Chapter Twelve: The Fifth Nychthemeron.
I was wide awake. I had a weird feeling in my stomach that I was sure had nothing to do with my wound or the food. I decided to keep that to myself, at least for now, and volunteered to take the first watch. Jaylynn protested. She was the last one awake with me but was clearly about to fall asleep and ready to go into the chopper.
“We haven’t seen any Pajamas since the interrogation,” she said. “Everybody else is dead. We don’t have to stand guard.”
“The chopper crash should’ve alerted them. What if they come to look for us?” I countered.
“Yeah, we’re gonna use a crashed helicopter to escape. I doubt they think we’ll go near it. It’s dangerous and dumb.”
“Did you just call us dumb?” I said, barely able to hold back a chuckle.
“Look,” she said, trying to hold back a smile herself, “I don’t think anyone has to stay up but do as you wish.” She climbed into the chopper and made herself comfy. “Just don’t wake me to take over.”
I got up from the dying fire and sat down on the edge of the chopper, my feet resting on the forest floor. I looked at the forest and the sky, listening to the steady breathing of the others. They didn’t seem to dream as vividly as I did.
After a few hours Sarah came to sit down next to me.
“Can’t sleep?” she asked.
“Nope,” I replied, keeping my gaze into the distance. The weather had turned colder and though our uniforms kept us warm enough, my hands and face felt brittle. I watched Sarah’s breath condensate and tried to remember how long we’d been here. I realized I wasn’t sure, though we couldn’t be far from Christmas.
“I thought you had no trouble falling asleep?” I asked. She scoffed.
“I have no trouble getting tired,” she corrected. “For some reason I can’t fall asleep. I’m terrified something will happen while I sleep, you know. Like last time.” I felt she was looking at me but I couldn’t get myself to look back at her. Like last time, when Jaylynn and I weren’t around and we lost Thalia.
“Ash, why did you two leave?” I felt Sarah’s gaze burn and considered my words carefully before saying them. I glanced into the chopper first to make sure the rest was sleeping. After all, I had promised Jaylynn I wouldn’t tell Sarah.
“Jay was leaving when I woke up,” I eventually said, looking into Sarah’s eyes. Apart from the color of her eyes, she really was a smaller copy of her sister. “She told me to stay,” I added.
“But you didn’t,” Sarah responded. She didn’t sound accusing or angry. She was merely stating a fact.
“I had a weird feeling,” I told her. “She had a weird look in her eyes and I didn’t trust it. I thought you and Thalia were still asleep, I didn’t think we’d be gone too long.”
“What happened?” Sarah asked. Jaylynn rolled over and now faced away from us. I was sure she wasn’t actually asleep but closely paying attention to the conversation.
“I’m not sure,” I lied. “Jaylynn seemed to follow a hunch, but before I could find out what it was we heard the shotgun and you screamed so we ran back.”
“Oh,” Sarah replied. She didn’t believe me. Then again, I didn’t believe her explanation of what had happened on their side that night either.
“I’m sorry we weren’t there when we had to be,” I told her. She crawled against me and I put an arm around her.
“You couldn’t have known,” she said. “You’re right, we were safe from others at that point.”
“I don’t understand how she suddenly snapped,” I said, trying to lure out the truth. Realizing that sounded a bit harsh, I added “I don’t think she tried to kill you,” to comfort her.
“Why do you say that?” she asked, confused.
“Because she had a shotgun and you were asleep. If she really wanted to kill you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Maybe she wanted to but couldn’t get herself to.” She paused for a moment. “Wouldn’t be the first time she confused herself.”
“What do you mean?” I looked at her.
“She had feelings for you, Ash, and she wasn’t sure how to handle that,” she bluntly said. “We’d talk about it at the dinner table. She would keep asking about you.”
“Yeah, she said she felt things for you she hadn’t felt for any other boy or girl. It confused her.”
“What kind of feelings?”
“My God, are you twelve? You consumed her mind. She’d perk up every time she talked about you, get all hyper and stuff. She’d blush and go shy if we pointed it out.”
“I thought someone like her would have a boyfriend.”
“She did, a boy called Eric. That was just to fool their parents, because they were kind of old-fashioned. Eric dated this handsome Italian boy in secret because he was in a similar situation. I only know because I caught them making out at the mall once but I didn’t know them very well back then. Thalia’s parents wouldn’t have been okay with it, they’re really anti that sort of thing. I tried to convince Thalia to tell you and I finally managed to get her to agree to it but that’s when this entire shit-fest week started and the next time we saw her she already couldn’t talk anymore.” Sarah had started talking faster and Jaylynn was getting up.
“You think she loved me? As in, love-love?” I asked Sarah. Jaylynn dropped down on her other side.
“I’m pretty sure she did,” Jaylynn answered. “Every time after we’d had a meal she’d ask me if you’d mentioned her at all.”
“What’d you tell her?”
“First few times I told her no – because that was the truth - but it seemed to really bum her out. Eventually I started lying and told her you showed interest in her too.”
“You could’ve updated me, Jay. Then I wouldn’t have been so heartless to her.”
“You weren’t heartless, you were being you,” Sarah said.
“What if she realized she’d been lied to?” I opted. “I didn’t know she was in to me like that; maybe she realized that. Maybe that’s why she offed herself, trying to take Sarah with her for – I don’t know, not telling me?”
“I highly doubt that,” Jaylynn replied. “We’ve been through a hell of a lot worse than rejection from a crush, I daresay. Not everything is about you, Ash.”
“Actually, she did tell me if we ever got out Ash would be ‘the kind of girl’ she would dare to face her parents with,” Sarah mentioned, realizing that might not have been smart to say.
“And it didn’t occur to either of you to update me on this?” I got up and walked over to the fire. I felt awful. I was angry, confused and now felt even more guilt over Thalia’s suicide. It felt like I had a bigger role in that than I had accounted for. On top of that, I could have lightened Thalia’s pain. Besides, the kiss with Nicky had left an impression that I didn’t see coming. It had shed a new light for me and if we had been in less dire circumstances would have had me seriously doubt who I was. I briefly pictured a life after this hell, with me and Thalia together. Her parents would be angry, mine wouldn’t care. I was sure Thalia and I could have been pretty happy together.
“I’m sorry, Ash,” Jay said quietly after a while. “I didn’t think the info was of any relevant value. Besides, weren’t you dating Arthur?”
“Guys?” Sarah said. We ignored her.
“Arthur? Fuck Arthur! I broke up with him weeks before we got here.” I said, agitated. “That useless piece of shit had more interest in his fucking games than in me, and it got boring. I could sit on his bed naked and he wouldn’t get off his PC. We spent a shitload of time with Thalia, though. Of course, it was of value.” The more I thought about Thalia the more I started to miss her and the more I realized that her feelings for me might have been mutual, though without me being aware of it.
“Guys!” Sarah tried again, louder.
“Yes, but Thalia couldn’t talk, and I was pretty sure it wouldn’t make a difference because she wouldn’t survive.”
“Guys, come on!” Sarah raised her voice and sounded more demanding, but we paid no attention to her.
“Oh, so just because you thought she was gonna die, you decided to not tell me that? Maybe I could’ve made her happier! Maybe, then, she wouldn’t have killed herself, or at least have died a happier person.”
“Guys, shut up!”
“When did you get so sentimental? You barely cared for her back in the mansion and you didn’t seem to care much while she was with us. How come this is suddenly such a big deal?”
“Guys!” Sarah bellowed.
“What?” we snapped at her. Sue and Keith had woken up from our yelling and they looked at us with both anger and anxiety. Jaylynn was standing in the chopper, behind her sister, and I stood at the remains of the fire. Sarah was still seated, looking past me into the forest.
“I think we’re being watched,” she said. I thought she had yelled at us because Jaylynn and I had been yelling, which was partly why I had ignored it. I hated fighting Jaylynn but it felt good to get it off my chest. If I had realized our yelling was attracting something, I probably wouldn’t have let us get that far. I turned around scanning the forest for any signs of movement while I heard Jaylynn grab a gun. Sarah dropped out of the helicopter and came to stand next to me.
“Ash,” she said quietly. “Your dream, what if it’s true?”
“It can’t be,” I said to comfort us both, despite a bad feeling brewing in my stomach. “It was only a dream, dreams aren’t real, Sarah. It was nothing more than a dream.” Saying it so often made me doubt it myself.
Suddenly a shadow lunged at me from between the trees, toppling me over with my back into the smoldering ashes of our fire, digging its teeth into my throat. The beast was big. I felt its tusks dig into my skin but almost my entire throat fit between them. I cried out as I closed my eyes. Sarah and Sue screamed too. Sue jumped out of the chopper as well while Jaylynn fired her gun but failed to hit anything, too scared to hit me as collateral. I opened my eyes. The beast was black as the night but I could make out its silhouette. It had its front paws on both sides of me and was breathing heavily. I noticed dog tags on a chain around its neck. I looked for its eyes but where they should have been I could only make out vague marks of blood.
“He’s blind,” I yelled. “Stay where you are and don’t make a sound, he’ll only go after me.” Sarah disobeyed.
“No!” she cried. The beast noticed her now and it seemed to smell her fear. It decided she was more fun than the half-dead girl it had between its paws. The beast jumped up, dodging the bullets Jaylynn fired, and seized Sarah by her throat dragging her into the forest with its teeth. I tried to get up fast while Jaylynn tossed me one of the sniper rifles, ignoring the burns on my back and the blood coming from the sides of my throat, seeping into my shirt. Keith and Sue were left behind petrified in fear as Jaylynn and I started chasing after the black beast without a word and without wasting a second, following Sarah’s screams as our trail. Jaylynn was breathing heavily as she ran beside me and then in front of me. She was faster, less hurt and better trained. I tried to ignore my thoughts telling me I wouldn’t make it and that it wasn’t worth it. Telling me I was too tired, too hurt and too late. Sarah’s screams grew fainter and turned into something closer to crying. She no longer sounded scared.
We ran onto a clearing what seemed an eternity later. The beast had gotten bored with Sarah and left her in the middle of it, after it had finished feasting upon her. She had been laying there for a while, we could tell, as the beast ran much faster than us even with Sarah in its mouth. After it had stopped running Sarah had fallen prey to him as toy, or food, or perhaps both. She was still alive when we found her but in a terrible state. Most of her clothes had been ripped off, together with her skin and in some places even her flesh. I could see clear pieces of bone on her arms and legs, claw marks all over her body, and a lot of blood. She quietly and exhaustedly sobbed in agony. Jaylynn dropped her rifle, ran over and knelt at her body.
“Sarah,” Jaylynn cried, tears streaming down her face and landing on her sister.
“Jay... I’m sorry,” Sarah replied with great effort. She spoke very slowly and barely louder than a whisper. She seemed to have aged a thousand years in the past minutes while Jaylynn appeared more like a ten-year-old at the sight of her dying sister. It was heartbreaking.
“No, you’re going to be fine,” Jaylynn said determined.
“It hurts so much, Jay,” Sarah responded.
“Just a few scratches,” Jaylynn lied. She tried to hide her own fear and pain as she spoke. She failed, miserably. Tears soaked her face and she was trembling, but Sarah ignored it altogether.
“No,” Sarah said. “I’m not scared anymore, Jay. I’m not coming back from this.”
“Scared?” Jaylynn was confused. Sarah was getting paler fast as she was losing a lot of blood. She spoke quieter with every word.
“Please, finish it. Release me,” Sarah begged. Her face was wet with tears too but in the moment she felt worse for Jaylynn than for herself. Jaylynn’s eyes grew wider and even though I saw it coming I was shocked too.
“What?” Jaylynn said confused. “N-no,” she stammered. “You can heal from this!”
Sarah tried to grab Jaylynn’s shirt and pull her close but she could barely raise her arm without groaning in pain.
“For heaven’s sake Jay, kill me” she cried. “It hurts so much, I don’t want this anymore, I can’t take it.”
Jaylynn cried, holding her sister and shaking badly. I handed her a rifle trying to keep a clear mind. I knew this was the right thing to do, and deep-down Jaylynn must have known that too but that didn’t make it any easier. Neither of us would ever forgive ourselves for this. Jaylynn was shaking too much to keep a steady aim, even at point blank, so I held the barrel to Sarah’s chest with one hand, holding her hand with the other hand while Jaylynn got up just enough to be able to pull the trigger.
“Thanks,” Sarah whispered as she squeezed my hand shortly. “And I’m sorry.”
Jaylynn pulled the trigger while looking the other way, too hurt to face what she was doing. The gun fired, the bang silencing the forest and us with it. The barrel flew out of my hand from the recoil and the gun seemed louder and more definite than ever before. Jaylynn dropped on her knees and fell down on top of her sister, covering her like a blanket and crying in silence. I dragged myself to the side of the clearing, sitting down against a tree with my head between my knees. I tried to understand that I would never see Sarah again. Sarah, the girl that I had shared my life with for the past couple of weeks. Who had become so dear to me it felt as if it was my own sister that I just lost. For some reason her death did more to me than that of the others, even Thalia’s. The shadows of the forest seemed darker and colder than before. I heard Jaylynn cry a few yards ahead and couldn’t keep my own tears at bay. We were well aware that the beast was still out there and could come back but for the moment we didn’t care. Hell, we would probably welcome it.
I don’t know how long we sat there like that. Time seemed to move slower than ever. It felt as if the last conversation I’d had with Sarah happened centuries ago, even though it had only been a few hours. We had seen it coming.
“I think we’re being watched,” she said. “Ash, your dream, what if it’s true?”
“It can’t be.”
Jaylynn had gone quiet, I wondered whether she was dead too or had merely cried herself to sleep as I felt my body give up the fight to stay awake, against every wish I had.
I woke up because somebody was yelling my name in the distance. I tried to locate the source while I kept my eyes closed, knowing that as long as I did that last night could just have been another dream. Of course, I knew better than that. I knew it wasn’t a dream, I knew Sarah was gone forever. If it had been a dream I would have woken earlier, by Jaylynn or Sarah. I couldn’t hear either of them, just my name being yelled in the distance. I hoped as long as I kept my eyes closed I could keep myself in the illusion that Jaylynn and Sarah were both still alive but the memories of last night were too vivid and too fresh to be a dream.
I could feel the sun on my skin - that meant it was past noon, otherwise the sun wouldn’t be high enough - telling me it was a beautiful day. I could hear birds and cursed at them in my head. How dare they sing so happily after such a tragedy? The world should be in silence, mourning the death of angels.
Keeping my eyes closed no longer concealed the truth. My thoughts played tricks on me and replayed the memories over and over again. I opened my eyes to clear my head, looking at Sarah just a few yards from me. Jaylynn was still covering her as if still trying to protect her sister from harm. Her body went up and down slightly with every breath, telling me that at least Jaylynn was still alive. I knew she blamed herself for the Sarah’s death, even more so than I did. She seemed to have thoughts aligned with my thinking; “it doesn’t have to be real as long as I don’t see it,”even though this couldn’t possibly be working for Jaylynn either as she felt Sarah’s body. It was our naivety, I suppose, or perhaps plain ignorance that made us believe it. Sometimes the truth is too hard to handle, and you end up denying it, hoping that will change the outcome.
Keith and Sue were still looking for us; I could hear them call our names. All our names, including Sarah’s, which stung. They had stayed at the chopper when we ran after the beast and Sarah and apparently, they thought we were taking long. I couldn’t get myself to answer and neither could Jaylynn. She remained motionless. If I hadn’t noticed her breathing I would still have been convinced she was dead and I would be freaking out even more. She wasn’t hurt by the beast, though, so she had no reason to die. Perhaps she could have died on the spot from depression. Was that even possible? I knew depression can make you do irrational things; Eirin had been living proof of that. Had been, yes, she had also proven it could make you - at least indirectly - cause your own death. Thalia’s death backed up that claim. I closed my eyes again as the voices became louder. I was trying to soothe my headache and wanted to not have to look at the horrific display in front of me, trying wrap my head around what had happened last night.
Suddenly Sue screamed so deafening loud and heartbreaking that my eyes shot open without thinking. She ran past me onto the clearing but stopped just in time not to hit the Matthews’ girls. She put her hands around Jaylynn’s throat and it took me a moment to realize she wasn’t choking her but looking for a heartbeat instead. She pulled Jaylynn away from Sarah when she felt the rhythm then gasped and stumbled backwards slightly, staring at Sarah frozen with shock. Keith had reached the clearing as well but stopped next to me. He looked at Sue, then at Jaylynn and finally at Sarah. Jaylynn had not moved since Sue had taken her and Sarah apart and I started to second guess whether Sue had actually found a heartbeat. Jaylynn had no motivation to move, the one thing that had kept her going was gone. The waterworks on Sue’s pale face became operative and Keith hurried over at once to comfort her. I decided to get up, even though I lacked both the mood and motivation for it and it took most of my energy. I half-dragged myself over to Jay and crashed down next to her.
“Are you okay?” I redundantly asked.
“No,” she answered without moving. I felt stupid for asking. “She was the reason I was still here, Ash,” Jaylynn continued. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but if it wasn’t for her I would’ve left the first night.”
“I get it,” I said. Oddly enough, I felt a similar way. Sure, Jaylynn and I had gotten close too but nowhere as close as I had felt to Sarah. What I had with Jaylynn seemed more of a convenience-based partnership. We helped each other and we got along well. We cared a lot for each other but at the end of the line we would have gone our separate ways with ease. My relationship with Sarah wasn’t like that. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that she spent most nights in my arms for comfort and that it had never felt awkward but I had come to care for Sarah in a way that would have made me jeopardize myself if it could have meant her survival. I tried that, too, when the beast had me pinned down.
Jaylynn sat up and slowly looked around. Keith was comforting his little sister, who was crying. Jaylynn looked at them and Sarah for a while, then got up.
“I am so fucking done with this bull-crap,” she said with a lot of aggression. “They’ve gone too fucking far. This ends tonight. As soon as it’s dark enough, I’m taking on as many people at the mansion as I can manage. Join, don’t join, do what you wish, I don’t care.” Without waiting and with a fury in her eyes she marched back to the camp. Keith and Sue followed Jaylynn, somewhat reluctant, throwing one last look at Sarah before disappearing behind the trees.
I had a little more difficulty just leaving Sarah behind like that. Sarah deserved so much better than the others, so much more. She didn’t deserve to have her corpse rot in the sun, or slowly decay in the shadows or in the lake. Sarah had been the innocent angel that was always ready to help. Sure, she killed George but that was to defend us because that’s what Sarah did. Hell, Sarah deserved more than even I could give her right now. She deserved her own marble tomb. I would give her the best I could even if that wasn’t much. I looked back at Sarah and noticed Jaylynn had left the rifle in all her rage. I picked it up and started beating the ground next to Sarah with it, using the stock of the rifle as a makeshift shovel, determined to dig a grave.
I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make a proper sized grave. It wasn’t going to be eight feet long, it wasn’t going to be three feet wide and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be six feet deep. Not with the roots of the trees in the way. But I hoped to get at least 3 feet deep.
I used the rifle and my bare hands to clear a space deep enough for Sarah to fit in, but it cost me most of the day. I was soaked in sweat -as was the ground at that point- and my hands were blistered. Even so, I hadn’t regretted it for a second. I had never been so sure of anything in life. I was glad to be in pain for Sarah. I deserved that. I should have kept the beast on me and I should have made sure it wouldn’t go after Sarah. I kept digging, forcing myself through the pain and exhaustion. The sweat running down my back made the burns from the fire ache more. I was in every kind of pain possible and that felt right.
Dusk had fallen by the time I considered the hole big enough. I tossed the rifle towards the edge of the clearing while still standing in the hole and then carefully lifted Sarah with one arm behind her knees and the other around her shoulders. I laid her down with even more care, folding her hands on her belly and closing her eyes, my face wet with sweat and tears as I climbed out of the grave. I shoved the earth back into the hole with my arms and drew a cross in the fresh dirt with my finger once it was done. Beneath the cross I wrote “Here lies Sarah Matthews.” I decided picking an epitaph wasn’t up to me, even if that meant she would never get one. With tears streaming down my face I looked at the grave once more and muttered the Latin words my mom had said on my brother’s funeral, my breath choking up and my voice trembling and hoarse.
“Aeternum vale.” Goodbye forever.
I collected both rifles and headed for the chopper, not allowing myself another glance at the grave. I knew that if I did that, I would never get myself to leave.
“I almost started thinking you gave up on me,” Jaylynn said as I arrived. She seemed to have calmed down somewhat.
“I buried your sister,” I replied agitated, throwing one of the rifles at her. She caught it, looking taken aback.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I should’ve been there with you, for you.”
“For me? You should have been there for Sarah. I know we couldn’t save her, but you could’ve at least given her a proper goodbye.” She wiped the dirt off the rifle.
“You’re right,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.” I could tell that her regret was sincere and decided not to torment her any further. With darkness falling in, we were about to embark on the most stupid siege possible.
“What’s the plan?” It took her a moment to respond, but when she did it was back to business. It would be the best way to cope with the facts, for now. Keith and Sue came closer to listen to the plan as well.
“I cleaned out the chopper and combined that with our supply. We’ve got 5 handguns with one mag in, no spares, nothing in the chamber. We do have extra rounds for the two M24’s and we have two switchblades. Keith has gun experience, as do I. You and Sue do not. We figured it would be best if Keith and I both take an M24 and split the spare ammo for you and Sue to carry as you’re not carrying rifles. I would’ve rather had Sarah on the rifle – no offense Keith – but this will have to do.”
“None taken, me too,” Keith said quietly. I was surprised to see he didn’t say it as a courtesy. He really meant it.
“Everyone takes a handgun,” Jaylynn continued, looking at me again. “We’ll toss a coin for the spare one. You and Sue also take the knives.” She looked at Keith and Sue before she continued, drawing her plan in the ashes with a stick, even though it was too dark for any of us to see it.
“Keith, Sue, you two take cover on the left side of the balcony. Ash and I will do the same on the right. Keith and I will snipe down as many pajamas as we can. Don’t shoot them too fast, that will give away where we are. We want them confused and divided. Try to alternate your shots with mine, Keith. Sue, Ash, it’s your job to keep an eye out and keep us supplied with ammo. Everyone clear?”
Everyone nodded and started gathering their stuff. Jaylynn briefly discussed some more tactics with Keith while Sue walked over to me.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I’m not,” I answered. “I’m not feeling a damn thing.” It wasn’t even a complete lie. I shut down my feelings, more or less, on my walk back to the helicopter. Numbness remained. Maybe I was just subconsciously ignoring them now. “What about you?” I added.
“I guess it helps that I didn’t actually know her that well,” Sue admitted. “It helps me deal with it. I still miss her, though. I got to know her a little bit over the past few months, we got along alright. Even if we didn’t get along, though, every death is one too many.”
“That’s probably not the mindset you want to uphold with our plans for this evening, Sue,” I told her. She rolled her eyes.
“I know, but that’s different. It’s revenge, at the least, maybe even justice. I don’t feel as bad about tonight. Not yet, anyway.” I checked my handgun and tried to hand her the spare one. She rejected it.
“Does revenge justify murder?” I asked.
“Nothing justifies murder,” Sue snapped, “but it’s how I cope.”
“Let’s just hope we get out of here alive,” I said, but Sue shook her head.
“We won’t,” Sue said. “I no longer hope. I stopped hoping a long time ago when I replaced it with fear. I’m scared I won’t make it, scared I’ll have to watch Keith die, scared that we’re not the last to ever play this game.”
“Oh, we’re the last alright; we’ll make sure of that. One way or the other.”
“That’s the thing,” she continued. “I’m not scared anymore either. Like you said, I don’t really feel anything anymore. Anger, maybe. We might die tonight, but we’re gonna take as many assholes with us as we can. No innocent people die tonight.”
Keith and Jaylynn were ready to go. Sue hugged me and Jaylynn and we shook hands with Keith. Our paths split then and there. It was getting dark fast and as I looked back I could no longer see them. We were past the point of no return, there was no way back.
Overtime had begun.