1.18 – Ex Machina

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JJ’s hand covers Anna’s mouth and I can see, in the dim moonlight, her chest covered in Marty’s blood, and heaving. After a few seconds JJ removes his hand, but signals for her to stay quiet. I was afraid Marty’s men might investigate the scream, and had held my breathe until I heard them laughing.

JJ quickly unties Anna, and in doing so Marty’s body gets rolled over, and I can see that JJ must have slit his throat from behind, which would explain the smattering of blood I can only assume jolted Anna awake.

I’m so enraptured by the miraculous turn of events I don’t notice Aiden approaching me until he is kneeling down next to me, cutting me loose. My confusion dissipates when I recognize Dylan, also returned, not far off; what started as an outraged walkout a few hours ago has turned into a heroic rescue.

As soon as I’m up I rush to Link, who lost his makeshift tourniquet when he was untied. Laura follows me and before I can say or do anything whispers, “Your belt,” and motions for me to hand it over to her. Link winces as she tightens it around his arm.

“EMT,” she says, noticing my look of awe. “Do we have any meds with our things?”

We do, but her question gives me pause. After everything, are we really considering the risk of trying to take stuff with us? My gut is saying we need to start running and not stop until we’ve crossed a border, not spend more time here noisily rummaging through three cars worth of packs and boxes. But looking at Link, I know we have to try, so I nod to Laura that we do.

Heading over to the cars, treading as lightly as we can manage, I realize I have no idea where they would be, not a clue. They might not even be together – we could find the aspirin, but not the antibiotics. I have to keep refocusing myself: we have to look, no matter how hopeless it may seem.

So we start with the two open bed pick-ups. I take out everything as gently as I can, figuring we might be able to take some backpacks with us, as they travel reasonably easy. The gang is loud in their tents, but I am still cautious; it would only take one suspicious sound to get their attention and bring someone out.

Kennedy comes up behind me. “What can I do?” she asks, and for once I am not irritated by her company.

I make a cross with my fingers and then point to Link, and she seems to understand. She starts in on another bag.

Nothing in this truck. I set aside a few of the bags, ones that have food, a few with clothes, for us to take. But no meds. One of the bags I set aside has weapons in it, and I feel much better with a gun back in my belt. But every minute of freedom that passes makes me more anxious; how far away we could be by now if we had made a break for it as soon as JJ and Dylan returned.

I tiptoe over to Laura and tell her the truck turned up no meds.

She nods. “Take over this one, I’m going to check on Anna.”

Halfway through searching this truck I’m starting to really freak out. These were easy to unload, the van won’t be. I don’t want to have to open it up, the risk of making noise is way higher. Allen is distributing the few packs we’re trying to take with us, which gives me some ease; we’ll be ready to make a break for it should we suddenly need to.

And in the perfect example of Murphy’s Law, there are no meds in this truck either. Laura and I catch one another’s eyes from across the clearing, and I shake my head. She points to the van, and after a long, painful moment, I nod in agreement.

My hands grasp the handles of the door but I hesitate: What if it’s locked? What if stuff falls out? What if the alarm goes off? I take in a deep breathe, and pull. They open.

The next ten or so minutes are extremely tense, as I take out bags one by one in a life or death game of Jenga. Eventually I have to climb inside the van to continue the search. But finally, success.

I unzip one of the backpacks to find an overflowing supply of random prescription medications that Aiden and I collected early on raiding the medicine cabinets of abandoned houses. Surely something in here might help Link. I zip it back up and hop out of the van, holding it up to let everyone know we found what we were looking for and could now get the hell out.

We immediately set off, wincing at every cracking twig underfoot. We are not even all out of the campsite before Anna is wildly whispering, “Stop! Stop!” We do, and look back at her.

“We can’t leave him,” she says, crying. “We can’t leave Paul.”

Everyone holds their breath, all wanting to tell her we can’t exactly bring him either.

“Please,” his mother whispers, joining Anna.

JJ turns back toward the clearing and gently gathers up Paul’s body in his arms and carries him back to the group. He nods, onward.

Anna stares helplessly; reaching out a hand that gently brushes Paul’s bloody and matted hair as JJ passes her. “Come on,” he says.

Her dad puts an arm around her and urges her forward, and she slowly begins to move with the rest of us.

I can’t force myself to walk at the same slow pace as the pack, and am quickly heading up the front. It feels wrong not to be running, but we can’t – Link is barely still standing, Anna is struggling, and JJ is carrying Paul’s dead weight.

My mind is reeling with thoughts of our precarious lack of safety. The gang could fall asleep, not noticing or caring that Marty hasn’t returned. We would have until morning before they realized we were gone, at which point I don’t think they would even bother pursuing us. Or they could discover Marty’s body any minute now, in which case they’d need only hop in the cars and drive a minute before they stumbled upon us.

But no one comes after us. We keep walking through the night, until our feet ache and the sky begins to lighten. As the sun rises, we finally come out of the woods.

“How about we stop here a minute, huh?” Allen says, dropping his backpack. “Laura can look at Link’s-” I can tell he almost says hand but catches himself, “arm.”

Everyone drops whatever they are carrying and collapse, one by one. JJ gently places Paul’s body in the shade, and by the time he is standing again I am next to him.

“Thanks man,” I say, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I thought we were dead, but you saved us. And look, I hope we- ”

He interrupts my by gruffly removing my hand from his shoulder. “If it had been up to me I would have left you there. I don’t want your thanks.”

Anna falls to her knees beside Paul, and begins stroking his cheeks. It only takes her a moment to realize there’s one more gunshot wound in him than there was when Marty knocked her out. When she discovers it, her sobbing reaches a new level. His mother Kim and young sister Melissa kneel next to her, and the three women cry over their loss.

The rest of us stare at our feet quietly, especially those from my group, who are distressed by Paul’s death but barely knew him. A hand grabs mine, and out of the corner of my eye I recognize Kennedy’s wild red hair. I don’t know if the act is for her comfort or mine, but I allow it. It is surprisingly reassuring, and I give her hand a quick squeeze of thanks.

“The ground feels soft enough here we could bury him, if you want,” Allen offers gently.

Kim stands up, wiping her face. “That would be very nice.”

It doesn’t take us long to dig a shallow grave. Before covering him, we – or rather, his own group who had the chance to know him – say a few words. Anna manages little, saying only, “I love you,” before motioning for the next person to speak.

When it is all said and done, I am relieved. It was a beautiful little funeral, and I hope it was symbolic; I hope we can begin to move forward without the trauma of seeing his body. But I am wrong.

“You did this,” Anna says, turning to me. Her face is wet with tears but she isn’t crying anymore. Her face is distorted in anger as she approaches me. “This is your fault – you killed him. You led them to us.”

I shrink back, and before I can respond Kennedy is speaking for me. “It was an accident,” she says.

Anna’s father places his hands on her shoulders, “Anna there’s no use blaming anyone but Marty. I know you’re upset, we all are, but don’t blame Jamie.”

She shrugs him off but doesn’t make another move toward me, she just glowers, jaw locked and eyes vicious.

“Um,” Georgia hesitantly starts, “not to redirect everyone’s attention, but…what’s that?” We all look in the direction she is pointing and see a line of buses parked not far from us, just down the hill a ways. A group of people waits to board them, but not enough to fill all three.

“We should go look,” Dylan says. “Could be our ticket out of here.”

Allen nods in agreement and looks to Ken, who also motions his approval. “Aiden?” he asks. “What do you think?”

Aiden is clearly taken aback by this dignifying inclusion, and he takes a moment to respond. But he agrees and we waste no time getting down the hill and to the buses, quickly gathering up our things and moving out, with JJ hanging back to supervise Anna.

“What’s all this for?” Dylan asks one of the US soldiers supervising the boarding.

“Taking anyone left to a refugee camp,” he says, unable to tear his eyes away from the paperwork he stands surveying. “We have room if you’re interested – it’ll be safer where we’re going for you than it is here.”

“Thank you, yes. Oh God, thank you.”

If we had it in us right now we’d be celebrating. He takes note of all of us on some sort of informal manifest and we get on together.

“Where is the camp?” I ask him at the door after giving my name and age.

For the first time he looks up at me, but I can’t see his eyes through his heavy sunglasses. “California – Los Angeles.”

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