Twenty-one

After Arella came back and explained that she'd seen a boarded up shop, we headed right on down. Courtney, of course, was smirking smugly the entire time, which Sophie pointedly ignored. While the girls provoked each other with their unvoiced superiority, Ben and Charlie spoke about what to do next. Next, meaning the current next. Not the tomorrow next.

"Everyone is hungry, right?" asked Charlie.

"Starving," admitted Arella. "I saw a department store open, but nothing else is. Maybe they sell food there."

"Is it the best idea for you to be showing your face?" Ben pointed out.

"Twyla can just change it—if people begin to notice."

I gulped at that remark.

"Are you guys going to ask Arella the more pertinent question?" Indrid interrupted from behind. We four—Charlie, Arella, Ben, and I—had been walking somewhat in a line.

"Which is…?" Arella prompted suspiciously, staring at our ex-best friend. It was weird how you could know someone your entire life, and then wake up and see them be someone else. Out of nowhere. How did that work?

"Mexico, Canada, or America," answered Indrid.

"And Africa!" Fate piped from the back.

"Seriously, ignore her." Indrid rolled her eyes. "The only options are Mexico, Canada, and America."
"Options for what?" Arella asked. She turned to look at me for an answer, but when I opened my mouth, Indrid cut me off.

"Escape."

"Escape?" echoed Arella.

As Indrid took a moment to educate Arella on what she had missed while she was gone, I was hit with a sudden, inexplicable urge to vomit. Mucus formed at the back of my throat—thick, slimy, clogging. I tried to swallow it back down, but it just stayed there. Suffocating me.

It was hot, too. Like a fever. Like a thousand blankets were placed on top of me, and sweat was just pouring. A sticky sweat, a humid sweat, one that I couldn't rub off.

A ringing started up in my ears. It was so quiet that no one else heard it, but loud enough for my ear drums to feel like they were bursting. An instant headache erupted in my skull, causing me to raise my hands to the sides of my forehead. It didn't curve the pain; if anything, applying pressure to my skin seemed to amplify it.

A tiny moan slipped out of my mouth, causing Ben's eyes to snap to my face and making Charlie grab my arm, pulling us away from the group. At his touch, the ringing faded, but the desire to vomit stayed.

"Charlie?" Courtney asked as we diverged.

"Go ahead. We'll catch up," he said, offering no explanation. When the group left, he asked, "Okay, what's going on?"

"Nothing much, what about you?"

"You know what I meant. Are you feeling okay? You're acting weird."

I pressed my lips together to prevent a large gagging noise from escaping. There was no way I was getting sick at a time like this!

"What's wrong?" Charlie asked, moving closer.

Even though Mr. Earl had no idea where we were or what we were up to, I still took a step back. I loved Charlie—I would always love Charlie—but something was different now. We'd said cruel things to each other, and even if I were to tell him the truth behind the break-up, he had still revealed what he truly thought about me.

And he had Courtney now. She was a little mean, but she had good intentions, it seemed. Maybe… maybe Charlie and I just weren't meant to be.

"Twyla—"

I couldn't hold it in any longer; I was too ill. I bent over, at least away from both his and my shoes, and began puking my guts out. My eyes were closed at first, but after a second I opened them, and that was when I saw that there wasn't vomit on the ground. There wasn't vomit coming out of my mouth.

I choked out the last cockroach, staring in mortification at the large mass of squirming bugs. My mouth opened once more to speak, but at the movement, I was reminded of what had just transpired and promptly kept it shut.

Charlie stared at me with large eyes, filled with mixed concern and fear. "What was that?"

The only explanation I could come up with was that my body was trying to remove darkness. But if that was true, then that meant there had been darkness inside of me. Was it still there?

"D-don't mention this to the group," I begged.

He nodded instantly. "Okay, but what's going on? Are you okay? Just tell me if you're okay."

"I…" I lost my thoughts as a bug climbed on my shoe, and I frantically shook it off.

He touched my shoulder. "Hey, I'm here."

A shard of glass poked at my heart, reminding me of what had transpired between us. I jerked my shoulder back. "You have Courtney now. You don't need to be here for me anymore."

Visibly shook, Charlie's entire face contorted. "What? Courtney? I don't like her like that. I mean, we're friends, but—"

How dare he lie! "So how come I saw you two making out the night of the shooting?" I demanded.

"What? I wasn't even at that stupid party. Not until the end, when I heard the gunshots."

I scoffed, pushing past him. "Sure."

"It's the truth!" he insisted, jogging slightly to catch up with me. "Twyla, please, come on—"

He reached out for me once more, but stopped upon me yelling, "Just—!" I paused, lowering my voice exponentially. "Just… stop, okay?"

"But I love you."

I thought he said he was done with me. Whatever! I pushed away the misleading information. "It didn't make much difference in the end, did it?" I asked.

Still, it was nice to hear.

He blinked. "Look, I don't know what you think I did, but—"

"'Think,'" I quoted sourly.

He frowned deeply. "Why are you being like this?"

"I told you why!"

Charlie shook his head immediately. "I didn't kiss Courtney. The two of us are… friends, I guess, but not really. I only think about you that way."

Wow, he was really laying it on thick. "Yeah, right."

He stared at me. "I'm telling you the truth. I know my word doesn't mean much to you these days for some reason, but it is the truth. I—"

"We should catch up to the group. I lost sight of them," I cut Charlie off. "They might be getting worried."

He just kept looking at me for a few moments, but eventually he heaved a massive sigh. "Fine."

Awkwardly, the two of us walked together. He slowed his stride to match my own, which was considerate, but I was too upset to think so.

"You have no idea how badly I want to write you off," he voiced eventually.

He wanted to write me off? "So why don't you?" I replied bitterly. I was maybe ten seconds from crying.

"I just can't." He paused. "Something is wrong; I can tell. And even if it wasn't…"

"And even if it wasn't?" I prompted.

"I wouldn't be able to," he said. "To… do that."

I was silent.

He took that as something bad. "So what? You're just never going to feel again? How are you going to do that?"

My eyes squeezed shut for a moment, and then reopened, focused on the ground. "I can't talk to you. You're too hot and cold."

"How! You're the one that's been—"

"Finally," came a voice from the side.

"—ignoring me," Charlie finished lamely as we turned to see Ben leaning against a tree. At gaining our focus, he pushed himself towards us.

"I was told to wait," he said, before we could ask. "To help you guys to the group."

"We don't really need the help," Charlie admitted. He wasn't trying to be rude; he only wanted more time with me.

Ben's eyes flashed between the two of us. "Suit yourselves," he said finally, turning on his heel and walking down a side path. His stride was particularly slow, meant so the two of us could either keep up or follow behind. I took full advantage of this and caught up to Ben before Charlie could start talking to me again. Charlie sighed at this, staying back.

"Hello, confidant," I greeted Ben pleasantly.

"You good?" he asked.

"Did you hear everything?"

He didn't even deliberate lying. "Yes." The response was instant. "But I gave you as much privacy as I could."

"Thanks, I guess." In that moment, I needed Arella with me or the old Indrid or anyone that was all right with handling emotions. I needed someone to comfort me, to help me make sense of Charlie's claims. But Ben was not that person.

"Twyla…" he started, but drifted off.

"What?" I asked, for a bizarre look had crossed Ben's face. I didn't know what had suddenly transpired.

"Something is going on."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Charlie quickly caught up with us. "What's happening?"

Ben's nostrils shifted as he sniffed, forehead furrowing as well. "It's over."

"I heard some shuffles," Charlie offered, unsettled. "But not a fight."

"It must have been my imagination," said Ben, though he sounded uncertain. "Either way, we should hurry up."

"Yeah," Charlie agreed.

Our paces doubled in speed, feet like little patters. My heart was racing for no reason at all. I could only think that we'd been found out. The government was here. We were going to die. Our freedom would end in the blink of an eye.

Ben led us to the back of a brick building, towards a door that was bolted shut by wood. "We broke—"

"Took you guys long enough," said Courtney, coming up right behind us to twist the knob of the door. It opened easily, which wasn't a surprise because it looked slightly bent in—broken. She limboed under one plank, sidestepping another, and disappeared into the building.

"What was she doing outside?" I asked.

"Didn't you tell them to stay indoors?" Charlie tagged along quietly. His voice did sound a bit judgmental, but I think he was just confused with Courtney for leaving the building. We were supposed to be hiding.

Maybe Ben interpreted it wrongly, or maybe he was mad at Courtney, too—I didn't know—but his voice was stony upon responding, "Of course I did."

"Let's go in," I suggested before Charlie could get offended.

Neither responded, and so I assumed it was okay to head in on my own. Ben advised me to mind my step, which I promptly listened to. The two boys trailed behind me.

"Twyla!" a voice cried as soon as I entered a large room where everyone was sitting… except…

"Where's Indrid?" I asked.

"She left!" exclaimed Arella.

"What?"

"Indrid's gone!"