The trip went wrong, so wrong. It made little sense to Will, or perhaps too much sense for him to process. He sat in silence, squeezed into a too-crammed bus seat, watching as Mr. Dolph was executed, listening as Victor Danya gave his speech.
It was almost a relief when the gas began to hiss. Will had been very close to beginning to process what was happening, but the blissful unconsciousness freed him even of dreams.
"Rise and shine, Cinderella."
The sun was bright, so bright Will could see it through his eyelids. The ground beneath him was hard and rough, packed dirt maybe but peppered with gravel and small rocks that made his back twinge as sensation returned. The boot pressing into his ribs was steel-toed.
"C'mon. I'm not gonna kiss you."
The pressure withdrew, but a split second later returned in the form of a gentle kick. Unfortunately, there was still enough force behind the hefty boots to produce a sharp pain along Will's right side, and he moaned and rolled away from the impact, curling in on himself.
"Ouch," he half-whined, as his eyes snapped open. His roll had at least taken the sun directly out of his face, but what he saw brought him little comfort. He lay on a rough dirt trail, with scrubby grasses and weeds growing along and in it. A breeze rustled the vegetation. Down towards his feet was a duffel bag with something written on the side; he blinked, squinted, reached up and adjusted his glasses. The bag read "B22" and there was some sort of long wooden pole tucked under it. He blinked again.
He knew where he was, of course. He knew what had happened, or at least the broad brushstrokes. They had been taken, like that class from California five years ago. He hadn't followed it closely at the time—he'd been in eighth grade, and there'd been this real awareness floating around that it was a big deal, and his parents had said something about always remembering where they'd been when it came out just like on September Eleventh, but that was even further back when Will had just been a baby—and so really all he knew was that that Nick guy had been the only survivor and had had to kill some of his classmates and had gotten pretty messed up. And now he, Will, was here too, and could he do the same? No, it was absurd to even think about.
There was haze about so many of the details of the situation, but he found himself comforted by that moral certainty. He did not have to reach to find it. Murder was wrong, dead wrong. It was wrong in a way that made all his other crusades seem meaningless. He hadn't spent his life refusing to drink at parties only to turn around and bathe in the blood of some girl who sat behind him in math class.
But what if she was trying to bathe in his blood? What then, hm?
Then... then he would figure it out as it came. He'd do his best to try to keep himself safe, and others too, and that didn't mean running around killing the weak-minded.
The brightness above him dimmed. The shadow of a figure fell across him, and the twang of his ribs reminded him that, while certainly there were more pressing concerns in his life right now, the most immediate thing going on was that some guy had been trying to wake him up and had decided the best way was with a kick.
"Hey, man, you okay?" the figure asked. Male voice, kind of deep. Familiar, but of course it was; they'd only taken classmates. Will turned, but the sun behind the guy made him flinch.
"Fine," he said, "I'm fine." He raised a hand to shield his eyes and took in his companion and suddenly was struck by regret. He'd spoken too soon. He might not be fine at all. He was, after all, looking straight into the eyes of Richard Ormsby.
"Good. Need a hand?" Richard extended his hand without waiting for a response, and Will grasped it half out of instinct and half out of politeness. The boy's hand was large and rough and his grip was firm, and when Will was on his feet he had to angle his head up just a bit to meet Richard's gaze. He had never in his life stood so close to the boy before, and up until this very moment he'd been happy to keep it that way.
There was no beating around the bush: Richard Ormsby was a thug and a bully of the first degree. He wasn't necessarily the high-profile concentrated weapons-grade dick of, say, Adonis Alba, but he brought to the table a certain predatory cleverness that saw him slipping the hands of justice time and again. He was the sort who'd smash your locker closed on your hand, then apologize and offer to help you to the nurse, then tell you the next day you'd really better stay away from him because he was awfully clumsy and it'd be a real shame if that sort of accident happened again.
But right now, Richard was just a guy in a terrible situation, same as Will, and whatever Will might've thought of the boy back in Denton he was willing to at least tentatively set to the side in the face of the truly extraordinary circumstances in which they found themselves. He'd heard once, after all, that bullies lashed out because they were really afraid, and while he didn't put too much stock in that—Will knew what being afraid was like, and he knew what being frustrated was like, and yet he managed to not be a total prick to all he encountered—he did think that Richard was probably shaking in his (steel-toed) boots just like everyone else in their class. Will had also heard of lots of bad folks turning over a new leaf in times of real need, and while he wasn't gonna say a meth dealer was a hero just because the guy saved a baby or something, like that erased all other sin, he could admit that things weren't black and white and was totally down with Richard exposing a nicer side.
"Thanks," Will said, taking a step back. It helped make the height difference a little less apparent. It wasn't even that Richard was that big; Will was just sort of short, and it made him a little self conscious from time to time but again there were more pressing issues.
But he couldn't really think of what to say next. It was just too immense.
Richard didn't seem to have the same problem. He offered a pithy summation thusly: "Man, this shit's fucked."
"You can say that again." And it was true; Will for once didn't even secretly judge Richard for his casual foul-mouthedness. They really and truly were in about the most screwed up situation Will could have imagined.
"Guess it could've been worse," Richard said. "They could've just shot us like Dolph." He scratched at his back as he spoke. He was a stocky guy, wearing blue jeans and work boots and a white, untucked button-down shirt that was both out of place with the rest of his outfit and already slightly grimy with dust. Small sweat patches were visible by the armpits. His hair, however, was still perfectly in shape, giving his wide jaw and nose this almost painting-like quality. He held eye contact a lot better than Will did, and his eyes were very blue. It was like he'd spent half an hour staring at himself in the mirror, getting everything perfect, then gotten dressed in whatever was at the bottom of his dirty laundry pile.
"Yeah," Will said. "At least they didn't just shoot us. I guess."
He broke eye contact with Richard again and took in the lay of the land, partially to distract himself from the idea that really they all could've just been shot.
He and Richard were standing in the middle of this dirt path that snaked along a very steep slope that lay behind Richard and stretched far down; Will couldn't see exactly how far because of the angles and because the slope was studded with rock outcroppings, scraggly patches of undergrowth, and bushes. The part of the path that traveled upslope led to, in the distance, what looked like the sort of bridge Indiana Jones would barely make it across before it plummeted into the endless abyss. Will resolved not to go that way unless the alternative was truly dire. Downslope the path made a turn about three hundred feet away and vanished from sight. The side of the path that wasn't plunge was level enough, though did not look attractive as far as terrain to traverse went; even the path itself, come to think of it, gave the impression of having sat unused for a very long time. Will felt a flash of envy for Richard's heavy boots. His own sneakers weren't bad, but he could feel the uneven ground clearly through them, and he knew their soles were worn enough that he'd have to be a little careful to keep his balance.
Richard was shifting his weight a little, glancing around, but there was nobody else within sight. Will couldn't tell if the guy was on edge or just had excess energy—no, who was he kidding? Of course Richard was on edge. Anybody sane would be.
"You been up long?" Will asked him, figuring he might at least coax some information out of Richard since it seemed that, improbable as he'd've imagined it at any point prior, they were at the moment basically on the same side.
"Maybe fifteen minutes, half an hour," Richard said. "That gas shit laid me out. My head still feels a little fucked."
Will made a noise of sympathy, rubbing at his own temple. It was politeness more than anything else; he felt stiff and maybe a little bruised, but by and large fine. The breeze raised the hair on his arms and neck and kept his head clear. This could've been some resort island, a place his parents might've yearned to get away for a weekend retreat.
"I came from down that way," Richard said, gesturing vaguely along the path and around the corner. "Poked through my bag, saw I didn't get jack shit, and decided to get moving."
When he mentioned the bag, Will took note of it. It was sitting on the ground maybe a dozen feet behind Richard, a duffel bag just like the one next to Will, and surely these were the bags packed with their promised provisions.
That meant they might be armed. Richard had implied he wasn't, but as much as Will was pleasantly surprised by the boy's demeanor so far, he did not trust him completely. Not yet.
"You were lying there," Richard continued, "and I thought to myself, 'Hey, maybe ol' Will would rather I wake him up instead of leaving him there to get chewed up by the wildlife. And now here we are."
"Yeah," Will said. "I guess we are."
He paused for a moment. The breeze picked up a little.
"They didn't give you anything in your bag?" he said.
"Nah," Richard said. He turned, made his way back to the bag, hefted it, and then brought it over towards Will. Richard's movements were casual. He seemed totally unconcerned that Will might try something, and that actually went a good way towards putting Will at ease. They were in a really bad situation, in real danger, but if Richard Ormsby could be relaxed about everything then there was no way they were all going to fall right away.
Yeah, there would be violence. There would be death. Will wasn't an idiot. He knew that other class had been full of pretty normal people too, and they'd all panicked and killed and died. But things might be just a little different now. This wasn't a total aberration. He imagined almost everyone had asked themselves what they'd do. If those seemingly most likely to resort to violence were abstaining, then maybe they could at least stall more, run down the clock for the government to get things together and find them, save whoever they could.
"I mean, it's something, sure," Richard said, returning. He dropped the bag between himself and Will, and it landed more heavily than Will had expected, making a light clattering sound against the gravel. "See for yourself."
Will frowned, but Richard waved his hand, gesturing to look, so Will leaned over and unzipped the duffel bag. What he saw was not exactly what he'd call "nothing."
"Are these grenades?"
They sure looked like grenades. Four black cylinders, each with that ever-iconic handle and pin combo. It took a lot of self control to not jerk back and scramble away, but Richard seemed utterly nonchalant.
"Flash-bangs," he said. "That's what the manual says. The SWAT team uses these things to chase people out of buildings and stuff. I think all they do is make you blind and deaf for a while. And, you know, I'm pretty good at throwing stuff but where am I gonna use something like this and not catch myself in it? Pretty shit, you ask me."
"Ah," Will said. "I... see."
So maybe Richard was actually thinking a little bit more tactically than Will had originally given him credit for. That was a bit disappointing, but that was all. Not disturbing. Not surprising. Richard was scared.
"But at least that's good for protecting yourself, right?" Will said. "And maybe you could trick people into thinking they're the dangerous ones?"
Richard furrowed his brow for a moment, then smiled.
"Hey, that's pretty good, Will," he said. "That's pretty smart. I know they're trash, and you know they're trash, but if Asshole Alba or Lord Lombardi or whoever sees them, maybe they decide it's not worth starting anything."
Richard zipped the bag back up and pushed it to the side.
"Thanks, man," he continued. "Never would've thought of that."
"Oh, uh, no problem," Will said. Something about Richard's approval made him suddenly a lot more edgy, like there was something super obvious he was missing, but he couldn't put his finger on what. "Happy to help."
"And how 'bout you?" Richard asked.
"Oh," Will said. He looked back towards his bag. It had existed, at best, on the periphery of his consciousness, truth be told. "I don't actually know. I just woke up."
"Well, let's see it, then," Richard said. taking a step towards the bag. Then he stopped. "I mean, you know, if it's okay and all. If you'd rather wait, 's fine too."
"Oh," Will said again. He wasn't really fine with Richard poking through his stuff—well, the stuff that had been arbitrarily assigned to him, at least—at all, come to think of it. But he couldn't really place the reason for that lack of fineness. Richard had seemed nothing but well-intentioned thus far, and more than that he'd trusted Will enough to let him dig around and tell him the grenades weren't dangerous. So if Will was feeling some ambivalence here, it was in all likelihood due to the situation. Here he was worrying about others falling prey to psychological trickery, and he was the one right about to distrust a guy who could've smashed his face in with a rock and had instead poked him awake. And Richard was being perfectly respectful.
So Will pushed that slick and slimy feeling to the side and forced himself to intone, "No, that's fine. Bring it over."
Richard picked up the bag, but then he and Will both saw at the same time what was under it, what Will had at first thought was some kind of stick.
It was a rifle.
It looked old, wooden, but still frightfully real. It was the sort of thing he'd seen in textbooks, the sort of thing a soldier might be cradling as he stormed the beaches at Normandy. Richard pursed his lips like he was going to whistle, failed to do so in two attempts, then said, "Wow. You lucked out."
"I don't know about that," Will said. Richard knelt and scooped up the rifle and Will felt a twinge of anxiety, but then Richard walked over and held the gun out to Will, who took it. It was solid, smooth, cool. Heavy.
"See, this is the real deal," Richard said. Will nodded and swallowed. Then, hesitantly, he lifted the gun up, taking hold of it like he might were he to shoot, sighting down the barrel. His finger moved towards the trigger.
"Whoa there." Richard reached up, gently took hold of the gun, and guided its barrel down. "No telling if that's loaded."
"Yeah, oh, yeah," Will said. "Yeah, right, shoot. I'm sorry."
He let his stance relax, pulling his finger away from the trigger.
"It's okay," Richard said. "Just be careful. This isn't a toy."
"Right," Will said. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Richard said. "Let's just take it easy and see what you've got here."
They sat down and opened the duffel bag, and soon they found a box of shells, two magazines, a manual that labeled the weapon as a "Winchester Model 1897," as well as a map and an assortment of food and medical supplies. Will squinted at the map as Richard paged through the manual. It looked like the island was of decent size, and the labels gave Will some pause.
"Tar pits," he mumbled to himself.
It looked like there wasn't much in the way of civilization here. If he had to guess, he'd say there'd been some sort of mining operation in this place, but he couldn't begin to guess at its product. He looked around at the grasses and gravel and the far side of the steep valley, which was equally overgrown and scraggly, as if he might see gold glinting or some other obvious sign. There was nothing.
"Yep. It's loaded," Richard said, looking up. "That right there's the magazine. This thing's a shotgun."
"A shotgun?" Will said. He looked at the gun in his lap. You didn't aim a shotgun like a rifle, did you? He was pretty sure shotguns were powerful.
He didn't actually know the first thing about shotguns.
"Yeah," Richard said. "Some old-school thing. Should work fine. We can do some target practice later if you want."
"I think I'm good," Will said. The shotgun felt heavy in his lap. It made everything feel more real. What would have happened if he'd pulled the trigger? He hadn't been aiming it at anyone, but how easily things could've gone wrong. He'd heard of bullets flying long distances and killing bystanders. Or what if it'd made some tremendous noise and caused a rockslide? And even putting that aside, once he pulled that trigger, he'd know he could do it. If he fired the gun, it meant he could kill. Not emotionally or mentally or whatever—he couldn't imagine murdering someone—but physically.
"Think about it," Richard said. "A shotgun's not gonna do you any good if you won't touch the thing."
"I guess." Will looked at the map again.
They sat there for some time like that, Richard flipping through the manual, Will examining everything else. Will became aware of the ambient sounds of the slope, a faint buzzing of insects, periodic calls of seagulls, a far-off lap of waves. The air was heavy and humid and salty, though not as much as it was at the beach back in Denton.
Denton was a terrible city, but oh how he missed it. They'd been gone less than a day.
Richard folded up the manual and tucked it back into the bag.
"Well," he said, "what now, Will?"
"What now?" Will looked at him. Richard's eyes were closed, but they snapped open a second later and Will again broke eye contact. "What do you mean what now?"
"I mean, what're you gonna do?" Richard said. "You planning to gun your way out of here?"
"No," Will said. "Jesus, no. No. I don't think hurting anyone's the right choice. Not at all."
Richard nodded. "Glad you see it that way."
They said nothing for a second. The insect noise got louder, or maybe the relative silence it occupied grew more obvious.
"But," Richard continued, "that's just a thing you're not gonna do. So what about what you are gonna do?"
Will had to think for a while on that.
"I don't know," he said. "I figure it's probably, you know, I think probably the safest thing is to just find somewhere to hide and wait. I mean, we may all be out of luck. Maybe we'll just d—we're just doomed. But I think if we try to keep it under control then maybe someone'll come and save us."
It sounded pretty weak, laid out like that. Will felt absolutely no confidence in their prospects of rescue, but what else could he do?
"And what about you?" he said. And then he surprised himself by looking Richard square in the face and adding, "You can come with if you want."
Now it was Richard who turned away, looking out across the ravine.
"I wish I could, man," he said. "I sure do wish I could."
"That sounds like you can't."
He chuckled. "Smart guy. Yeah, I have a few people I need to look for first. People who might, you know, do something..." He wiped at his nose, snorted slightly. "...rash."
"Oh," he said. "Yeah. That makes sense. Good... um, good luck, Richard."
"Yeah," Richard said. "Thanks. I'll do my best. I should probably get moving, really."
He stood, hoisted his own bag, took two steps. Then he stopped, and turned back to Will. His lips were pursed, and he seemed to be struggling with something.
"You okay?" Will asked.
"Will," Richard said, "I've got a thought. And you can say no. It's totally fine if you say no."
Will didn't say anything. Richard shifted, glanced around, looked at his feet, but then he raised his gaze to Will once more.
"Will," he said, "how 'bout a trade?"
"Yeah," Richard said. "It's fine if you say no. But I was thinking, if you're just gonna hide out, maybe you'd be better off with something more defensive, like those grenades I got. And if I'm gonna be looking for dangerous people, you know... might be good to be able to watch my back, just in case."
Will almost said no right on the spot. It wasn't rational—there was not one rational thing about it—but the gun was heavy and real in his lap and it was powerful, powerful in that way where it meant anything was possible, and Richard had been a total asshole back at P. J. Hobbs, and did Will really trust him with a shotgun? And yet, that was the situation speaking again. That was the paranoia, the mistrust they were sowing on purpose. That was how they would die.
Will pulled his own bag closer, unzipped it again, and pulled out the box of cartridges. He turned it over in his hand once, then held it out to Richard.
"Alright," he said.
"Really?" he said. "I mean, uh, you sure, man?"
"I'm sure I'm sure."
Richard plucked the box of shells from Will's grasp, transferred it to his own bag, and soon had taken possession of the magazines as well. Will paused only a moment before handing over the shotgun.
As it left his lap, it felt like a weight beyond the physical one had been lifted. The gun was gone. It was Richard's problem now. Will would never have to worry about firing it, about even the vaguest possibility of killing anyone. The grenade Richard handed to him was heavy in its own right, but only in a material sense.
"I only need a couple," Will said, holding up his hand as Richard tried to pass him a third grenade. "You keep the rest. Trick someone if you have to. Keep your options open, you know."
"You sure?" Richard said again. Will nodded, and Richard nodded back. "Thanks."
Then he turned and set off down the path. He'd made it maybe fifteen feet when he paused. He stood for a long time, back to Will, looking out at nothing.
"You're too good," he finally said.
"What?" Will's butt was getting sore, and he'd sort of started to glaze over Richard's inexplicable pause, but now his focus honed in again.
"You're way too good," Richard said again. "Man, you know, I always thought you were a smug dick back at school. A whole lot holier than everyone else." He laughed.
The hair was rising on Will's arms and neck again.
"I mean," he said, through suddenly-dry lips, "I've got to admit, I didn't think too highly of you either. I guess first impressions can be deceiving."
"Maybe," Richard said. Then he spun, shotgun held leveled. Will's eyes widened as he looked down the barrel.
"I should shoot you," Richard said.
"Not to be an asshole or anything. The opposite, really." Richard managed to shrug his shoulders in a way that let the gun bob only the slightest bit. "You're too good. You're gonna get eaten alive."
Will chuckled a little, though there was nothing even vaguely funny about this turn in his fortunes.
"What are you talking about?" he said, when he'd finally composed himself a little.
"You just gave me a gun," Richard said. "You gave me a gun and you let me keep those grenades and you just rolled with it. And now look where you are."
"Not exactly where I'd like to be, no," Will said. They both laughed.
"I'm not gonna die here," Richard said, snapping out of it first. "I'm not gonna just gun down everyone I see, but I'm gonna do what I have to. I can do what I have to now, thanks to you. If I see someone I can pop to better my chances, you better believe I'm gonna."
"Oh," Will said.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe someone'll come and save us. I hope they do. I hope you're somewhere safe and sound, because, man, if there's anyone who deserves to get out of this alive, it's a boy scout like you."
"But who deserves to get out and who does... I don't think those things'll have much to do with each other," he continued.
"We should calm down," Will said. "Put the gun down. We can talk about this, and go find a spot together."
"Hell no I'm not putting the gun down," Richard said. "You run and hide, Will. You stay safe. If it's not me, I hope it's you. Doubt it will be, but I can hope. Me, I've got some work to do. Thanks for making it possible. Stay safe."
Then he turned and started walking again, one slow step after another.
It took about three seconds for it all to come crashing down on Will. He'd lied. Richard had lied through his teeth, played Will like a fiddle. Now he had a gun and grenades and was off to start murdering. And it was, just like he'd said, all thanks to Will.
Stupid Will. Naive Will. Enabler Will.
Will who'd probably just murdered someone. Yeah, by proxy. But he'd armed Richard and set him off, and now whatever Richard did was on his shoulders, just as clear as if he pulled the trigger himself, because he was too stupid to trust his feelings, too keen to prove himself above it all, but none of them were above it. He saw that now. They were all going down here, all to be killed and damned. It was his luck to fall first.
Thanks for making it possible. Yes, Richard had good reason to thank him. The boy was almost to the turn in the path, shotgun held up over his shoulder like he was some old British infantryman. In a few moments, he'd be gone. Somebody else's problem.
Will only realized what he was doing as he steadily rose to his feet and started to move. This was rash. It was dangerous. But it was right.
He had to get the gun back. He had to shove the genie back into its bottle, kicking and screaming. He had to disarm Richard, because anything else would leave him no better than the boy.
Will's too-thin sneakers slapped against the gravel, faster and faster, and about a second before impact Richard apparently heard and realized what was happening, because he glanced over his shoulder and then spun, but it was too late. Will let out a cry and threw one arm around Richard and grabbed at the shotgun with the other.
Richard held tight to the weapon at first, but it didn't matter. Will had been so intently focused on his goal that he'd paid little to no attention to the practicalities of the situation, and the momentum of his charge and his lunge for the rifle was plenty to send Richard staggering backwards, Will following right along, right over the edge of the precipice.
Still clinging to the shotgun, the boys plunged over the lip of the path and tumbled down the ravine.
The bush had torn shallow gashes along his cheek and forehead, and when he instinctively raised his right hand to his face it came away bloody. His legs kicked futilely, but the dirt was loose and there was nowhere to gain purchase. With his left hand, he grabbed at a patch of tall grass, but it came away from the hill instantly, leaving him grasping a bundle of plant life with a patch of roots and dirt at the bottom. He was shouting or screaming, but the clatter of rocks sliding along in his wake largely drowned it out.
He got turned around, and then there came a harsh stab of pain as something smashed into his back. He clapped his right hand in that direction, but there was blood in his eyes now, and his movements were wild and uncontrolled. He had no idea what he'd hit or if he was badly injured. It felt like he was tumbling ever faster, but it was hard to say.
There was a large chunk of boulder protruding from the slope ahead, and Will grabbed for it with his left hand. He caught it, but that only briefly and slightly dampened the velocity of his tumble, and the price was steep: his shoulder was tugged at a sickly angle and he felt something crack in his fingers and then his grip was broken and he was falling, falling once again. His arm wasn't responding anymore.
There was nothing he could see now. A cloud of dirt and dust had been kicked up by his motion and something had gotten in his eyes—something besides the blood. Everything hurt and stung and it was too much for him to process. All senses besides touch were shut largely out, though the earthy smell of the ground faintly cut through. Each passing second he was spun and tossed by gravity, his limbs and core torn and battered by rocks and plants and logs, and he finally gave up trying to do anything about that and curled inwards, making an attempt to protect his head.
Jesus, it had looked a long way down when he'd taken that cursory glance from the path, but how much longer it felt to traverse. His heart was slamming in his chest, adrenaline going full force, and it was like those few moments in his life when he'd been really terrified, like that one time he'd stepped out into the crosswalk near Central Mall and the black sedan coming his way had sped up instead of slowing down, and everything had seemed to turn slow motion like he was Neo in The Matrix or something, and it had felt like he'd had all the time in the world to consider his course (which was good, because it'd seemed an unbearably long span before he gathered himself enough to jump back the way he'd come), only now there was no sidewalk to flee back to, no way to undo his mistake. All he could do was wait.
Another thump, a crack to the side of his head that launched an explosion of colors through his vision even though his stinging eyes remained closed, and then there came a brief feeling of weightless freedom, no more crashing, no more bumps, no more new pains though all the old in full force, and that moment was all the more beautiful in comparison to the sickening crunching crack that followed it as he finally slammed into solid, flat ground.
The impact took the wind out of him, and he bore the brunt of it on his lower back and between his shoulders. His head bounced forwards and then came down again, the back of his skull smacking hard into the earth. Everything went white and then blacker black and he didn't think he lost consciousness but wouldn't have put money on it.
Then he just lay there. It felt like a long time he not only didn't move but didn't consider moving. It was strange, because a lot of the pain that he hadn't even really been able to fully process as it was accumulating during the fall seemed to be gone now. Really, what was most pressing was the splitting headache emanating from the back of his scalp and the gritty throb of his eyeballs, which teared up in attempt to clear themselves, though he did not blink. He knew that his limbs and core had taken a beating too, but all of that was mercifully set aside, as if on a shelf in some other room. Maybe that was why he kept his eyes closed for so long. Maybe the second he opened them his reprieve would be over.
He tried to count in his head to track the passing of time, but he couldn't even focus past a count of three, and not just because of the pain in his head. His mind was blanketed in a haziness, and he had this idea that he should really try not to fall asleep.
That finally sparked a jolt of fear and realization of the severity of his predicament, and he told himself he was going to open his eyes in just a moment, then said okay, just a moment more, then yes, soon, soon for sure, and then finally he bit the bullet and groaned out a cry of agony and forced his eyelids up.
It took several blinks to clear the tears that turned all into ovals of watery, colored blurs. When the world resolved itself, he wished it hadn't.
He was slumped against the base of a sheer drop of about fifteen feet, along the rocky bed of the ravine. About ten feet towards the center was the water, wide but shallow-seeming, lapping against the stones in small waves. Seagulls circled above, calling out in aggravation, presumably at the disturbance caused by his descent. All around him was loose dirt, shrubs, rocks—the detritus that had followed him. He could see the bridge far, far up above to his left. It seemed an impossibly long way away.
Blood dripped into his eye and he tried to raise his hand to clear it but that wasn't really happening just now, so instead he blinked until it was clear again. His gaze had dropped to the objects more on a level plain with him, and specifically alighted upon an odd lump, one colored white and black and red even through the coating of dust, standing distinct from the more natural colors of his surroundings.
It took him a few moments to realize what it was: Richard.
The boy was crumpled against the base of the same drop as Will. He was facing towards Will, but his head was tilted to the side at an acute angle. His mouth was open, blood trailing from the corner. His eyes were open but dull, unblinking. He did not move—as far as Will could perceive, his chest wasn't even rising and falling. The shotgun lay half a dozen feet away from Richard, in the direction of the water. The boy's pack was still slung over his shoulder, but it looked like it had come apart during the fall; gauze and tape and crackers were strewn around. As Will stared in incomprehension, a seagull landed next to the shotgun and started to pick at a slice of bread.
Richard was dead. Will had killed him. He wheezed. It should have been a sob, or choked laughter, but it was just a neutral wheezing.
This was wrong. It was all wrong. Will had been... he'd just wanted to fix his mistake. Take the gun back. Make sure Richard wouldn't cause any harm. That was all. He hadn't wanted to hurt the guy. He hadn't thought about the drop. He hadn't meant to take them over the ledge.
No, no Richard couldn't be dead. Will couldn't be a killer. That was exactly what he had been trying to avoid. He couldn't even bear the thought of hurting someone by proxy, with Richard as unintentional intermediary.
He croaked out something that was meant to resemble Richard's name, and the seagull let out a cry and took flight, but Richard did not respond in any way.
Will had to help him. It couldn't be too late. He'd go over and... and do CPR or something. He'd shovel every drug in the first aid kit into Richard's mouth, punch his chest until his eyes fluttered to life and he punched Will in the gut and knocked him to the ground and kicked him until he passed out, and that would be okay because Richard would be fine at least and Will wouldn't be a killer. Just stand up and go check, at least. Find out.
Will took deep breaths, blinked away the tears that were now more than pain, and tried to stand. He didn't move an inch.
His eyes widened, and his breathing accelerated. He tried to wiggle his toes, but he couldn't feel them. There was no pain, but there was nothing else either.
He looked, for the first time, towards his own feet. His legs were extended in front of him, and his right ankle was bent to the side. His pants were dusty and torn, and droplets of blood sprinkled the ground on either side of him. His arms weren't in much better shape. His right was dripping from rips and cuts along the length of his forearm, creating muddy red streaks on the tattered beige of his windbreaker. His left was in better shape above the hand, but his index, middle, and ring fingers were crushed, the index worst of all, cracked at the middle joint with a chunk of white bone sticking out. And yet he felt nothing. He couldn't manage a twitch.
This was nothing he wanted to see or think about, and there was nothing he could do, but his breathing got faster and faster and then darkness took him.
Colors spun around Will, and there was a roar in his head. It was voices, hundreds of voices arguing incoherently, and he could catch and distinguish but not process individual words. He was running and falling and then there was this music rising up above everything, this song he'd known for ages with a blaring alarm and a distorted voice calling all hands to battle stations over a driving beat, and that was foregrounded enough that he could recognize it over all the other chaos.
His eyes snapped open. It was the screeching of seagulls that had started him from his sleep. He saw nothing for a few seconds, and then the world sharpened. The sun was higher, but how much he didn't know. The metal of the shotgun glinted with its painful reflection. The bread was gone.
It took a moment further to locate the seagulls, and as he did, he became somewhat glad that most of his body wasn't responding. It was the only reason he didn't vomit on the spot.
Three seagulls were clumped around Richards head, battering at each other with feet and wings. The largest held scraps of something bloody and white in its beak, and as Will watched it beat the others away with its wings, leaned its head back, and swallowed its morsel in a series of quick gulps. One of the smaller seagulls ducked in again, and Will groaned out another choked howl, and that combined to send the birds darting away again, but they didn't go far, settling on rocks half a dozen feet or so from Richard's body.
Richard's left eye was gone, a bloody strand of something hanging out of the empty socket and down his cheek. There were speckles of blood across his face, like the seagulls had been pecking at him all over, but it seemed the eye was all they could easily extract amidst their squabbling. The body's remaining eye was just as glassy as before.
I'm sorry. That's what Will wanted to say. I'm sorry, Richard, oh god am I sorry. This wasn't what I wanted. How could this have happened? He'd just been trying to get the gun back. But he hadn't meant to hurt anyone. Richard had been a real asshole, a real snake in what he'd done. He'd made a fool of Will, and he'd shown himself so totally willing to put his own interests before everyone else, and yet...
He hadn't shot Will. He'd had every opportunity to kill Will and walk away, and he hadn't taken it. He'd given Will two of his grenades—still back up at the top of the slope, nestled in the duffel bag with the rest of Will's belongings, unless someone else had already come along and helped themselves to the supplies he was starting to realize he would never, ever recover—and he'd wished Will well. He'd said he hoped Will made it.
He'd trusted Will. Richard had trusted him enough to turn his back and walk slowly away, and now he'd paid for that misplaced confidence with his life. And Will had paid too, had paid dearly for that moment of panic. He'd tried to undo his mistake, and oh, how self-righteous of him. He'd taken it upon himself to stop Richard not out of altruism, but from some petty desire to preserve his own precious moral high ground. Well, he'd stopped Richard alright. He wished he could even pretend there was some way to rationalize it as worth the results.
The headache had faded a little while he slept, or else he'd grown used to the pain so it no longer bothered him as much, but his thoughts were fuzzier. He couldn't actually recall the precise specifics of his conversations with Richard. Everything seemed a blur, one which rushed up to him faster than the ground had.
The seagulls started to close in on the body again, and Will squeezed his eyes tight.
The music, the screams, it came and went again, and this time the calls of the seagulls blended in with it. Time passed. Will did not want to open his eyes again, and realized he might well not have to. He might never see anything ever again, and that idea was faint and hazy and far but it made him snap his lids open awfully quickly.
They inevitably fixed upon the shotgun, lying among the pebbles, the water gently lapping at it in tiny waves.
When first Will caught sight of the shotgun, the water had been nowhere near it. Now the weapon was, every few seconds, being partially submerged.
Even through the fog, the realization set in quickly. The patch of water was wider now, closer, and the band of dirt across the water on the other side of the ravine had also narrowed. The tide was coming in.
The drop he lay at the base of was about fifteen feet, eroded to a far steeper fall-off than anything else in the ridge. That probably corresponded roughly to the high water mark. He could be wrong, of course. Maybe it was the remnants of some long-ago seismic event that caused the ravine in the first place. But now that the idea had taken hold, it was quite hard to shake.
Whatever the case, he was in trouble here. He had to get up, but that was a sort of academic thought; he still couldn't move. He could call for help, maybe, but it was a long, long way up to the top, and his voice was hoarse and weak and he couldn't even articulate words properly. The bottom of the ravine was isolated, with no obvious points of access aside from the terrible tumble he and Richard had taken; perhaps there was a gentler slope somewhere far inland, but he struggled to conceive of a reason anyone else would come explore this spot, especially with the water rising. And even if he was discovered by some miracle, what then? How could his would-be savior extract him? Drag him bodily all the way back to whatever precarious path they'd found? Will doubted even the most physically-inclined of his peers would be up to that.
In all likelihood, at this stage, the most anybody could do for him would be to offer the dubious mercy of speeding his passing.
What would he say to such an offer? He wanted it all to end, certainly, this incapability, the throbbing in his head which was almost worse now that it was so far away from him. At the same time, there was a difference between wanting the pain to stop and wanting to die.
Death was an end not just to suffering, but to all. It was something Will had, from time to time, contemplated. Those were the sorts of thoughts that had made him uneasy indeed. When he was sick with the flu back in eighth grade, he'd spent over an hour throwing up, dry-heaving again and again into a bucket, and he'd thought to himself, "I wish I was dead," and then, almost as quickly, "No, I don't." Swaddled in blankets, stomach howling, bile dripping down his chin, he'd thought to himself that his hell was finite, and death was not. And then he'd thought, even were that not the case, he'd probably choose the suffering.
At least he could think. At least he could be. Death was something he couldn't even imagine. He tried to conjure images of it, but how could he visualize nothingness? It wasn't blackness. Blackness was something. It wasn't emptiness. A void could be filled. It wasn't merely a lack of future, but also an annihilation, at least on a personal level, of past and present. There would be no more memories, no more moment, no more anything. His family might mourn him, but what would that be to Will? It would, for all intents and purposes, be as if he'd never existed.
There had been a time when he'd never existed, back before the last days of the 1990s, and that hadn't bothered him any, but there'd been nothing to compare it to. He wished, from time to time, that he'd never been born, not because he found any present suffering intolerable, but rather because his whole life was under a pall, if he really stopped to think about it. Nothing mattered. Every moment of pain or joy, it was all totally meaningless. All his morals, his hobbies, it all came to nothing, because he would die and then he'd be just a lump of decaying biological mass, a stinking heap of flesh to be devoured by bugs and bacteria, or maybe burned to ashes if that was what his loved ones favored. Eventually, his component atoms would be recycled into a billion other things, and those creatures and objects would exist and then not just as he had.
He was no expert in the laws of thermodynamics, but he'd learned perhaps a bit more than many of his classmates, enough at least to be familiar with entropy and the theory of the inevitable heat death of the universe. It made horrible sense to him, that such was the natural conclusion of all existence. Some time in the future, some time so far away as to defy all imagination, there would be nothing but a state of flat, dead, evenly-distributed equilibrium.
That was about the closest Will had ever come to religion, putting aside a few phrases that had worked their way into his vocabulary through cultural osmosis. His parents had encouraged him to give various faiths his consideration, but they were themselves atheists, and while Will didn't make a big deal about it, he always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the idea that so many around him were living their lives based on instructions filtered through two thousand years of reinterpretations and intermediaries, using these rules to justify killing and dying.
And yet, for all that, oh how he'd wished he could be a believer. He wished even now that he was wrong, and that in fact he would roast in Hell for all eternity for his lack of faith, or better still, that there was some God that truly was good, a God who understood that the nature He had given Will was one that precluded blind faith but not one which prevented Will from trying to live well and to be good to those around him.
Because that's what his morals came from, in the end. He saw what hurt others and he strove to avoid causing pain, not out of some fear of what would happen to him in the afterlife he didn't believe in, and not out of concern for the moral consequences that the community of the living might enforce upon him, but from empathy. He knew what it was to be hurt, and he knew that there were bad people out there, and so it was that he tried to make what impact he had a positive one.
And yet even that was meaningless, in the end, because if he was right then there was nothing. An eternity of torment seemed so very preferable to a finite span of even the purest pleasure, let alone the complexity that was actual life. And now Will's finite span was ticking closer to its conclusion. He thought of Zeno's Paradox, the arrow needing to cross half the distance between the bow and its target, then half again, then half again, and so on and so on such that it could never actually connect, and he thought of the various pseudo-scientific theories about death that tied into that, the quantum theories of multiple worlds and points of divergence by which maybe there was somewhere a Will who had successfully pried the shotgun from Richard's grasp without tipping them over the ledge, and a Will who'd given up and just let Richard keep the stupid gun, and a Will who had been dead for a while now because Richard had pulled the trigger. This was not, however, particularly comforting, because he was who and where he was and nothing could change that.
He had gotten lost in his musings, wrapped up in trying to reason his way out of his unsolvable trouble, and his eyes had drifted closed but sleep and unconsciousness had not taken him. If anything, he was a little bit clearer now, mentally, and so the squawking of seagulls instantly snapped his eyes back open. He looked to Richard, but the boy's body was unchanged, mouth still hanging dumbly open, one eye gazing, the other a bloody socket, though upon further examination it appeared that a few trickles of blood and aqueous fluid had run down his cheek and dried there.
No, the sound was coming from somewhere closer by, and Will let his head roll a little and saw that two seagulls were clustered around his left hand, picking at the bloody flesh and exposed bone of his shattered index finger. He instinctively tried to move his hand, but there wasn't even a twitch. A half dozen other seagulls ringed him but kept their distance. He groaned out and the two that were nibbling at his finger fluttered back, crying out, and the others pulled back further, and they watched and waited hesitantly. Will groaned again, but the seagulls held their ground.
This standoff held for a time—he'd have guessed perhaps thirty seconds, a minute, but no way to be sure—and then the boldest seagull came in again, grabbing at the top joint of his finger, shaking its head, trying to tear the chunk free. He let out as much of a howl as he could, and again the bird backed off, but not as far this time.
Its return, too, was hastened, and now when Will let out his cries the gull barely even paused in its task. The others began to close in as well. It felt strangely distant to him, like he was watching somebody else's body, even as the lines and moles and little details of his hand were so familiar to him. And yet, he couldn't just lay here and be devoured. There was some level of insult to that, some detached outrage he could still muster. But what could he do?
He closed his eyes to try to shut it out, tears brimming once more, but then he had a flash of inspiration and let his throat rumble as he collected saliva. His eyes snapped open again, though the seagulls paid no attention, but then he let fly a glob of spit. It caught one of the gulls in the side, and the bird gave a cry of protest and took wing, the others quickly following. They flew further this time, settling closer to Richard. Perhaps he would provide a less troublesome meal, and Will felt sure they could intuit as well as he himself that there'd be plenty of time later for them to come back.
The shotgun was more often hidden by the water than visible now. Will tried to keep his eyes open to watch the gulls and fend off further assault, but even this little activity had drained him, and his vision once more darkened as his lids drifted shut.
Will hadn't picked a college yet. He was going to spend a year working. That set him apart from a lot of his classmates, many of whom carried this assumption that the only reason anyone would do anything besides head immediately into further education was because of some deep laziness or ineptitude. Will had always grown up with the idea that college was a path—a path that was highly recommended, yes, but not one that was mandatory—and his parents had often spoken about their time between high school and college. His mother had backpacked through Europe. His father had saved up and bought a car.
And still, Will had felt pretty self-conscious about the whole thing. Sometimes he'd really considered lying and saying he was going to just take a few classes at a community college for financial reasons. Sometimes he'd even considered actually doing so, purely to not feel like the odd one out. In the end, though, he'd held to his course. He'd been in the process of sending out applications and resumes before the trip, but had intended to really focus in earnest come summer.
It was all pointless retail stuff; he knew that he had no experience or talents so far. Nothing he'd expected to make a career out of. He hadn't really thought all that much about what he would pursue for a career. It seemed so far away. He had all the time in the world. There was always tomorrow.
The seagulls were silent. Will could not at first say what roused him.
The small waves were now splashing up against his thighs; the larger swells hid his feet completely. The gun had vanished beneath the surface. Will couldn't even say where it had been. There was no context for anything now, just water. Water, him, and Richard.
And it was Richard that drew his attention. The seagulls no longer surrounded his body.
Then Richard turned and stood. His head lolled back and forth, remaining eye trained on Will, who groaned and tried fruitlessly once more to stand. Richard let out a howl and charged at Will, boots splashing through the water, kicking up plumes of spray, arms outstretched for Will's throat. Just as they were about to connect, Will blinked.
Richard was nowhere near him. He was still back where he'd been, but now lying face-down on the ground. The seagulls called and circled. Had he imagined it all?
It was strange that Will didn't feel wet at all. He didn't feel anything. He didn't even feel much emotionally now. He should've been scared or tired or angry, but he just was. As his eyes opened, he checked on Richard tentatively (still dead) and chose not to look at his own hand.
His legs were mostly submerged now. How much had the tide risen? He entertained the brief hope that maybe this was as bad as it would get. Maybe he'd actually recover somehow. Maybe he'd... okay, things would never be normal again, but just maybe their kidnappers wouldn't even realize he was still alive. Maybe he'd just lie here for a long while, and somehow not die of dehydration, and the marines would come and bundle him up and take him home.
He'd see his family and the doctors would stitch him up and he'd maybe have to be in a wheelchair but that would be okay.
There was moisture on his cheeks, and he thought he was crying until he realized it was the spray from the rising water. The roll of the waves against the shore was more audible now, and Will felt a chill in his neck and face. The light had changed, but he couldn't say if the day was peaking or ending. It was hard to concentrate. It was hard to make much of anything of this.
He didn't want to die. He didn't. He wanted to take every moment left to him and make the most of it, but he was also getting so sick of this slow process. If he was to die, if his whole life was to be meaningless, then what difference did it really make if it took a few hours longer? What could he even do with the time left to him?
He closed his eyes, but the murkiness of time passing would not come at first. He tried to remember something, anything to make the span he'd been allotted worth it. A recipe he'd never gotten to try, some plan for the future, a bit of French trivia, but he couldn't bring one single thing to mind.
He'd never kissed anyone who wasn't a blood relative. That was just a regret, though. There was nothing he could do about it now.
He tried to bring that song back, the one that had kept him company in the darkness so far, but he couldn't recall the beat or the few words it included. There was just nothing.
Will was so intent on not wasting his time that his transition out of consciousness was seamless.
The water splashed on Will's face, and he realized he was beginning to float. He could feel something now, that was for sure; the water dampened his hair and made it sticky against his scalp. The waves also washed over his face, and he coughed and sputtered and spat. The water was salty and alive, the flavor of improperly prepared seafood.
He caught only a glance of Richard's body, also floating now, rocking on the waves. There was no sign of animal life. The gulls must have been somewhere up above.
A wave turned Will around, and his head dipped underwater, and there was nothing he could do to right himself. He sputtered in panic, blowing out much of what precious oxygen remained to him, and before he could do anything else, a wave scooped him up and dashed him against the rock wall.
He cried out, inhaling from reflex, and sucked down a lungful of the saltwater, and it burned inside of him. What burned more than the salt and brine, however, was the lack of oxygen, and as the waves smashed him into the wall again, he coughed and spat and tried to do something to clear his airway, but there was nothing. The currents flipped him over, and face-down he tried to open his eyelids and catch one last sight of something to carry with him, but all he got was a burning in his eyes to match that in his nose and throat, and he couldn't move, couldn't scream, couldn't cry.
The sea tossed him again and again, long after he was no longer aware of it, of anything, long after nothing that could rightly be construed as Will remained beyond a body.
B12 RICHARD ORMSBY: DECEASED
B22 WILLIAM LOHMAN: DECEASED
63 STUDENTS REMAIN
B22 WILLIAM LOHMAN: DECEASED
63 STUDENTS REMAIN