By the time our small group of 5 reached the city, we were all hungry, thirsty, and utterly exhausted. No one had said a word since that night in the forest, where Lilli had been taken back to the Trial building, and Ala had died staring at the stars. We might as well have been a bunch of automatons- no emotion, no expression, just an endless drive to keep moving, away from the place where several of our friends had faced their deaths.
Out of all of us, Talia was the most silent. Now that Ala was gone, despite being two years younger than Mar, who was 14, she had taken the lead instinctively, and all of us followed her without questions.
When we finally reached the city, it was relieving. The buildings towered ahead of us. If it wasn’t for Talia’s usual level headedness, we probably would have gone charging straight for it without any thought.
“Hold on,” she said softly. It was the first time she’d spoken for hours. “We’ve been warned that something terrible happened to the world. For all we know, this city could be abandoned, or full of dangerous things. We have to be careful.”
We nodded agreement. Despite Talia’s sudden breaking of the silence, the rest of us didn’t seem to be willing to do the same. It was as if a fog had settled over us- a fog that only Talia dared pierce.
We inched forwards cautiously, doing our best to move as silently as we could.
When we drew close to the city, it became obvious that it definitely wasn’t abandoned. People walked the streets. The houses were intact- not dark and falling apart. It appeared as if the rumors we’d heard about the disastrous shape that the world was in were untrue.
However, as we drew closer we realized that wasn’t entirely true. The people had a nervous and guarded air. Windows were boarded up. Everyone carried guns with them.
“There’s something wrong here,” Sim whispered, voicing what we were all thinking.
Now that the silence had been broken, the rest of us began to speak, albeit a little hesitantly.
“They look… scared,” Zi agreed.
I didn’t say anything. We needed somewhere to stay. But despite that, all my instincts were warning me that we shouldn’t stay here, and that we should get out of here as quickly as we could.
Talia sighed, speaking with a forced cheerfulness. “Well it’s not like they would harm us. Come on, guys.”
As expected, as soon as Talia put it out in the open, protests were launched from everybody in our group.
“Are you kidding me?” Sim protested. “If they’re in a dangerous zone, why would we stay here?! The whole point was that we would be away from dangerous things. We don’t want to walk into something else that’s that bad.”
“No way,” Mar agreed. “Too close to the trials. We need to keep moving- get farther away.”
Zi, ever quiet, said nothing. I also stayed silent.
Talia clenched her fists, placing them against the sides of her head as if to block out our words. I noticed, and judging by Zi’s soft intake of breath, she did too. But Mar and Sim didn’t- they argued back and forth with each other about what we should do, and whether or not we should keep moving.
Finally, Talia lost it.
“Okay, both of you SHUT UP!” she yelled. “You don’t think I’m trying as hard as I can to make a decision right now?! I know this doesn’t seem safe, but let’s face it, we don’t have anywhere else we can go. We need food and water, and we need shelter. I know this doesn’t seem right, but we’re used to danger. We just need some time. And you’re not going to make this any better by arguing with each other! Both of you!”
Mar and Sim froze. Talia was younger than both of them, and next to Sim she was about a head shorter, but she had this air of confidence and fury that commanded both of them to listen to her.
“Sorry…” they muttered sheepishly, looking away awkwardly.
Talia crossed her arms. “When we ran, we decided I was in charge. That means I pick the course. I’ll listen to your advice, but in the end I have to make choices that are the best for all of us. And right now, our best option is to find shelter. Do you all understand?”
Her eyes blazed angrily. “Any more arguments? Anybody?”
Zi and I quickly affirmed that there were no more complaints. Talia sighed, and her shoulders slumped, as if a very heavy weight had been placed on them. “Al-alright. Let’s go. We’re going to go around the outskirts and check it out before we go in. If it seems too dangerous, we move on. Otherwise, we find shelter. Is that good with everybody?”
“Talia-” Sim began.
“Is that good, Sim.”
“Talia we have a problem,” Sim said, her voice edgy and nervous.
“What?” Talia snapped.
Around then there was a chorus of clicks- the very familiar sound of a gun being ready to fire. The sound that had preceded Star and Ala’s deaths.
My first thought was that it was the government, and they’d caught up with us. That fear was dissolved when a voice spoke from the woods.
“Freeze, all of you.” The owner of the voice stepped into the light. He was a gangly boy- who was maybe 15 or 16. He was holding a gun, which was leveled on our group. He made a gesture, and a group of teenagers came out of the woods. All of them were carrying guns. All of them were leveled at our heads.
“Who are you, and where did you come from?” the boy asked in a no-nonsense voice.
“Who are you,” Mar replied, her tone turning defensive.
The boy’s eyes narrowed, but he was pushed out of the way by another boy. He was small, with bright blue eyes, and scraggly tan-brown hair. “Hey, take it easy.” He put his hands up to show that he was unarmed. “We don’t want to hurt you. Just answer the question, and Alex here won’t have to shoot.” He glanced back at the older boy. “Alex, they’re a bunch of girls. They can’t be older than 12.”
Mar coughed awkwardly. “I’m 14.”
The boy raised his eyebrows. “Oops. I’m sorry. But the point is,” he glanced back at Alex, “they’re hardly going to hurt us now, are they? They’re unarmed. So just chill out, and we can talk this through without the weapons.”
“You’re way too soft on everybody, Cath,” Alex rolled his eyes. “If they’re anything like that little demon that the government’s sent after us before..”
“You kidding me? They’re nothing like her.”
“Your name is Cath?” Sim asked.
The boy- Cath- rolled his eyes. “Yes my name is Cath what’s your problem with that?” There were a few snickers from the surrounding teenagers and he groaned. “Oh come on. Just because it’s sort of a girl’s name doesn’t mean that I can’t have it as my name too.”
“Yes, because you’re such a girl,” one of the surrounding teenagers called.
Cath looked around, trying to find who had spoken. Eventually he gave up, rolling his eyes with irritation. “I am not a girl,” he muttered. “I am not even remotely close to being a girl.”
“That one time?” another boy said from the outer ring. “When you-”
“That was once!” Cath groaned, cutting him off. “And Jax made me do it as a dare!”
Alex stood silently while the other teenagers laughed. Finally, he held up his hand.
“Alright, back to the task at hand…” he gestured at us again. “What are we going to do with them?”
“They’re not prisoners, Alex!” Cath groaned. “I say we just let them mind their own business, and we’ll mind ours.”
Apparently Alex didn’t like people telling him what to do. He glared at Cath, and almost seemed to be considering leveling the gun on him. “Remind me, Catherine, who made you in charge? If you think I’m just going to-”
“Hold on Alex,” one of the girls said. She was looking at Sim with a strange expression. “What’s that?”
“What’s-” Alex apparently saw what she was looking at. He tossed his gun to Cath, who nearly dropped it. “Oh. What do we have here.” He reached out, and lightly touched a small black band that was wrapped around Sim’s throat like a necklace.
The bands. I’d forgotten about them. We all had them- they had just been part of our life. But apparently that meant something to Alex.
“I knew it!” he said triumphantly. “They’re from the government. See, Catherine? This is why we don’t listen to you.”
“My name is not Catherine.” Cath sighed, like he’d heard this joke too many times.
“Whatever. We’d better take them into the city though. Before they can cause any trouble.”
“We’re not trying to cause any trouble,” Talia said quietly. “And we’re not with the government.”
“Tell it to the boss,” Alex said uncaringly. “Now move, princess, unless you want to get a hole through your pretty little head.”
Talia gritted her teeth, but sighed. “Fine. Let’s go meet whoever your ‘boss’ is.”
“That’s the spirit,” Alex smirked, taking the gun back from Cath, who looked like he wanted to keep protesting. “Let’s go.”