Stephanie shivered, it was getting dark and she was getting cold. Bruce had told her to wait here, but he was supposed to be back hours ago. He had promised her he would be back before dark and they’d find somewhere safe to bunk for the night. She took a slow breath, she needed to stay calm. He was probably just delayed, or maybe he needed some time to himself. They had been arguing more and more lately, though that was to be expected. Maybe Bruce was right, maybe she was spoiled. They had been sleeping outside for the last few weeks and she was getting sick of it, and she let him know. It had been an argument that was building for a while now. They both needed to blow off steam. She knew she was right though, and Bruce would see things her way soon. It was getting too cold to be sleeping outside, if they weren’t careful they could easily freeze to death, or worse, be caught. At least if they were in a house they’d hear someone breaking in, it’d be a bit warmer and they could plan a few escape routes. Outside like this they were vulnerable, they could be surrounded and she didn’t know why Bruce couldn’t, or wouldn’t see that.
Stephanie was getting nervous, shapes started appearing in the gloom, what once were trees became menacing figures, bushes became crouching forms. She knew she was on edge from the week before when she had almost been caught. She had stupidly allowed herself to get cornered by some feral looking kids, it was only through blind luck that she was able to get away.
It was fully dark now and Stephanie had moved to the trees. Where she had been felt too exposed. Here she could wait for Bruce and make sure it was really him before revealing herself. Maybe he wasn’t coming back. She pushed the thought away, no, he had to be. They had already been through so much together. Besides he was the only one she knew from Before. She knew she could trust him and he knew he could trust her. It was the only way to survive out here.
Stephanie snapped awake, at some point she had dozed off. The day was beginning to start, dawn giving light to the dark world. There was still no sign of Bruce, no evidence that he had been here at all. How long could she afford to wait? It had been two days since she had last eaten, she’d need to find something soon. Bruce had been the one to suggest the forest. He had come here every year as a child and he knew what was and wasn’t safe to eat. Without him she was lost here. She froze as someone stumbled into the clearing, her heart started beating faster. It was him, it had to be. The figure was moving slowly, weaving slightly as though drunk with one arm clasped tightly around his stomach. She watched as he fell against the tree stump she had been sitting on. Every part of her screamed to run and help Bruce, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t safe. The figure groaned, a weak noise, barely heard over the rustling of the leaves. She still couldn’t tell if it was Bruce, whoever it was seemed to be badly injured, she could probably get closer without being in too much danger. Unless it was a trap, designed to lure her out. Carefully she stood and started moving.
She had circled around the clearing, trying to move as quietly as possible. She had made some noise but the figure didn’t notice, she wasn’t sure if he was even still conscious. She saw no one else, no signs that any one was preparing to attack her. She studied the figure, she needed to make a decision, she had wasted enough time already. Stephanie took a deep breath then stood and strode into the clearing. Her heart thudded wildly in her chest but she needed to appear strong, confident. She stood a few feet away, she could make out features now that she was closer, it wasn’t Bruce.
“Who are you?”
There was no response. Was he conscious? She leaned in a little closer, his breathing was shallow, weak. She could see the blood now, it had run through his fingers, soaked into his clothes. If he was faking he was doing a damn good job. She kicked his foot, almost gently, there was no response. She leaned a little closer and reached out slowly, ready to snatch her hand back if she needed. Stephanie grabbed his shoulder and shook. He felt cold and thin, the baggy clothes hid how emaciated he really was. He groaned but didn’t open his eyes. She glanced around then squatted beside him, carefully she pulled his hand away. The wound was ragged and deep, it needed stitches at the very least and was probably already infected.
“Hey, can you hear me?”
His head moved slightly, almost bobbing up and down.
“What happened to you?”
Silence. She needed to get him talking, make sure he was awake. Or was it sleep that he needed? She sighed in frustration, she was way out of her depth.
A few hours later he was bandaged, she had used one of her t-shirts. He still hadn’t said much of anything, just random words and gibberish, though now his forehead felt hot to the touch and he was sweating heavily. She had managed to give him some water, tiny little sips that seemed as though they were making no difference.
He opened his eyes ,they were wide, fearful and a deep shade of blue. Stephanie rested her hand on his shoulder, “It’s ok, you’re safe here. What happened to you?”
“I don’t know. It happened really fast.”
He took a sip of water, Stephanie had to pull it away from him before he downed the entire bottle.
He frowned at her, “Are you Stephanie?”
a ball of dread formed in her stomach, “Yeah.”
“I was with Bruce when we were attacked. I don’t think he got away. I didn’t look, I just kept going. He told me about you, about his plan.”
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes and took a slow breath, “I’m in a bad way. I don’t think there’s going to be any coming back from this.”
“You’ll be fine, you just need to rest a little.”
“No, they’ll be coming. Sooner or later. They know which way I went, you need to get moving. Leave me here.”
“I can’t do it by myself, I don’t know anything about surviving out here. Bruce was supposed to teach me, we were supposed to be out here together.”
He shook his head, “You’re going to have to learn quickly. I had a book. I don’t know where it is. I think I dropped it. It was for foraging, maybe you could find it.”
His breathing was getting heavy. The makeshift bandages were already soaked through with blood. He looked her over once, “You’ll be all right. You’ll survive.”
Stephanie went to the trees and took her backpack from its hiding spot. She needed to get moving. After he was dead she removed the bandage she had wrapped around him. It couldn’t look like anyone else helped. She searched through the woods, following his path, but there was no sign of a book. There was a library in town, was that where they had been caught? Maybe one of the bookstores on the outskirts. There, a flash of blue. She stooped down and pulled the book from the bushes. She turned off the path and started walking into the woods. She had some supplies, not many, but enough. She knew she could die out in the wilderness, but she was just as likely to die anywhere else these days. At least with the book she now had a fighting chance.