life if you want it enough. The question is, do you? I’ll support whatever you decide, but you have to be completely at peace with it.”

The suns warmth tried to distract me from my thoughts, but I only reminded myself of Veronica. Her hair was beautiful in the sun in life, but I couldn’t see it here. I couldn’t see her beautiful eyes, greener than the leaves on the trees. I couldn’t see her smile, whiter than the snow capping the mountains off in the distance. I wouldn’t hear her laughter, her singing, her snarky comments. The world around me was so tempting and marvelous, but it wasn’t really my world. My world was only mine when Veronica was in it. It broke my heart to leave, but I needed to get away while I still had a chance.

“I can’t stay here,” I told Johnny, “Not when she’s waiting for me on the other end. It hurts so much to leave, but I need her like I need air.”

He smiled, pulling me into a bear hug.

“I was hoping you’d say that! Come on, you need to hurry.”

We rushed through the forest, only stopping when we reached the small white room.

“I’ve never done this before, so I don’t know what will happen. Go sit back down. Hopefully you’ll fall asleep and wake up on the other side. Just so you know, you might come straight back. I don’t know how long you’ll live, but it’s worth a try.”

I nodded, stepping towards the room.

“Thank you so much Johnny,” I said, “Veronica will be so elated. As for me, I’ll be the happiest man in the world. Goodbye.”

He called out right as I walked through the door.

“You take care of her, okay? She seems really special. Good luck. If I happen to see you come back, what should I call you? I don’t think kid sounds quite appropriate.”

I smiled at him, answering the only name I could ever use.

“Call me Matt,” I said, “I’m a Matt now.”

He nodded, stepping back.

“Goodbye, Matt.”

With that, I stepped inside. I lay across the bench, hoping for something to happen. I began to feel sleepy, and I heard far off voices. My eyes closed, and I was falling again.

When they opened again, I didn’t recognize my surroundings. At first I had thought myself in a different white room, still dead, but I began to notice the subtle things that told me where I was. I had made it to a hospital somehow.

Ow! The wound I had before throbbed violently and I looked to see dressings on my side. It ached deeply. This was too painful for the afterlife, and so I figured I had made it back alive. Someone rushed to my side, grabbing my hand. Looking up, I saw my baby girl.

“Veronica?” I asked, my throat dry.

She nodded, squeezing my cold hand gently with her warm one.

“I’m here, Matt. I won’t ever leave you again.”

I couldn’t stop my heart from jumping at her words. She was here, right next to me. I could see every feature I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I let the sight of her flood my eyes. After a moment, I tore my eyes away from her.

I saw Julian standing on the other side of me. Why was he here? How did he get back? What happened? Seeing the look on my face, he explained what had happened. He told me about how Veronica cauterized my wound, and then proceeded to drag me most of the way to town. I looked up at her, relishing the feeling of her hand holding mine.

My baby girl had saved me, but not just from death. She had saved me in life too, showing me how to truly live. I knew without a doubt that I had made the right decision to live again, if only to be by her side. I was feeling myself fall into sleep again, and I almost panicked.

But this wasn’t the same feeling of slipping away as dying, this time merely being sleep. It was likely I wouldn’t die in the hospital, and even if I kind of did, I knew how to get back. The nurse tried to shoo Veronica and Julian out, but I stopped her.

“Please,” I slurred slightly, “Let them stay. They make me feel more relaxed.”

She gave them a stern set of instructions, but let them stay. Veronica leaned over me and gave me a kiss on the forehead, telling me to sleep. I was happy to oblige.

They transferred me to a general floor the next day, which meant more freedom with visitors. Veronica watched over me like a hawk, talking to me like a child.

“Don’t eat that! It’s bad for you,” she’d say, “Stop twisting to the side, you’ll open up your wound!”

I wasn’t allowed to reach for anything if she was there.

“Come on,” I said playfully, “You’re acting as if you’re my mother.”

I complained to tease her, but I was happy she cared enough to fuss over me. She had almost lost me, after all, and I didn’t blame her for worrying too much. I would do the same if our positions had been reversed.

When they finally discharged me a few days later, they told me I couldn’t do any hard physical activity for a few weeks. I scoffed, thinking them insane. Did they honestly think they could keep me off the road for weeks?

Veronica scolded me about it, much to my dismay. She threatened me, and I teased her about hurting a cripple. I tried to get Veronica out on the road, but she threatened me again into staying.

“I won’t go with you if you leave,” she had said, “I mean it. Don’t expect me to drag your body to another hospital. It was a onetime deal.”

I laughed, carefully pulling her in for a hug.

Reporters bothered us for days, all hoping to get story details and interviews. We told them the basics, but left out the personal things. Veronica had me tell Julian about her past. I was surprised, but something had obviously gone on while I was asleep that made her trust him. It was another thing that made my heart fill with joy.

I made it a point to tell Veronica just how much I cared about her as much as possible. I didn’t know when I would die permanently, but I did know I needed to spend the rest of my time with her.

One night, we were at the hotel, watching old western movies. She had gotten me into them, despite me usually thinking they were ridiculous. She was sitting next to me, so it was all too easy to pull her in for a side embrace.

“Matt, stop it!” she protested, “You’ll hurt yourself again!”

She worried too much, and I told her so. I was healing up nicely, the skin coming together again. I would always have a scar, but it was worth it to be able to stay here. After a few vain struggles, she gave up.

She snuggled her head into the crook of my neck, and I buried my face in her hair, breathing in the scent of strawberries. It felt so wonderful to feel her in my arms, to see my baby girl alive and happy.

After a while, we got ready for bed. Veronica made Ozzie stick his head through my door, and I laughed at the fuzzy octopus. She gave me a hug before she left, and I planted a kiss on her forehead. I hummed a song absentmindedly, realizing later that it was Veronica’s lullaby.

The next few days were like this, idyllic and full of joy. After a thorough examination from Veronica, she cleared me for road travel.

“Just don’t do anything really stupid,” she said.

We set off after we said goodbye to Julian, enduring his endless bear hugs. Veronica and I sang songs on the road, laughing at ourselves. Life had returned to normal, and we were both happy with it how it was.

We reached camp early, and explored until it got dark out. We chased fireflies around, Veronica marveling at their glow. She forbade me to do any setting up, and so I sat down while she got the camp ready.

She made the fire, and I smiled, thinking of her frustration just a few weeks ago. Now she was a pro, lighting the fire with no effort. I went to gather some wood after promising to be careful.

When I came back, she was fussing with something. It appeared to be a little box, ornate and silver.

Not wanting to invade her privacy, I asked carefully, “What’s that? Just a little memento?”

She opened it, coming to sit next to me.

“I’ve had this box ever since I was very little. It has a few things inside.” she said, and took out a photo.

“It’s a family photo,” she continued, “My father isn’t in it because he was taking it.”

She gave it to me, and I gently took it. There was a younger Veronica, about 7, with her older brother. He had Veronica’s eyes, but otherwise looked more like his father. He was about her age now, so this must have been taken soon before he died. But as I looked to her mother, she was smudged out. Veronica saw my look of confusion, and explained.

“It used to have my mother in it too. But one day, after I was really mad at school, I threw it in a pond. I was mad that I didn’t have anyone to chaperone me on a fieldtrip, and sad that they had left me behind,” she said, “I didn’t remember what happened to them, only that they had gone. I soon realized my mistake and dove in after it, but the top was already smudged. I can’t remember her face now.”

She looked infinitely sad, and I put my arm around her. She leaned into my shoulder, and started looking through the rest of the tiny box.

There was a friendship bracelet, her brother’s she said, a penny that had been run through an ornament machine, and a birthday card folded up into a tiny square. She read it aloud, and I knew it was from her brother. I thought she might cry, but she just smiled.

“Matt?” she suddenly asked, and I turned to her.

“What’s up?” I asked.

I thought she might want to talk about her family, but it wasn’t the case.

“When we were at the complex and you were dying,” she said, wincing at the word dying, “I wondered if you knew how to do something.”

I nodded for her to go on.

“Do you know how to hijack a car?”

I sat in stunned silence. What? What kind of question was that? I gave her an incredulous look, nonplussed. When I didn’t say anything, she smiled.

“Oh my gosh! You totally know how! I knew you would! Would you teach me?”

Oh, no. Just because I knew from living in the city didn’t mean I would teach her.

“No way!” I said, upset.

She pouted at me.

“Come on!” she said, “Don’t be a spoil sport! There are things I need to know about to make it in the world!”

I scoffed, looking at her like she was crazy.

“Yes,” I replied, “But hijacking a car isn’t one of them! I’m not going to teach you. If you want to know useful things that aren’t highly illegal, I’ll teach you those. But there is no way that I’m ever going to show you how to steal a car!”

She made a face, giving me a glare and muttering something about being a killjoy.

I’ve made her into a delinquent, I thought ruefully, it’s only a matter of time before she asks me how to break into a second story room from a tree. After seeing the expression on my face, she laughed.

“You look so distressed!” she exclaimed, “It’s not like I was planning on doing it for fun!”

I gave her a doubtful look, and she pushed me playfully. After a few more attempts of getting me to tell her how, she gave up.

We settled in for the night, watching the stars. I told her a few more stories, and she sat in content silence. I listened to the crickets and cicadas sing their song, and relaxed now that I was surrounded by nature again. I fell into sleep gently, like a leaf falling from a tree.

I awoke to the sound of movement next to me. Looking over with bleary eyes, I saw Veronica wriggle out of her sleeping bag. She didn’t notice I was awake. She had a peculiar look on her face, and I wondered if something was wrong.

I brushed it off, thinking she just needed either a walk in the night air or to relieve herself. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, feeling sleepiness overtake me again. But as I started to fall asleep again, I wondered if she was okay.

It had been 15 minutes since she left, an unusual amount of time for someone to be gone. She wouldn’t have gone far, for she didn’t like the dark. She never told me, but I could tell by the way her eyes flitted back and forth nervously if we hadn’t made a fire before the sun set.

I propped myself up on my elbow, scanning the woods. When I couldn’t spot her, I began to worry. It’s nothing, I told myself firmly, you’re worrying for no reason. My assertion proved to be right when I finally spotted her on top of a nearby rock, flat from rain erosion. But something about her posture was odd.

She was stock still, and she wasn’t doing any of the things she usually did. When she was still, she had a habit of fidgeting. Twirling a strand of her hair, shuffling her feet, crossing and uncrossing her legs.

Becoming concerned, I decided to see if she was okay. The worst that could happen is that she would think I worried too much, which she probably does already. When I approached her unmoving form, she didn’t even look up.

“Hey,” I called, hoping to break the unnatural stillness.

She didn’t say anything. I crouched down beside her, wondering what was going on. Her eyes were open, but they were glossed over. All of a sudden, she started to twitch. Slightly, almost like she had an itch she couldn’t reach. What was happening?

The more I watched her, the more concerned I was. Was she sick? Maybe she was sleep walking, but laying down. No, that wasn’t it. If she sleep walked, she would have done it before. Not to say I was awake all the time, but I was a light enough sleeper to know when someone was moving around me.

I tried to gain some information by sensing her, and it struck me. There was an anomaly that hadn’t been there before. I felt the sensation increase, and I realized what was happening. She was awakening.

Could it happen so soon? She’d been with me for a little over two weeks. I thought I might be wrong, but the feeling was unmistakable. I could practically feel her connecting to nature, her consciousness expanding by the second. She was transforming, just like a caterpillar in its cocoon.

I suppose I hadn’t figured it out earlier because I hadn’t ever seen someone awaken directly. The girl I traveled with before had hers one night when we were at a hotel. She hadn’t even gotten up, at least not to my knowledge. I had always been under the impression one needed to be outside for it to happen, but apparently not.

Worried I might disturb Veronica's metamorphosis, I didn’t know if I should do something. She looked rather uncomfortable, understandably, but I thought I could ease her discomfort a little if she wasn’t laying on rock. Very carefully, I shifted her head off of the ground and onto my leg.

There, perhaps she’ll escape some pain. Awakening is an experience like no other. You can feel yourself become a part of something bigger, and you can sense the life around you. As amazing as it is, it has a tendency to be painful as well. Every drifter I’ve talked to agrees, and so it must just be a part of the process.

It pushes the limits of the human brain, unlocking some part that had been closed off before. It hasn’t been used before, or at least not very much, so it becomes a hot spot of activity. Just like when you learn something for the first time, especially as a young child, your head hurts a little. Take that, and multiply it a few times to try and understand what it feels like.

I settled in for a while, getting comfortable. The process always took at least a few hours. We haven’t ever figured out why, but some believe that the brain is adjusting to its newfound discovery. Nobody has ever died when they awakened, but we wonder if something bad would happen were someone to be interrupted.

The state a person enters as they begin to change is almost like a trance. The body shuts down as if it’s asleep, only focusing on what’s happening. Just like Veronica was now, the body is still, except for some slight twitching in many cases. So, it isn’t very easy to stop the process, but it might be possible.

Many worry that the brain wouldn’t be able to take the sudden warp back to reality, and that the person would go into shock. This could mean the brain shutting off the area for a long time, if not forever, causing the person to be cut off from awakening. Or, some hypothesize it could end up even worse, possibly even in death. We never tried to stop someone, for obvious reasons, and so we still didn’t know what would happen.

I can remember my awakening clearly. Julian and I were out on the road, and I began to feel strange. I wandered through the forest with the excuse of needing a walk. I ended up nestling myself between a boulder and a mossy tree. Julian found me 10 minutes later, or so he said. He understood what was happening right away, as he was more experienced and had seen it happen to others many times before.

I “woke up” a few hours later, an entirely different person. Your core values and personality are still there, but you are a different person. In some, the effects seem mild, perhaps just being generally happier. Others, like me, were totally transformed.

I was a bitter person, especially since it was so close to Johnny’s death. But after my awakening, I was hardly angry at anything. I had found peace when I awakened, and it made me a much calmer and more patient person. But I underwent just as much change when I met Veronica.

While it was true I was calmer and not angry, I wasn’t quite as happy as I should have been. My life was wonderful, and I was grateful for the gift I had been given, but it was lonely. I had merely accepted this as the sacrifice I had to make to receive such a gift, but I didn’t realize it didn’t have to be that way.

She was so strange, so different, and so spunky. I had met other drifters, but never anyone like her. She had a habit of making me laugh more often, and making my smiles come easier. She had filled in the void of loneliness I had in my heart, for now it only had our mutual care for each other. She had changed my life, and I hoped I had changed hers. The only question now was whether she would stay.

She had expressed interest in staying, and I desperately wanted her to. But as I’ve said before, drifters haven’t ever stayed together before. I was worried she would come to and decide that she needed to travel after all. I would support her decision, of course, but I was going to be absolutely devastated if she left. I really shouldn’t have gotten so close to another drifter, but it happened before I knew it.

She wriggled her way into my heart. No, she didn’t do that.

It was more like she busted down my ventricle wall, exclaiming, “Hey, Matt! I’m here, and that’s just how it’s going to be. Boy, this place sure is cozy!”

Okay, she probably wouldn’t say boy anything, but still. But something told me that she wouldn’t leave. She had seemed so upset about even the idea of leaving the night of her kidnapping. She could change her mind, but I doubted she would. She may change radically like me, but her basic feelings were still going to be there.

I watched the night sky change colors, lost in my own musings. I would check on Veronica every now and then, feeling the change in her soul. I was reassured that everything seemed to be going okay, and that I could start to sense her better by the minute.

Drifters had such a unique connection when they were fully fledged, so much that we didn’t need to talk about feelings to understand them. Not to say we didn’t talk to each other, we did, it’s just that our conversations weren’t about trying to get each other to understand what we were feeling. We were just as connected to each other as we were to nature, if not more.

As the sky began to lighten and the sun peeked curiously over the horizon, Veronica began to stir. Her connection faltered for a moment, then exploded into mine.

It was like her mind was a flood, and it had just broken the dam that was mine. I could feel everything, even the slight sleepiness she was experiencing. As she stirred again, I waited.

She opened her eyes.

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