Chapter 20

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Buck brings me a snake, but I'm not hungry

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Buck brings me a snake, but I'm not hungry. He tosses it around like a chew-toy while I lift my binoculars to my eyes.

"There it is, boy." I point at the mountain. Buck shows interest only in his half-eaten kill. I descend the rocky hill, sliding down a sandy spot between the rocks. Buck follows, bringing the snake with him.

Between us and our destination is the lonely Nevada desert. The peak sits on the horizon like a beacon, calling to me.

Day gives way to night as we trek. When the sun rises again, the mountain seems further away than it did before. Buck, at my heels, is still chewing on the snake.

The following evening I come upon a campfire. Father is there, along with Connor and Leslie. Connor is singing All Along the Watchtower and strumming a guitar. Father is shooting rocks with a revolver, shouting 'yee-haw!' like a cowboy every time he hits one.

I sit by Leslie on a petrified log. Buck lies down on the cool sand beside me, worrying at the snake corpse.

"How ya been, Ray?" she asks. She's the only person who ever got away with calling me that.

I shrug. "It doesn't seem any closer."

"It's not," Leslie says. "Time doesn't move backward."

"Then how will I ever find her?"

Leslie swats Buck. "Quit playing with that thing," she snaps.

I look down. The snake is around Buck's neck, constricting him. His eyes are bulged out and his tongue is purple.

"Buck!" I cry out, reaching for him. The snake bites my shoulder.

***

"Nguh," I gasp, opening my eyes to dust motes dancing in a sunbeam. The snakebite still stings and then I remember that it's a bullet wound. I'm in a cabin off the highway in the Rocky Mountains. Buck is gone, five years gone, but damn me if the dream didn't remind me of feeling shaggy fur between my fingers, and the musky scent of a loyal companion. Warm tears stream down my face because I still miss him after all this time.

There is a dog here. Or was, and the scent of it triggered a memory and informed my fever dream.

I try to lift my arms only to find that I'm still strapped to the sled. The girl with the dreadlocks is nowhere in sight.

"Fuhhhh...." I sigh. Idly, I wonder why Father hasn't found me yet. Then again, I suppose, perhaps it is better that he hasn't. There's no telling how he and Dreadlocks will interact.

The door bursts open as though she is a figment of my imagination that I have summoned into being.

Dreadlocks enters and we share an awkward stare. She is holding a dead, bloodied winter hare by the ears. Her rifle is slung under her other arm.

"Looks like a beautiful morning out there," I say. "Thanks again for saving me."

The stare continues. Without the ability to lift my arm and consult my watch, I cannot be absolutely certain, but I'd say it beat the previous record for uncomfortable silence while holding eye contact. Dreadlocks breaks the Sergio Leone-esque staredown and takes her kill over to the kitchen counter without a word, setting the rifle down within arm's reach.

"Strong silent type, then? Well. Better that than going crazy from isolation and babbling incessantly."

The girl offers no response. She plunks the rabbit onto the counter and finds a skinning knife.

"Still tied up here." I squirm hyperbolically to get my point across. "No infection, wound is healing up nice so you don't really need to look after me. So...if you could just...y'know, untie me I'll be on my merry way back to my dad and you can go back to your cozy life of solitude."

Schink, rip, goes the knife into the rabbit carcass.

"Definitely not putting me at ease, here," I mutter. "Look, I wasn't a part of that macho ski-squad, if that's what you're thinking."

Slice, slice. Her communication skills need some work, but she's damn good at gutting an animal. Father would be impressed.

"Hey, do you have a dog? Because I didn't hear..."

She slams the knife onto the table and I tense up. She's looking down, staring at the dead rabbit. Then it comes back, quieter than last night. First a choked sob, then more of a drawn-out moan.

"Oh shit," I say. "Hey, hey, I'm sorry." Kinda hard to comfort you when I'm lashed to a goddamn sled, I think. "Hey. You ok?" More sobbing. "Look. I lost my dog too. His name was Buck. I named him after the dog in Call of the Wild. You ever read Call of the Wild?"

She stares at me. She's got those eyes that look super pale when she cries. Even though she's a bit scary and maybe half-feral, in that moment she's also kind of beautiful.

"Zack Lonnon?" She says, sniffling.

Close enough, I think. "Yeah. Jack London. You've read him?"

She wipes her hands off on a cloth and goes over to a bookshelf, grabbing a title. Call of the Wild. She brings it over to show me in an excited, almost child-like fashion. It's an old edition. Hell, it's not like they're still printing them, but this isn't some Scholastic paperback. It's got a faded cloth cover and says 'Every Boy's Library - Boy Scout Edition' with the Boy Scout emblem on the cover. In fact, I notice, a lot of the titles on her shelf are boy scout and survival books. A girl after my own heart.

"My daw's Buck," she says through her sniffles.

"Something we have in common," I say. "What's your name?"

"F...Fiowa," she stammers. "Fee-oh-nah," she corrects herself. "Fiona." She smiles a bit after saying it the last time, like it's an unfamiliar but welcome sound. I realize suddenly that it's not a speech impediment she carries, not really. I'm guessing she just hasn't had to use her own words in a long time.

"Fiona." I smile. "Nice to meet you. I'm Regan. Do you...mind untying me?"

Her reticence seems to return for a moment. "You woan fie me?"

"Fight you? Even if I was in a condition to...no. I want to be friends. Got a hell of a cramp in my leg, though."

"Ray-gun," she says as she sits down and starts to untie her boyscout-badge-worthy knots. I resist the urge to laugh. Ray-gun's actually got a nice ring to it. When I sit up, she draws a breath and scuttles backward on the floor a bit.

"You don't spend a lot of time around people, do you?" I ask as I rub my wrists. She shakes her head as though the answer wasn't already obvious. This time I do chuckle. "Tough but skittish. I'd be the same in your situation...though I'm sure I'd be babbling to myself within a few months." I prod my shoulder, testing the wound. It's still tender, but Fiona did a pretty good job with it. Luckily the bullet only seems to have grazed me.

"So, rabbit stew for breakfast, or...?"

A shadow passes over the sunbeam; Fiona and I look up like startled animals. There in the window, I see Father's face staring in, his expression somewhere between are-you-okay and assess-the-situation. I try to discreetly flash him a hand signal: A-OK, along with you blew your cover. Sure enough, Fiona sees him, cries out wordlessly in alarm, and leaps to her feet to grab her rifle from the table.

"Fiona!" I shout as she is tearing out the back door, "Wait, wait, wait, he's not an enemy!" And then I'm bolting after her, hoping to stop the biggest misunderstanding since the time Father almost sold me to slave traders (but that's a different story)

Then I hear the gunshot.

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