The End: Chapter 11
Two more days of almost non-stop travel brings us to the shore of the Straits of Mackinac. We are all exhausted, even Solo, after spending most of the day crossing wetland teeming with infected. In the failing light, we make camp. There will be no fire tonight; we are too close to the city with no knowledge of what or who may be there. While Tobias, Eli and Connor spread out to secure the area, the rest of us set up camp in the dark. When they return and five the all clear, we all dig into our final food rations. I feed Solo some jerky I have reserved for him and then he wanders off, to hunt up something for himself. I know he won't go far and will always come back should he encounter danger.
After our meager meal, Gabriel, Markus and Tobias take first watch while the rest of us try to get some sleep. I am restless on my bedroll and finally give up on sleep altogether, rolling onto my back to look up the the stars. They are unusually bright tonight, together with the full moon, they send glowing shafts of silver-blue light down through the trees.
I realize Thomas is awake as well, sitting with his back against a Beech Tree which, with it's white trunk, seemed to glow in the dark.
"No, just thinking about how we're going to get over to the island now that we've made it here...what we might find when we do make the crossing."
"We'll just have to see when we get there." Is his placid reply.
I can't help but feel patronized, as I clearly recall the same response from our mother on numerous occasions when I was a child, asking for some treat whenever we arrived at our destination. We each ponder the sky in silence a moment.
"Do you really think Nate and Samuel are dead?" The question just hangs there, unexpected by both of us.
Thomas had taken me fishing not long after their arrival and explained to me that he knew them both to be dead. I had mourned them in my own way, pouring my grief into work, hunting, anything I could. Then I moved on and left the great, gaping loss tucked away deep within myself. Yet, the question I've just asked would indicate I am still clinging to a scrap of hope that they are alive somewhere, that Thomas is wrong.
I expect only a curt "yes" in return. Only it doesn't come, and his silence is disconcerting. Thomas and I have never been especially close, but it is apparent that he is holding something back.
"We should have talked about this before we left the station... but with your injuries, Noah's death...I needed you sharp, alert, so we could get on the move."
"Talked about what? What haven't you told me?" Now I am genuinely confused and becoming irritated with his continuing hesitation. He draws a slow, laborious breath.
"Just understand, we had pressing matters. We had to get on the move and I couldn't have anyone distracted."
"Thomas, tell me!"
"Nathan is dead. I know this for a fact, I've seen his body."
"Yes... you've said. And Sam's too."
He shakes his head. "No. Just Nate. And actually, when I told you that, I hadn't seen his body yet either."
"So...what are you saying? They're alive or what?"
"No. Well, Sam is...might be."
"Remember those marauders who caught the campers our in the woods?"
"Well, one of the bodies Tobias found..." All at once I know what he's saying.
"It was Nathan? How? You said they were dead already... " I am getting to my feet now, fighting to keep my voice down. "Did you even CHECK the island, like you said you did, Thomas?"
"We were in bad shape. Eli was sick, Connor injured, I had to make a decision.With Mack City lost, I could only assume the worst if they'd even managed to make it this far. "
"You had no right to deem them dead!" my voice rises higher than I intend and Connor wakes, sitting bolt upright, hand on his gun. He eyes us both, shakes his head, and lies back down, pulling his jacket over his head.
"Hannah, I thought it was for the best that you accept it and let it go as soon as possible. I couldn't have you hanging on to false hope."
I can feel the anger burning in my cheeks.
"So, then, why after you found Nate's body did you still not tell me the truth?!"
He leans forward out of the shadows, pale moonlight splashing across his face, casting an eerie glow on his features.
"You had already processed their deaths once. Did you really want to do it again?"
"Samuel is alive."
"Might be. I have reason to believe...before we buried Nathan...I searched his body, his pack, for anything to indicate they'd been together."
"And?" I press.
"I found a letter from Sam, to you. Apologizing for not coming with the 'extraction team', he called it, that he was needed on the Island."
"And then what, you dumped his body and decided I didn't need to know?" I spit the words at him. "Who are you to decide what I can and cannot deal with?!" I am just getting started but Thomas holds up a hand and interrupts me.
"Tobias and I buried him. Respectfully. We marked the grave. One day when we go back, I will take you to it myself." His words come softer now, almost pleading me to understand but my renewed grief and anger at him for lying have mingled into a vicious beast and won't let me.
"His things? Did you just bury it all along with him? Just stow away his memory altogether?"
The moment the words leave my lips I know it's too harsh and with my anger waning, I am ashamed of myself for having been so cold. When he speaks again, his voice is low, broken, draped in sadness.
"I have everything he was carrying-" he pats his pack "- He was my brother, too, Hannah. And now he's just one more person I couldn't save."
With this, he stands up and fishes something from his pocket. He thrusts his closed fist at me.
I can only stare up at him dumbly as I hold out my hand. Something small drops into it and Thomas walks off away from camp without another word. When I look down to see what he's gien me, I am struck by the sentimentality of it. A silver medallion, no bigger than a nickel, on a simple silver chain. Nathaniel's St. Christopher medal. Our mother had given it to him and he wore it always, I don't recall him ever taking it off.
"St. Christopher is the patron saint of travellers." Nate had explained to me one day when I'd asked about it. "I plan on going a lot of places." He'd said, pointing to the globe our father kept in his study. "And old Saint Chris' here is gonna keep an eye on me."
The memory is too much and now I can't hold it in anymore. As I sit, clutching the pendant to my chest, the tears flow freely and I am glad no one is awake or near to see my weakness. Some time later; Markus, Tobias and Gabriel return to wake the next shift. Markus looks around the fire, obviously noticing Thomas' absence, then his eyes fall on me questioningly.
"He walked off a while ago." I say simply, offering no further explanation.
Markus looks skeptical but he only shrugs and turn to Eli.
"Lets go find him."
Grumbling a little, Eli finally agrees and I point them in the direction he went. Tobias, as if oblivious to all of it, is bedding down under a chokecherry bush, his back turned to us. Ignoring Gabriel's questioning look as he laid out his own bedroll, I shoulder my rifle and go off after them. Solo and I move swift and silent through the forest; lessons learned from failed hunts. I know we will find Thomas long before Eli and Markus can. Arcing to the right, we pass them in the dark and keep going; I remember seeing a particularly serene lookout and am certain Thomas will be there. He isn't. Instead, Solo nearly trips over him, seated in the tall grass which lines the shore as we come down the other side of the outlook. He's seated on damp log, staring out over the water. I know he hears our approach, yet he makes no move to acknowledge us, even as I sit beside him. He breaks the silence at last, not taking his eyes off the water.
"You know, in fifteen years of service, I never lost a single man under my command. Saw men die, sure, but none of MY soldiers. Between Texas and Michigan, I lost ten. First two, just short of the Texas/Oklahoma border. Shot down by some small-town rednecks ambushing anyone who approached their county line. Another, my Staff Sergeant, Kurt, lost in Little Rock, Arkansas. We had to leave the woods; they were swarming with infected. So, we go through this ittle residential area. Markus, he keeps pestering me, going on about a bad feeling and omens as he tends to do...he's been right before, but I didn't listen. Kurt never said a word to me, in all the years we served together, about where he was from, if he had a family, nothing. Just wasn't his style. We were in formation one minute, trying to get through this place as fast as possible, ,the next minute he breaks ranks and runs into this house." He pauses, shakign his head ruefully. "I had to other men close off the perimeter while I went in after him, found him in an upstairs bedroom; a nursery. He's just standing over the crib, and I get closer and can see it's all full of blood and what's left of an infant. He tells me this is his house, his son. There was an infected in the house somewhere close, I could hear it stumbling around, so I reach out for his arm to drag him outta there...he pulls his sidearm on me. Just like that-" He snaps his fingers. "- stares at me like he doesn't even know me. Then the walker comes around the corning. A woman, not too far decomposed, I could see it was the woman in the photo by the crib, smiling and holding the baby. Only now her face is in a permanent, gruesome smile because her left cheek is gone. He just looks at her, says 'I'm home, baby.' smiles and puts a bullet in her head. Looks at me, still smiling, and for a second I think he's snapped out of it. Till he puts the gun in his mouth and does himself." Thomas hangs his head. "I should've known. Should've stopped him. I just never saw it coming."
He takes a deep, shaky breath as he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a cluster of dog-tags on a single chain.
"The last two happened in some shit town in Indiana. We were svaneging some supplies and they wandered too far, got cut off from the group by a horde. By the time we got to them there wasn't anything to be done but put them down before they turned and get out of there as fast as we could."
The pain in his voice is palpble, as though he blames himself, solely, for each death. I rest my hand on his shoulder.
"None of that is your fault, Tommy. Neither was Nathaniel."
"If I had been thorough and gone over to the Island before going on to Grand Marais, he never would've come looking for us there. But I knew the Marauders were moving North, I KNEW that. And when we met Gabe, he recognized me from some photo you had of all of us at Christmas...he told me you and his Dad were all alone there...I was sure the Island had been taken and if Sam and Nate hadn't reached 'Marais by then, they were lost to us for certain."
"Thomas...death takes who he will, when he will, and that's it. We cheat him as long as we can and then he takes us."
He smiles, faintly, but genuinely.
"Thank you. But I don't believe that. I decide when death can have me. Not a minute before."
I know he is telling the truth, he believes this with all his heart. It hits me that I believe it, too, and that I have lived by this very mantra since the moment I left my house in Virginia. I think about how many times the flame of my life was nearly snuffed out over the past two (or was it three now?) years. More than a few times I've had to simply will myself to survive...or maybe no so much willed it as I had simply not considered failure; dying, as an option.
"Let's get back." Thomas says, yanking my braided hair affeciontately.
Back at camp, Thomas and Connor take perimeter watch and I settle onto my bedroll, Solo curled up nest to me. I bury my face in the warmth of his fur and am asleep instantly.
I am running...running...can hear them behind me, shouting and whooping to one another like they're hunting a wild pig. Their dogs, horrible and snarling are so close and still gaining ground...
Pain as I gasp for breath. How long have I been running? A mile? Two? The darkness affords me no benefit their dogs on me, howling after my scent. If only I could find water... I could lose them, make good my escape. But it's not to be. I hear the rapid footsteps a second before I feel the bite on my leg. One massive hound, faster than the rest, has caught it's quarry. The other dogs cry out their excitement as they hear the catch, the men answer, recognizing the call. I punch the dog over and over, finally drawing my empty pistol and beating it on the face to get it to release it's grip. I've already lost too much time, though. The dogs have surrounded me and the men are not far behind. All at once they appear in the darkness, grinning cruelly, and then one of the has me by the arm, a knife at my throat. Someone, I am able to turn on him and go for his eyes, only succeeding in ruining one as I am suddenly overcome with the searing pain of his blade piercing my side...