It was only a week later, but it felt like much longer to Ethan. The girl hadn’t come back yet, and he was starting to wonder if she actually would. Yes, he’d given her permission, but that didn’t change the fact that she had almost gotten killed. If self-preservation meant anything to her, she’d stay away.
He’d sent the boys to bed, and they were all sound asleep now. It was his turn on watch.
Sitting down against the wall, he leaned his head back. He couldn’t blame her for not wanting to come back, really. It would be a huge risk, and besides, the palace was probably just a bit more inviting than slave barracks.
He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the nagging in the back of his mind that he almost wished she would come. It was stupid and he knew it. What he didn’t know was why was why he even cared.
She was an intruder. A pretty one, but —
He squeezed his eyes shut and thumped his head against the wall behind him, berating himself. What was he doing.
What did it matter what she looked like? What did it matter that she’d brought them food and saved their lives? She was an intruder and she couldn’t be trusted, end of story.
No one ever acted out of purely selfless intentions; that kind of genuine goodness didn’t exist. Not in his world.
They were all better off without her.
For one thing, if she didn’t come tonight, there’d be no reason for him to stay awake past his shift.
Lately, he’d been feeling more tired than usual due to the stress over Garn’s threat. It was affecting him, and he knew it. He’d found himself getting easily annoyed with the boys, cutting them off, raising his voice at them. He needed to back off, and soon, before he snapped completely.
Then he heard a noise from the side, by the entrance to the Wall. His heart began racing — Garn…
But it wasn’t.
The girl. He stood quickly to his feet, forgetting how tired he was.
“Hi,” she said as she came around the corner, carrying a bag as usual.
Ethan stared at her, and blinked, as if trying to convince himself that she really was standing there.
“…You never told me not to,” she looked at him warily.
“No, no,” he tried to rephrase it, “I mean — after what happened…” he glanced away. Why was this so awkward? He was tired. That was all. “I wasn’t sure if you’d think it was worth it.”
“Well, you promised I’d be safe,” she said.
He had. And she’d believed him?
“I brought food,” she handed the bag out towards him, cautiously, “if you want it? I mean, if it’s okay.”
He took it, but didn’t make a move toward the boys to distribute it. “I didn’t know you’d be coming, so I sent the boys to bed,” he told her, glancing out over the row of them. “I’ll save this for the morning. I think it’d be better if they just got their rest tonight.”
That’s all he said, but his voice sounded off, somehow. He could hear it. He was tired. That was all.
But she heard it, too. “Did something happen today?” she asked with concern. She must have taken it to mean he was distracted by a fight or something.
“Today?” he repeated, setting the bag down. “No. We’ve just all been on edge lately.”
She hung her head for a moment. “Garn.”
He looked at her. “For what?”
“No,” Ethan interrupted her unexpectedly. His voice still sounded strange to him. She looked at him in surprise, and he heard his voice say, “This is what he does. This is what he’s always done. It’s … not your fault.”
There was a pause before she spoke. “I’m kind of surprised you see it that way,” she said.
“How else would I see it?”
“This guy is after you because I got caught. It actually is my fault. Not to mention, literally right before it happened, you made it pretty clear you didn’t want me down here anymore. So I figured you’d jump at the chance to blame me for anything that went wrong. And this … this went really, really wrong.”
He blinked and looked at her. There was a fire in her eyes, which she must have suddenly realized because she glanced down, as if she were now self-conscious. “I’m just surprised you — aren’t mad at me for this,” she said, more quietly. “I’m surprised you rescued me in the first place, actually. It would have been easier for you on a lot of levels to just let him … kill me. Wouldn’t it?”
“It would’ve,” he agreed, trying to get control of his voice. He felt awkward speaking to her, maybe because for the first time, he wasn’t trying to be angry at her for showing up. Lacking the strength of that anger, he felt like he was floundering for a way to talk to her.
Or maybe he was just tired. That was probably all.
“So why didn’t you let him?” she asked.
There was a reason. A perfectly good reason. He just had no idea what it was.
“Nobody deserves to go out like that,” he shrugged, landing on the best thing he could come up with.
It wasn’t the answer she was looking for. It wasn’t the answer he wanted to give, really. But he didn’t know of anything better.
“Well, thank you,” she said finally. “I guess I’m just angry at myself for getting into that situation in the first place, and for putting you guys in this position. I feel horrible about it.”
It didn’t take a psychic to see she was telling the truth about that.
“But really, thank you,” she continued. “I guess I didn’t say it much that night, I didn’t really know what to say at the time. It was all a little overwhelming. But thank you. I know you didn’t have to do that.”
“You saved my life, I saved yours,” he said. “I guess we’re about even.”
A hint of a smile turned up the corners of her mouth. “Well, when you put it that way, I guess we are.”
Ethan leaned back against the wall and slid down until he was sitting on the floor. He was still tired.
She stood there awkwardly for a second, then asked, “If it isn’t weird, can I ask who he is?”
“Who who is? Garn?”
She nodded, shifting her weight from one leg to the other with uncertainty.
“It isn’t weird to ask,” he said. “I mean, he did almost kill you. It’s nothing complicated though. He’s a murderer and a rapist. Not that that should come as any surprise to you.”
“Not really,” she nodded, still standing. She looked down at the wall and seemed to be debating something. After a pause, she asked, “Do you mind if…” She indicated the space beside him.
She wanted to sit down. She wanted to sit down next to him.
It was his fault, he’d sat down first. But he looked up at her and realized — part of him wanted her to sit with him. Not that he could talk to her; he was afraid to talk to her, really, if he admitted it. Maybe that was why his voice sounded so weird to him. Everything felt a little weird when she was around — but it wasn’t exactly a bad kind of weird.
He nodded a little. After another moment of hesitation, she sat down next to him. She seemed as unsure of what to do as he was.
They were quiet for a minute, Ethan still trying to get over the fact that she had actually come back. Any sane person would have taken Garn’s threat as a cue to stay as far away as possible — but she didn’t.
Regardless, he couldn’t trust her enough to talk to her, the rational side of him said. But there was another side of him that wasn’t quite so convinced.
“What does he have against you?” she finally asked.
“Against me? Hah, where to begin,” he forced a grin, mulling it over. This was the first time he’d smiled in front of her, he realized belatedly.
She glanced at the floor, as if she was unsure of herself. Then she asked hesitantly, “What happened?”
He looked at her for a moment, and she added quickly — “I mean, you — you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I was just … I was just wondering.”
He almost smiled, and this time, it was genuine. Was she actually trying to be nice? This was a far cry from the girl who stubbornly pushed her way into the place a few weeks back.
He took a deep breath, knowing she deserved an answer; after all, she had gotten dragged into all this. She should probably know why.
“Down here,” he began slowly, “there are two kinds of people: The ones who attack, and the ones who get attacked. The ones who do the attacking, like Garn, they’ll make a target out of anyone who’s weaker than them. So young kids who come here, they’re the first to get grabbed. And no one would ever stand up to him. If you got left alone, you were lucky; you wouldn’t get back in the line of fire just to defend someone else he’d set his sights on …”
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She held up the backpack, once again full of food. Demarc didn’t say anything as Kierah stood there, waiting for him to allow her in again. But the way he looked at her was strange. Less brutally cold than it had been the first time he’d found her. And maybe, was it even less suspicious … Continue reading Chapter 14: “He was going to kill her.” “He would have been doing us a favor, then.”
[Eight years ago] Ethan heard the boy’s sobbing from down the tunnel. Swinging the pick back and digging it into the rock wall, he tried to drown it out. He didn’t know who it was or why he was crying, but he didn’t really care. He couldn’t let himself care. He’d been there long enough … Continue reading Chapter 16: Eight years ago