A twig snaps and I sit up quickly. My hand reflexively goes to the knife I keep under my make-shift pillow. The red sun rose over the trees and I shivered involuntarily. The eerie, ethereal light turns my gold-brown hair slightly red. I sit very still holding the knife tightly but after a few moments, I decide that the sound was probably just a rabbit. Paranoia has been my constant companion for five years and without it I would probably feel naked. This isn't always how it's been for me. Five years ago, the Virus hadn't been invented yet and my parents were still alive. I was going to school and learning about the old days. Back when the states were still united and the government wasn't plotting to control everything about us; our thoughts, our bodies, and our very identity. All those who resisted were killed. My parents resisted until the very end when the government killed them. Then they invented the Virus, a disease that took away choice, memory, and true existence. I look up at the picture that I placed above my bed. It's the last reminder of my parents. Their smiling faces stare down at me and I try to smile back, as has become my habit. I put my knife in its sheath and stand up.
I put on my jacket and grab my towel. Today is market day and I can't be late. The later I am the fewer things will be there. I need more twine for my snares and more blankets because winter is coming quickly. To pass as a normal town-goer, I must bathe in the stream which is just barely above freezing this time of year. I hop out of my masterfully hidden tree fort. In school, I read a book where a boy ran away to the forest and lived a hollowed out tree. When I first escaped from the government thugs to come out here, I found the most beautiful tree. It was mostly hollowed out and reminded me of that book. I immediately started to hollow it out more until it became big enough for a fire, my bed, and one other person. During the winter, I get a few squatters who need shelter for a few days. I don't tell them who I am and they don't ask. That's what we call squatter's courtesy. Most of us are criminals on the run, orphans with nowhere else to go or both. There's no need to bring up memories of the past.
I shake off my thinking mood and walk quickly to the waterfall. I found this place a week after getting here. The glittering clean waterfall drops down a small cliff into a pool of water. I dammed that up, making it deeper, and it became my washing area. Behind the waterfall is a hidden crevice that's cold enough that I can store my food there. I quickly strip off my clothes and step under the water. The cold water makes me gasp but I know that I'll go numb in a few seconds. I scrub the grime from my sun-streaked brown hair and then jump into my pool so I sink to the bottom. I come back up and stifle my scream. Standing at the edge of my pool was a thin female wolf. Trying hard not to let my panic show, I back up to where I put my knife. She growls weakly and collapses. Warily, I wade towards her. Her fur is matted and she's so thin I can count each individual rib. When I poke her and then quickly step back, she doesn't move. I get out of the pool, dry off, put my clothes on, then go and sit next to her without my knife, being the idiot that I am. She just lies there, breathing shallowly. Then I hear a quiet bark and I dive for my knife. A small fluff-ball ran out from behind her and started yipping at her. I heave a sigh of relief. It was just a pup. The she-wolf raises her head and licks the puppy then lays back down. Her breathing stops but the little puppy still yips at her. Tears come to my eyes and I pick up the puppy. He growls at me but I know he can't hurt me. He only has one little tooth.
"You're all alone now, aren't you?" I say. "Well, so am I. Maybe we can help each other. I think I'll call you Dagger." Dagger is just as thin as his mother and he shivers as I hold him. My towel is still pretty dry so I wrap him in that and carry him back to my tree. I grab a rucksack and put in food and my barter items. Dagger is curled up on my bed wrapped in some of my blankets. When I get home, I'll wash him and give him the milk I'll have to buy. Before I leave, I open the door slightly. If he wants to leave I won't stop him but I've already grown attached to the little guy. I heave a sigh and head out. It's a long walk to the town and there are many dangers. Luckily, I learned a lot of self-defense from my father before… well just before. I can split a leaf with a knife at fifty paces. My parent's always suspected something was going to happen.
"Now, Grace," my father had said. "You must remember, Koldof will try and find you but you mustn't let them get you."
"I remember, Dad," I had replied, smiling. "You tell me every day." He had laughed at that and tousled my hair.
"I know, Sport," he said. His evergreen eyes twinkled. My father and I didn't really look alike but my mother and I did. We had the same violet eyes except for some reason I had a ring of sliver around my pupil. It was a recent addition though because my baby pictures just showed plain violet eyes. I shake my head to get rid of the memory. What is wrong with me today? I've been walking for hours and my legs are starting to ache but I can't stop. I'm behind schedule and if I want to get there before noon, I'll have to eat as I walk. The Cursed Wood grows thick and ominous all around me. This used to be the Olympic National Forest in Washington. Now it was just some place that no one goes in. No one remembers that it used to be beautiful and majestic. Ever since the Virus stole their memories, all they see is something big and forbidden. Technically it's illegal for me to be living there but I also had a bounty on my head so it was the least of my worries. I pull my hoodie up and hide my face as I exit the woods and get on actual roads. As people pass, I turn my face away. I almost make it into the town before I get stopped by a group of thugs.
"Well, well, well," one man says. "What have we here?" I ignored them and kept walking.
"Where are you going, darling?' another asks.
"Leave me alone," I growl and keep walking.
"Jax, pull down her hood," the first guy orders. "I want to see her pretty face." They roughly grab my arm and turn me to face them.
"Let me go!" I shout and struggle. They just laugh and my hood is pulled off.
"Those are some pretty eyes," the first guy leers at me. His gray eyes are cloudy with Clink, the main drug of the area, and a wickedly sharp knife gleams in his hand.
"I think that she'd be prettier without that big jacket on, Mason," Jax yells. Mason grins wider and strokes my cheek with a finger. I bite at him and he laughs.
"This one's got some fight in her," he says.
"Touch me and I will kill you," I threaten. This just makes everyone laugh except one nervous looking man. Mason steps towards me. We stand chest to chest as Jax holds my hands behind my back.
"I get her first," Mason says and kisses me hard. I bite him and hit my head against his face. Blood spurts from his nose and my lips quirk up slightly in satisfaction.
"What the—"Jax starts but is cut off by my elbow which is currently rammed into his gut. He sinks to the ground and I kick him once just to be sure.
"Get her," Mason orders and I'm suddenly surrounded by the rest of the Ugly Bunch.
"Now, now gentlemen," I grin and pull out my knife. "Have you learned nothing?" One guy rushes me and I duck as he flies over my head. The nervous looking one comes at me and I stab him in the leg with my knife. I think I cut a major muscle because he collapses and doesn't get back up. There are only two men left. They look at each other and ran off down the road.
"You're going to regret this," Mason says as he and Jax limp away.
"I'll be waiting," I sneer and start to walk away.
"Wait, please," a weak voice calls to me. It's the man whose leg I cut.
"What do you want?" I snap.
"Please don't leave me here," he begged. "I'll do whatever you want but don't leave me here to die."
"Why should I?" I ask and crouch by him. "You tried to kill me."
"Just help me get to the town and then I'll owe you a favor," he says. "Please." This last plea sends me into a flash back.
"Don't go," twelve year old Grace begged her parents.
"Grace, we must," her mother said. "Your grandmother is here to take care of you."
"But I'm scared," Grace said tears in her eyes. "Don't go. Please." Her father kissed her and then they leave. Two days later they were dead and Grace was in the custody of the government.
"Okay," I say and rip a bit of my shirt to make a bandage. "Can you walk?" He nods weakly and struggles up. I offer him my hand and he takes it. Slowly we limp toward the town. It used to be a great city that was home of one of the most popular tourist attractions. Now that building is just a pile of rubble with a lone elevator standing as a memorial. The rebels put it there years ago and no one had bothered to remove it.
"What's your name?" I ask the man leaning on my shoulder.
"Nate," he pants. "And yours?"
"Eleanor," I answer. Of course, my name wasn't actually Eleanor but I could exactly him tell him my real one when it was plastered on every newspaper, flyer, and screen.
"You look very familiar," he says. "Do I know you from somewhere?" I silently curse. He's probably seen my picture on the HoloScreens. Koldof has my face plastered everywhere.
"I doubt it," I reply. "I'm from the fifth province." The fifth province is one of the richest provinces in the area and I only hope that he buys it, despite my appearance.
"Oh," he mumbles and ends the conversation. We walk in silence from now on and have to stop to rest every few minutes. Finally we get into the city boundaries an hour after noon.
"Where to?" I ask and Nate points me in a direction. We slowly make it where he wanted to be and a pretty woman of about thirty comes running out.
"Nate!" she exclaims. "What happened?"
"Jean, it's okay," he reassures her. "Mason got stupid and they left me to die when this girl cut my leg."
"She what?" Jean shouts and storms toward me. I flick out my knife and she backs away.
"Jean, darling," Nate says soothingly. "She did it in self-defense. Then she carried me here. We owe her a great debt."
"Very well," Jean huffs but she still glares at me. "Whatever you need we can help you get."
"Blankets and milk would be nice," I say. "Do you happen to have any other weapons? My knife is very trusty but sometimes intimidation works better."
"After I change the bandages you put on my leg, I'll show you to the armory," Nate answers and limps inside.
"Thank you," Jean says stiffly. "I told him Mason would get into trouble one day. Why did you help him?"
"No one deserves to be alone when they're hurt," I mumble, looking at the ground and thinking of my own abandonment. "Nate asked me to help him so I did."
"Who are you?" Jean asks. "You only look about eighteen but you talk like an old woman." I smile slightly.
"Tragedy will do that," I say. She just stares at me until Nate comes back with some clean bandages on.
"Let me show you the armory," he says and leads me away. "Jean will get you those blankets and milk." Then a sound like a screeching wild cat fills the air.
"It's a Hover!" I shout over the sound. "Get in the house!" I pull Jean and Nate into the small building and dive under a table just as one of the pods falls in the middle of the market. The explosion shakes the entire house and then the screams start.
"Momma, where are you!" a little girl cries and my heart clenches.
"David? David? David, wake up!" another woman sobs.
"Please help me! My wife is missing!" a man yells to anyone who will listen. Soon the Virus will take hold once again and everyone here will forget everything but Commander Koldof and his vision. They do this every few months in known rebel hot spots but somehow they always get away. The poor civilians, who were probably just barely starting a better life, have to start all over now. The propaganda will begin any moment and their wiped minds will not be able to fight it.
"Jean the masks. Quick!" Nate shouts and Jean quickly gets three gas masks out of a hidden cupboard.
"Where did you get these?" I ask as Jean puts one on me. Nate and Jean exchange a glance.
"We can trust her," Nate says. "I can tell." Jean nods and turns to me.
"The resistance gets stronger every day," she tells me. "But so does the government. We rebels must be prepared."
"You're rebels!" I exclaim and stand up without thinking. My head hits the table I'm hiding under and I see stars. As I rub my head, I toy with the idea of running but Dagger needs the milk and I need the blankets.
"Does that bother you?" Jean asks suspiciously. I have the feeling she doesn't like me much. Great. All I need is another enemy.
"No," I lie quickly. "I've really got to be getting back home soon though. Can I get that stuff now, please?"
"Of course," Nate says, shooting Jean a glare. I leave them with my new blankets, a gallon of milk, and a new, shiny, big knife.
"Come back at any time," Nate calls after me as I walk away. I turn and wave, trying to smile. As soon as I'm out of sight, I start running. It's just my luck that I would befriend a couple of rebels. Now Jackie would come searching for me. After I quit the rebels, she had been trying hard to get me back anyway she could. Of course this was before anyone had realized that I was the cure.
I get off the roads as soon as I can and stick the trees. It takes me twice as long to get back to my tree but it's worth it. When I first get back, I'm scared that Dagger has left. He's just a little puppy. He can't survive out there on his own. Then, I hear his high-pitched growl and I laugh in relief.
"Hey buddy," I say, closing the door. "I brought you some food." I'm not quite sure how to feed it to him until I see him trying to chew on one of my leather pouches. I poke a small hole in the bottom and fill it with milk. It drips slowly from the hole and Dagger, after realizing what it was, starts slurping it greedily. I laugh and hold it for him until he's done and yawning. It feels nice to have some company and I hope that Dagger won't leave me like everyone else. I carry him with me to my natural refrigerator and then back to the tree. He curls up next to me under the new blankets and I go to sleep feeling safe for the first time in five years.