Don’t stop running.
Whatever I do, I can’t stop.
My lungs are burning and the tree branches are leaving scrapes on my face, my arms. Blisters have long since formed on the backs of my heels and fatigue plagues every one of my limbs. But I won’t let them catch me. I can’t go back there.
The howls of misery haunt my ears even now. The grimy bars on the windows. The utter loneliness and monotony and sadness. I can’t. I can’t do it anymore.
The forest ends and I stumble to a stop, my breath wheezing in and out of my lungs.
The place where I’ve been living for two years seemed like it could only exist at the ends of the earth, so I expected to be running for another couple of hours until I got anywhere. Perhaps I should keep going. Get farther away. When they come looking for me, they’ll probably check the closest houses, won’t they? Or have I traveled far enough?
Time is hazy.
The back door of the house flies open. A shotgun muzzle eases out through the opening and points square between my eyes. And I almost laugh. I really do.
Out of frying pan, into the fire.
A floorboard creaks and the door edges wider, revealing the man holding the weapon.
Even in my exhausted, panicky state, I recognize that he’s a force of nature. He’d have to duck to exit the house without knocking his head into the doorframe. In a sweat-stained white T-shirt, he looks like he’s been working out, well-maintained muscles stretching the sleeves. Are those dog tags beneath the cotton? Yeah. He’s military for sure. I spent some time on a base growing up and there’s no mistaking his poise. He’s killed before. His hands are steady, black hair shorn tight to his scalp.
His slate-gray eyes are meaner and fiercer than any I’ve seen. Worse than the head nurse’s, even. They look down the barrel of the gun, taking my measure. When he’s determined I’m not a threat, he straightens slowly, lowering the weapon. “Are you my intern?” he rasps.
My immediate impulse is to say yes.
This is a man people don’t like to disappoint.
He’s also a man to whom lying is useless. I can see that already.
One sweep of those sniper’s eyes and he’s picked me apart. Sorted me like laundry.
“Did you run here or something?”
I open my mouth to respond, though I have no idea what I’m going to say…and I find I can’t speak. There’s no saliva in my mouth. My throat is coated in dust, and Jesus…dizziness is setting in. Oh lord, I’m so tired. The adrenaline is beginning to drain out of me and now my limbs are shaking, preparing to give out. And they do.
Am I safe?
I turn and look at the woods, hiccupping a sob.
Please. Please don’t find me.
When I turn back around, he’s less than a foot away and I suck in a shocked breath, stumbling backwards. And I go down. I go down, but he catches me and slowly lowers me to the grass, frowning something fierce at my pitiful condition.
There’s something about his hands. The capability in them. The experience.
Right before the blackness claims me, the word safe whispers through my mind.
* * *
I wake up in a foreign bed and immediately know I’m not alone.
He’s there in the corner. Heel propped on the opposite knee.
Cloaked in shadows. Methodically drinking a cup of coffee.
Now that the sun isn’t glaring in my eyes, I can see that he’s younger than I originally thought. Maybe twenty-eight. Thirty.
Remembering how he greeted me, I sit up and gather the army-green comforter around me, my gaze scanning the room for his shotgun.
“I put it away,” he says, that voice so low. Deep as a well.
Swallowing, I take stock of my clothing. Still dressed. Minus my socks, though.
He sets his coffee aside, standing long enough to bring me a canteen of water. “You always show up for a new job on the verge of death?”
My response is to suck down the water greedily, finishing the entire canteen before ten seconds has passed. My body is so relieved to have its dehydration cured, tears crowd my eyes and I take a deep, gulping breath, the metal container rolling out of my slack grip.
“If we’re going to work together, you’re going to have to knock off the crying.”
I want to tell him I hardly ever shed tears. There’s no point. Crying just makes me think of more reasons to be sad. But I stare up at the ceiling until my eyes are dry, then I focus on him. To tell him the truth. That whoever he was waiting for? His intern? I’m not her. After that’s out of the way, maybe I can convince him to lend me cash for a bus ticket. “I’m not your in—”