Jay continued to watch Annie, her free movements taunting him. We sat for hours, ignoring the searing discomfort from staying motionless, cramped in the tree, unseen and unmoving. “Charlie,” he choked finally, “tell me what to do.”
I shook my head, not that he could see me. All he could see was Annie, his last link to his family.
“I can’t.” I whispered. I managed to twist myself around, reach out for him, my fingertips just barely grazing his skin. He tore his eyes away from her, catching me off guard. All the sadness in the world lingered in his expression, his eyes heavy with torment.
When we looked back, only moments later, the group was moving. From our viewpoint, we could hear mutterings of it being time for ‘the meeting’, and the group doused their fire and hurried the children away, into the biggest building in the area.
Just like that, she was gone.
I shook myself out of my stupor, slowly realising we had an opportunity here. I pulled at Jay’s jacket, stealing his attention away. “Let’s get down.”
He stared after the group for another moment, although we couldn’t see them now that they’d disappeared into the building. We clumsily slipped our way down from the tree, twigs and bark snagging our clothes and showering on to the ground below us. We didn’t have time for care – they hadn’t left any kind of lookouts, and we had no idea how long the meeting would last.
We jogged, half bent, away from the buildings, tucking ourselves behind a rock wall. We were further away now, but we could still risk looks around the rocks to see what was happening in Harvey’s compound.
I dropped my pack in front of us, pulling out a tin of tuna. I peeled the ringpull back and helped myself to some, handing the tin to Jay. He took it and stared at it, not seeming to realise what it was for, his mouth slightly open, his eyes distant.
“We have to leave her here.” He said at last. “Don’t we?”
I risked a look around the rocks to the compound, but there was no sign of anyone yet. The sound of someone’s laughter tinkled through the trees, and then silence fell around us again. I thought about Jay’s question, about what we were really considering.
I wondered how she had settled so quickly, if she had missed us at all. The kind of dark, accusatory thoughts I had no right to make about someone so young. She hadn’t done this, we hadn’t done it… It was all on Harvey. Whatever he’d done to get her here, like this, he’d done it well. She was playing and laughing and doing all the things that she hadn’t done with us.
“They won’t be moving from here,” I spoke slowly, carefully: “we’ll know where she is, at least for the time being.”
It was a safe assumption to make – this compound was even better than McKenzie’s, far enough away that they needn’t worry about intruders.
“Why couldn’t they have let us all stay?” Jay asked angrily. “All this fucking room, all this safety… And he took her, left us to die.”
He hadn’t wanted us. We were about as much use as damaged goods, and he had discarded us as such. For the first time, faced with the very real outcome of losing Annie for good, it stung. Harvey had seen us, considered as, and just like that, we were dismissed. We weren’t even nothing to him – we were less, and he was at ease with leaving us to die.
He had done the same with Rachel – and that was why he’d never do the same with Annie. He took her on her own so he could mould her, dictate that she became loyal and followed him, stuck to whatever plans of survival he saw fit to carry out.
It was sickening, but we had to trade who she might have become with her safety. There was laughter here, play and security – we had nothing but possibly temporary accommodation and a limited source of supplies. We had been too lucky for too long, and our survival had to take a hit eventually.
“She’s safest here.” I spoke so quietly I was amazed he heard me. Tears pooled in his eyes, but he met my gaze and nodded.
He risked a look around the rocks. “They’re not out yet.”
“Do you…” Do you remember when… But I cut myself short. Memories of Annie weren’t what we needed right now. They would plague us for the weeks or months – or whatever we actually had left – to come.
The decision felt uncomfortably right, but it felt like the closing of a chapter, the first toll of our death bell.
I knew it was again my turn to take the lead, to take charge of the situation that was crumbling beneath us.
“I think… I think we can leave now, while they’re inside… Or we can wait until dark, maybe get to see her again.”
Anguish ran over Jay’s face, his eyes heavy and shadowed, his forehead aged with the creases of an old man’s worry. “Now.”
I paused, both unsure in our observation that they had no sentry, and weak with the weight of the decision we were about to carry through with. At what fucking point was enough, enough? At what point could we rest? Of all the hope we’d lost, all the joy we’d let slip through our fingers… This was the worst. This sat heavily on my chest, crushing my heart, leaving me winded.
All of it, I knew, paled in comparison to the darkness that had fallen over Jay. We sat together, close, but he wasn’t here anymore. I could feel the emptiness that had taken over, his spirit sapped.
If we each had a limit, a breaking point, this was ours.
Without speaking, without even really checking, we moved from the rocks at half height, jogging only a few paces before standing upright.
We stood for comfort, not speed. Our pace was reluctant, resistant.
There was no glancing behind us, no care if a shout of alarm followed us.
A part of us would have welcomed it. A part of us wanted it to be finished.
By instinct, we headed for the thickest line of the trees, but there was nothing in us that fought to survive. We hid out of habit, scurrying away from Harvey like mice.
If he would let us see her again, just once, it would be worth facing his wrath. Even as I had the thought, I was shaking it away. I could still hear her laughter echoing around us. The memory of scrawny Annie had been replaced with healthy, happy Annie.
We gave in to Harvey for the final time, and said a goodbye that Annie would never hear.