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And the World was Quiet.
Hi, I am sad. America's got Talent likes those.
Deep in the heart of the country, where the weeds grow tall and the grass runs green beneath the vast blue sky, cloudless and bright, there lies a forest. This forest is sparse, barely dense enough to be considered more than a large, vague concentration of Oak and Cedar, and split by a wide river which divides the forest into two roughly equal halves. The river flows slowly, bubbling on rock and not splitting at a single point, with fantastically clear water. If a leaf, orange from the blessings of autumn, fell into it from one of the few oaks bordering the shore, it would cast a shadow on the rocky floor. It was so clear, in fact, that if one were to be so bold as to dip their faces beneath the surface and brave the chill, they would most likely see straight to Mexico.
It was late summer, the time when the heat mostly dissipates, and the Earth is left with warm air and a cool breeze. The trees were beginning to show their autumn colors, and specks of fantastic maroon and blazing orange found themselves among the greenery of the forest. The sun shone brightly on the dew-covered, flowing grass, firing ripples of white, bright reflection throughout the hills and valleys. Such a beautiful sight, untouched by the merciless fist of humanity, would not seem possible to most, but in the state of Texas, where the land seems to stretch forever and the skies embrace the horizon in arms of blue, it was so. Though, to say that the forest was untouched is to ignore the two young children that made their way into that blue-green oasis on one bright morning.
The boy and the girl walked beneath the blazing sun and the wide sky. Wind teased the girl’s hair and threatened to blow the boy’s cap from his head. The ground below them was emerald green and flowing, covered in dew from the last night’s rainfall that made their feet wet. The girl winced with every step she took. She asked why they had to leave their shoes behind at the fence. The boy said that his father would have known they had been off the ranch. There was no grass on the ranch for dew to cover, and his father was obsessive in knowing where his workers had been. He would be bound to check their shoes.
Birds sang, cutting through the quiet lull of the breeze, but neither the boy nor the girl could see any tree or hill where a bird would be around them. The horizon was bare, and the plains seemed to have no end. The boy and the girl were exhausted. Their feet dragged beneath them and the cold grass struck their nerves. The girl did not make her suffering obvious. She walked quietly and carefully, eyes ahead and hands grasped behind her back. The boy was astounded, for he felt absolutely awful. He barely controlled his breath, and tried to not let the wet ground stir him. He did not want to seem weak to the girl.
Both children did not talk much. The boy let his thoughts race with what to say, while the girl only studied what was around them. Despite their discomfort. she mentioned the oddity of the birds they had heard, and how blue the sky was. He loved to listen to her talk, and hung at the end of every sentence. Her accent fascinated him. It was so different than his, yet they spoke the same language, which confused yet delighted him. Without effort, his gaze shifted towards the sky and was set there. He opened his mouth for the first time in quite a bit, and replied that yes, it is very blue. His heart was set at ease for a moment.
How blue the sky is, thought the boy. It really was a dazzling shade, compounded by the shining grass and the white tufts of cloud in the air. He stared, entranced by what he saw. The clouds drifted in the blue like marble sailboats in an endless sea. Wind carried the clouds like it carried a boat’s sails, and he watched as they changed their shape and transformed into new, more foreign designs than before. He was so fascinated with what he was seeing, that he did not hear the girl’s warning, nor the sudden drop.
The ground seemed to give way beneath him, and he was suddenly thrust into a laying position, where he then began to slide rapidly down a steep decline. His attempts to stop himself were thwarted by the slick blades of grass, and he yelled in surprise and excitement as he slid. He came to a stop at the bottom, and got up laughing. His laughter stopped as soon as he felt the ice-cold moisture running down his back. The entire back side of his body had been soaked in dew, and he stood for a moment, shocked.
A sound like rushing water reached his ears, and he turned in time to see the girl sliding down the same path that he had taken. She came to a stop, got up, and looked around at her formerly white dress, which was now soaked with mud. The boy apologized quickly, saying that she didn’t need to follow him, and then asked why she had followed him. She only answered that she saw no other way down.
The boy’s thoughts halted for a moment before he decided to observe where he had landed. His eyes followed his trail down, to where he had landed, to the girl, and finally beyond that. Looking behind him, he saw a small, stocky Oak tree. His surprise was only amplified when he looked beyond it and saw more trees of various heights and hues. The trees were not closely concentrated, not at all. They were set sparsely, with yards between each individual tree. The place looked more like a chess board than a forest, with the grass as the board and the trees as the pieces. The boy exclaimed, and turned to the girl. This was the place he wanted to show her.
She stood completely still, studying the forest with the same intensity that the boy had studied the clouds. The boy could not decipher the emotion in her eyes. How, she asked, did he know where the forest was? She questioned him not with a disdain and malice, wondering why he has wasted her time, but with genuine curiosity. He answered hesitantly, as if his explanation invited some disbelief even from himself.
Another farmhand, one he did not know the name of, took the boy aside one day as he was tending to piglets that had only just been born. The man simply raised his hand, extended his finger, and told the boy there was a forest that direction, brighter and greener than anything the boy had ever seen. As the boy remembered, he had been a decent fellow before he was fired, always helping out where he could and always the first to volunteer for the hardest work. Sometimes he even split his pay with some of the men who usually worked the jobs he took, as compensation. He always carried himself, never pouting nor glowing, standing straight and getting the job done. To the younger men, he had been a fantastic source of morale and served as the brightest part of their days. To the more elderly and dedicated workers, he seemed desperate, a boot-licker who was always finding ways to grapple affection from the superiors.
He told the boy that once, when he was the boy’s age, his family had passed through those plains on their way from New Mexico. As a newly established state, there was incredible opportunity for land ownership, but his family had been too poor and too old to make any sort of living, so they made the journey to the ranch, where the man could find work and ensure that his parents lived decently. He said that he always wanted to go back, someday, maybe when he was laid off or disabled, but not now. For now, he had to work for his folks.
The man said that he hated the drab, dead brown and beige hues of the ranch, hated it with all of his soul. He said that he kept his head down whenever he could, focused on the mud beneath him, and then he could imagine huge trees and white clouds around him. Placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder, he said that the ranch was no place for a child, whether or not they’re the son of the boss. Nepotism didn’t account for much on the ranch. The boy already knew that.
Before the man left to return to his work, he left the boy with one last thought. He told him that he should bring along anyone he felt deserved better than the ranch. The boy was confused. The man only winked, grinned his toothless grin, and left. He was fired a few days later. The boy never knew why.
Both children wandered, exploring their new discovery. Sunlight filtered through the trees’ twigs, casting rays of delicate, holy light on the ground and forming new, strange shapes. Multicolored leaves littered the ground, and they crunched with a dry crack whenever their feet came down upon them. Birds called, insects buzzed, and animals of almost every size scurried through the leaves. The boy once saw a squirrel scutter up the long body of a Cedar tree, and pointed excitedly, yelling. He scared the animal, but before it disappeared into the warm red and yellow leaves, the girl caught a slight glimpse. She was amazed at how quickly it moved, how long its body was, and how it could even manage to climb such a vertical surface. She ran to the tree, staring up into the branches, trying to see it again. The boy jokingly asked if she had ever seen a squirrel before. She said she never had.
The girl explained to the boy that before her family came to work on the ranch, they had lived in a city with no animals. Not a city like the one near the ranch, explained the girl, but much larger and much dirtier. There was barely a tree in sight, dim electric lights poorly lit the blackened stone streets, and everyone was especially rude even when you were just walking somewhere. One time, she had been sent by her mother to head to the market and buy a few grams of salt. On the way, she passed an old and poor looking man, who kept his hands buried deep into his pockets. She walked slowly past him, straining her vision to keep an eye on him. He only watched her with a wicked, sorrowful expression. At the market she saw the same man. The girl became scared and left without the salt.
At home, her father yelled at her, and she cried. The boat overseas, she explained, with all of the cold air and the saltwater spitting at your face and the wind threatening to blow you from where you stand, none of it compared to her father’s yelling. She said that she was glad that he was thrown overboard. She said that her father’s death was at least one good thing that came out of that boat ride. The boy said nothing. They kept walking.
While the forest was not especially dense, it was absolutely enormous. Looking in either direction, all the children could see were the trees, creating a wall that obstructed anything beyond the forest’s edge. The girl became anxious. She turned around and around as they walked, looking for a break in the tree line and finding none. Soon she told the boy that they should go back, before they got too lost. The boy said that he wanted to see more of the forest. He added bashfully that he wanted her to go with him. They eventually came to a compromise: the boy would gather thin twigs from the trees, breaking them off and stabbing them into the ground where they walked. The twigs would be spaced apart, but just close enough as to form a coherent line that the children could follow on their return. The girl was satisfied and was calm again.
As they walked, the children became fatigued. The girl complained that she had not eaten anything that morning, and that they should go back. They boy did not complain. He let the pit in his stomach grow, gnawing at his insides and making him miserable. The bundle of sticks in his hand seemed to grow heavier with each step. Looking back towards the girl, he saw the exhaustion in her eyes, all of the wonder and enthusiasm drained from them. He immediately sought a solution. Smiling, he told her to wait while he went and found something for them to eat. At first, she didn’t think it would have been a good idea, but seeing his smile and his excitement forced her to back down. Just like seeing a puppy’s eyes as they look up, eager for a scrap of food, it disarmed her. She agreed, found a dry spot in the grass, and leaned against a tree, sitting in the shade. She sat with her legs crossed and put her chin in her hands, watching the boy as he wandered deeper into the forest. After a few minutes had passed, she became tired. The coolness of the shade and the comforting bend of the bark against her back made her eyelids heavy. After trying and failing to keep them open, she fell asleep against the tree, cradled in its embrace. She dreamt of an open ocean, with rolling waves and a gentle sea breeze. There were no boats, and there was no screaming. She smiled in her sleep.
Late in the night, the man could hear the boss’s yelling.
It was unmistakably his, with all the depth of a contrabass and the volume of a siren, echoing throughout the ranch. The man wondered if the other hands could hear it. Turning in his cot, he saw the time on the wall clock, bathed in moonlight. It was the middle of the night. The man turned again on to his back, staring at the cabin’s ceiling. The snoring of his cabin mates was not enough to drown out the noise. He tried covering his ears with the thin pillow, but it did nothing. The sound continued, only growing more intense. Sighing, he rose out of bed, slid into his work boots, and stepped out into the late-night chill. From the cabin’s entrance, he could see only a single light that was lit in the entirety of the ranch, with the exception of the main house: the children’s cabin, straight across from his own. The yelling had grown only more intense, and shadows moved in the warm candle light. He crossed his arms, braced himself against the cold, and walked. As he got closer to the cabin door, he thought he could hear crying.
The boy was gone for an hour. He emerged from the deeper forest with his cap missing from his head. Instead, it was in his hands, filled with dark berries that reflected the sun’s glow. The berries were piled, and as he walked a few fell out and around his feet. He was carrying the bundle of sticks under his arm, supporting the weight of his berry-filled cap with both hands. Once he reached the tree, he set the cap down, causing the summit of his berry mountain to crumble and crash into the grass. He sighed, and saw the girl leaning against the tree, sleeping soundly. He crouched beneath the girl as quiet as he could, and shook her shoulder.
She opened her eyes slowly, fluttering them before looking at the boy. He smiled, and raised the cap full of berries. She closed her eyes again, smiled, and sat up straight. Stretching her arms above her head, she thanked him and yawned. Her hand blindly wandered to the cap, grabbed a single berry, and brought it to her mouth. She studied it for a moment before popping it into her mouth. The boy watched, eager to see that his efforts had paid off. She began to chew.
Before long, however, her face contorted, morphing into a strange expression of confusion and disgust. She finished chewing before swallowing the berry entirely. Even after the berry was gone, the same look of disgust remained. They’re too sour, she said, they’re no good. The boy was heartbroken, and looked sorrowfully at the pile of berries in the cap. That look broke the girl’s heart, and she formed the best smile that she could despite the berry’s aftertaste. She told the boy that it was okay, and that he tried his best. She thanked him for gathering so many, and that he couldn’t have known how bitter they were. He deflected the comfort, lamenting that he could have at least tried one before he stuffed his cap full of them. She went on, telling him that he suffered the heat and the bugs just for her, but he rejected any hint of comfort. She gave up. They sat in silence for a long time.
In the moonlight, the inside of the children’s cabin glowed with an amazing white radiance. All of the children were asleep, some muttering to themselves in their sleep, others sleeping soundly, worn thin and weak from the day’s work. One child, however, kept his eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. Along the wooden beams, there was a deep, rough indent about a foot across. It looked as if the roof had been struck with an ax. The boy stared deep into the gash, entranced. It had not been there until a week ago.
As he stared, he remembered the man’s words, about the forest and bringing someone with him. He sat up in his bunk, and looked around at the other children. Most of them were his siblings. All from a common father, but most from different mothers. His family was a large and complex thing, and attempting to map the genealogy in any coherent way yielded no results. His father had tried many times, but he eventually gave up and accepted any child that was said to be his. The children used to sleep in the main house, but there got to be so many that he commissioned a dedicated cabin for them. The boy did not think that the boss even knew most of their names. They were only workers on his ranch.
In a bunk on the other side of the cabin, a girl lay with her eyes wide open, staring at that same mark in the ceiling. The boy looked at her. Her hair was a dirtied golden mess that reflected the moon, her skin was a fair white which blended with the light, and her eyes were a vibrant, fantastical shade of green. There was a deep, black bruise that formed a ring around her right eye. She stared with a blank expression, and her arms were at her sides. The boy turned in his bunk, climbed down, and walked across the floor to her. When he reached her, he knelt down on one knee, and placed his hands on the edge of her bunk. Her eyes did not falter from the mark.
He opened his mouth, hesitated for a second, and then spoke. He whispered to her about the forest, of the world outside of the ranch. Her eyes turned slowly and met his. He told her of a gap in the fence behind the barn. He knew it was there because of a few infant horses that had escaped through the gap months ago. He tried not to think of what happened after they had escaped, but he stole one glance at the girl’s blackened eye and cringed. Fighting the tears that now stung at his eyes, he placed one hand on the girl’s outstretched arm. He told her that they could leave tonight if they wanted. The girl stared back at him. She sat up, and took the boy’s hand. They looked into each other’s eyes, and the moon bathed them both in a pure white light.
It had been a few minutes since they had spoken, but the girl raised her head and told him that they should go back, towards the ranch. The boy stared at her, and asked why. He lamented that they both came here to escape the ranch. She stood, and glared at the boy. With the sternest voice she could muster, she told the boy that they would both starve if they did not go back. It was either that, she explained, or being eaten by animals in the night. The boy seemed to shrink where he stood, and retaliated. He said that he would protect her, that he wouldn’t sleep, and that he would go back into the forest and find better food. He said that he would hunt for her, that he would kill any animal she wanted, that he would dress and cook it for them, and they would be happy in the forest.
The girl’s expression became cross. She asked about the rain, the cold and the snow. What would they do then? Not to mention the boss, who would most likely be looking for them in a day or two. He may not care about his workers, she said, but he’s not stupid. He’ll notice that they’re gone sooner or later. She said that if they returned, he may not notice. If he did, they’ll just have to deal with what comes next. She brought a hand to her eye, still with the blackened ring around it, and looked down. After a moment of consideration, the boy apologized. Keeping his head down, he slowly walked along the line of sticks leading out of the forest. The girl followed silently behind.
All of the workers were buzzing at dinnertime. It’s quite reasonable for them, as they spend the entire workday isolated from one another, working in their own small corners of the ranch, sometimes cooperating but never chatting. During the day, a hand’s work stole priority over all else, even eating. There was one official meal a day, and that was dinner. Some of the lucky workers who could afford extra food from town would bring it with them in their pockets, and there was of course the young man that everyone enjoyed, who passed out scraps of food when he could afford it. He mostly gave to the children.
Every night, dinner was a stew, with chunks of beef and vegetables, served in small wooden bowls. It never amounted to much, but it kept the workers alive, and that was what mattered to the boss, who had the privilege of dining in the main house. Sometimes he would dine with whatever woman he was seducing at the time, but he mostly ate alone. His private cook would prepare whatever the boss wanted, and it was always in a great quantity. The workers’ cook was simply one of them who knew how to prepare a stew from his childhood. He had initially prepared it when the day’s rations were not enough, but his stew became so popular that the workers eventually ditched the rations—which were barely anything more than bread—and began to only eat the stew. The rations began to litter the ground and flood the food storage, so they were eventually withheld. Now, all the workers ate was the soup. It was good and hot, and that made the hands happy, even if for just a little while.
After the boy had just gotten his bowl filled, he went to find a dry spot to sit and eat in peace. He did not have any friends on the ranch, with the exception of the young man—who could only be stretched so thin among all of the workers—so on most nights he sat alone. Tonight, however, as he was walking through the crowds of men and children, he spotted someone over by the chicken coop where he usually sat. As he got closer, he saw a blindingly white dress, and long blonde hair. He reached the coop, and looked down at the girl, who was staring at the bowl of stew in her hand. The boy slowly and deliberately set his bowl down, and then sat beside the girl. She turned her head and looked at him with her deep green eyes. Her fair skin and golden hair glowed in the darkness of the night. The boy hesitated, and then said a quick hello. The girl greeted him back, and then turned back towards her stew. They sat together, silent.
Eventually, after minutes of the awkward silence, the boy spoke. He said that he had not seen her before. The girl was quiet for a moment before saying that she had just only entered the ranch that day. The boy muttered slowly, asking her if she had any friends. She answered with a slow and sorrowful shake of her head. The air was still. The only sounds that the children could hear were the muffled talking of men, the gentle breeze running through the ranch, and the insects buzzing around them. Fireflies glowed, igniting themselves with blazing shades of red and orange in the tall blades of dead grass. After another minute of silence, the boy spoke again. He offered to be her friend. The girl raised her head and looked again at him. Tears filled her eyes, and she lunged at him, wrapping her arms around him as tight as she could. The boy’s face was shot red, and he was frozen for a moment. After a moment’s hesitation, he put his arms around her as well.
They walked, deliberately following the twigs that the boy had stabbed into the dirt. The sun was getting lower on the horizon, and a sweet violet-orange glow filled the air and lengthened the trees’ shadows. Whenever the boy came to a twig, he would slide it out of the ground and throw it aside. The girl only watched as he repeated the process over and over again. They were both silent, and the air was tense. She kept repeating apologies over and over again in her head, discarding every single one she could think of. A few times she even parted her lips as if to say something, but then fell silent again. She crossed her arms and looked at the grass beneath them.
She looked back towards the boy, occasionally bending over to pick up a stick, but remaining completely mute and staring at the floor. She considered that the boy may be trying to think of something to say as well, but struggling in the same way she was. It was then that she noticed the way that his fist hung open by his side, the way that his arm and torso rose and fell with his stride like he was a ragdoll. Her heart turned to ice, and she finally spoke aloud. I’m sorry, she said, I was too mean. I was too harsh to you. I’m sorry.
The boy looked up from the floor, staring at her. It’s okay, he said softly. A silent moment passed, and then he quickened his pace to catch up to her. They walked side by side. The girl let her arms rest at her sides again as she walked, and the boy did the same. The air was completely quiet, and even the birds had quit their singing. Wind rustled the trees, and the children’s feet crunched down onto dead leaves. As they walked, the boy made miniscule adjustments in his stride to walk closer to the girl. When they were shoulder and shoulder, their hands brushed together, sending shivers up their spines. They boy did not care about gathering the sticks anymore. The girl opened her palm, and invited the boy’s hand into hers. The held each other’s hand in complete silence as they walked.
In a moment that seemed almost instantaneous, the girl’s grip strengthened immensely on the boy’s hand. He blushed and tried to hide his expression, but the grip only became tighter. The boy was confused, but kept walking. He then felt a tug on his hand, and looked back to see the girl had stopped walking completely. Her eyes seemed to bulge out of her head, and she was clutching her chest. The boy let go of her hand and rushed to her, asking her what was wrong. Before he could get any answer, however, the girl gasped and her knees gave out beneath her. She fell to the floor like a ragdoll dropped by a careless toddler.
Seated in the chair, the man took the keys from his shirt pocket and set them down onto the desk in front of him, along with seven dollar bills, a small stone, and a bible verse scribbled onto a scrap of paper. The boss studied the items deliberately, separated the stone from the rest, and scooped them into an open drawer in the desk. Closing it, he looked at the man that was seated in front of him. The room was filled with a dead silence. The boss picked up the stone, studied it for a moment, and set it on the desk across from him. Take it, he said. Give it to her as a reminder before you go.
The stone landed on a few sheets of paper that were set before the man. Severance and repair cost sheets were among them. The man had already done the math in his head. Both sheets cancelled each other out. He would have nothing left after today. Standing, he took the papers, rolling them and putting them under his arm. He asked if that would be all. Yes, the boss replied. That would be all. Run along now.
Before the man left, he retrieved the stone from the desk. It was nearly perfectly round, with an even tone all throughout. Turning it over in his hand, he noticed its remarkable heft. He looked at the boss, gave a slow nod, and turned to walk out of the room. Before he reached the door, he turned and looked out of the house’s dirtied glass window, out at the ranch and the workers laboring away in the blazing sun. He saw the children struggling with the animals, the men killing themselves with the construction, and the elderly barely able to walk. He gripped the stone in his hand, feeling its smooth surface and its round shape. He raised his hand, and threw the stone with all of the strength he could gather.
The glass exploded into thousands of transparent shards, clear oceans that reflected the sun’s glow with such an intensity that the fragments glittered and shone as they fell. The moment seemed frozen in time. Everything happened slowly, with definition in each passing second. Glass turned and rolled in the air, and the stone was in the center of all of the chaos. Everything was quiet. Nothing moved, and no one spoke. Slowly, time caught up with itself again, and the window was now empty. A gentle breeze entered the room, fluttering the curtains. He turned to the boss, tipped his cap, and walked out.
The boy tried his best to stand the girl up, but his underfed frame didn’t afford him much in the way of strength. All the while, the girl was crying and begging for him to help her, thrashing her neck around. In his fear and confusion, the boy was crying too. He didn’t realize what was happening, but his instincts had taken over and he tried to help without thinking. Eventually he rolled her over onto her side, and saw that the entire front side of her body had been coated in mud. Her tears created clean streaks in the filth that now caked her face, and she gasped for air.
He crouched down beside her, and tried to speak through his tears. He asked her what was wrong, to which she replied that she didn’t know. All she knew was that she couldn’t move. She began to sob uncontrollably, and the boy could do nothing for her. He grabbed her hand, which was now limp, and held it. He told her that they needed to get her out of the mud. Bewildered, she asked how. The boy was quiet for a moment, stammering under his breath. He then lifted his head and told her that he would drag her. The girl objected at first, crying that he wouldn’t be strong enough, that it was too far. The boy was confused. He pointed to a tree just a few feet away that they could lean her up against. She shook her head violently and told him that they had to go back to where they had been before. The boy’s heart sunk in his chest. That was nearly an hour away. He asked her why they head to go back there specifically. She told him that she had heard a river nearby there, where she could clean all the mud off of herself. The boy paused for a moment, considering the task that was being laid out before him. Turning to the girl, he slowly nodded his head. Bracing himself, he went around the girl, laid her hands out above her head, and picked her up. Sweat broke out on his forehead and his legs shook, but he soon began to move. As he walked, he could hear her sobs right next to his ear.
In the late afternoon, the boss opened the door to the children’s cabin. As he stepped inside, the wooden boards creaked beneath him. He marched, his work boots slamming into the floor as he made his way to the bunks. No one was at the chicken coop today. That was the boy’s job. No one was at the water station. That was the girl’s job. The rage burned inside him as those words repeated themselves in his mind. No chicken coop, no water station. Two workers missing. Two young, healthy workers. His fists clenched and unclenched by his sides.
He walked to the girl’s bunk first. Pulling back the sheets, he saw nothing. There was only white sheets and a spot of dried blood on the pillow. The boss smiled, remembering how gratifying it was to see that rock slam into the side of the girl’s face. There was so little resistance. Just a swing, and then an impact. The pure satisfaction of it never got old in his mind. He had been pleasantly drunk that night, and his strength was uninhibited. His smile faded as he remembered the bastard that loosened it from his hands, causing it to be thrown into the short ceiling. Looking up, he saw the huge mark the rock had made a week earlier. His hands clenched again, and he gritted his teeth.
Walking to the boy’s bunk, the boss remembered how that same bastard had thrown that damn rock through his office window, and how he got off the property before the boss could do to him what he had done to the girl. He mumbled and growled like an animal as he reached the boy’s bunk, where he pulled back the sheets and again found nothing. He smiled a sickly, hate-filled grin and calmly walked out of the cabin. He knew where they had gone. He knew about the gap in the fence. It was his ranch, dammit, and he knew every single inch like the back of his hand.
When the sticks ran out, the boy relied on his own intuition to guide himself back to the tree where they had been before. The girl’s cries had quieted, but now she said nothing. Every question he asked was met with silence. She was still breathing, though, and her eyes were set dead ahead in front of them, emotionless. The boy grunted and fought with every single step he took. The sun was now even lower, half submerged into the horizon. The once violet-orange sky was now only orange. The clouds and the forest seemed darker now.
He broke through to a clearing, and saw his cap, still filled with the dark berries, sitting beside the tree. The shadows highlighted the grass beneath it, still indented from where the girl had sat. With the last of his strength, he dragged her to that same spot and laid her against the tree. She looked up at him, and the boy’s heart shattered. There was such a storm of emotion in those eyes—fear, sadness, anxiety, but there was also a strange emotionlessness to them. It was almost if she was completely apathetic about her situation.
Crouching by her side, he asked her where the river was. The girl only stared at him, and then looked off into the distance, past him into forest. He asked if that was the direction, to which she slowly nodded. He stood hesitantly, and picked up his cap. He said that he would wash it out while he was down there. He said that he didn’t want berry juice in his hair, with a forced chuckle. His weak attempt at humor did not work on the girl. The boy sighed, and said that he would be back soon. She only stared. He turned, and walked into the forest.
The shotgun hanging from the wall mount shone brightly in the late day sun. The fine scratches and marks along its steel double barrel glinted as the boss moved closer. He studied the firearm, from its stock to the muzzle, his heart beating fast in his chest. Two workers were easy to replace. Knock up a few women in town, and he would have more laborers on the way. Nobody needed to know. The boy was a friendless loner anyway, and nobody knew the girl. This would be easy.
Normally losing two children would be no problem for him. It had happened before. A kid gets crushed beneath a piece of machinery, or a brick falls on their head, and it’s an easy cover-up. Sweeping a death under the rug is easy when the victim in question has no paper trail. This, however, was an act of defiance. These kids thought they could outsmart the boss, that they could escape his reach. Grinning, he retrieved the shotgun, and opened the barrel. Two shells, side by side. Perfect.
As the boy walked, he looked at the cap in his hands. He only now realized that it was still full of those useless berries. He dumped them out onto the grass, and kept walking. Before long, he began to hear the faint bubbling of a river. Despite the strength that had been drained from his body, he began to run. He broke through a thick cluster of trees and came to the bank of a smoothly running stream. The water was amazingly clear, and he could see straight to the bottom. Sighing, he relaxed his shoulders and dropped to his knees, drinking from the stream. His throat was immediately met with cold, clean refreshment as he drank, and he thought that it was the best water he had ever drunk. It was outstanding to compared to the dirty tap water at the ranch.
After he had his fill, he retrieved the flask from his shirt pocket and ran it under the surface of the water. It filled quickly, and as he brought it out of the stream the weight of the flask delighted him in a strange way despite his grief. Stowing the flask away, he submerged his cap in the water as well, and brought it out, free of berry juice. He donned it on his head, and sat there on the bank for a few moments. Staring into the water, he reflected on what had happened. The man, the rock, the escape, the berries, and now this. The boy let out a sob, and buried his head in his hands. Why was this happening, he wondered. What could possibly have—
He paused. It was the berries. How had he not realized it? They even grew on the ranch. He had heard all of the workers talking about them at one point or another, but the boy was so ready to forget the ranch that he forgot everything important as well. The boy’s shoulders shook as he cried. Multiple hands died because of those berries. Mistook them for blueberries, and were so hungry that they didn’t second-guess themselves. His heart sunk and shattered as he realized the reality of his situation. He killed her. He had gathered the poison that would soon take her away from him. His cries were quiet, but violent. Tears slipped through the cracks in his hands and fell onto the grass below. He didn’t want to live in a world without her. Standing, he looked towards the horizon. The wind, the skies, the trees, and the grass. He knew what he had to do. He started slowly, then began to stumble, then walk, and soon he began to run, the tears stinging at his eyes and running down his face.
The boss pushed his way through the gap in the fence. Although it came with some difficulty, he was able to fit his large frame through. Wielding the shotgun in one hand, he strolled into the open countryside, savoring the wind and enjoying the evening sky. The grass flowed beneath his feet, and he smiled. He began to hum to himself as he walked, dangling the firearm by his side. He looked towards the world, and took a cigar from his shirt pocket, lighting it and continuing his stride. The boss was happy, like a child on Christmas morning.
The boy walked into the clearing, and smiled at the girl. He took the flask from his pocket and held it to her mouth. She drank slowly, before the boy took the flask away and told her that he had to clean her face. The girl only stared at him. He poured a small quantity of the water onto his hand and began to wash the mud from the girl’s emotionless face. He had expected her skin to glow when the mud was finally gone, but she only looked pale. He offered a sad smile, and sat beside her.
He asked her if she could talk. After a moment of hesitation, she replied that yes, she could. That relieved the boy. She wasn’t too far gone. Minutes passed before either one spoke. The boy opened his mouth, and his voice shook. Tears began to well in his eyes, and his jaw trembled. He said that he was so sorry. The girl was silent, before asking why he was sorry. The boy froze. He wondered if she had already made the same connection she did. While he was struggling to answer her, she said that she knew about the berries. The boy began to sob again. Please don’t do that, the girl said with an uneven voice. Please, don’t cry. It wasn’t your fault. Please. Her comfort was only met with more sobbing, and she began to sob as well. Please, she pleaded, go back. Leave me here.
The boy spoke through his tears, rejecting the idea. He wasn’t going to leave her. There’s nothing back at the ranch for him, he explained. Nothing but the boss and the loneliness. He took her hand in his and they both sat there beneath the tree, watching the orange fire of the sun disappear behind the trees. He told the girl that he was staying there. The girl said that he couldn’t do that, that he would starve. The boy only looked down.
There was complete, utter silence in the air as the girl realized what he had done. She slowly asked him how many he had eaten. The boy answered quietly, without hesitation. He had eaten five. The boy began to cry again as he told her that he wanted to go when she did. They both resumed their sobbing. After a few minutes, the girl said thank you to the boy. He tightened his grip on her hand.
The man raced across the open field. His feet pumped up and down below him as he sprinted, using every bit of his effort to make it to the forest. In between breaths he muttered to himself about berries. In his peripheral vision, he noticed a large man strolling through the field ahead of him. The man’s heart jumped in his chest, and he dropped to the floor, hoping that he could not see him. Peeking up through the tall grass, he saw that the man carried a shotgun. His eyes widened, and he began to crawl as fast as he could through the grass and mud.
The boy and the girl talked long about their lives, the things they had seen and experienced, and the people they loved. The boy told the girl stories from the ranch, while the girl spoke to the boy about the foreign land she had lived in. The boy told the girl about one time when a chicken had broken free from the coop and escaped into the field outside the ranch. The workers made a story of the ordeal, telling their friends at dinner that at night, the hands near the fence could hear a faint cluck-cluck in the night. Of course, some of the hands weren’t as bright as others, and when the coop acted up in the middle of the night, they would get spooked and hide in their covers. The story made the girl smile through her tear-stained face. The boy smiled back, and they fell quiet. The girl quietly asked the boy if he was scared. Yes, the boy said, he was. He asked her the same question. With what little strength she had, she turned her head towards him and said that she wasn’t. The boy asked why.
She told him that she wasn’t scared because she was with him. Tears rolled down her face as she spoke. She said that there wasn’t anything back at the ranch. Her father was dead, her mother sold her off to the boss, and she would probably die anyway. The boy was quiet. She continued to say that this was the happiest moment of her life. The boy looked at her, shocked. He gripped her hand, and brought his face close to hers. He slowly planted a kiss on her forehead, and then sat back down, exhausted from the effort. She began to cry again, but these tears were different. They were tears of comfort and joy. The boy turned again to the girl and said, let’s just sit here for a while. The girl struggled to nod in agreement. The toxin was quickly taking both of their bodies.
The boy, slowly but surely, manipulated their hands so that their fingers were interlaced. He began to lose feeling in his legs. Then, his torso, his arms, fingers, and finally his neck. The girl was almost gone. As they both looked up into the fantastic orange sky, the forest seemed alive. Birds sang again, the wind made rolling waves in the grass, and insects buzzed. In front of them, fireflies appeared, glowing and bursting into embers that floated on the warm air. He whispered to her, quietly and slowly, his voice calm and serene.
Everything’s going to be okay.
The boss walked until he saw the twigs sticking up from the ground. He smiled, readying the shotgun in his hands. He walked along the twigs, following them until they ran out. The absence of a guide did not stop him, and he continued straight, deeper into the forest. The sun was gone now, and only a faint twilight hung over the land. He walked until he came to a clearing, and he saw them, sitting against the tree, holding hands. Bastards, thinking they could be all romantic out here without a care in the goddamn world. He strolled up to them, and saw the soft smiles on their sleeping faces. The little rascals had the gall to sleep out here. The boss grinned widely. Easy, point-blank shot. He raised the shotgun, and fired a shell into the girl’s chest. The pellets dug their way into her flesh, making her body shake. He then adjusted his aim and fired into the boy’s chest. The same satisfied expression remained on their faces. They seemed to taunt the boss, who became enraged and raised the shotgun again, pulling the trigger. The hammer clicked, and nothing fired. He had forgotten to bring extra bullets. Sighing, he lowered his shoulders, admired his work, and retreated back towards the ranch.
When the man heard the shots, he flinched. Tears welled in his eyes and he stopped dead. He had tried to make his way through the forest, following the twigs. Then, the second shot came and he cried. Sobbing, he made his way to the nearest tree and collapsed against it. The forest was silent then, and the man could only hear his own crying. The wind then sang in the forest, whistling as it picked up speed, and the man looked up towards the stars. The night sky was full, a panorama of galaxies, suns, stars and planets. Through the man’s tears, the sky was blurred, but he clearly saw one thing. Off in the distance, directly above the forest, a shooting star blazed a trail across the sky, leaving a trail of pure light behind it. The spectacle only lasted for a second, but was then followed by one more, just as bright as the first. He smiled then, tears streaming down his face, and the world was quiet again.