Day Eleven

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SHE SHIVERED ALL THROUGH the night until the sun rose in a cloudless, shadeless sky. Dry heat festered beneath the skeletal canopy and she awoke to a thundering headache against the front of her skull, throat dry, mouth sticky, her stomach cramping so fiercely she struggled to sit up. She groaned and rested her head back against the tree. Nausea roiled in her stomach. Rance still slept, small leaves stuck in his hair. She eased herself down, wincing as she dropped to the ground, and stepped behind another tree to relieve herself. She wriggled her suit down and crouched.

Her eyes widened. "Oh no," she muttered. "Oh no, no, no."

High above, a bird cried over the forest, shrieking into the farthest of the trees. Rustling leaves and snapping branches filled the air and flies buzzed around her head. She whirled around. Nothing but drought met her eyes. Hallucinations, she thought. She needed water, badly. And to lose blood, now... She crawled back to Rance, her head spinning. In the chaos of the past eleven days, she had not even considered bleeding--and now she was horrendously unprepared. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, the heat poking and prodding at her, filling every pore crack and crevice of her body. Her stomach sent a jarring stab of hunger.

Her skin had begun to peel, the redness fading to a brown on her hands, and she could feel it on her face; Rance looked the same. The sun took its toll on their bodies. She watched Rance awaken, stiff limbs clambering down from the tree, and as he landed, his legs gave out, and his knees thumped to the ground. He retched. There was nothing to bring up. One glance at his hollowed eyes and she merely nodded, desperation on his parched and peeling lips. They needed food--but another day in this heat without water would be fatal.

"How are we ever going to find them?" he asked.

Sweat dripped down her brow. Her hair pasted to her neck. Her gut gave a stab, and she grabbed it, nearly doubling over. "I don't know," she said.

By mid-afternoon they had still found nothing. Their steps grew shorter, their breathing more ragged, barely finding the strength to lift their heads as they picked their way across the dirt. Beams of sunlight splintered through the wood, the air growing so thick she could barely breathe.

They headed south, their only hope for reuniting vested in continuing along the planned route. As the day crept on, they came upon the crumbling foundations of what once must have been a house. Only a few bricks remained, a faint echo of the lives that had once filled them. They took a break on its stones, and their jagged edges bit into their legs, burning hot from the sun.

Rance stared at them, pressing his palm against one that was broken in two. "What's that old saying--'if a tree falls in the forest and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound?'"

"What?" Raina asked. His words buzzed like an insect, fading in and out of her ears.

He shrugged. "I'm just thinking, if a person dies but no one's there to remember them, did they ever really live?"

Raina bit her lip. When she looked at the bricks again, she did not see stones--now, each one bore the mark of the person who had laid it, the fingers that had trailed across it, the feet that had pounded over it. Something caught her eye and she turned. 

Just past the last of the stones, something round jutted out of a tree. She hobbled over. Ancient and broken, the front of a bicycle hovered in the air by their heads, absorbed in the trunk. 

"What--" Rance began, coming up behind her.

"It must have been left here, leaning against the sapling," she said. "And the tree grew around it."

"Then it died."

She nodded. On the other side of the tree, the back tire protruded, brown and thick with rust.

"Do you think..." Rance began, trailing off. He tried again. "Do you think, when they put it here, they knew it was for the last time?"

Raina looked around. "Who knows what happened here. What kind of end they met."

The air grew heavy on their shoulders. Despite the heat, she shivered. They continued on as fast as they could, leaving the broken pieces of the home far, far behind them.

At last, they took a break. With no food or water, they dropped down beside a log, nothing to do but stare at the sweltering cemetery around them, impassive to their pain.

"What I would not give for a drop of rain," Rance said.

Raina sighed and leaned back, unwrapping the bandage around her ankle. 

She screamed.

"Get them off!" she shrieked, batting at the hundreds of yellow worms crawling over her wound. They stuck to her fingers and she flailed, scraping them against the ground, kicking her leg in the air. Pain flared up and nearly choked her, black spots flashing across her eyes. "Get them off now!"

"Raina!" Rance shouted, grabbing her hands. "Raina, hold on!"

She thrashed against him, her eyes fixed on the horror of her ankle, infested with creatures that were eating her flesh—

"The smell is almost gone," Rance said.

"And?" She asked. She fought him, trying to do something, anything to get them off of her—

"They're eating the bad parts," Rance said. "Look closer."

Raina leaned in over the writhing mess, at the bronze and black skin beneath. They had not touched the healthy skin. 

She sucked in a deep breath and dug her fingers into the ground, trying to stop the world from spinning. "Could they help me heal?" she asked. She squeezed her eyes shut. The image remained.

She opened them again, and Rance gave her a wry smile. "I don't think very much could make a rotten ankle worse."

She shuddered, watching them wriggle and slither over her skin. "You wouldn't be so cheery if it was your leg that was infested."

"Lucky for me, it's not," he said. "We should wrap it back up. Let them run their course."

She sat still for another few moments, reining in the nausea that clamoured up her throat. Then she retied it. The idea of leaving them left her squirming in her own skin, but she was desperate. "Rance?" she asked.

"Yeah?"

"If we wake up tomorrow and I'm a massive, yellow worm, I'm eating you first."

"Of course, Captain."

They kept walking through the rest of the day. As the stars began to peek out through the heady blue of the evening, they guided themselves southwest, until the world dipped itself in shadow and they collapsed into its waiting arms. Raina's body ached, beyond the cramps and the soreness and the hunger, something far deeper. Wearier. Her legs trembled with every step. Her lower back stabbed at her, and so she hunched, unable to stand straight. 

They did not bother climbing trees that night. They had seen no animals since the pond, and had little energy for anything but lying down. Raina leaned against the trunk and closed her eyes, tipping her head back against the bark, letting its rough edges jut into her back as she felt the warmth ebb from the air, replaced by the cool caress of nighttime. Insects chirped among the trees. Leaves whispered in the breeze. She opened her eyes. The only sound to be heard was her jagged breathing and a distant rumble of thunder. 

She settled back against the log. Her body throbbed with thirst, no longer just a sensation but a state of being--pure, undulated desperation embedded in her very bones. They would find water tomorrow. And when they did, she would drink until her stomach burst, and then drink some more. That was the only thought that allowed sleep to find her, drawing out refuge from the dredges of her soul. 

She awoke shortly before dawn, choking on smoke.

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