Jessa was fighting back the panic she was feeling. Tears of fear and shock about what just happened rolled down her cheek. She felt like she had been waiting in the quickly fading dusk for an eternity before she heard him call out again.
“Hello! I am at the shoreline. I am going to cross the railroad bridge to get to you. DON’T SHOOT!”
Her heart was pounding out of her chest, and she had never been this afraid before. She can’t remember the last time she saw another human; she never left the homestead. She saw his figure crossing the railroad bridge. He was about her height, average build, and young. About her age.
With her gun drawn, she watched him get closer and closer.
“Far enough,” She said with a certain amount of authority that even surprised her.
“Okay. I am going to put my gun down real slow. I am not going to hurt you.”
She noticed how handsome he was, and it made her blush a little. Once he was standing upright again, he stuck out his hand for a handshake. Jessa had no idea why he was doing that, and she didn’t know what a handshake was.
“Okay. No handshake then. I’m Jacob. I grew up on a homestead not too far from here. What’s your name?”
“Jessa. I grew up on a homestead about a five-day walk that way. My father was killed by a gang. Before he died, he said I had to get out of there because they would be back. So I packed up and left.”
She instantly regretted sharing so much information.
“Wait, you are out here alone? Are you crazy? I guess you are going to the settlement?”
She pointed her gun down and looked at him right in the eyes. For the first time in days, she feels a bit of hope.
“You know about the settlement? How?”
“Listen, we can talk about all of this later, but that gang you are talking about? They took over the town up ahead. It is empty except for them. All the buildings are burnt out, but they use it as a base camp. There is no doubt they heard that gunshot, and they scavenge and hunt at night. They are dangerous. REALLY dangerous. They have no problem killing people that cross their paths, and the road out of town is where they ambush travelers. We have to hunker down here in the valley for the night. They sleep during the day; that’s when we can get through the town.” He was breathing hard now.
The first thing that stood out in all that he said was ‘we’. Was he traveling to the settlement too? How did he know about the town ahead, and how did he know the gang slept at night? She was hesitant, but something in her felt like he could be trusted. Maybe it was his eyes. Perhaps it was the way he saved her from the beast. Maybe it was because she was scared and did not want to be alone anymore. She put the safety on her gun, grabbed her bag, and said, “Grab your gun. Let’s go.”
They backtracked away from the railroad bridge, heading back towards where she came from. After about thirty minutes, they came to a fallen tree halfway up the side of the hill. It was wedged between the tall stump and the ground, forming almost a perfect shelter. He scraped out the whole area with his foot. That would be where they would stay the night. They started a small fire just outside of the open front. She sat about six feet away from him, still so much uncertainty in her mind.
“So, how do you know so much about the town? I thought you grew up on a homestead?” She asked curtly.
“I did grow up on a homestead, I lived with my mom and dad, and I had a little brother-look. Do we have to talk about this?” he snapped back.
“Yes, we do. I told you how I got here. Your turn. I need to know I can trust you.”
“From what I see, what other choice do you have? Don’t forget I’m the one that saved you from that coyote,” he said condescendingly.
“Saved me from the what? That beast?”
“Yes, it is called a coyote, and it most likely had rabies. Almost all of the animals around here do.”
“Well, thank you for saving me, Jacob. But I don’t know if it is safe to travel with a stranger I’ve just met. My father told me to trust no one, so yeah. I’m going to go on,” she said, rolling up her sleeping bag and stuffing it in her backpack.
“Wait. Wait. Okay, I will tell you. Just don’t go out there by yourself,” he said, gently grabbing her bag from her hand. “Sit back down.”
She looked into his eyes again and saw what it is that makes her trust him. Honest eyes. Like her dad’s eyes were.
“So my homestead was raided by those monsters. And they are monsters. They shot my father in the head and set fire to the house. My mom and brother were hiding inside and couldn’t get out. I was beaten and tied to a tree, forced to watch my family die. They came back the next day and saw I was still alive. They’ve held me prisoner ever since. They make me go on scavenger trips for supplies. If I refuse, I get beat.”
“Wow, Jacob, I am so sorry,” she said, touching his arm. He looked down at where she was touching him, then looked at her.
“That’s the first time anyone has touched me in two years,” he said as a tear ran down his cheek.
“So, what were you doing in the woods away from town at night?”
“I ran away five days ago. I have been hiding in the hills since. I hunker down halfway up the side every night. I’ve heard the guys talk about the settlement, and I figured if I followed the river, it would lead me there. At least that is what I heard.”
Jess had a sudden urge to blurt out that she had a map. She tried to hold it back.
“I have a map!” she did, in fact, blurt out.
“I don’t know what it is about you, but I trust you. I believe you. But if you try anything, I will also shoot you. Clear?” She said with the same authority as before. It felt good to her.
The silence of the valley was broken when someone started yelling. It was far off in the distance, and they couldn’t make out what the yelling was at first. They both froze, looking at each other. Jacob brought his pointer finger up to his lips, so she knew to keep quiet. An agonizing ten minutes went by, and they heard it again. This time it was closer. Still a way away, but nearer.
“JAAAAAACCCOOOOOOBBBBB! C’mon out, man. We just want you to come home, little buddy.”
It sounded like it was from the up top on the ridge. They were sheltered from view by the way the tree fell, so they felt somewhat safe. That was the last they heard that night, but both of them knew what that meant. They were looking for Jacob. Neither one of them slept, so when sunrise came, they were already starting the day exhausted.
Jacob stomped out the fire as Jessa rummaged through her bag for half of a protein bar. That was all she could ration for the morning. Jacob grabbed his bag and unzipped it. It was full of protein bars, nuts, dried fruit, and four small bottles of water.
“This is why they are looking for me. I took this on my way out. It’s all they had left.” Jacob said with a huge grin. “Help yourself. We have plenty to get us there.”
They started along the river, heading back towards the railroad bridge from last night. They noticed the landscape begin to change as they approached the town. The hills on both sides were black and charred. Where trees once stood, there were two, and three-foot stumps. Rocks had tumbled down from one side and blocked the river, shifting its course into the town. The air was acrid, and the smell of burnt wood hung over them. They walked through this for a mile, along the path the diverted river created, and it brought them right to the bridge on to the main street.
Jessa looked around in disbelief. She had seen the trees around her homestead lose their color and die off. She had seen that the fields hadn’t been green in two seasons. But this! It was a landscape that would stay burned in her mind.
“Hey, are you good?” Jacob asked quietly.
They were walking side by side now, and every other step or so, their hands would touch on the downswing. Tears began to well up in Jessa’s eyes.
“This is like a nightmare. The forest around here, gone. The town is a heap of scorched rubble.” Her voice was getting louder with each sentence.
“Jessa, shhh. We have to be quiet.”
“Sorry. I’m just a little mind blown. Daddy never taught me about this,” she replied as she wiped away the tears.
“Just keep your eyes on the ground. We have about another mile to get out of town, and it isn’t burned after the town.”
“What happened here?”
“I was told a lightning strike started a forest fire just outside the town. Because public water had already failed, and most people had left the town, the fire just burned.”
They walked at a slow pace, not sneaking, just quiet. The sun was starting to break through the haze overhead, and it was getting warm.
“Jacob, what have you heard about the settlement?”
“I’ve heard it is hard to get to. The last few miles are all up a mountain. I heard it is flat, as far as the eye can see at the top. I heard trees grow and animals are healthy. And that people live together in peace.” Jacob was smiling as he spoke of those things.
“I heard they grow their own food, and everyone in the settlement helps tend to the farm and the animals. I wonder where everyone sleeps?” she said as she giggled.
“Yeah, like do they have bathrooms?” Jacob replied with a laugh.
They walked in silence for a few moments. They were comfortable with each other. There was almost an instant connection between them, and she trusted him. She felt safe. As the sun beats down and they make it to the other side of the town, Jessa reached down and grabbed his hand. They walk together off into the blazing sun, hand in hand, more determined than before, to make it to the settlement.
“HEEEEYYYY JAACCOOOOBBB,” a voice yelled out. “Who’s your friend, little buuuddy?”
They stopped walking, stood still, and stayed quiet. And he grabbed her hand tighter.
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