God my feet hurt. We have been running for hours. Scrambling through woods with no time to talk or breathe. Elias is blazing a trail ahead of me and taking the brunt of the underbrush. He seems to know where we are going. I am starting to think I don’t care.
“We have to stop for a minute. I can’t think.”
“You don’t have to think. We have to move.” He talks big but he stands with hands on the hips and head back for maximum breathing, he is tired too.
“They aren’t going to follow us. Not right away.” I sit against a tree and lean my head back. “How much farther?”
“Not more than twenty miles or so.” He sets his bag on the ground and pulls out a map.
“What else is in that thing?” I drag it over and dig around. I pull out a small black handgun and I hesitate as the events of yesterday rise and fall away in my mind. I have hated Eric since we arrived. A pig who rapes vulnerable girls to get his own kicks. Fuck him. Still I have trouble with killing. It feels like something wrong. I would have cheered for karma to give him a giant heart attack. Instead I blew his face in backwards with a 45 caliber sidearm. Elias thinks that deep inside I am struggling with what happened. Only for Cassandra. She didn’t have to end it. She was supposed to be my best friend. She should have been a fighter. Maybe in her own way she was. I would kill Eric again.
I put the gun in my pocket and it is too heavy for my pants. They sag to one side like I am carrying a bag of rocks. Gangster girl. Elias gives me the questioning eyebrow but I counter his move with a shoulder shrug and he picks his bag up and slings it back over his shoulder. “Let’s keep moving. In another five miles there is a spot we can shelter over-night.”
“Only five eh. We should be there in a few minutes.”
Last night we spent in the library, a collapsed building in what used to be downtown. I found the entry way into the basement last year and we have been working on a cave of solitude ever since. Provisions, books, weapons, waters, books, blankets, and early 2000’s teen magazines. I don’t know why fate protected the magazines but it was the only section of the rack that wasn’t crushed by the crumbling ceiling. Thank God too because how else would we carry on the message against Trans-fats and saving Polar bears. I would cook a bear in trans-fats right now.
“I’m hungry.” And angry. Hangry.
“We don’t have much.” Elias says, trying to be helpful.
I’m drained. I don’t need helpful. “I know that. Can’t I be hungry?”, I snap at him.
He looks at me with a sideways glance. Unsure of what mood I’m in. “Sure. I thought you wanted me to solve that for you.”
“There is no solution. I get that. Thanks.” I say as I brush past him and forge ahead like I know where the hell we are going.
“Am I missing something here?”
That is the wrong thing to say. Angry women can’t be talked down. Telling a crazy person that they are crazy is not helpful. Elias is my only lifeline but I can’t hold back. “You must be missing everything!” I glare at him. “We are running from the only people that we know are still alive. I shot one of them in the face because he was horrible. The only people still alive are horrible and we can’t do anything about it. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.” My hands shake when I am upset. It probably looks like a seizure.
He looks at me with a face that is perfectly helpless. “How is it supposed to be?”
Why is he always so calm? Why does he ask me questions I can’t answer? “Not like this!” I hold out my arms so he can see how tattered and torn we are. “We are wearing clothes we stole from dead people’s houses.”
“It’s not stealing if they are dead.”
“Fuck you.” I can’t help it, a smile peeks through. “Talk with me! I don’t know what we are supposed to do!”
He smiles and says, “We’re not supposed to shoot people in the face. Past that I don’t know.”
He walks up and clasps my hands in his own. He rubs the place between my thumb and forefinger without even thinking about it. Somehow the little things make me feel like life is possible. He takes me from angry to swoony in just a few seconds. That pisses me off too.
“You were supposed to have things figured out. You cheated death for both of us.”
He sighs, “I wanted to cheat it for everyone but even that wasn’t good enough. People suck.”
The winds blows between us and the moment hangs in the air. His hairs dances while his eyes search the ground for something he is wanting to say. “I wanted to tell you something the other night. Before Cass…”
“What is it?”
“We still exist. In the Stack I mean. You were there and I was too.”
“What do you mean ‘were’.”
“Sorry. Are, we are there. I scanned in and found you. I used some of my old information. An update I guess, so it made me older.”
“What did I look like? Am I old.”
“You are the same as you always have been. Beautiful. But you are different.”
“How?” I try to imagine a different me. I have been someone different before but I can’t remember. It is a strange idea.
He is excited to tell me. His eyes come to life as he describes it, “You work in Admin and it is this weird town of robot people. Something the Stack evolved on its own. I think you check profiles and monitor people on the inside.”
“That is weird. Like the NSA but from inside the computer.”
“Wait until you see it! Everyone lives the same routine and has each day planned. I spent two weeks following people around and they barely noticed. You only noticed because I didn’t give you a choice.”
“Why didn’t you get me out?”
“To be honest, I couldn’t figure out if you wanted to. You seemed so…”
I notice a yellow flash from the treetops in the distance and Elias’ words trail off in my mind. In an instant his shoulder bounces like something punched it and I feel a burning pain in my chest. I rock forward and he tries to catch me. I hear the cracking sound of a rifle shot. I remember an old saying as I look up into his eyes, “You never hear the shot that gets you.” I guess that saying is bullshit after all.
A second bullet rips through a tree nearby and the sound is about a second behind. We spiral to the ground in a panicked embrace and roll behind a tree.
He holds me back to look at the oozing hole in my chest. “Katie! Look at me! Oh God what… I didn’t..”
“Sniper…” is all I can say and I cough. A wet blood filled cough that is more like a choke. I feel the warmth running down my chin. Elias’ face turns white and his eyes are wild.
“Don’t leave me. Please don’t Katie. You can’t… we are close we can make it.”
We both know that is a lie. His eyes aren’t lying to either of us. They are red and blurry. Mine are normal for once; clear. I smile at him and whisper softly, “Hey..d..d..don’t cry.”
“Stay still. You are going to be fine. I just have to think.”
“Stop. You know who that is. You have to get away from here.” We both know the sniper is part of the Stack. The protector on the outside. Elias used a backdoor to scan in and the owners don’t like that. It makes them vulnerable.
“I can’t leave you here.” he says like a Hollywood action star. He looks so helpless.
“Don’t start that sentimental shit.” I reach into my pocket and pull out the gun I took from his bag, “Take this. Go find us.” My legs feel like a dead weight attached to my torso, they refuse to work. He takes the gun from my hand and my head falls back on the forest floor. The numbness moves in a wave up my body towards my head. My vision darkens at the edges and starts to fold inward. I feel something warm on my forehead.
Then I hear his words. The last I will hear as I die, “I love you.” I don’t see him but I feel him move away.
I would answer but everything is finished. I want to say, “Find me.” But I know he will. I want to say, “I love you too.” But he knows already.
The last spark in my body is a single thought. A pulse of electricity running through a network of neurons. An ironic pondering. I think how strange it feels to die and how useless the information will be because I won’t remember any of it.