We are in the woods. Because I fell asleep on the way here, I cannot be sure which woods, as there are many in Oregon. We are still driving, slowly now, along a trail, the bumpiness of which must have been what woke me up. The air is moist around me, and everyone is very quiet, but everyone is awake.
I reposition myself and straighten up, and find that I am very sore from sleeping in such an odd place. Looking up through the trees the sky is beginning to turn a light purple; I probably slept for only an hour or so, but I am surprised I made it that long, even being as tired as I was.
We drive along a little while longer in silence, but eventually stop at a small clearing.
“Don’t take anything out of the cars just yet,” my dad says as we begin to clamber out. It feels good to stretch my legs.
I look for Paul, and see him standing over by the green van. I sidle up next to him and squeeze his hand. He kisses the top of my head.
My dad beckons him and JJ over though, and I am alone again. I watch as they gather in a tight circle and discuss something I can’t make out. Dottie appears by my side shortly.
“After everything that’s happened you’re still not going to tell any of them about who you saw back at the house?”
I look at Jamie, standing a few feet away with my dad and the others. “I don’t think it’s important anymore.”
“Anna think. Maybe whoever you saw had something to do with that other group that disappeared. Maybe they were from that group, or maybe they’re the reason we couldn’t find them!”
“I don’t think that’s too likely,” I try to brush her off. “Portland wasn’t that empty.”
“Ok, well, maybe not – but things are changing, something is up. We may not be the only ones out here, and if you’ve seen other people – if other people have seen you – you need to tell your dad.”
“Dottie I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Anna this is ridiculous why are you keeping this a secret, what more don’t I know?”
Her volume is quickly rising, and I shush her as I grab her by the arm and take her around behind the van.
“There is something I’m not telling you, alright? Fine. You got me.”
“Anna you can trust me,” she says, her voice softening.
I know that I can trust her, I know that. Dottie is only 15 but she’s mature for her age, and she is smart. But I’m embarrassed, and, frankly, still a little suspicious, about my initial run-in with Jamie. But I know that to keep Dottie quiet I need to tell her. She’ll understand.
“What, he knows too?”
“No, the person I saw. It was Jamie.”
I see it click in Dottie’s mind and her eyes widen. “Where did you see him? When?”
“The day everyone came back without Donovan. I saw him in the backyard in the morning. He was just passing through, and I caught him. He had a gun with him but he never made a move to hurt me – he looked like he was afraid of me, like he was the vulnerable one. So I didn’t worry about it. He ran off.”
“What was he doing in the yard, in our neighborhood?”
“I don’t know,” I tell her, honestly. I’ve been wanting to ask him but haven’t gotten him alone. Well, there was the car battery situation, but I hadn’t wanted to ask then. I wonder if we’ll ever acknowledge it.
“I thought nobody in Aiden’s group ever left that apartment building…”
“Yeah, me too.”
Across the clearing the small group was breaking up and walking back towards us.
“We’re going to camp here for a bit, just to rest up and plan. We’ll send a few people out in twos to check the perimeter, and then regroup here and keep someone on watch at all times,” my dad announces.
Dylan and Ken pair up, my dad with Laura, Link with Aiden, and of course, the favorite duo, JJ and Paul.
The rest of us stay here. We unpack only a few things – some food, the few blankets we managed to take with us. I find the pillowcase filled with books and retrieve Slaughterhouse-Five, which I was reading when we fled.
I take one of the carrots I snatched from the garden on our way out and sit against one of the trees and start reading.
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.
So it goes. We look back. I looked back, I watched the city burn. We’re never supposed to look back – bad things happen when we do. Orpheus lost Eurydice because he looked back, right as they were almost out of hell. But so it goes.
I wonder what bad thing happened to me when I looked back, I can’t tell yet. But I am sure there is something. I guess I will need to wait to find out.
“Vonnegut, nice choice,” a voice says from a few feet away. It is Jamie.
“So it goes,” I say, almost cringing; it’s everyone’s response to a comment about Vonnegut.
“Yeah, so it goes,” he laughs, sitting down next to me.
“Why aren’t you out with the others?”
“Guess they figured they didn’t need any more people as it was, plus you don’t want to take all your guns with you, ya know? And, to be honest, I’m still feeling a little sick. Much better than before, but a bit off.”
I catch Dottie staring at me; she’s standing over by the van. I shrug my shoulders apologetically at her when Jamie is looking in another direction.
“But you are feeling better?” I ask him, genuinely concerned about his mystery illness.
“What do you think it was?”
“It was probably from being out in the rain. We weren’t really supposed to ever leave the building – Aiden’s orders – but I get a little stir-crazy in there. I need the fresh air, I need to go exploring.”
“So I noticed,” I say, acknowledging that encounter for the first time. At the time, I wasn’t bothered by the stranger seeing me naked, but now that I know him, now that he is sitting next to me, I can’t help but be embarrassed. This man caught me showering.
“Yeah,” he chuckles. “Sorry about that…”
“So is that what you were doing? Just…out, exploring?”
He doesn’t look at me, but he nods.
“Where do you go?”
“Anywhere. I can’t go out much, it’s hard not to get caught, but I manage every so often. Kennedy covers for me.” Ah, the girlfriend, of course she does. “I just like getting a lay of the land. I mean I grew up in Portland, so I know it, but I mean getting a lay of the new land, seeing what has happened.”
I take his answer, and I make a note to tell Dottie. He was just getting out, nothing suspicious.
“What’s the relationship like within your group? Did you guys, like, know each other before, or what brought you together?” I asked him after a short pause. His group doesn’t seem to have the same sort of familiar vibe as mine.
Paul and JJ appear on the other side of the clearing, and Paul immediately spots Jamie and I. We lock eyes, and I can tell that he is upset. If our groups end up staying together, at least for a while, he’s going to have to get used to Jamie being around, and even Jamie and me being friends. I suddenly find myself angry with Paul for being angry with me. What reason does he have? I’m friends with JJ, aren’t I?
Jamie jumps up quickly and starts heading over to the gathering group, forgetting or neglecting to answer my question. My dad and Laura emerge from behind the tree I’m leaning against, soon followed by Aiden and Link.
Ken and Dylan are the last back. It seems everything went smoothly, they are all safe, no one saw or heard anything suspicious. This part of the woods, at least, is safe for us to camp at for a while.
Our clearing is getting brighter as the sun officially starts to rise, and the sky turns from periwinkle to pink. It will be nice to have the daylight to get acclimated to our new space before trying to spend the night here. But at least the forest seems untainted by the war, I can try to forget it is happening. I can be unstuck in time, I think, smiling at the thought.
“Anna,” my dad calls for me. I walk over, confused, and irritated at being pulled from my musings. He is separated a little from the returned surveyors, who are still talking.
He places both hands on my shoulders and looks down at me sternly. He hasn’t looked at me like this for years. “Anna, did you see Jamie at our house before the fires?”
I glance over his shoulder and see Dottie. She mouths, “I’m sorry.”