Aleea Davidson’s Picture Choice: One
Title: Wither, Part 5
Smoke hung in the air, its acrid taint seeping into Mara and Glen’s lungs as they ran. Their pace was frustratingly slow, the path Glen had chosen clogged with people milling about, gawking and restless as they tried to discern what was happening. Glen felt an almost palpable air of violence descend as he watched their faces. Ripples of unease and irritation creased brows and tightened jaws, expressions reflecting a burgeoning malice. A viscous, steaming stew of resentment and frustration brewed under the surface of their curiosity. If it boiled over, it could potentially be deadlier than the coming daybreak.
Glen tightened his grip on Mara who was moving with a sluggish gait that worried him. He didn’t think she was badly hurt, but it was possible she was in shock. Until he could get them away from the mayhem, he couldn’t risk stopping to check on her. All he could do was hope she could keep up long enough to reach some kind of haven.
They made it another half a block, the air clearing, though Glen doubted that would last. Behind them, amid the shouting and bedlam, he heard the distinct whoosh of flames licking at the clusters of wooden stands. A few stray sparks and the entire street could be on fire by morning, especially with the rain tapering off.
Drawing Mara closer, Glen slid an arm around her waist as glass from broken streetlights crackled under their feet. He welcomed the thickening dark that fell like a blanket around them, offering anonymity that was sorely needed.
They rounded a corner, slipping into a narrow alley and past overflowing commercial garbage containers that hadn’t been emptied in months. The stench was ripe, making their eyes water, and trickles of slime-laced rainwater turned the cement under their feet slick and treacherous.
Mara’s thin-soled shoes skidded, forcing Glen to tighten his hold to keep her upright. She jolted against him and let out a small whimper of distress when they came upon the shadowy shapes of several bodies hunched together against a worn brick wall. Somehow he kept her moving, his stomach lurching at the smell of death as they passed the eerily still forms. He couldn’t tell how many there were, and he was grateful for small mercies.
He turned Mara’s face into his shoulder, shushing her softly with inconsequential nonsense words. When she shivered but managed to keep going, Glen found himself dropping a kiss on the top of her head. Her hair was wet and cold, yet he could feel the warmth underneath and smell her shampoo—something fresh and vibrant tinged with vanilla. He dragged the scent in and held it, trying to drown out the stink of decomposing flesh.
Mara gagged, coughing, and still he kept them moving. “Breathe through your mouth, nymph. We’ll be out of here in a second.”
She didn’t respond, but he felt the moist exhalation of her breath hit his chest and knew she was taking his advice. A moment later, they made it to the end, slipping out onto a residential street.
Glen didn’t relax. His senses on high alert, he kept to the darkest sections despite the signs of desertion everywhere. Discarded, broken furniture and wrecked, vandalized cars—many reduced to shells—cluttered the sidewalks and roads. He detected slivers of flickering candlelight at the edges of boarded up windows in only a few houses. The rest were in a state similar to the cars and clearly abandoned.
This wasn’t an area of town where many people remained. The electric company, in a bid to conserve and manage the resources they had left, shut down power to the north and west ends. The able-bodied packed items they were able to carry and claimed whatever abandoned properties could be found within the new electrical grid. Those too sick or weak or old, well... Glen supposed they were the source of those slivers of light, choosing to stay in their homes rather than move to the jam-packed warehouses designated as housing facilities by so-called officials.
Last he heard, those buildings teemed with crime, filth, and neglect. Many people had chosen to take their chances, leaving town on foot in the dead of night, headed places unknown in the foolish search for something better. With nothing except tents between them and lethal UV rays, Glen suspected the sides of the highways were littered with nylon and canvas tombs.
Mara jerked him from his morose thoughts by pulling away and stopping abruptly. He turned to her, frowning. In the gloom, her brown eyes looked bruised and huge. Her honey blonde hair hung wet and slightly tangled around her face, and she panted slightly from the exertion of their fast exit. The jacket she wore swallowed her up, and Glen experienced a tug of protective emotions conflict with his desire to put more space between them and the town square.
“We have to keep moving,” he told her.
“We have to go back,” she said at the same time.
“I heard there’s a butcher selling fresh venison. There might still be some left.” Mara grabbed her bag. The sound of broken glass had her groaning and then kneeling to dig through the contents, heedless of the wet ground.
Glen cursed under his breath. He’d forgotten about the meat. “We need to keep going, Mara. The fires, the people fighting, it’s not safe.”
She ignored him, sorting through whatever she carried, tossing pieces of shattered jars covered with sweet smelling jam onto the road. She cried out suddenly, lifting her fingers to her mouth. Glen caught the sight of blood on her palm, but she was already ignoring the wound in favour of continuing her rooting.
Squatting, Glen caught the bag and her hand, pulling the latter away from her. She tried to retrieve it, glaring at him.
“I have batteries in there. I need to get the glass out. There are preserves on everything...”
“You need to get up and come with me.”
“I need to go back,” she said, arguing and fierce. “Do you have any idea how rare fresh meat is right now? It could be weeks before another hunting party is organized, and by then I might not have anything of value to trade.”
She sniffled, sitting back on her heels, and though he couldn’t see it, Glen was sure she was starting to cry. It hit him like a blow to the solar plexus, turning into a double sucker punch when she looked at him pleadingly.
“The rationing is getting extreme, Glen. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. It’s only a matter of time before store shelves are bare. There hasn’t been a delivery truck with food in almost a month. Not one. I need to try and stock up as much as I can. You saw what was happening. And that was all because of apples, goddamned...apples!”
She made a choking noise on the curse word, something he suspected she rarely used, and Glen reached out to her. He stopped, inches from contact, feeling useless and inept. He’d never been good with crying women, and the sad, helpless sound of her quiet sobs tore him apart. She made a move to put her hands over her face and hissed instead when her cut palm came in contact with the salt from her tears.
Spotting a clear purpose, Glen tore a strip off the bottom of his shirt, grateful the material was thin and easily ripped. He caught her wrist, ignoring the way she tried to jerk away, and wrapped the material snugly across the worst of the wound. It needed to be cleaned, but for now his makeshift band-aid would have to suffice.
He tried one last time to reason with her, gentling his tone to match his touch. “Listen to me, nymph. I heard about the meat, too. I was headed there myself. I doubt to high hell what they have is venison...”
“What?” She tried again to free her hand, but Glen held firm, working to make sure the strip of fabric was tied securely and wouldn’t slip loose. “What else would it be?”
“It’s probably horse meat, sweetheart.” Glen felt more than saw her flinch. He stroked his fingers against her wrist, wanting to ease her if possible, though in truth, the contact was as much for him as for her. He missed the warmth and softness inherent in female skin, the way their bones felt delicate yet resilient all at the same time. Fuck, he missed human contact period.
Glen made himself let go. She was ten years younger than him. He had no right to touch her. He pressed his girl-warmed fingers against the cold denim encasing his thighs, hating the way they leached her precious imparted heat away, and stared at the scrapes and bruises on his knuckles from the blow he’d dealt her attacker.
“The nearest area of forest big enough to have deer is eight hours from here on foot. The nearest stable is an hour. Do the math, Mara.”
She exhaled roughly, her shoulders slumping. “I don’t care. Meat is meat, Glen.”
When he looked up, he found her staring back, willing him to understand, to help. The rain had quit entirely sometime in those last few minutes, and weak moonlight from the parting clouds offered a glow that highlighted the dark circles under her eyes and the pinched whiteness of her full lips.
She was beautiful, even soaking wet with her nose running. More than that, she was determined. It radiated off her shivering form, blazing in those lovely eyes. If she’d once been a girl who fawned over pictures of gorgeous thoroughbreds galloping in grassy fields, there was no trace now. Practicality ruled, and he admired the hell out of her for it.
Getting to his feet, Glen slung her bag over his shoulder with his own and held out his hand. He was an idiot. A complete and utter idiot. If he had half a brain, he’d leave her here to fend for herself. He barely knew her. He owed her nothing.
When she slipped her fingers into his hold, letting him pull her up, he knew he didn’t give a shit about doing the smart thing. He was going to devote whatever he had in his arsenal to helping this brave girl. Even if it got him killed, which as he turned to lead her back to the stinking alley and the unknown, he realized was an all-too-believable possibility.
With his free arm, he reached to the waistband of his jeans for the reassuring weight of his gun, his stride never breaking.
If the world was going to hell, and he strongly suspected it was, he might as well go with it.
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Aleea lives in her imagination most of the time. It's an interesting place to be... Occasionally she can be coaxed out to chat on Twitter, though she finds it akin to torture to stick to that absurd 140 character limit. (@Aleeab4u)