Jay was stunned beside me, his breath caught mid-gasp, his eyes locked intently on Annie as she walked around the camp.
I watched him for a moment, watched sparks of life energize him, just being near her enough to bring him back from the brink we both balanced on.
Looking back to Annie, what struck me the most was how peaceful she looked. She wasn’t crying, she didn’t look lost or confused. She looked… Normal.
With us, she’d been afraid, unhappy, her face constantly marked with dirt and tears. Here she was clean, calm. Happy.
Another girl approached her, a girl that looked just as calm, just as at home. She laughed and ran around Annie, playfully taunting her.
Annie’s giggle ran through the bush around us, a sound that had Jay recoil, back into the tree, his back pushed hard against the branches.
“Amirah!” She cried, running after the girl. “Where are you going?”
The little girl – Amirah – laughed and ran away, Annie following her, her giggles fading as they disappeared from view.
It was a difficult thing to watch, it felt impossible to stay silent and let her run away from us. I could feel Jay’s urgency, his desperation to call out for her.
I looked back at him, folded into the tree, his entire body slowly slumping, the life and energy fading away from him the longer she’d been gone from view.
What should have been a moment of cautious joy was replaced quickly with uncertainty. We had no plan, no ideas about what to do next. As always, Harvey was more than one step ahead of us.
Their camp was surrounded by fencing – it was makeshift, admittedly, but it was enough to form a boundary. There were more people milling about now, becoming more active as daybreak emerged.
“They move during the day.” Jay’s voice was low but venomous. “He feels that safe still.”
His voice trailed off then, and I could tell I’d lost him to his thoughts. It was true the group moved about comfortably in the daylight, not even bothering to really check their surroundings or that their boundaries were still secure.
It was a strange thing to observe, a group of people moving freely, almost relaxed. We soon saw that Annie and her new friend weren’t alone, that there were several other children, who all laughed and played so normally I began to feel nauseous. There were no adults that told them to be quiet, no fear of giggling.
Soon half a dozen or so adults joined the kids, eating together as a group. There was no sign of Harvey or Colin.
Gradually we grew more at ease with our position. They didn’t see us because they weren’t looking for us – there was no sign of a sentry, no sign of any surveillance at all.
I felt like we were watching a summer camp.
“Look how happy she is.” Jay whispered. “She’s… she’s alive again.”
The Annie we spied on now was not the Annie we’d dragged through our torturous weeks of survival. She ate hungrily, she talked, she laughed.
She was back to a more normal weight, not the wiry frame she’d been with us, only barely surviving. Her hair was brushed, her face clean, her clothes mismatched but warm and clean.
We stared at each other, our expressions sad and furious. The thoughts were ugly, hateful, selfish, but…
I could tell by the sudden shine in his eyes that Jay’s mind had gone down the same path, that his thoughts were reeling with the same questions and doubts.
He looked back to their camp for a long time, watching as Annie hungrily finished her meal, as she went back to joking and laughing with Amirah – who seemed to be her closest friend – and the other children.
“They’re looking after her.” He looked back to me now, his face flushed red, his shiny eyes wavering. “She wasn’t like that with us.”
We were thinking along the same dark lines, then. There was no denying it now. I watched him carefully, resisting the urge to look back to Annie.
“This is not… We can’t…” My voice faltered. “… I can’t have a part in this decision.”
It was happening quickly now, the crazy half-thoughts forming properly, the realisations breaking over us. The idea hung in the air around us, heavy and forlorn.
“I can’t offer her any of this.” Jay whispered. He stared determinedly at me, his entire body shaking as he fought the want to look at her again.
“What are you…?” I had to hear him say it. We had to flesh this out.
“What if we… What if we let her stay?” Even as he spoke the words, he looked shocked at his own suggestion. Disappointed, furious. “What if Harvey is her best chance?”
A sick feeling was creeping up from the pit of my stomach, leaving my body cold and quivering. I stared back at Annie as we fell into an uneasy silence.
Her careless giggling rang out around us as we watched her, as we contemplated leaving her with the enemy.