Something has changed, I don’t know what it is, but the others are acting differently, and I can’t be the only one that noticed. Despite our stress and fear, we need to figure out how to live together if we’re gonna stick together. Live together, die alone, as Jack always said on Lost. Can’t say he wasn’t right.
I notice Kennedy walking toward me, and I try to look less deep in thought. I’m sitting on the open gate of one of the pick-ups, and she quickly sidles up next to me.
“Weird lunch today, huh?” she says.
I sigh, both dispirited and encouraged that indeed, someone else noticed. “Yeah, well, weird couple of days.”
“I don’t think I like these people too much,” she muses, glancing around the campsite and wrinkling her nose.
“They’re not so bad, just give ‘em a chance. I’m sure they have their reservations about us, too.”
She just shrugs her shoulders. “All that Anna girl ever does is read, she could make herself more helpful if she wanted to.”
“All I ever do is read,” I say, almost without thinking.
This gives Kennedy pause. “Yeah, but you earn your free time. I think she’s just napping right now.”
“It’s not like there’s much to do here anyway – you think you do more to contribute than she does?”
This doesn’t make Kennedy happy – at all. I can’t help but chuckle at the stupid look on her face – her mouth drops open and she furrows her brow in a confused anger. I think she mistakes my laughing as indicating I was making a joke, which I wasn’t, and she manages a little laugh too.
Regardless of what she thought I was laughing at, she deflects the point about Anna’s contribution to the group. “And it’s going to be really annoying to have them around if she’s always fighting with her boyfriend.”
So Kennedy noticed that, too. “Did you happen to overhear anything? Like what they were fighting about?” I ask, cautiously, trying to sound less interested than I am.
“Oh, I don’t know. Something about jealousy and lying. Does it matter?”
“No,” I shake my head. “No, it doesn’t, I was just curious.”
We’re quiet for a moment. I don’t care enough about talking to Kennedy to force the awkward conversation onward. Luckily the pressure to continue is alleviated: Anna emerges from her tent, and Paul follows her out.
Kesnnedy raises her eyebrows as she watches them, “At least they make up quickly.”
The next few days continue in the same fashion. The location is safe and quiet enough that we have not been able to think of a good enough reason to leave, so we’ve stayed. But the tension has not left, if anything it has gotten worse.
We upped the watch to two people at a time, and it’s always one person from each group – makes me wonder who they think they’re on watch for, gangs and soldiers, or each other?
As of today, we’ve been in the woods for five days, and I can’t take the strain any more: it needs to be addressed – whatever it is, it obviously isn’t going to go away by itself. We need to figure out a way to trust one another and work together or we’ll never make it. I’ve decided to talk to someone about it – but who? No one in my own group, that would just perpetuate the problem and create more of this cross-group suspicion. So, someone in Anna’s group – and who better than Anna herself who, I suspect, is slightly more sympathetic to the cause of reconciling the groups than other members of her group (say, I don’t know, Paul).
There’s just one problem: I think Anna is avoiding me. I wouldn’t say that except we live in close quarters, and it’s hard to avoid people on accident. Paul rarely leaves her side, and she seems to like it that way. They continue to sleep together. I’ve been looking for a window to get her alone, but nothing has come up.
But today something is different in me; I’m tired of waiting around. I’ve been sitting against one of the trees that borders our campsite and haven’t taken my eyes off her all day. I know she’s noticed – hell, I know everyone has noticed. But I don’t care – I’m not missing an opportunity to talk to Anna about this; it’s driving me crazy, so I’m throwing subtlety and patience to the wind.
And finally the moment presents itself – or, Anna presents herself. Paul gets engaged in a conversation with her dad, Allen, and Anna books it over to my tree.
“What?” she demands.
For a moment I forget my cause, and smile at her – she is comically displeased with me. “I don’t know, you came over to me.”
“I’m not playing, Jamie – you’ve been staring at me all day, Paul is getting pissed. Do you need something?”
I can see that she really is low on patience, and I know I don’t have any time to filibuster. “Can we talk somewhere?”
“No. Talk to me here, now, or not at all.”
“We need to address whatever the hell is going on between your group and mine.”
Her angry irritation fades in an instant, and she looks more pensive. “Oh, that.”
“Yeah, that – we can’t let it go on like this. We need to somehow get everyone to talk it out – you guys need to put whatever problem you have with us on the table.”
“It’s stupid…” She looks away from me, and I follow her gaze – Paul. Whether she is checking to see if he’s still distracted or hoping he’ll come rescue her, I can’t tell.
“Probably so, but it needs to get resolved.”
“We…well, not me – I don’t have any problems. They don’t trust you.”
I figured as much, but hearing her say it somehow stings more than I thought. “Don’t trust me or my group?”
I nod, gritting my teeth and taking a breath as I look down at my shoes. I look back up at her. “Have we not proven ourselves?” I know this question isn’t productive, I know it even as I say it, but I can’t help it.
“That’s what I said! But they’re suspicious of Aiden and of how much stuff you guys had – my dad even suggested you had something to do with the group from the radio that disappeared, and -”
“That’s absurd!” I say this much louder than I mean to, and I instinctively look to Paul to check if he has heard me. He has – and he is already heading toward us.
I wait for him to start yelling at me as he approaches. My second expectation is for him to grab Anna by the arm and escort her away from me. He does neither of these things, but instead marches straight up to me, punches me hard across the face, and stomps off.
“Paul!” Anna yells after him.
He doesn’t realize what a mistake he’s just made. Not because now I’m pissed – I can take a punch – but because both groups saw it happen, and the fight that has been building up for a week is just begun, and he made the first move.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Aiden drops his hand of cards and stands up.
Paul turns on his heels and looks back at me. “I have had it with this guy – with his whole god damn group. We shouldn’t put up with this anymore.”
Wrong move, buddy.
“Paul, you’re being ridiculous,” Anna says, now stopped and standing between him and me, a few feet from either of us.
Gus, who was playing cards with Aiden, also gets up and makes his way over. He walks into the fray with the coolness only wise, old people have. “You have a problem, friend, all you have to do is say it.” Sweet, sweet Gus.
Anna’s dad walks over to Paul’s side. “I’ll tell you the problem, we have some questions about the integrity of the union of our groups.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aiden spits.
“It means,” Paul turns on him, “we want answers – you aren’t telling us everything, and we can’t trust you.”
“We’ve told you all there is to tell.” I’m surprised to see Georgia chip in like this, she usually avoids stepping into conflict.
“We can discuss this more calmly, I think,” Anna’s dad says, patting Paul on the shoulder. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Aiden walks up, now face to face with Allen. “Sounds like you’re making some accusations, I’m not sure how calmly we really ought to take this.”
“Explain where all your supplies came from – you steal all of it, or only some of it?” JJ yells from where he’s leaning against the van.
“None of it,” I yell back, calmly. “Next?”
His eyes narrow on me and he pushes away from the van and starts toward me. “You got a lot of nerve on you,” he sneers. I anticipate his punch and dodge it, which angers him even more. He swings again, and this time I catch his arm and twist it behind his back.
“I’m not looking for a fight,” I tell him. He tries to pull away, and I have no choice but to twist harder until he stops.
“You kill that group? The one we said tried to radio us – that was you, wasn’t it, made ‘em disappear?” JJ yells into the circle from where I have him.
I roll my eyes but Aiden shouts back before I can. “Of course we didn’t – that was as alarming to us as it was to you.” He takes a step back from Allen, no longer challenging him but addressing the entire crowd. “And we told you – that apartment was our home, it was well stocked, we had no reason to leave. For safety we stayed inside at all times.”
“You’re lying!” Paul yells. “We know Jamie left regularly.”
Aw, shit – really, this is going to get pinned on me because I like reading on the fire escape?
“Tell ‘em about the time Jamie paid us a visit!” JJ yells, goading him on.
Allen holds out a hand to silence Paul, but it’s too late – he’s out of control. “Jamie was in our yard the day before the soldiers burned it. He was watching my girlfriend shower – and you’re trying to tell me you never leave that building?”
Anna hides her face in her hands, and I wish I could do something similar but I’m still holding onto JJ. So she told them – I thought it was a secret, but they know. This is why they don’t trust us; it really is because of me.
“Jamie,” Aiden glares at me, half betrayed by my rule breaking, half furious at me for being the apparent cause of all this.
I loosen my grip on JJ and he takes advantage of it, wrestling himself away and stumbling over to Paul’s side, where he waits, like everyone else – on both sides – to see how I’ll respond.
“I can explain,” I begin, not knowing exactly how I’ll manage to do so.
Aiden knows that I can’t, and steps in for me. “He broke my rules – that doesn’t reflect on all of us. I guess you’re gonna have to trust us on that.”
“That’s not good enough,” the other guy, Dylan I think, says.
“Then leave. We’ve been gracious and charitable to you this far – you don’t want it, we’re not making you stay,” Link counters, arms spread open in invitation.
“Oh, now you’re not making us stay? Sure seemed like we didn’t have that option a week ago when Aiden had a gun to Paul’s head, or when we tried to sneak out of your apartment-prison in the middle of the night.”
This seems to be the final straw – I was impressed with how well Aiden was holding himself together thus far, but it’s over now.
He is red in the face and clenching his fists. “How dare you!”
“Trust goes both ways – we had to be sure you weren’t going to hurt us, too.” Georgia speaks at the same time as Aiden is yelling, and is mostly drowned out.
Both groups are talking over one another now, and few people are not participating. Allen is trying to talk down a screaming Aiden, Paul and JJ are yelling at Link while Anna hangs onto Paul’s arm and pleads with him. Everyone else is pretty much yelling indistinctly into the mess, but not at anyone in particular.
This has devolved passed what could possibly be productive. “Hey!” I yell over the din. “Everyone shut up!” But of course this doesn’t work.
I try a few more times, but to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I pull the gun from my waistband and fire a shot into the air. Silence.