Chapter Seven

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What was I doing?

Why? Why was I doing this to myself? And why on Earth was this boy so willing to help Asten and I?

Now I was blindly walking into an unknown situation. I was starting to regret my decision. Maybe I could've just ran. Except then Asten might catch me. Maybe I could escape now secretly, by quietly going off into the woods while the two of them kept walking. How could I trust him when he said he was with a group of people? What if that group was simply a gang? I mean, he never specified what he meant by that.

I was just too desperate. Asten walked beside me like absolutely nothing had happened between us. I quickly glanced at his face. He wasn't angry about his plans being foiled. Instead, he just seemed sad.

There was sadness in the slight dip of his eyebrows, the downward curve at the edge of his lip, and the look in his eyes. Sadness caused by his failure to turn me in for whatever reason he'd built in his mind to appease himself. A reason that made it seem logical to sacrifice somebody to human trafficking.

Would I have done the same thing?

I wished that I could say for certain I wouldn't. Because I was unsure, it was difficult for me to despise him. Maybe that's why I hadn't already shot him with the other boy's gun.

I would've done it, too.

If there was anything I could get out of it, I would've done it. Anything was better than nothing. I could bargain to get food, and that could last a while. Food was becoming scarce; the few survivors kept raiding the only remaining grocery stores, leaving nothing behind. There were few animals and plants left, meaning if I hadn't found some way to sustain myself that didn't include ravaging stores, I would be dead quite soon.

But now I had this boy who I'd happened to run into. It hadn't even occurred to me at the time, but what was the likelihood of running into someone else, literally, in a post-apocalyptic forest? It had to be near zero.

"Why were you in the forest, anyway?" I asked the boy as we walked, interrupting the momentary silence that had fallen between us. I tried stating the question in a way that sounded as inconspicuous as possible, but I wasn't sure it worked.

He answered immediately. "There was a supply store in that direction. I was following the rumors that I'd been hearing when you came out of the forest."

His explanation seemed logical. He wasn't lying. Usually, when people lied, you could tell. Their voice would change, or maybe they'd fidget, but there was always something.

We kept walking until, finally, we came to a stop in front of a rectangular building. It looked like it couldn't be more than ten feet high. Its walls were light gray, covered in ice and snow, and only seemed to go three quarters of the way around the building. The fourth wall that was currently facing us was made entirely of glass. I could tell that it was a restaurant because of the red booths and brown wooden tables situated behind the glass. Farther back, I noticed a bar with a couple of empty glasses sitting on the counter. The place looked abandoned.

Logically, I knew it had only been six months since the last people had been there...but it looked untouched, making that fact hard to believe. I would've expected the glass to be broken and the booths torn due to looters, but everything was completely intact. It was odd to me that it wasn't in a worse shape.

Noticing my confusion, the boy quickly commented, "We've been keeping it like this...dusting it, keeping the floors clean, mostly because January cannot stand messes." He grinned, before stepping in front of me and walking to the glass doors.

I decided not to ask who January was. I assumed I'd find out soon enough.

There was an intercom on one side of the glass door. I wasn't expecting it to work. The only places that seemed to have electricity were the ones used or claimed by the gangs. But to my surprise, a high-pitched tone rang out as the boy pressed the button on the intercom.

"What's the password?" a female voice asked, with a slightly teasing tone.

"You already know it's me, January."

"Nope. Sorry, I need a password before allowing anyone in. Director's rules."

"Ha. That's hilarious."

"So, are you gonna give me the password or are you just going stand outside all day in the freezing cold?"

The boy rolled his eyes, looking somewhat irritated.

"Is it 10293949?" he asked, with his arms crossed, his gray jacket barely covering the bulge of muscle in his forearms.

"Nope."

"20398?"

"Nah. Stop thinking numbers."

"I don't know...January-is-the-most-freaking-annoying-person-ever?"

"Hmph."

"Is that a yes or a no?"

"Fine. I'll take it." There was a loud click and the boy grabbed the door handle, then pulled it open. A blast of warm air fell on my cheeks, reminding me of just how cold it was outside. I nearly ran into the warmth of the diner in my haste to escape the snow. I could hear Asten right behind me as I walked inside and the boy shut the doors behind us. None of the lights were on in the diner, as expected, making the place look beautiful, with only the snowy white color from outside gently playing across the furniture.

"By the way, my name's Mace," the boy said, walking past the two of us and straight towards the back of the diner. I followed, my curiosity getting the best of me. This was really my last chance at turning back and forgetting about Mace and January and all of this. I could walk away, and maybe even lose Asten in the process. I'd be able to escape back to....

What?

My loneliness. My sorry attempts at survival. The emotional side of me came back again, screaming at me to stay, if only for human contact.

So, I did.

I would stay.

And the second something went wrong, I would leave before I could get hurt by it.

I would not let anything hurt me again. I would not get attached to any of the people here, especially not Asten, nor Mace or whoever January was. I would not allow myself to even think of any of them as allies. Because when you made allies, you began caring about people.

And caring about people only made it worse when you inevitably lost them.

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