The first day’s hike had been okay. They had retraced their steps from their sea cave to Garbage Bay, where they’d paused to catch and eat a late breakfast, with fire kindled from one of their torches. Andy had turned a few more pieces of driftwood into torches for later. The consistency of the wood never failed to puzzle her – carved like soft stone, grew like a leafless tree, burned like wood, but very slowly and without much heat. They’d found her little stream, so meager compared to the vast river she was growing used to, and started tracing its bank up through the dunes.
They scavenged as they went, and conversation ranged from the limits of botany – what do you call something with roots that wiggles when you pick it? – to a continued explanation/recitation of Lord of the Rings. Apparently they should feel a lot of kinship, since that involved a lot of hiking through swamps and mountains as well.
The first day covered most of the sand dunes. By the time they camped for the night, studying each other for signs that it was okay to complain about how much their feet hurt, all Andy could do was collapse. Michelle put a few strips of fish and her canteen into her hands, and Andy ate and drank mechanically.
It was the second day, when her legs were already screaming at her from all the rolling dunes yesterday, and she’d eaten not much at all, and the ground began to be broken dirt and rock instead of sand, that Andy began having trouble. Everything sucked. The ground sucked. The water sucked. The food definitely sucked. Noah, with his distant focus and habit of forgetting you’d been talking to him, sucked. Michelle’s seemingly endless stamina for walking sucked. Being the one who always had to call for the breaks? Sucked the most. Noah would bounce on his heels as if he wasn’t at all impatient to move on. Michelle would sit and not comment as Andy tried frantically to catch her breath.
“Were you two athletes back home, or something?” she asked.
“I spent a lot of time walking,” said Michelle. “I think Noah said he was on a swim team or something.”
Noah didn’t correct her, so apparently.
“I left home, I told you that,” Michelle told her. “So I bummed around the city for a while. Except that’s illegal, and I didn’t know any better – I got picked up by the cops and my dad had to come pick me up. He was so pissed. He didn’t realize I’d actually been running away, he thought I was just skipping school. Stupid of me, to use my real name.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. It doesn’t matter here, but I used a couple different ones once I got away again. I decided to hitchhike to LA, become an actress – I can’t say I thought that one through, either, but I was such a kid back then.”
“Yeah, okay,” Andy prompted, leaning forward to watch Michelle’s thoughtful, slightly sad expression.
“So – and this is where the walking comes in – I decide to hitchhike, because I don’t want to waste my last money on a bus. I’ve just stolen another hundred bucks from my dad, but I’m not giving that away on bus fare. So I start walking on a road leading west and start hitching with the first car that doesn’t seem like he or she’s an ax murderer.”
“You – were okay, on the road? No ax murderers?”
“Well… there were a few creeps. I spent a lot of that trip dressed like I was a boy.”
“That must have bugged you,” said Andy. It wasn’t a stretch – Michelle tended to wear being female like armor, or a second skin. Her attachment to her hair was violently obvious.
“So much. But I was happy about it, by the time I got to LA. It gave me a little time to figure myself and the streets out.”
“Do you mind if I ask-“
“I’m fine with questions,” Michelle said, drawing Noah’s attention, finally. He stopped bouncing and sat down on a rock near them. “If I get to ask some, too.”
“Yeah,” said Andy. “That’s fair.”
“How’d you, um, get by? On the streets.”
“I tried a little bit of everything except hooking, at first. I had this uptight attitude about hooking and drugs and all. That didn’t last long, heh. But by the time I would have considered it, I was already doing pretty well for myself.”
“I lived on the beaches, because they’re warm and practical – at least until the cops call in the Tydrin. And I stole. A lot.”
Andy caught Michelle shooting her a wary look, and tried a smile on for size in response. It seemed an odd time to start judging her now.
“Any good?” asked Noah.
“I was actually getting there,” laughed Michelle. “Mostly shoplifting, but I picked a few pockets when it was asking for it.”
“It doesn’t sound very safe,” he added.
“It wasn’t,” Michelle said. “But I had my little pack of other kids in basically the same situation – like, runaways, too young to get a job or didn’t have the paperwork to do it. We looked out for each other. My turn for a question. You really got picked up by the Tydrin for politics?”
“Me and a group of my dumbass college friends were wandering in circles around the college green carrying signs saying the Tydrin should get the hell off our planet. My parents told me to keep my head down about the Tydrin. I should have listened.”
“It’s funny,” Michelle said slowly. “Aside from the distinct lack of ERs, life here is actually going a bit better for me. I trust you guys more than I trusted my pack back home. The cave’s damn nice. The reef is plain fun.”
“I was enjoying my classes,” said Andy. “Um – hey. Maybe we should do classes here, when we have a chance? When things settle down. Refresh our memories about science and math and stuff.”
“You want to learn Spanish?” Michelle asked. “I don’t see how it’d help, but it’s not like I’m going to forget it any time soon.”
“We need to teach you to swim properly,” Noah said. “That comes first.”
“Of course,” said Andy. “But – maybe. I’d like that.”
“Look, I like this and all,” he added, “But we’re losing daylight. Can we move on?”
Andy heaved herself to her feet with a sigh. Conversation had briefly distracted her from how much hiking sucked.
“Yeah, we’re moving,” Andy said. And off they went again, slowly toiling their way into the mountains.
The stream they followed climbed slowly up into the lifeless mountains. They left behind the sound and then the smell of the sea, until the only sounds were their own and the wind and the quiet gurgle of the stream. To Andy’s ears it echoed oddly, so used had she grown to the constant sound of the surf. Noah and Michelle taught her about gathering lichen from the rocks. Soaked in water and the whole thing heated by whatever fire they managed that night, it turned into an acceptable gruel that was at least filling, if not nutritious. They tried not to eat their stored fish, since they didn’t know how many people they would need to be feeding soon. Andy didn’t think she was the only one who broke down and ate a piece or two on the sly, when hunger tightened her belly and fogged her mind.
“If these guys are sitting pretty on a huge pile of delicious cave snake roasts and some sort of bird thing and we stumble into their camp like that,” she commented after finishing climbing a boulder taller than her and Michelle put together, “I’m going to just sit there and cry.”
“I’m going to ask to stay for dinner,” said Noah, still climbing the rock. Andy edged forward on her belly and offered him a hand up, which he accepted. She heaved, and he scrambled, and then all three of them were up the boulder.
“I swear,” Andy said, struggling to catch her breath, “My mom would love this for me, aside from the obvious. I’m getting dark and skinny and fit.”
“She one of those overbearing moms?” Noah asked.
“Not like some people,” Andy tipped her head at him, acknowledging his parental situation. “But between her and my dad, she was the bossy one.”
She stood up again, and followed Michelle, who was ahead of them again, finding her way over the rock field on light feet.
“Sometimes I can’t stand how easy she makes this look,” Andy muttered to herself.
“Mmmm,” Noah said, making his habitual sound of agreement.
Andy coughed a laugh, and decided to save her breath for clambering over, under, and between the rocks in their efforts to keep the stream, which popped in and out of sight beneath the rockfields, in sight.
As they were beginning to recognize as the norm, it rained that same day. The rocks turned slick and unyielding and impossible, and to protect themselves and their sputtering lit torch and Andy’s prayers to the uncaring universe that she not have to spend another six hours attempting to turn sparks into flames using tiny rocks, they took shelter in a slightly drier overhang beneath one of the endless boulders.
“How many of the torches got wet?” asked Michelle.
They were each carrying three of the things at this point, awkwardly strapped to their backs. It wasn’t comfortable, even though Andy was now down to two and the one in her hand.
Andy surveyed her damp comrades.
“All of them,” she answered.
Night came on before the rain ended. That was the fourth day.
The morning of their fifth travel day dawned clear and bright, with a pale blue-green sky and Noah’s leg refusing to bend or unbend. He rolled over onto his side and used an arm to lever himself upright.
They’d camped last night in a hollow they’d used on their way down, with as much fresh water to drink as you could want and hard rock for a bed.
The rock had not helped his leg, which seemed to think the use of his knee was unnecessary for continued travel. He massaged the thigh muscle and back of his knee cautiously. It was warm, swollen, the muscle knotted up hard under his questing fingers.
More importantly right now, it hurt with a queasy fire when he touched it or tried to bend it. He winced, but kept up his slow exploration of the problem.
“What’s wrong?” asked Michelle.
Andy was still pulling herself out of sleep, but Michelle was already sitting up and gnawing on breakfast.
Noah smiled thinly.
“My leg again, I’m afraid,” he said. “I must have overdone it yesterday with the climbing.”
“Can you walk?”
“I, ah. I’m not quite sure. Give me some time to try to stretch it out.”
And that was what he did. With gentle massage and using one of the torches as a walking stick, he found himself able to get upright. Gentle walking back and forth on their little flat brought some motion back to the leg, though he was limping, he thought, most pronouncedly.
His knee hurt. That was the obvious, incontroversial pain. Worse was the way it seemed to travel up and down the leg, making everything from his hip to his ankle want to freeze up and just not move, not function.
“This really isn’t a good place to stop,” Michelle said uneasily, watching him. “If it rained-“
“I know,” he said shortly. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look-“
“I’m fine,” Noah repeated. “I’ll ask for help if I need it. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said.
Noah had a sinking guilty feeling that he’d just lied to her, but he had his pride, and he didn’t want to deal with arguing with his pride and arguing with his leg and arguing with Michelle all at once.
He’d be fine. He’d have to be.