Chapter Twenty-Six

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"Please, make yourselves at home." The woman walked down the hallway ahead of us, occasionally glancing over her shoulder. She had a knife tucked away in her jean pocket. Hopefully, she wouldn't end up using it.

We passed into the living room. On the couch sat a guy about the same age as the woman. They looked like a young couple who'd only just moved in together. And judging by the empty cardboard boxes littering the ground, that was likely the situation.

"I always try to stay prepared, but....," she said, turning to look at us. "You don't seem very threatening. And I've been trying to help as many people as possible...even though it's difficult." She spoke while walking around and pushing stray boxes to the side, like she was trying to make the place look neat.

The guy had stood up by now, and walked towards us. "Not many people come by...we do our best when they do." He gave our group a grim smile, then gestured towards the stairs next to the living room. "There are rooms upstairs, if you'd like to sleep. We have a bath, but you'll have to boil the water to get it hot."

"Thank you...," I replied. A bath sounded amazing, and I could tell I wasn't the only one with that thought. This house was a miracle, and one that we'd needed. "But...I actually have a question."

The girl stopped what she was doing and looked at me. "Yea?" she asked, waiting intently.

"Do you happen to know where we are?"

"Pennsylvania," she said with a smile. "We just moved here. It was a nice place before the snow demolished it."

Asten nodded. I guess that made sense. At least we were close.

"Thank you so much for your hospitality...we all should probably refresh ourselves. We need it," Asten replied to the woman.

She nodded in agreement. "While you do that, I'll get you all food. You're probably starving." She hurried away as the guy walked towards the stairs, gesturing for us to follow. "Towels are in the closet, and then the other extra rooms you can all split up. Sorry about the lack of space, usually the people we get come in smaller groups..."

Our group fell apart, with people grabbing towels as others headed immediately for the bedrooms. But rather than going along with the rest of them, Asten rested his hand on my elbow, indicating for me to stay behind. Once everyone else had walked past us, he pulled me towards an empty room and shut the door behind us.

I looked at him quizzically as he stopped. "What's going on?"

"I just wanted to ask if you were okay?" I felt my heart stutter a little at his question. It was odd to think that he genuinely seemed to care about me. It did make me wonder why he was asking.

I nodded slowly. "Yeah, I'm fine."

Asten walked slowly towards me and I was tempted to back up, but didn't want to look intimidated by him. I held my ground as he got within a foot of me, then reached around me to grab something off the desk behind me. He held the object in front of my face. It was a bundle of paper and a pen.

I reached out and touched the edge of it lightly with my fingers. "Um...why?"

"Write it down. No offense, but you're bad at hiding your emotions. So...write it."

He pressed the bundle into my hands, and I begrudgingly accepted it. "Okay...," I responded, still confused. I was starting to get an idea of why he was doing this. I'd been uncomfortable ever since we started the mission, simply because I didn't want to go near my old house. Had I been too obvious?

"I don't know what happened with you...and maybe it's not my business to know. But you shouldn't close yourself off."

I wasn't the type to write out my feelings in a diary. These feelings, specifically, were a little too dark for me to even think about. I didn't want to see that ink hit the page, explaining my tragedy.

I let out a shaky sigh. I wanted to tell him, but I was afraid to speak. Yet, he had a way of making me trust him, despite his actions. I pressed the bundle back into his hands. I knew I wouldn't have written anything down, anyway. He would have to find out one way or another.

"When I got trapped in my house...things didn't really go well....," I said softly. My hands were shaking somewhat, and I could feel Asten's gaze on me.

"The day when they announced we couldn't leave, my mom's friend and coworker was over. He was a nice guy...he'd always been kind to my brother and I. He would bring us cupcakes and brownies from this bakery down the street. Honestly, I always looked forward to his visits, since it made my family feel whole again."

"Then the snow hit, and we were stuck together: me, him, my mom, and my older brother. At first, we were fine. My mom's coworker would crack jokes to lighten the mood, even as our food supply began dwindling. We had to ration it. Everything."

I paused for a moment to collect myself.

"Days passed...then weeks...then time flew and I wasn't really sure what day it was anymore. And all the while we were growing hungrier as the jokes from my mom's coworkers' mouth faded away completely. Then....one day..." It was becoming hard to breathe. I quickly swallowed and continued.

"One day my mom's friend...he lost it. He was bound to at some point. We were figuring out rations for the next couple weeks and he seemed to realize how splitting between the four of us was getting us killed much faster. So, he decided he'd take matters into his own hands and fix it."

"He went after me first...because that day I was the one handing out the rations. I had run to my room as fast as possible, and he'd followed just as fast, carrying a knife in his hands. He only wanted to cut down the number of mouths to feed...my brother freaked out and came running when he heard my cries. The door to my room swung open and my brother ran in front of me...he...he saved me....and when the knife came down it....it......" I could feel the tears beginning to form in my eyes and I frantically wiped them away and turned my face in the opposite direction of Asten. He hadn't said a single word since I'd started.

"He was the first. Before I could do anything, my mom appeared down the hallway. Her coworker was no longer focused on me at this point. He turned to my mom and...he stabbed her.....he just.....without even a second thought. I just remember throwing myself at him after that. Somehow the knife ended up in my hands and I killed him. I slit his throat. There was so much blood...everywhere...and then my mom....she was there, bleeding out on the ground. My brother was already long gone. But my mom...I was there...when she.....she...."

I couldn't finish the sentence. Tears were streaming down my cheeks now, no matter how hard I tried to wipe them away or force myself to stop crying. I just couldn't. I expected Asten to leave, to feel too uncomfortable around my pain to want to stay.

But he didn't. I felt his strong arms wrap around my shoulders as he pressed my face against his neck, hugging me to him. My mind reminded me of what had happened the first time I'd trusted him, but somehow, I couldn't bring up enough reasons to hate him. It felt good, to have someone.

It felt good to not feel so alone for once.


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