1.16 – Collapse

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Everyone tenses at the same time, with all shouting suddenly ceasing as the gunshot rings out. I grip Paul’s arm a little tighter and fear rushes over me as I wait for someone to cry out in pain or crumple to the ground. But no such effect follows – no one was hit.

My body unfreezes and I start to scan the camp for who fired the shot. My eyes land on Jamie, still holding his gun in the air.

“Thank you.” He lowers the gun. “Now let’s talk – one at a time.”

JJ takes a few threatening steps toward Jamie. “Who put you in charge?”

“Enough, JJ,” my dad barks. JJ stops and doesn’t say anything else, but continues to glare Jamie down, who holds his stare for a few moments before turning back to my father.

“You don’t trust us,” Jamie states. “We have nothing to offer you but our word – all our supplies we’ve acquired fairly, and we had nothing to do with the disappearance of that group, or any other.”

No one challenges him, so he continues, now looking around the group. “Aiden strictly enforced the lockdown rule, but I left from time to time, because I’m reckless and dumb, okay? Never to cause trouble – I found your place by accident. The thought of taking advantage of your group never crossed my mind. When Anna saw me I was trying to sneak away, not in.”

“You can’t prove that,” Ken grunts.

“I know. But it’s the truth – whether you want to believe it is up to you, I know it’s not much but trust is a choice. We’ve chosen to trust you, we need you to do the same.”

He walks to the middle of the small clearing, standing between the two groups.

Silence falls. Everyone’s eyes shift as we weigh the options before us. Jamie is right, at some point we’re just going to have to make a decision.

I walk to meet him in the middle. I look to my group, and Jamie looks to his. No one steps forward from my group, their faces are all solemn and pensive, and for a moment I wonder if they will leave, if they will go on alone and disown me. Jamie’s group is already well represented in the middle: Gus had ambled over first, then Link and Catherine with resolve, and Georgia and Johnny more timidly, but they were here nonetheless. Aiden appears to be waiting for our commitment before promising his, which, despite my frustration with him, I can’t help but understand.

“Paul, don’t you trust me?” I ask, my eyes begging him. He looks away from me and shifts his weight.

Kara steps forward, and Dylan watches her go a few feet before following after. I smile in relief as I watch them approach. Then comes Laura, then June. This is working.

My dad turns to my mom and takes her hand, then leads them over to join me in the middle. It does this way until the only ones left on the outside are Aiden, JJ, and Paul.

It is quiet. I hold my breath; would Paul really do this? He takes a step, and then another, and soon he is beside me. I grip his hand tightly.

Aiden eyes JJ, and we are all wondering the same thing: who will be the last one standing?

“No, enough of this. You guys want to talk sissy shit you can do it without me. I’m taking a walk.” JJ waves dismissively at us and heads into the woods. At first it looks like everyone is just going to let him – I can’t be the only one relieved to see the hothead go, but Dylan steps up to go after him.

“I got him,” he grumbles, turning to follow a few minutes later. He disappears down the same path JJ took.

Aiden gives a sarcastic smile as he slowly saunters toward the conglomerate in the middle. “So,” he says, placing one arm around Jamie’s neck and the other around Paul’s and pulling them in close, “we’re all buddies now?”

Seeing Paul in Aiden’s headlock again takes me back to the night we all met, and I shiver. He grins and laughs as both guys shrug away from him. But then his face suddenly deadpans. “I want to see you shake on it.”

In an act that I think shocked us all, the two shook hands.

“Good,” Aiden grinned. “Allen?” He extends his hand to my dad, who shakes it in turn. “Good,” he repeats. “Now I’m hungry, let’s eat.”

Aiden walks over to one of the trucks and starts digging around for one of the food boxes. Eventually we all unfreeze and follow suit, setting up for dinner.

I follow closely behind Paul, and, my heart pounding, reach out and grab his hand. He turns to look at me, and we pause like this, looking at one another, before embracing.

“I love you,” I whisper. “Thank you for trusting me.”

He squeezes me comfortingly. I realize I am tired; the weakness of my body suddenly catches up to me, and the stress and fear of the day hit me all at once. I want to collapse into him; I want to cry and be held.

But we can’t right now. We separate and go about dinner preparation, but I make a mental note to come back to the idea. Although our groups have agreed to work together, it will take a while, I suspect, before we start really acting like it. When tensions die down a bit, Paul and I can go back to being ourselves. Or, back to the selves we’ve been the past few years since the war. We’ll never be the selves we were before that again; he has accepted this, I haven’t. I have kept holding on to the things that make me, me: my music, my books, my reckless abandon (dangerous as it is these days). Others have been broken, and as strong as Paul is he is broken, too. And I am, I suppose, but I try not to think about it.

Which is why, as I unpack our camping kitchen set with my arms trembling from adrenaline, I force the anxious thoughts from my head. I go on, and I tell myself I won’t have to always go on: I just need to go on for now. Even though I know this is not true. Even if the war ended tomorrow, and by next week our lives were back to normal, the war would still have happened. Paul’s dad would still be dead, my home still burned to the ground. There was a single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry, Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried.”

Paul places his hand at the small of my back for a lingering moment as he passes me, and I am brought out of my thoughts. Keep working, I tell myself. I sit down and begin setting up the pots we’ll use to cook dinner. Something that my subconscious recognizes as out of place catches my eye, and I glance up, but see nothing. A minute later, it happens again. I look toward the trees ten or so feet from me, and this time I really look, but nothing. Perhaps JJ and Dylan are coming back, or maybe it’s a deer or, I don’t know, any of the other critters that live in the woods. I dismiss it again, unsure that there ever really was anything to grab my attention; maybe I’m just feeling kind of loopy from the hunger and the stress.

But I was wrong. In perfect unison, a dozen men emerge from the woods and into the clearing, surrounding us. Looters.

I drop my things and stay on the ground. Instinctively, our two groups start backing into the middle.

“Thought we heard some people out this way,” one of them grins, taking a step forward. I figure he is the ringleader, as the others stay silently in their stations.

“Can we help you with something?” my dad says, his voice sincere and unwavering.

“Well we heard a gunshot, wanted to make sure everyone was okay!” He overplays the concerned citizen look before breaking into another wide, disgusting smile.

Jamie exhales and closes his eyes; the shot he fired to get our attention earlier also got their attention.

“And do they look okay to you, Andy?” the leader says.

“Look more than okay to me, boss,” he remarks.

“Looks like maybe you’re well off enough to share. See, we’re pretty down on our luck right now…”

“We’d be happy to give you some supplies. We don’t want any trouble,” my dad offers. I can see Aiden shifting uncomfortably, and I’m afraid he’s going to say something, that he’ll try to fight these guys, which would be suicide.

“That’s what we like to hear,” the leader smiles. “It’s easier when you don’t make us play mean. Only, we don’t want some supplies – we want all of it.”

“Afraid we can’t do that,” my dad says. “We’ll help you how we can, but we can’t afford to part with everything. We have a lot of people to take care of, here.”

Their leader takes another few steps toward us, and makes some sort of gesture, barely noticeable, to one of his guys. “You do have quite a few people here, I do see that. Maybe if you had one or two less?”

Someone I hadn’t seen approaching grabs me, wrenching my wrists behind my back and pulling me off the ground. I feel a gun pressed to my head.

I glare down the leader as he walks toward me. He wears a faded bandana around his spiked blonde hair, and his eyes are hidden by sunglasses.

“Oh, this one?” he asks the man behind me. “I think we might want to keep her, don’t you think boys?” His stench is unbearable as he leans in close and whispers in my ear, “It would do you well to treat me good, sugar.”

I am about to knee him right in his clearly visible erection when Paul interrupts. “Don’t touch her!” Over my captor’s shoulder I see Paul trying to run the short gap between where he once stood and where I am being held. My eyes widen with fear, wishing I could tell him to stop but unable to form the words fast enough.

The leader, in one fluid motion, takes his gun out as he turns around, and pulls the trigger. He hits his mark and Paul falls, lifeless, to the ground.

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