Chapter 27: Running
I pick at my tray of food in the mess hall, pushing my salad around, completely distracted. Counting
down the minutes before I can head upstairs, already on edge, unable to think about anything else
despite telling myself I’m only making it worse. My nerves are already shot.
Meadow is keeping her distance, sat down the far end of the long table because she knows she won’t
be able to hold it in if we sit close. She isn’t really doing a great job of acting natural either and I can
almost taste her tension waving this way. I catch her eyes on me a couple of times, but she looks away
quickly, as though we’ve had some sort of lover’s tiff and I wish she would stop before someone picks
up on it. I think she’s the reason I’m on such high alert because she’s adding to my stress levels.
The rest of the sub pack are dotted around me, although still grouped in an obvious unit. I’m stuck
between the twins, who decided they were flanking me in here today and they are arguing about who
got more coleslaw with their potato jackets while reaching over me in a bid to steal one another’s food.
Radar watching them silently across the table, like an amused parent who is not inclined to intervene,
until I can’t take it anymore.
“Here. Just take mine okay. I’m not hungry and you’re making me crazy.” It’s a despairing snap as I
push my tray at Remi on my left and skid my chair back to escape this nonsense. Not really caring if all
eyes turn to quiet little me in surprise, because they’re behaving like a couple of toddlers.
They behave like this at every mealtime, but I’m on edge and tetchy, and my nerves are pulled taut with
the knowledge I have to get going soon if I’m going to be ready by dusk. I have so much going on in my
head, my heart is in eternal conflict, and I just need time out.
I stand up, ignoring the enquiring glances but no one questions, probably guessing I finally got as fed
up with them bickering, as everyone else, as they do it almost daily. Everyone has been feeling the
strain of late, with more trucks arriving this afternoon, more prisoners carried in from around the
mountain, so I can be forgiven for the random outburst at the two most irritating of this sub pack. They
may be older than me physically, but it’s obvious the twins are the two most juvenile among us.
The mess hall is full of Santos chowing down at this hour before they get called out to assemble for
evening chores and duties. Patrols get pulled out on the main field an hour before dusk so that gives
me a window of opportunity. To pack, get out, and move before the first patrol starts walking the
perimeter. We have a rest and refresh hour in our rooms after meals, and for me that signals the last
time I carry out my normal routine I have fallen into the past few days. It’s my window of opportunity.
I’m supposed to help with the cleaning crews every day after our evening meal and tonight I’m in the
laundry hall for the first time ever, as they like to rotate duties. It says so on the checklist I got given a
few days back, but as I’ve never been in there before, I doubt I’ll be missed.
“I’m going to get changed and freshen up before chores begin.” I say it to no one in particular, trying to
act natural and weirdly, Jesus, is the one to reply. Eyeing me up in that odd paternal way he has
become accustomed to doing lately.
“You should eat, keep your strength up. You’ve been looking pale these past few days.” It’s more of a
stern command, than a suggestion. Blinking at him, unsure if I heard him right, I throw a subtle smile
his way. Confused, but appreciative of the unexpected care. He does sound like a dad, or a big brother
in this moment. Something I’m not used to.
“He’s right. You look tired and eating well is part of fixing that. Here, sit, we’ll behave.” It’s Remi this
time, pushing my plate back at me, and as I glance from him to Domi who is nodding in agreement,
both equally apologetically, guilty, and it hits me so hard it makes me choke up. There’s no malice or
deviousness in their expressions. They genuinely are trying to advise me for my own good. I catch
nods around the table as all eyes fall on me, the subtle expressions of agreement, that they’ve all
noticed I’m not myself these past days and telling me they care enough to point it out.
They’ve accepted me as part of the sub pack, while I wasn’t even paying attention. This is pack care;
this is how it’s meant to be. Watching out for one another and guiding one of your pack when they need
it. Being a family.
I almost break, tears hitting the back of my eyes, and I have to try so hard to push them away and stay
visually unaffected. To not crumble and show them it’s gotten to me, because for them, its natural
behavior and they don’t know how overwhelming it is or how absent from my life it’s been. No one
cared if I skipped meals in the home. If I looked pale, tired, or even just plain sad. No one mentioned it,
no one pushed me to take care of myself. So invisible for so long and now I feel like these people see
me, really, see me.
“I’m okay, and you’re right…I’ll eat later. I just need some quiet time to think.” I play it off coolly but
inside so many warring emotions are kicking me in the ass, ripping my heart to shreds at the realization
I have a chance of a real pack family with these people, and I’m leaving them behind. It’s hard to
swallow, words sticking like glue in my throat, and my face aches with the effort of keeping my
“Are you coming to the com room after chores?” Cesar startles me with this one, and I blink at him,
completely non-plussed. Panic starting to set in that we might have some sort of meeting I have to
show face for, or Colton will suspect.
“Yeah, we decided we needed some pack hang time, a few beers, movie… all chillin together.” Radar
finishes it for him, all eyes on me, standing awkwardly, poised, and I hesitate. Struggling to think up an
instant refusal, while dying inside that I’m literally being asked to initiate, to bond, and I can’t. If ever
there was a moment, I wanted to kick the fates in the ass, it’s now.
“You know the whole Carmen… Colton, thing. I don’t think….” I stutter my feeble excuse out, hoping
they take pity on that messy triangle of heartache and release me from the invitation.
“He won’t be there, he’s avoiding all of us, so screw him. And ‘Carmoanallday’, she’s following his ass
around like she’s in the haze already. She won’t be there if he isn’t.” Remi, adding more weight to my
already trodden down soul which is about to snap under all this pressure. I can’t formulate a reply,
sweat beading at the back of my neck when Meadow swoops in and saves my ass. Her eyes darting to
me, concern etched on her brow.
“Give her some breathing space guys. Girls had a tough week and she’s tired. Let her see how she
feels after her first time down in laundry. We all know how tough that shift is, stuck down in the sweat
room.” She throws me a supportive half smile that doesn’t reach her eyes and I could practically kiss
her. My foggy mind grasping onto that tiny reason to bail without actually rejecting the invitation.
“Yeah, I’ll see how I feel after that. I hear it’s pretty exhausting and I might be wiped out after. Don’t
want to ruin your viewing with my snores.” I make light of it, exhaling softly with relief that she gave me
an angle, and the urge to kiss her all over again calms me down.
“Well you know where it is, we’ll be there after nine.” Domi, too now, and I honestly feel like this is some
sort of sign, but I have to ignore it. I have to stay steadfast with the plan.
“Sure, I’ll catch you guys later. I better go.” It’s a fast exit, saying it as I make a turn and head away, so I
don’t get sidetracked with anymore conversation or unexpected invitations. Hoping not to get caught in
another offer I can hardly refuse and I’m so busy looking back, smiling at them guiltily, that I don’t look
where I’m going. I crash chest on into someone coming into the mess hall door, ‘ooofting’ with the
sudden contact and wind myself lightly, bouncing, almost sending myself, and them, flying with the
force of collision.
“Ouch!” I yelp out in response, winded momentarily, and inhale sharply, catching my breath in my throat
when I realize who’s standing a foot back from me now and looking equally surprised. That swoon
worthy cute boy face, dark sultry eyes under a furrowed brow, and I just want to melt into a hole on the
floor and disappear. It could be me, and today that this happens.
“Hey. Sorry.” Colton tries to avoid looking right at me, the awkward tension deafening and for a moment
I feel like looking up at the sky and screaming WHY??? Someone up there is really testing me now I
know what I’m doing, and I can’t deal with this on top of everything else. Heart beat a hundred times
faster, palms clammy, and legs weak, as I get hit with the usual Colton effects.
“Hey, and bye.” I throw the words in a hurried, almost sassy breath, duck around him fast, avoiding
looking at him anymore than I need to, and head on my way at speed not really wanting to get into this
with him. He affects me in all ways, and I can’t stay strong with him in my head. It’s already too raw and
I don’t want to lose my courage. I don’t look back, almost fall over Carmen, running along behind him,
ignore her completely, and shut off my hearing when his voice echoes after me
“I guess… bye.” He sounds wounded but screw him. He’s no right to be hurt at my rebuff because he’s
literally ignored me for days. He’s the reason I’m running. I try not to let myself react, just tuck my head
down against my chest and keep going, pushing it all away.
I stop thinking about him, will my brain to focus on the steps I’m taking, and hyper speed up the stairs
as soon as I get out of sight. I need to file everything into one little box in my head and focus on doing,
not feeling. My emotions are not helping, I have to take from logic to deal with this. I can fall apart later,
when I’m out of here and miles away. I can break like a damn, if that’s what I need to do, wail to my
heart’s content, but just not right now. I have to be strong to see this through.
Despite telling myself that, it doesn’t stop a tiny little murmur of insane jealousy in the corner of my
brain, shouting questions at me anyway. Why was he heading in their now, after days of not? He
doesn’t eat with us anymore for some unknown reason, and where was he with her? They didn’t look
like they just bumped into each other, she was definitely following him into the mess hall, although to be
fair she’s been following him for days anyway.
I push the green mist aside, chastising myself for it and get my ass up the stair, along the hall and
down to the end where my room sits. Wasting no time getting inside and breathe a sigh of relief when I
lock it shut from the inside and sag back for a moment, to pull my wits together. I turn to walk to my bed
and unexpectedly kick something light across the floor, looking down as it skids to the center of my rug
and stops. I scoop down to pick it up.
It’s an envelope and I recognize Meadow’s gentle curving cursive on the front. I turn it over hastily,
inhaling her heady mix of scent and perfume as I pull it open and gawp at the stash of cash inside.
There’s a note tucked in behind the money and I pull it out to read it, hands shaking at my discovery,
once again overwhelmed.
This isn’t much, but you need it more than I do. My number is on the back of this. Keep it. You know
where we are if you need us. No matter what! We’re your pack.
I’ll miss you, Hemara.