As soon as the rock left her hand, Kate slumped down, propped up by the tree on her bruised back. She was exhausted, but she couldn't help the small smile that tugged at the edge of her lips when the rock hit her in the arm and Ashlie dropped her gun. No matter what happened now, she had gotten at least some measure of the girl who almost killed her.
The smile soon faded as Taryn and Ashlie began to fight.
Kate was kicking herself for leaving her pack behind, now that she was sat there, useless, clutching her arm, unable to do anything bar watch, half-conscious, as Taryn and Ashlie scrambled frantically, a mess on the ground. Then a yell, and a kick, and Taryn rolled over, knife sticking out of her, pale as a ghost. Kate held back tears. She didn't know for certain. Ashlie had to have died but Taryn was fine, right? She had to be, they couldn't come this far only for one of them to die just like that. They were going to get to the end, both of them.
Taryn wouldn't just leave her like that.
She held onto her forearm tighter. Still bleeding, still staining her fingers a dark red that was slowly drying into a dull brown. As she turned to check if Taryn was okay- if she was alive- Kate brushed her thumb over the wound, accidentally, before recoiling in pain. It hurt more than anything in her entire life.
She had only ever hurt herself seriously- and it was nothing compared to what she had seen over the past three days- once, years ago, before she devoted all of her time to the schoolwork that now didn't mean a thing. It was a bike ride to the store on a cold November morning to pick up something- what she was picking up was irrelevant, really, because she never got to the store and Kate had forgotten over the years anyway. Her mom had hoped to take advantage of a lull in the snowfall, but the car wouldn't start, so she sent Kate out on an errand. Not much of a problem, she had said to the worried eleven year old while her other daughter cautiously looked on. Just a couple of blocks, never hurt anyone.
Now, Kate wasn't the strongest cyclist in the world; she had barely been cycling that past year. The snow was easy to traverse on the bike though, though she had to peddle harder than usual. Ice? Not so much. A stray patch sent her careening off of her bike and onto the pavement, where the wound on her forehead oozed drops of red blood onto the snow.
She walked back, crying, her forehead bloodied, to her doorstep, bike in tow. Then sat in the kitchen for twenty minutes as her mother fretted, cleaned, and applied an adhesive plaster. Then Sammy and mom called her brave for making it back all the way.
Kate needed to be brave now, if only for Taryn. She didn't know how badly Taryn was hurt yet, or if she was alive at all. So all she could really hope for was for her to say something, anything, that would just let Kate know she was still alive.
Her voice was weak, whoozy.
"I'm here, Taryn. I'm fine." She spoke, with some effort, between a cough. "You're sure she's not coming back, right?"
No. It's okay, we got her.
Kate pulled her injured arm close to her chest, using the other for balance as she struggled to her feet. She swayed, before she grabbed onto the branch of one of the dark trees. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself, before she hobbled closer to where Taryn was laying. She tried to calm her breathing further, but her heart was still pounding in her chest. Adrenaline would do its job for now, she decided. She would deal with everything else eventually after she did something about her arm.
"Taryn, your... your shoulder." She tried to avoid looking at it for as long as she could, but eventually she felt the need to speak up about it. The knife was dug in deep, removing it was a risk, but they couldn't just leave it in there. "W-what are we gonna do about it?"
Taryn lay face up, staring at the tree tops. The sun shined through them and threw flickering lights that played on her face as the leaves moved to the wind, bending and swaying, chancing the patterns of light.
The red crystals covering her body shimmered softly in response to the shadow play of the trees. She was adorned with glittering necklaces and bracelets of clear, beautiful, blood.
Kate was moving. There was rustling. She was asking her about her shoulder.
"Don't touch it," she said weakly. "Just leave the knife. It's alright."
She glanced up. Her breathing was so loud to her. They were shallow breaths that shook her and made her want to vomit. Slowly, surely, Taryn pulled herself up to sit, leaning against a tree. She motioned for Kate to sit next to her.
I'm dying. I feel like I'm dying. I can't move.
Her limbs were slow to respond and sluggish. The small amount of movement left her breathless.
"Give me a minute."
The minute became hours. The sun had moved and the light between the leaves became softer. Everything was so quiet, it was almost peaceful. For however long the two of them had left together, the island was theirs and theirs alone. It was the sort of thing Taryn had dreamed about. She’d dreamed of having some beautiful place where she could just spend the rest of forever with people she cared about. If only she could just stop time and live in a place like this with her loved ones and none of them would ever get sick or die or be in pain and they’d be happy forever.
Taryn looked at Kate. She was dirty with filth and blood and greasy tangled hair, but her pretty face still shined through.
Taryn looked down for a brief moment and for the very first time in this whole crazy game, her eyes started to fill with tears. She had never cried because she had to be the strong one. That was true now, but it had been true for a long time back home.
“You-“she started. Her voice cracked and she swallowed. The water works were threatening break through. She took a deep breath and shook her head, then looked back up at Kate and smiled.
“You are-“she cleared her throat, “ so awkward,” she said with a bit of a giggle.
“Right now you’re sort of awkward and shy but when I look at you…”
Taryn moved forward and tried to brush a bit of Kate’s sweaty, matted hair out of her face. Her hand limply rose and her fingers moved jerkily.
“I can tell that in five, maybe six years, you are going to be such an absolute knock out. I can see it. You’ll be-“
The droplets were streaming down her face, but she knew it was pointless to even try to hold back now. Her lip trembled but she smiled at Kate though the tears.
“A real heartbreaker.”
Taryn closed the space and gave her the lightest, most honest kiss on the cheek she had ever given.
“I love you.”
Taryn closed her eyes and pursed her lips with her head lowered. The forest floor swam.
"Go back to where Khalid's body was. Follow my footsteps in the dirt. I dropped my bag and his bag is there too, still. There will be a first aid kit for you."
The fight had been over for hours. She was cold now. Her finger tips curled into her palms and she couldn't feel it.
Kate shakily moved her good hand away from the knife. It probably wouldn’t have helped but Kate was desparate to do something, anything to help Taryn. She was a mess, covered in blood red crystals that had already broken off and red paste that was slowly creating new formations. Shaking, she now realised the damage that Ashlie had done to Taryn. The voice that told her to move her hand away from the knife was weak, and Kate couldn’t imagine the pain that Taryn was going through, or how much blood she had lost- or was going to lose if Kate didn’t do something.
“A-alright then,” She said, looking straight at Taryn. “I was worried it’d break off, c-cause of your blood and all.”
Her blood turned into crystals. It seemed so silly when she thought that out loud. Taryn’s blood turned into crystals, Ashlie’s dog-whistle voice made people vomit, Katherine’s teeth could grow back, though she had no intention of testing that one out, and didn’t think she was ever going to have to at this rate; and Khalid couldn’t die. But she’d seen it and heard it and felt it over three days now, and it was real. Superpowers were real and they were killing teenagers to test them. It was odd how three days could change Kate’s outlook on reality so completely, she’d never considered herself an insane conspiracy theorist before.
Taryn looked awful now, and Kate wondered if it was all her fault that Taryn was hurt. If only, Kate thought, If only Ashlie hadn’t shot her, or if only they hadn’t been split up, neither of them would be hurt. But it was no use thinking back on what could have happened. What mattered was that Kate was hurt, Taryn was worse, and if they didn’t do something, they’d both die and everything they’d done would be for nothing.
Taryn pulled herself up to a tree and asked Kate to give her a minute to catch her breath. Kate nodded, and hobbled over to the tree, clutching her arm. She sat, almost in silence, counting the heartbeats still pounding in her head as she worried that, at any moment, Taryn could pass out or worse. As the minutes turned to hours, and the pain in her arm came back in full force. Taryn looked worse, though. Kate could ignore her pain, barely, but Taryn was steadily getting worse. But what could Kate do? She left her supplies behind- another stupid move she regretted- and Taryn had nothing on her either, and whatever higher power was out there was the only one who knew whether Khalid had a bag or not. So all she could do was to sit there, and watch the closest thing she had to a friend on the island die.
She looked over and tears were welling at the corner of Taryn’s eyes. Kate looked down and moved her good arm off of her wound and cautiously wrapped it around Taryn, pulling her head close to Taryn’s uninjured shoulder. Taryn giggled a litle. So awkward.
Taryn started talking, tried to brush Kate’s hair away from her face, missing and almost poking Kate’s eye out. Eventually, Kate just smiled weakly and pulled her hair back over her ears. She hated how it looked, but she didn’t exactly have to keep up appearances now. Plus, it did at least make it easier for her to see.
She started crying and then she kissed Kate and told her she loved her and Kate wasn’t sure what to think any more. Taryn had to be delirious. She’d lost too much blood to be in her right mind and this wasn’t a time for things like that anyway, especially not when Kate was worrying more about the pain of the bullet still lodged in her arm than any notion of romance. Dying declarations of love only happened in cheesy action movies her dad used to watch. Not on this island.
Later. They could talk about this later. Not while they were this badly injured.
Taryn closed her eyes, looked down, and told Kate where Khalid’s bag was. Well, she told her to follow the footsteps, which was almost as good. Maybe. Okay, so she was basically following a trail of breadcrumbs, and it was steadily getting darker and Taryn might not have had much more time left, but it was something, at least. So thanks, Taryn.
“L-love you too, Taryn.” She said quietly, kissed Taryn’s cheek, stood up, and looked down at her injured arm. “I’ll… I’ll be back in a second.”
She rushed forwards, scanning the ground for any trace of the distinctive sandal print of Khalid’s strides, or the tread of her own nervous steps to trace back to the source, but came up empty. She found her gun on the floor, though, the barrel clogged with grit and dirt. She picked it up anyway, though she wasn’t entirely sure why.
Eventually, she found a pack, knelt down and unzipped it, taking out a fresh first aid kit. With shaking hands, she opened it up, and looked through the contents. Kate took a first aid course, back at her work, just a first response one, nothing fancy. Unfortunately, that didn’t deal with bullet wounds. Kate sighed, took out a gauze pad and some bandages and finally dressed the wound on her arm. She taped the bandage up, shoved everything back into the kit, including her gun, and tried to remember the way she took to get to the pack in the first place.
Now she knew what Khalid meant when he said she could get lost for days in there. She began, slowly to trace her own footprints back, taking care not to lose the trail, or hit something on the ground and fall. Bad thoughts flashed through her mind with every step, though, keeping her moving as quickly as she could. What if she’d left Taryn too long? Would she be okay? Kate just rushed to her side, first aid kit in hand, and hoped for the best.
Kate returned the sentiment. Taryn hadn't all together expected her to. It wouldn't have changed her feelings for the girl, but it was a nice little thing to have when everything else was becoming fuzzy. A kiss on the cheek. It was feathery and tickled just below her eye. The girl took sure, steady steps away from her towards the direction Taryn had pointed in to get the first aid supplies. Maybe it was too late. Oh well.
Taryn slumped over from her position with her back to the tree. Colored leaves from the forest trees cushioned her fall and she studied them from her sideways perspective. Her breathing was shallow and slowly, she curled her fingers again. She tried to feel the crunch of the leaves under her hands. They were stiff and cold. With each deep breath it felt like she could feel her heart pushing against her chest like in an old cartoon. She imagined the shape of a heart would press out from her skin.
The slightest movements made her feel ill to her stomach. So she stayed as she was, not moving. The floor was spinning and swirling together. Taryn closed her eyes to make it stop. A bit of her dirty hair fell over her face.
"It's okay," she breathed out. "It's not so bad. Everything ends."
The last bit was hardly audible to anyone other than the leaves under her. The thought was comforting. One way or another, it would end.
When Kate had fumbled her way back, it had taken her a moment to spot Taryn, sprawled out in the flowers. As soon as Kate saw her lying there, she began to panic. Her heart raced as she rushed back to Taryn's side and knelt down, placing the remnants of her first aid kit to one side. It took one look to tell that Taryn's condition had worsened, but Kate couldn't figure out how badly. She placed two dirty fingers to Taryn's neck and checked for a pulse, but she had never been good at finding one, and indeed she couldn’t. The slow, pained rising and falling of Taryn's chest confirmed that she was still breathing for now, but Kate didn’t know how long that could last. How much blood had she lost? It was hard to tell, with the crystals. She had to act quickly. The sight of so much slowly oozing blood made Kate feel sick, and she turned around. For the first time on the island, she threw up of her own accord. She coughed and spluttered and wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her top. Focus. She had to focus, or Taryn was going to die.
She turned back around and pulled her hair out of her face. There had to be something she could do. She rummaged through her first aid kit, but came up empty. Her own blood began to stain the haphazardly applied bandage on her own arm. She was quite sure the bullet was still in there. That couldn't be good. She felt something wet run down her aching back, but she decided that it was nothing.
"T-Taryn? Taryn, are you okay?" Kate asked, finally. She spoke softly, but she was pretty sure no one else was still alive. It was mostly for reassurance at this point, but she wasn’t sure who needed it more. "Taryn, I'm here. I picked up whatever I could."
Could Taryn even hear her? Kate hoped she could and looked, again, for anything she could use to treat the wounds. The crystals could just cut through any bandage she applied, and putting pressure on them would just cause them to cut her. She couldn't remove the knife, so she didn't even risk trying that one. Kate thought for a moment, before finding a particularly sharp crystal on Taryn's arm. She snapped it off without much issue and thought she had come to a major breakthrough.
Until, of course, she realised that her other wounds had not yet hardened, and were still oozing blood. Kate's heart was thumping in her chest now. She felt completely useless. She attempted to dress the wounds, though in her head she knew full well that it would not work. When it was done, she sat back and took a few deep breaths.
The adrenaline slowly faded away, and her back started to hurt. It was a dull pain and she could ignore it at first, but after a few moments, it registered in her head. The fight with Ashlie. Her back had slammed against the tree and cut open. She cursed under her breath once she realised what had happened. She felt her back through her shirt. The shirt was torn, soaked with sweat and the skin underneath stung when she touched it. She had to have cut it, badly, when she had fallen, or when she had slammed her back against the tree, earlier. She quickly pulled her shirt up and felt her back. She winced in pain as her hand traced the cut. It stretched roughly from one side of her back to the other. Kate pulled her hand to her face. Blood. Lots of blood.
"Hang in there, Taryn," she said. Her voice shook and she began to feel faint. "We'll... We can get through this."
The light was dim. What was that? Kate had returned and was moving around. Taryn slowly sat back up.
It was sunset. Kate was trying to fix her up, but she didn't want to be fussed over. She made a pathetic move of the hand to brush Kate away.
"I'm fine, Kate. It's going to be fine. We already got through it. We did it. We're the winners."
Taryn pulled Kate to her, both girls leaning against the tree now.
"We're going to go home. It's okay. They can fix us up there. Then after our parents get over the shock of having us back and we settle back in, we can make arrangements to hang out. I'll show you around New York just like I promised. We can go out and see the city and then we'll come back way late and try not to make noise sneaking in and sleep in our clothes and all our make up and laugh at the way we look the next morning. I'm glad I met you, Kate."
Taryn put her head on Kate's shoulder. She hadn't done that since she was little. It was normally her who was the shoulder. But now she felt calm. She didn't want to move. It was like being weightless. She took Kate's hand in hers, squeezing weakly.
"Just don't worry, alright? Don't worry....."
Her fingers trembled a bit and she felt her body reel. Just before she closed her eyes she saw the brilliant flash of the sunset and even after her eyes were shut, that golden fleck was still splashed cross her eyes. Kate had tried so hard for her sake. No one had ever done so much for her. She wished she could tell her just how much that meant. She knew she didn't have the time for all of that though. So she said this instead:
"You did great, hun. I....lo......."
Taryn's hold on Kate's hand went slack and she didn't finish her thought. She sat still with her matted hair rustling about a bit by the wind and the soft glow of the sun that was vanishing warming her face, though both now went unnoticed by her. After looking after her family and worrying over her sister and mother and always being the one put upon, Taryn finally had a chance to rest.
Kate choked back hoarse sobs. There had to be something more she could do than just sit there and watch Taryn die. She couldn’t be this powerless to stop her dying. There had to be something she could do. She looked over Taryn one final time and felt, for the first time, utterly useless. After three days of hell, they’d been reduced to this. Crying and bleeding and waiting for some form of resolution. They had gotten to the end and fallen over at the last hurdle. With a shaking hand, Kate fumbled to break another crystal off Taryn’s body. She wanted to feel like she was making a difference, however small and superfluous it was. She was just so helpless. Kate hated that.
It seemed like Taryn had resigned herself to fate. Kate still didn’t know if she could hear her, or see what she was doing. She was barely responsive. Slowly, she saw Taryn’s hand reach up and slowly brush Kate’s away. Kate instantly stopped. Taryn said that she was fine. That they had won. Sooner or later, they were both going home. Kate shook her head as the tears began to leave wet streaks down her cheeks. The first thing they were told. One of them was going home. Everything else was a fantasy, something convenient they had told themselves to get to the end. To get here. Kate finally understood what Khalid had said to them. They weren’t going home, were they?
With what little of her strength remained, Taryn had moved her hand to Kate’s shoulder and pulled her close. Kate leaned beside her on the tree and listened carefully to each word Taryn said to her. They were going home, she repeated. They’d find some way to meet up outside of the game, exchange phone numbers or something. They’d go to New York because Kate had never been to a big city before and they’d come back when they damn well felt like it. That was the promise Taryn had made to Kate only a few hours ago. God, it felt like forever. Taryn quietly thanked Kate, and rested her head on her shoulder. Just don’t worry. Kate felt Taryn grab her bloodstained hand and squeeze it. She was desperate for any form of assurance, and for a brief moment, that made her feel better.
Kate looked up through a small opening in the forest canopy and saw the sun, bright and orange in the night sky, begin to set. As the darkness meticulously began to envelop the light, Taryn half-mumbled something that Kate could only barely make out. Before she could finish, her hand fell limp in Kate’s.
“I love you too, Taryn.” Kate said, and she meant it.
She was the only one left. Out of twenty, she had survived and she felt so empty that she may as well have been one of the corpses. Kate let Taryn’s hand go and put her hands up to her face. She cried, until she thought she had no tears left to cry with. Then she waited. She waited for a sign, another announcement over the loudspeakers. A sign that she could go home or that she had failed and would be left there to die. She wrapped her arms around Taryn and closed her eyes.
Silence. Deathly silence. Kate didn’t have a watch, she couldn’t tell what time it was. Did she have to wait until the time had ticked off of the clock?
Buzzing. That was the first sign that something was wrong. Kate felt a distinct buzzing in her arm. Had the forest become a dangerzone? She wondered, but there was nowhere else to go. With Taryn gone, there was no one left to protect her. The buzzing moved through her body. This was how it was going to end, wasn’t it? In Kate’s mind, there had never been any doubt.
She whispered a quiet apology to her sister and her parents, and wiped her tears away.
Her will to fight gone, Katherine simply closed her eyes and waited for the end.