((Tessa Blackridge continued from Borrowed Time))
The night was deadly cold, but the knot in her chest was sickly hot.
Two nights already she'd endured, if only barely. She knew nothing of wilderness survival, hadn't even thought much about it until the temperature started dropping and the cold winds rolled in. Her teeth chattered and her skin pulled tight with goosebumps and she could hear the morning's tally already, a dozen or more of her friends succumbed to the brutal cold. But they all pulled through to her surprise, herself most of all. Well, not everyone, but the biting chill was no executioner. Not yet at least, she thought as she lay curled and shivering in the lap of a tree, not til the calories in the class' stomachs all burned away and sweat whisked away half the water in their bodied before they noticed. And for the first time, as the temperature plunged below anything she'd yet seen on the island, she knew she wouldn't be one of them.
Her finger still hurt from it, a small cut but a jagged and a dirty one. She'd been sitting, like usual, and feeling sorry for herself, same. An old maintenance hut off somewhere she didn't really remember. She dug in the dirt of the floor, traced little patterns with her fingers. And then it bit her like the shiny winged ant that caused her so much pause afterwards a dozen years ago. A little slice of metal, a tiny jagged shard. She'd picked it up to fling it or bend it or whatever she decided for its just desserts, but then she paused because it was so clearly functional. A hacksaw, if she recalled properly, or maybe the one that cut around corners or something, except those were supposed to be thinner, weren't they?
She didn't rightly know and it was really better that way, because nothing really good or noble or brave was ever certain. And she was struck somehow with a clarity of thought, how she'd read of soldiers in Vietnam cooking their meals over bits of C4, how there was never any event without the hero, and never any hero without adversity. Theo was going to kill her. He was going to shoot her in the head, or Summer was going to slice her or stab her or try out her new little prize. Someone had to make a way, clear the path for the cavalry to roll in like it had last time. To walk around and be hated and hunted and lauded and most importantly free.
And so she lapsed into restless sleep, or so she pretended, so she wanted them to believe. A snore, a rustle, a little grinding slice, and then all over again. The collar, the all-important collar that she had to trick, had to get her way around or, rather, through. A score enough to let the flame through of the lighter she clutched hidden in one hand, to choke herself out with heat and smoke and poison and let the payload shrivel away unnoticed in her perfect stoic charade. The island felt a lot like Seattle, she thought, and it was a good thought because it kept her mind on the home she wanted so desperately to return to. The sea breeze, the slanted streets, the loving, overburdened mother who didn't need one single more adversity on her plate. Her heart rate soared and she closed her eyes and softly stirred and her collar transmitted every shallow beat, every rushed breath, every zipping grind of metal on metal. She stretched and yawned and a sudden thrill ran through her body.
AHHH said a deep and knowing voice behind her.
She screamed and turned and felt her hair whip out behind her. "W-what?" she gasped in panting fear at the darker shade of black before her.
I AM SORRY. DID I STARTLE YOU?
She felt somehow she knew the voice, had no reason to fear it, but the terror of shock and the unknown maintained their grip upon her. Feet rooted to the ground, she could only repeat herself in tattered phrase. "Wha-what?"
I SAID AHHH. AND THEN I APOLOGIZED FOR STARTLING YOU.
"I don't-" She mumbled on because she felt as if her mouth might stick forever if she let it shut, but she found no proper words. Another inventory of her useless legs, a deliberate swallow, "What the hell is going on?"
I AM EXPRESSING MY CONDOLENCES. IT IS QUITE A SHAME.
"I just, I don't understand."
MOST PEOPLE DO NOT AT FIRST.
The moonlight sliced between the leaves and she recognized the figure and suddenly she understood. Why her feet were planted on the ground, why her adam's apple moved so freely up and down her throat, why the freezing air had lost its bite and why she was sitting her last interview. Her eyes slid down and she knew there was no reason to fear if she was correct, and she was. The pathetic huddled mass, the sprayed and leaking red, black in the dim of the night.
"Oh. ...I left quite a mess, didn't I?"
YES. I WAS ROOTING FOR YOU.
"What?" she said again to buy time to wrap her racing mind around the sudden shift of subject.
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN GOOD IF YOU SUCCEEDED.
"Oh! Um, thanks. Er, you really thought it might work?"
One skeletal hand plunged into the folds of black and resurfaced with an hourglass held between long fingers. The top bulb was completely empty, yet the bottom was pitifully bare as well. By her judgement not even a quarter of it was filled with sand.
BUT I WAS ROOTING FOR YOU.
She stood in silence, looking at the leaves and dirt and trees around her. An abandoned, forsaken little niche on a dirty speck a thousand miles from any human presence. Isolation upon isolation. But, she decided after a long pause, that didn't seem so bad in the end.
"So what now? I get to play a game with you, don't I?"
THAT IS CORRECT.
"And if I win I get to go back?"
"And if I lose, I... move on?"
"And you can swing your scythe through me and everything?"
IF YOU WOULD LIKE.
"Any game, though?"
"I don't- why not Twister?"
YOU UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE MANY MYSTERIES SURROUNDING DEATH?
She thought a while more, and then for the first time since she'd boarded the flight a smile came to her lips.
"Alright, then, I think I've decided."