A.N. All character's belong to Patrick Ness, I've simply used them in my own version of 'what happens next'. I hope you this story and please review!
A New World
I need Todd to wake up. The vestige of hope I have is quickly running out. I'm scared he will never emerge from his coma-like state. But I wait- I wait to find out if Todd will return to me. My knees hugged to my chest, rocking gently back and forth; sleeping only when inevitable and never leaving Todd's side.
Even though I know he's healing, sometimes it's hard for even me to tell. His clammy skin is deathly white and as thin as paper; the livid red scars and burns on his chest look so painful I can almost feel the heat coming off his torso and his unblinking green eyes stare into nothingness, still terrified and pleading. His unseeing eyes still pleading me (I swear), still begging me to save him. I wish I knew how to.
But then I see Todd's finger move...
And his mouth open slightly as he takes in a breath;
And his head turn to one side.
The first time he's moved in three months or more.
And my heart leaps right up my throat.
Because he's awake.
Instant confusion flows freely into Todd's now fully alerted Noise. He tries to prop himself up on his elbows only to fall back out of weakness: he gasps in shock as he hits the cold stone tablet, as if unused to any sensation. But I'm already at his side, grasping his fingers and saying his name over and over.
I feel completely drained of energy but I try to sit up and look round. Weakness takes over and I slump back (onto stone?) only to feel total shock as the hard cold surface is slammed against me. I think I musta gasped cuz, though I don't know where she comes from, suddenly Viola (my Viola who came to save me when I needed saving) is squeezing my hand to try and comfort me.
I feel my Noise pound her with questions, Viola? Where am I? What happened?
Then I notice that there are hundreds of voices screaming in my head.
I can hear the Noise of all the men and of all the Spackle.
I've gone mad. I musta gone mad!
That happens to people if they get shocked enough, don't it?
I gasp, now in fright.
And my Noise raises like a sudden hurricane, black with fear, full of askings as to why I can hear everyone's thoughts.
Yet somehow through all of the clanking of my Noise, I hear Viola shout,
"Todd! If you'd just calm down a second I can tell you what's going on." And I try to calm myself, I really do, but it just don't seem possible so Viola explains over the volume of my Noise.
"You're at the pathways end, like Ben was, because," she pauses, "because 1017 shot you- he thought you were the Mayor but he couldn't even be bothered to check." There's real venom in her voice. Another pause and a heavy sigh. "So you adapted to the Noise of the land- and that explains why you can hear the thoughts of the all men and all the Spackle," she concludes, and I must admit, I do remember having this discussion with Ben the day we were reunited.
She sees me start to relax and to calm me further, to fully reassure me the way she has always managed to, even in times of terrible bleakness when all of our hope had dwindled out, she says,
"Oh, Todd. I love you because you are you. I don't care that you can hear their Noise if you don't- you could already hazard a pretty good guess as to what they were thinking, couldn't you now." And she smiles at me with all of her joy, all of the joy that I am awake- I can see it painted on her face. So I smile back.
Todd slaps on a grin, crooked as ever, and to see it warms my heart. I just can't find the words to describe the relief that flows throughout my veins. And as the salted tears roll down my cheeks, I realise that I had run out of hope; that I no longer thought that Todd was going to awaken. Dropping my head into my hands, I waste time that I could be spending with him sobbing as the weight is lifted off my shoulders and the true feeling of pure happiness hits me harder than I thought it was possible to.
"Viola?" Todd says, his voice gravelly as he hasn't used it in a long while. "Viola, what's wrong?"
And this is just exactly the Todd I know and love that I weep all the more in a really unhelpful way. I only lift my head when I hear the sound of material rubbing onto the edge of a rock hard surface. Todd, his Noise full of concern for me, is standing on the packed mud floor with one hand on the tablet to steady himself. I'm already shaking my head and making hand signals for him to sit back down, unable to get my words out just yet. He ignores me and stiffly stumbles over to the chair next to mine, sitting down so fast and hard it's as like he fell there. He probably did.
Confused as anything, I fall into the wooden chair next to my weeping Viola. Reaching an arm around her shoulders, I pull her to me so that she can do all the crying she needs to. I'm still mighty freaked out but she's comforted me so now I need to comfort her. She sniffs and between sobs mumbles,
"I am," I whisper back.
As her crying ends she reaches her own arms up around my neck and hugs me for all she's worth. And I hug her back, inhaling her scent.
Flowers and woody soap.
"I thought you'd gone for good," she breathes into my ear.
"Don't you remember? I ain't never leaving you, Viola Eade, not even in my head," I mutter into her hair.
"Viola!" I hear a voice call in excitement. "Viola, we've found the perfect place!"
A man comes into the tent looking down as he reads a sheet of paper.
A man I recognise.
Not quite believing my own eyes, I say,
"Ben?" Todd says, the disbelief easily heard in his voice. I turn just in time to see Ben raise his head from the papers he's holding.
"Todd?" Ben says, asking it as though it cannot be true. I know just how he feels. For a second or two they both just stay where they are, letting the reality sink in. Then Todd stands up (stumbles a little) and walks over to wear Ben motionlessly gapes.
I notice again how tall Todd is, Ben's height or more, as he grabs his father in a loving hug. Both of their faces are lit by beaming grins as the are reunited again. I hear Ben's Noise flood with reassurance as he notices that Todd has thousands of other peoples thoughts shrieking in his mind, but he doesn't mention it. And when Todd looks back at me, his Noise is so joyful there's practically a glow of happiness surrounding him.
"Todd?" Ben says.
"Hrrm?" Todd hrrms.
"Do you remember telling Viola you wanted to go and build a new settlement, a true... utopia?" Ben asks, his Noise raising in excitement once more.
"Course," Todd says instantly, then frowns as if wondering how he remembered.
"Well, we might just have found the perfect place to set one up." And you can virtually hear the smile in Ben's voice.
For a moment I don't seem to be able to take on board this impossibly good news.
"Really?" I ask, my eyebrows going up so high they might crawl into my hair.
"Really, it's to the east of Valleys End- I don't think you passed it on yer way here. At the moment there's no settlement there at all but it's a little valley with a fresh water stream running through the middle of it. It's thick with fertile land and already has lots of edible fruit and veg growing. As I said, it's perfect," Ben tells me, grinning as far as his face can go.
"Wow," Viola and I breathe in synchronisation, before we catch eyes and smile widely. It seems too good to be true. A whole new place we can build as a utopia; a paradise like the one my ma hoped for before she died. After the hell that Ben, Viola and I just lived through, it don't seem possible that a place like the one described can exist at all.
"When can we go? Can we go today?" I ask, kinda hopping in excitement. I say 'kinda' cuz it ain't literally hopping, more of a shift from foot to foot.
"We can't go today- it'll take at least three days to get all the stuff we need together. But we had no plans as to when we would go because we were waiting for you to wake up. We weren't exactly going to leave without you, were we?" Viola says, still grinning at me as though she ain't never gonna stop. I sure as anything don't want her to.
"We can go in three days, then. The longer we wait the longer it'll be till the settlement's finished," I say still beaming. But as I finish this statement, I am suddenly overcome with tiredness and I have to place a hand on the stone tablet to steady myself and avoid falling. I thought I'd gotten away with it, that no-one had noticed. But no, cuz Viola is as sharp as ever and says,
"Are you okay, Todd? You look a bit woozy."
"Yeah, yeah, fine. Just a little sleepy," I answer nonchalantly as I drag myself back to the chair and plonk heavily down into it. I rub my face with my hands to try and wake myself up a bit- it don't work much.
"You going to be all right to walk to this place?" Viola asks, worry hanging so heavily on her brow it forms a deep crease above her nose.
"Try and stop me," I retort, grinning at the fact that this is just exactly what we said when we left Carbonel Downs that lifetime ago- that lifetime of nine mere months. And I sit up straight when I realise that if that was nine months ago then I musta been asleep for over three months and the settlers musta arrived. I realise it much too slowly, as ever, but that's just what happens when yer a thick farming lad, ain't it?
"Yer people..." I begin to say, before I realise that I don't really know what to say next.
"They can't wait to meet you. They already know everything you gave to save this planet for them," she says smiling at me, her eyes filled with pride- pride that makes me blush pink cuz I know the real reason I did it.
"I did it to keep you safe, Viola, you know that. Though I did have to save my own skin at times, didn't I."
I still can't come to terms with the fact that Todd is awake! Not after sitting by his side for three months waiting for him to return. While I hopelessly try to make the reality sink in, I see him stumble out of the tent, blinking in the sunlight. I run over. Seeing me coming he sort of runs/stumbles towards me so we meet in the middle- well, kind of, he didn't get very far.
"Are you okay, Todd?" I ask alarmed to see him wheezing as he bends double- I mean, he really didn't get very far.
"Think so. Not used to running yet," he gasps.
"Oh, yeah. Of course you're not. Sorry, that was a stupid question." I blush red at the obviousness of this fact. He looks up at my face and smiles his crooked smile.
After a short moment of him panting heavily and me rubbing his shoulder, not really sure of what to do, Todd's breathing is back to normal and he stands up straight.
"Come on. There's someone who wants to see you," I tell him cryptically. Frowning in confusion, Todd follows me into the settler ship that landed on this hilltop as New Prentisstown is just a lake now and the other hill is far too small for a ship of this size to perch on. I step to the left so that Todd can see who it is behind me.
"Bradley!" Todd exclaims joyfully.
"Oh, Jesus, Todd. Thank God you're alive!" Bradley says as he squeezes Todd in a crushing bear hug. Todd doesn't say anything to that, not really sure what he could say. After a second Todd asks,
"Err, how are you doing, then?" Bradley stares at him then bursts out laughing.
"Fine, fine. Sorry, I guess I made you feel awkward. Well, as it happens I'm more than fine: I've been put in charge of the big move, that's why I wanted to see you- plans to be made."
"Oh! Okay then. D'you wanna get started?"
"Listen Todd, you don't look good. Why don't you just go to sleep?" Viola asks after several hours of discussions. Bradley had to leave twenty minutes or so ago to inform some people of the move, leaving us to copy up all we'd talk about.
"I'll just finish this section then I'll sleep, if I must," I reply, my voice husky and cracking after the strain of all the afternoons chat.
"Wait a sec!" Viola shouts, pointing at the paper then at me. "Since when have you been able to read and write?" Her eyes are wide in amazement. I suddenly realise that I've never been literate: Mayor Prentiss closed the school, burnt all of the books and made it illegal to read or write when I was very young, (don't ask me why; he was mad) so I've never learnt how to. Looking down at the sheet I've just written out, I study each word with care and, more to the point, understand every one of them.
"I don't know! I was forced to try reading in the Scout Ship- you know, to call yer Comm- but it took ages to sound out the words. And I've never even attempted writing. But now I can just see all the words without even trying and I can write them too. How... Viola... how can I just become literate?" I exclaim, struggling to get the words out, my eyes wide in shock (how come I didn't immediately notice I understood everything on these sheets of paper?).
"Does it matter? You can read your ma's journal now! Imagine that, her words to you, isn't that incredible?" she asks after a minute, looking up from her own transcript. Her eyes are alive and joyful, if a little unsure. Looking into them I have epiphany.
"Viola! The Mayor told me something after one of the battles... he said that the Spackle know anything that any Spackle has ever known because it gets passed down in their Noise- do you think that, cuz my Noise is like theirs now, I know everything that the Spackle know and everything that the men know? That way, cuz the men know how to read, I know how to as well," I haven't looked away from her yet and she hasn't looked away from me, neither.
"I suppose so. Well, that's an unexpected bonus of your Noise. Finish that sentence and we can get to bed: you look really tired," she says.
"I shouldn't be, I've just had three months worth of rest- you should be more tired than I am."
"No. Three months worth of rest? As if! You were unconscious, not asleep- there's a big difference, Todd," she scoffs filing away her work and then reaching out to put mine away too ("Thanks," I mutter).
I wake as the birds sing and hurry out of bed to get ready for the tasks of the day ahead. Todd steps into the sun at the same time as me. He scrunches his eyes tight shut to rub the sleep out of them.
"Morning," he mumbles as he opens his eyes, still as green as the freshest of apples.
"Morning," I say back with a chuckle. Todd hops over to me looking brighter than he has in days- well, than he did yesterday at the least.
"Okay then. What should I do now? Should I get the stuff for the sheep or wheat? Or should I load the cart or... anything, I don't mind!" he chunters with a grin, excited once more by the prospect of this new place. Shaking my head with a laugh, I raise my hands to stop him mid-flow and say,
"Bradley wants to see you, he caught me last night just before I went to bed and told me to tell you. More plans to be made, apparently."
"Oh, okay. Gotta go then," he says heading for the settler ship.
"Err, Todd, don't you want any breakfast?" I ask him, still laughing.
After devouring a breakfast of bread and jam I go at a fastish walk (still unable to run cuz Viola made me promise not to) in search of Bradley. I spy him under the settler ship, fixing something I assume. It reminds me of the day when all of the hell I've encountered started, when Cillian- my pa, Cillian, who sacrificed himself to save me- was fixing our fission generator. Bradley must hear me coming because he calls out,
"Hi, Todd. I'll just be a second."
"Take as long as you need," I call back. "It's a pain when you have to keep coming back to a job." Bradley laughs but pops his head out from under the ship anyway.
"I've done now. I did tell you it would only take a second. Do you want to come inside? I have the plans in here..."
The next two days pass like two hours. It must be because we've been kept so busy. And Todd's not been as tired as he was the first night, though he hasn't even attempted running again- because I made him promise not to (I'm just cautious, not paranoid). All in all, we both feel better than we have in months. Particularly me, I fear, as I was conscious and aware of the peril that Todd was in, even if he wasn't.
Anyway, this is the morning we leave. This is the morning we start a new life, hopefully better than the one we want to leave behind. Everyone's here, packing their things onto carts, horses or themselves- including Todd and I. There aren't that many of us- seventy eight from my caretaker family including me (there should be eighty one but my parents and Simone have already made an even bigger move) Mistress Lawson, Jane, Wilf, Bradley, Ben, Lee and Todd. Eighty five people are going into the unknown to build the home they've always dreamt of- will it be enough?
It's too late to be having doubts, now, I tell myself, firmly. Your going and that's that. I pull at the knot I'm struggling to tighten only for the rope to burn my hands as they slip down it. Frustrated, I throw the cord against the cart and make an 'argh' noise that says 'this is driving me crazy!' or something like that. Behind me I hear someone chuckle- Todd. I turn and sure enough, there he is, smiling at me.
"D'you want a hand with that?" he asks pointing at the rope.
"If you don't mind," I huff, still cross with the thick piece of string. Todd ambles over and with a hand on the knot and the other grasping the end of the rope he tightens it with one firm yank.
"How did you manage that? I've been trying tighten that knot for ten minutes!" I ask him only partly joking.
"It's farm work," he says with a shrug. "I'm used to it."
"Is everybody ready!" Ben shouts from on top of a cart.
"Yes!" we all shout back, laughing at the friendliness of our reply. I really hope this friendliness flows into the settlement community. And then Ben says the few words we've all been waiting for,
"Okay then. Let's go!"
"Okay then. Let's go!" Ben says with the widest of grins. And as quickly as that, we're off to build our new life. I'm carrying a huge rucksack that reminds me of the one I had till Aaron found us in that Spackle's camp- it weighs almost as much too. We keep moving. Viola is keeping pace with me cuz I'm quite a bit slower than I would have been if I were at full health, so I can't quite match her pace yet. I take her hand, and when she catches my eye, we smile.
Ahead of us I see Lee slow down. Hearing that he wants to talk, I open my Noise as far as it'll go to show him everything I can see- every stick, leaf, pebble, puddle and person. And he walks over to us, smiling in thanks of the help I gave him, he even kicks a small stone outta the way to show just how helpful my opened Noise is.
"Hiya you two!" Lee says as he reaches us, thrusting out his hand for me to shake. I shake it. "How're ya doing, Todd? I heard how bad you were- saw it too, in Ben's Noise, and it looked bad!"
And I see myself in Lee's Noise. I'm on the snow covered beach. I can see what happened just before I left Viola. I can hear my Noise, hear how it was full of terror and pain and how it was whizzing out of control as my brain was burning as much as my chest with emotions so intense I'm amazed they couldn't taste them in the air, hear how child-like my wishes sounded (no, no, not now, I thought, not NOW!) and I hear how I asked for Viola, asked for her to save me. And then I hear how I just stopped being- I stopped struggling, stopped attempting to breathe as the muscles in my chest gave up, stopped thinking as my Noise fell silent- I stopped for what they all thought was forever. They thought I'd died.
"Well, I was okay till a second ago- that's kinda shaken me up. Why didn't you tell me about that, Viola?" I ask her, not really sure if she'll answer.
"I don't want to ever have to remember it, Todd. You're not dead but you did die, I know it. It makes me grieve just to think of it- and, as much as I feel wrong to say this, I grieved more than I've ever grieved before. It caused me more pain than I thought I could live though- who's to say that if you had died, I wouldn't have too? It shattered my heart, Todd, and to remember it makes my heart crack again," she whispers, her voice husky as a welling tear in the corner of her eye escapes and runs down her soft cheek. We've stopped walking now so I raise a gentle finger to wipe the droplet of water off her face.
"You don't never need to worry about that again, you hear me? I ain't going nowhere without you," I tell her, holding her to me and resting my head on hers.
"We better get going or we'll be left behind," Viola mumbles twisting around beneath me but as she pulls away, she takes my hand again.
To see me catching up with the others must be a laugh. Viola won't let me run even though I think I'm up to it now, so when I hop-skip a little too fast for her liking I have to slow to a quick walk only to speed back up again in a second or two. What makes it funnier is that Lee and Viola made it into a kinda game- they copy my steps exactly and I need to try and make them lose track. By the time we're with the gang all three of us are in fits of laughter.
We're laughing so hard I don't even hear no-one approach us from behind.
"Todd! Ah'm glad to see yoo beat the President!" I turn to see Wilf, the man who saved my life three times and wouldn't hesitate to do it again.
"And I'm glad to hear that the Spackle listened to you. We'd all have died if they didn't decide not to attack," I tell him seriously.
"If they had fought us, Todd," Lee whispers, "then they'd never have got to you on that beach and you wouldn't have been shot. You wouldn't be hurting."
"I ain't hurting," I retort truthfully.
"What, really?" Viola asks.
"Really- course I've had painkillers but it's more of a precaution now than anything else. I'm almost healed, actually," I reply feeling a little awkward and blushing.
"But your chest was all burnt away three months ago: I mean completely! How can it be healed already?"
"Are you doubting the incredible healing powers of the magic Spackle pastes, Viola?" I ask, raising my eyebrows in a mocking way. And we all laugh.
After a several hours of walking, we're all beginning to pay the price. Our pace has slowed as the redness of our faces increase and our hair is plastered to our foreheads in sweat; we haven't spoken for a while as we save our energy for moving and our breathing is laboured. But to say the least, we're going faster and stronger than a few of the settlers, even if you include the rests. Now I think about it, we may not be keeping pace with our last trip along this road but we're keeping pace with the slower of the pack at least.
"Dya wanna stop a sec?" Lee gasps. Todd just nods, swings off his rucksack and collapses at the base of a tree. He closes his eyes and wipes the sweat of his brow: eyes still shut he reaches for his water bottle and takes a few swigs of it's cooling liquid. Sitting down next to him I breathe deeply to try to catch my breath and rub his arm. He opens his eyes to look at me and I shunt up next to him to rest my head on his shoulder- he rests his own head on mine.
After a moment (shorter than I thought it would be), we're back on our feet and walking at a quicker pace than before to catch up with the others. I notice that Ben and Bradley are up ahead with everyone else, answering questions about the new settlement as they know the most about it, Wilf is with Jane on the cart, and Mistress Lawson is guarding the food and medical supplies as if a huge hooded gang is about to come and rob the rickety wooden wagon. Naturally, Lee, Todd and I are near the back. I expected it to be this way, of course, we all have bulkier rucksacks than the rest as our 'young backs' can support them better and the cart up ahead can't be used for joy riding, so, in the end, I'm just glad to keep the others in sight.
We're right at the back of the clan and I don't see no way of keeping pace with them. But I don't really care that I ain't as fast as usual though cuz at least I am going and I am gonna make it. It's not like the journey from Prentisstown to what we thought was Haven (that was two weeks walk), this is only half a days walk east of Valleys End, it'll take one and a half days in total- piece of cake, I hope.
After another hour or so, Bradley and Ben have managed to escape the peoples interrogations and have doubled back to meet the two of us. I still have Viola's hand snugly hugged within my own and the feeling of content flows like a river in my Noise, wrapping around anyone who comes close like a comforting blanket- I hope they don't mind. Ben must hear my happiness cuz as he nears he smiles almost as widely as I am. Behind him, Bradley looks up from the hundreds of sheets of paper and grins at the sight of Viola and I with our hands entwined. Lee had gone to see Wilf on the cart saying he wanted to ask him something, but I have the feeling he was letting me and Viola be alone for a while.
"How're the two of you doing?" Bradley asks. "Out of breath yet?" And his smile is so genuine is lights his entire face and warms his dark brown eyes so much that it makes me want to sigh in a peaceful kinda way.
"Yes!" we answer together. Catching eyes, we chuckle.
"We are, too. Still, I'd rather be outta breath and on the way to a new life than stuck on that hilltop with air in my lungs," Ben says giving my shoulder a quick squeeze.
"Same," Viola adds, as if to herself.
"Same," I whisper beneath my breath so that only Todd can hear.
"Is that a camp fire?" Bradley asks cupping his hands on his brow to try and make a sort of makeshift pair of binoculars. I'm not sure it worked but it was worth a try, I guess.
"Looks like it," Todd says uncertainly, then he looks up at the setting sun and the rising moons. "I think we're putting up camp for the night." And somehow this gives him energy I don't think he even thought he could summon, but all of a sudden Todd's running rather than walking towards the glowing embers that are giving off the homely light. I'm about to protest but then I wonder if there's even a reason beyond stubbornness: I mean, he did say his chest has almost healed and he's been going at a fair pace all day. So, in the end, I decide just to run after him.
We run towards the fire: Todd and I side by side, Ben and Bradley following us. All the time the light is becoming brighter and closer and now we can even hear people chatting as they set up camp. I swing my head over my right hand shoulder to glance behind me and see Ben and Bradley on our heels and a couple of clusters of people dawdling behind them, although most of our new inhabitants are putting up their tents for the night.
Still we run- remarkably our pace hasn't slowed and I find Todd's keeping pace with me rather than the other way around, which is a surprise. We charge into the circle of tents our faces red but beaming and before we even slow Todd jumps two feet high, punches the air and whoops a gasped whoop. I follow suit before Ben and Bradley stumble in behind us also grinning but gasping more than us, too.
"Remarkable," Bradley says as he bends double with his hands on his knees to help him recover a little breath, "you wake up from an injury that we thought had killed you, travel miles on foot and yet you can still beat me when we sprint to the end- and without, it seems, as much effort!" And both Bradley and Ben are staring at Todd with the same mixture of admiration and shock that I feel.
"Well, I've had a whole lot of practice recently. Out running armies and bombs and that works wonders- it would be a good work out if it weren't so terrifyingly deadly," Todd explains blushing ruthlessly at this praise and at the same time trying to shake it off with some light humour.
"Too right," the three of us say together- the three of us being Ben, Bradley and I. But I'm not sure if anyone has experienced quite as much as Todd has. Maybe not even me, which is difficult to imagine, like it's difficult to picture the age of the universe or its sheer vastness.
Out of the corner of my eye I spot Lee chatting to Wilf as the old man helps him pin his tent down. Waving to them, Todd and I wonder in that direction.
"Dya mind if we pitch up next to you?" Todd calls into the fading light.
"Well... I spose you could," is Lees sarky reply. Then the grin on his face shows us his serious answer. Briskly trotting over, I grab a torch because I suspect this could take me a while. Wilf waves once then wonders off to pitch up his own shelter, I suppose.
Todd seems to be having no problems what so ever. Having already slotted together the numerous poles he's draping the cloth over the none too crude frame with such ease it seems like second nature- he did say Ben taught him some survival techniques but this is more than I expected. I stare, frowning at the skeleton Todd has created in order to mimic his actions and create my own metal frame. It takes me a long time to join the sticks but at least it stands. Having hammered in his last metal pin, Todd hops over to my tent to help me out. With uncanny skill Todd has placed and knotted the material to the frame (after tightening some of the joints- although he didn't give any smarmy remarks like Lee probably would have done) and hammered in five of the six pins in the time it took me to do the remaining one.
"Let me guess, it's like the farm work you're so used to?" I ask as I gawk at him.
"Aha," was his only reply. This is one of the characteristics I love about Todd- he doesn't feel the need to fill silence with sound. So I smile slightly to myself.
Having built my tent and a fair bit of Viola's, we go and sit around the camp fire to tuck in to a hearty meal of bread and sausage. Most people are having slight grumbles about the journey so far, including plenty of references to their blistered feet. When we heard the first complaint, Viola caught my eye and raised an eyebrow- we've encountered far worst on a journey than they have and we made it even with feet made of blisters. I'd quite forgotten the thrill of such an endeavour, the thrill of such a task. It's weird to think of how hard me and Viola fled down this same road but in the opposite direction, seeking refuge, and yet now we're joyful to be heading back the other way. I spose it helps that there ain't an army waiting for us with grasping claws outstretched to grab at the backs of our collars. Yeah... that probably helps...
Between various mouthfuls of my meal I greet many of the people Viola grew up with. After most of the introductions I'm red with the blush of my cheeks- if they thank me for saving them all from the tyrant and, as was my priority at the time, keeping Viola safe that is. Though I'm not sure I kept Viola that safe at all, she really is very stubborn even if she's choosing twixt safety and danger (danger being the big, bright flashing red bulbs in a triangle around the word 'DANGER!' kinda danger). And I'm very glad when they notice in my Noise the fact that I kinda wanna forget about all the bedlam I've just lived through (although Viola seems to be okay with talking about it, I spose she's had three months to come to terms with the fact that it's all over where as I've just had a few days) and they greet me in a lighter way than 'Hey, you must be Todd! Thanks for saving Viola's life ten times over, beating an evil monster of a man and, oh yeah, almost sacrificing yourself to do so. By the way I'm called Rich', or something of the sort.
"I'm never gonna remember all of their names!" I whisper frantically to Viola after the millionth person introduces themselves and their family. "They're gonna have to wear labels." To that Viola raises an eyebrow as she beams at me- I've come to know her smiling face better than her terror-struck one, maybe even better than my own features. And I know for sure that there's no other face I love more. The silky, black hair that flows in ruffles around her beautifully pale, heart shaped face; the deep brown eyes that spark in both terror and excitement (and I've seen her experience both emotions all too frequently); the angelic lips that form each word with care and precision in a way unheard of by me until she decided to speak after the explosion on the bridge that engulfed all the air around us and left us choking on the smoke that hung low in plumes. And the cheeks on the face that I love redden as I think this, obviously hearing the adoration in my Noise.
And then Viola's eyes scan my features as if she's trying to describe me to herself in a similar manner as to my description of her. My thick, shaggy brown hair that only gets messier every day I sleep on it; my rough white face that is no longer lined in the soft way a boy's face would be but in the angular way of a man; my grass green eyes that simply cannot hide the feelings behind them even if my Noise could and my grammatically incorrect idiolect that Viola once told me she loves to hear aloud cuz the carefree attitude of my speech gets injected into any activity I explain with it.
"Who needs Noise if you can read my face as well as that?" she asks after hearing my deductions. "And I really don't mind that your hair's messy. I'd say it's... quirky."
"Thanks. I guess my bit of logic was correct. But now if you ever say anything's 'quirky', I'm gonna think you mean it's messy," I say.
After an hour or so of idle chat Viola and I retire to our sleep. Lee's entertaining the children accompanying us with his various jokes so we wave goodnight and leave him to his newly acquired job.
I wake with the rising sun, the heat and light radiating through the crack in the tent door. Breathing in deeply I sit up and step out into the sunlit morning. Much to my surprise, Viola and Lee are both still asleep but rather than wake them I decide to pack away my tent first.
I'm just folding up the canvass when Lee pops his head outta his shelter.
"Morning," I say to him, laughing slightly at his early day grogginess.
"Oh! Hey Todd. How long've you been up?" asks Lee as he comes to his senses.
"Not long. Dya wanna hand with that? I've done now." I point at his tent. He don't answer but he scratches his head in a way that says, 'That's a good idea. I ain't gotta clue where to start', so I jump over the ropes that are holding Viola's tent to the ground and yank a metal pin outta the soft earth. In a matter of moments Lee's tent is down and folded into his pack like an incredibly complicated origami pattern.
"Is it done?" Lee asks.
"Yeah," I answer nodding.
"Great!" Lee shouts enthusiastically.
I sit back and see something stir in Viola's tent.
"Yer on yer own- I'm fed up of untangling string and folding canvass," I call to her.
"Well then, I'll be ready to get going in about five hours," comes her mumbled reply.
Most people are munching a slice or two of bread for breakfast but I spy the fruit that me and Viola ate on our way from Carbonel Downs and, for old times' sake, we eat that instead- I realise I quite like that nostalgic feeling.
We've eaten our breakfast, repacked our bags and now there's nothing else to do but start pressing on towards out settlement grounds (we should really think of a name for it).
"Right," I begin to say, "yesterday we were at the back of the herd, today I wanna be at the front. It is doable." And although I had tensed myself up for an argument, Viola just grins at me.
"It's doable," she repeats.
"Agreed," Lee announces sneaking up behind us.
"Then we better get going," I finalise. And that we do; we start to walk for the second day running.
It's around mid-morning when we take our first break. Miraculously, we're still near the front and no less tired than anyone else on the hike (unless either Todd or Lee are better actors than I thought). Spotting a couple of rocks we drag ourselves over and perch on the hard surface, grab our water bottles and between deep breaths, glug the ice cold liquid.
"I gotta say, this is a lot better than yesterday," Lee ponders. "God! I just realised, we'll be there by noon!" Todd and I look at Lee then at each other before we laugh out loud- Lee, blushing, laughs half-heartedly with us.
"Yes, I know. It's kinda obvious but, well..." Lee shrugs, his blush impossibly increasing in radiance. Todd shakes his head in disbelief.
"I've been counting down the seconds!" he says his voice practically vibrating with shock, his eyes uncontrollably scanning Lee's face in search for anything that will prove that he's having us on. He doesn't find anything.
"I guess it's just because we pinned so much hope to Haven when we ran there that we couldn't help but count the days before- old habits die hard, as my dad used to say," I mumble, half to Todd and half to myself.
"Guess so," Todd mutters his eyes still wide in amazement.
"C'mon then," Todd says as he hops up so quickly he slips on some bracken and falls on his rump. Immediately I'm at his side, my hands flapping around his head in a flurry, not sure what to do. And behind me I hear the characteristic laugh of Lee and in front of me the breathed sigh as Todd looks up. His green eyes are patronising and his Noise is yellow with embarrassment of my over protectiveness, of the fact that he hadn't even had time to say the words, 'I'm fine' before I started panicking. I step back as he stands up.
"Talk about OTT," says Lee.
"What does that mean?" I ask frowning.
"Over the top," Todd answers. And as I feel my cheeks redden I look at the dewy grass beneath our feet and scratch behind my head muttering,
"I thought you could've been hurt."
"I only fell on my butt. That ain't exactly life threatening," he replies and in his voice I hear slight impatience as what I say starts to wear thin.
"You would know," Lee utters beneath his breath.
"Oh come on! Let's just get going, shall we?" Todd huffs turning towards the
road. "Or we won't be there at noon, after all."
I turn back to the road, eager to join with the clan and forget about what just happened- honestly, it's embarrassing the way those two go on! With my hands stuffed in my pockets, I jog briskly to the roadside. Behind me I hear Lee and Viola quicken their paces to catch up with me. I do wonder why they both keep worrying so much; they never used to. This sounds rather harsh but I kinda wanna get away from everyone for a while. I have a reason though, never fear: I've spent all of my life on my own so sometimes I still like to be surrounded with my own thoughts only. To escape it all, I decide to hide amongst a huge clump of people. It would only work if I could shrink a foot cuz I'm head and shoulders over the others, something I'm not accustomed to. But as soon as I am submerged in the mob of people I feel someone tug at my sleeve.
I glance down and find myself face to face with a tiny little girl.
"Oh. Hey," I say slightly stunned.
"Hello," she utters, with the same accent that Viola has adopted. "Are you him?"
"Yeah, that's me. Who are you, then, little fella?" I ask the inquisitive child.
"Jen," she replies, her finger hung in her bottom lip.
"Dya want summit, Jen?" I say gently, feeling the need to ask her something so that she'll answer in more than three syllables.
"Thank-you and sorry," she says nodding her head as if she's re-sighting something she'd memorised. And it's only five syllables long.
"Okay... What dya mean?" I ask bamboozled.
"My mum told me you saved Viola's life over and over. Thank-you. And she told me that to save Viola, and for you to stay alive as well, you had to outrun an army and then defeat it by yourselves. She said that just when you'd beaten the leader of the army you were shot, and for that I'm sorry," she says and one thing's for sure, I didn't expect her to give an answer as full as that- I lost count of the syllables.
"Oh. I see, well, thanks. Errm... how old are you?" I need to know- her language is immaculate.
"Nine in Old World years. Which is about eight in New World years."
"Eight! You must be a child genius!" I almost shout. Jen blushes.
"Thanks. I can see why Viola loves you so much," she says beaming up at me. Now it's my turn to blush.
"What did she say about me?" I ask my voice low, not even sure if I want to know.
"Nothing. But I could just tell how much you mean to her by the tone of her voice when she mentioned you. And she never left your side when you were unconscious, that's a giveaway."
"There he is," says Lee, seeing Todd in the Noise of those around us. "Did he really think he could hide there? He's so much taller than them- he must be one metre eighty, one metre ninety maybe- what d'you think?"
"Yeah, yeah. Must be about that," I say simply because I'm concentrating on something else. "Maybe we should leave him for a bit."
"What? Why? Have you fallen out or summit?" Lee asks uncertainty flashing in his Noise.
"No. It's just that... well... Oh, I don't know. But I feel we should give him some space. He's always been alone and maybe it's hard for him to try and be sociable all the time. We've both grown up surrounded by people but with Todd it was just him and his dog," I try to explain, not really doing a very good job of it.
"Todd has a dog?" Lee asks after a bit.
"Had. Please, don't mention it around him. When he came to rescue me from Aaron he was fatally ill. His dog Manchee saved Todd from getting caught by Aaron but at that point the boat we were in was drifting away. We couldn't get back even if we wanted to because we were both so weak- him from fever, me from the drugs Aaron gave me to make me sleep. Aaron told Todd to choose between me and his faithful dog: he chose me. Aaron broke Manchee's neck. Todd blames himself for leaving his dog. I blame myself for leaving them both. After six days of unconsciousness Todd beat the fever and we fled to Haven." My mind is reeling as I say this, remembering just what happened before Todd woke up. How scared I was for him, having no idea of how he had become so ill until I noticed blood staining the back of his shirt and the knife wound burning red with infection. How light he was when Doctor Snow and I carried him into that little white room, as if he'd grown winds to fly to Heaven but hadn't quite reached there.
"Wasn't he too tired to run to Haven?" Lee asks almost to himself.
"The doctor said he needed to rest, but, as ever, we had no choice other than to run: the army was less than an hour away. And Todd managed, he was strong enough to get there; even strong enough to carry me the last few kilometres," I say, not really sure if Lee will realise why Todd had to carry me and not really sure if I want to tell him.
"When you were shot?" Lee asks gently.
"Yeah, when I was shot."
Jen seems to be my limpet which is a new experience for me. I've never met no-one younger than me for more than a few seconds before and I guess it's easier that Jen is so clever cuz otherwise I'd be having a hard time trying to rationalise with the kid. Trouble is, I think Jen can tell I've always been the youngest. And sure enough she soon states,
"You've never talked to someone younger than you before, have you?"
"Is it really that easy to tell?" I ask blushing ferociously.
"No! It's just that you don't seem sure of what you can say around me, of what I know and so on. You talk to me like you would an adult, but you seem unsure of yourself at the same time. Plus, I can hear it in your Noise or whatever. Just to say, I like being talked to like an adult- it makes me feel special," she says and I am so glad that's what she likes cuz I really don't have a clue how to talk to kids.
"You are special," I finalise.
Our pace hasn't altered even though Jen is so tired.
"Dya want to go on my shoulders?" I ask her cuz her face is really red. She looks up at me.
"All the way up there? What if I fall?"
"You won't!" I say grabbing her arms and swinging her up over my head-
Jen wraps her feet round my chest and scratches the coarse layers of bandages tightly wound around my torso beneath my shirt with her toes.
"Did it hurt?" she whispers low in my ear.
"What?" I ask, checking whether I misinterpreted the question.
"When he shot you," she replies even lower (no, I understood the question perfectly).
"Yeah," I murmur the pain wailing like a siren in my Noise and it's just the vague memory of a time blurred and dimly remembered. "A lot. But I'm okay now."
"You're still trapped with these bandages though."
"Well, yes, but that's just a precaution. They ain't necessary but I guess it would hurt a little without 'em. Not that I wanna find out any time soon," I smile up at her and she smiles back- I can imagine Viola being like this when she was younger.
"I like you, Todd," Jen says still beaming.
"And I like you, too."
"Jennifer Anne Wilson!" a voice bellows from a mere metre away.
"Oops," Jen whispers atop of me. "I forgot to tell Mum where I was going."
"Perfect," I whisper back sarcastically as I put Jen back on the ground.
"What on earth do you think you're doing? That young boy will die of exhaustion carrying you around like that!" says the shouting lady.
"Honestly, I'm-" I begin before she interrupts.
"And why didn't you tell me where you were going? Explain yourself madam!"
"This is Todd. I wanted to thank him for everything he did for us but I stayed longer than I expected to and forgot to tell you. I'm sorry Mum," Jen says looking terrified of her mother's deadly gaze. But her ma's expression seems to soften and harden at the same time if that were possible.
"Well it was good of you to thank him- and I thank you as well Todd. But why would you even consider riding on his shoulders after I told you what had happened?"
"Mrs Wilson," I begin again, "it was my idea to lift Jen up- she looked really tired and I was fine and dandy. I should also take the blame for the not telling you business. I shoulda checked first."
"Oh," Mrs Wilson says in surprise.
"He's just like Viola said," Jen says grinning.
"Of course he is," I hear behind me. I turn to see that Viola's caught up with us. Jen looks back at me and smiles as her mother hurries her away- probably towards her pa.
And I take Viola's hand firmly in my own.
And we walk the last few miles to our new life.
He takes my hand.
And again I feel hope.
Because I've said before-
Todd and I-
There's nothing we can't do together.
We beat armies, fevers, corrosive acid, heartbreak.
And now we get to retire from it all and live, together.
I can't believe he's back. I can't believe how light my heart feels in my chest after months of it pulling me to the ground.
We've been left behind a little in the course of the day so we quicken our pace to get back at the front, as was our aim this morning. After a minute or two Todd asks,
"Ah-ha?" I respond.
"Why d'you panic like that earlier, there was no need to and you never used to worry so much did you?" And he's staring at my face to measure my response- although there isn't really any need because I've never been able to lie to him anyway.
"No, I didn't use to, did I," I say frankly.
"Then why today!" Todd says and his voice is more forceful than before.
"Because, Todd, I sat at your side for three months after you were hurt. So hurt, everyone thought you were dead and that you'd never come back- including me. Do you really think I want to risk having to sit by your side all over again? Yes, I am overly paranoid but who wouldn't be? I was left alone because 1017 took you from me and it took you three months to find your way back. You were lying there in front of me but I knew you were so far away- I never want to be apart from you again, Todd," I tell him, the words tumbling out of my mouth like a landslide. Todd just stares at me, looking ever so slightly pale, but that could just be my imagination.
"Oh my God, Viola, I am so sorry. Believe me in those three months all I did was search for you cuz I had never wanted to leave you behind," he says his face looking so scared as if he thinks I blame him for leaving me behind and that I'll never forgive him.
"I know you did."
And I squeeze his hand to prove it.
She squeezes my hand as if to verify the fact that she knows I was searching for her.
"Let's run," I say.
"Let's," she says back. "Maybe I can finish a journey on my own two feet this time." I squeeze her hand again, hard, for luck- and we're off.
We charge though the undergrowth to avoid crashing into folks, occasionally catching glimpses of each other twixt the trees, and smiling. Though that's a rarity cuz I mostly look at my feet. I ain't never been co-ordinated at the best of times and what Viola said really shook me up. Cuz I did leave her, didn't I? It don't make no difference if I wanted to or not, whether I tried with all my might not to fall into the blackness on that beach or willing walked into it. Cuz if that did matter then, well... put it this way, I'd never wanna leave Viola behind and there was nothing I wanted less than to fall into that bottomless pit. So I ain't never leaving her again. Never. And if there's anything I can do to prevent leaving, I'll do it.
I slip over rocks and moss, dodge round trees and holes, sometimes not spotting a hole and grunting as I land heavily in it. A coupla times I almost fall but on all occasions I correct myself at the last minute, just about. My face is glowing red and every breath scratches over my dry lips and rattles down my ice cool throat- but, somehow, it ain't an unpleasant sensation. Could be cuz it makes me feel free.
Ahead of me Viola's feet crunch through the dry leaves. Unlike mine, hers never slip or differ in length of stride, it's as if she was born to run. I wish I was, too, cuz that sure woulda made a certain journey easier. No prizes guessing which one. I increase my pace to catch up with her.
"Todd!" I hear her shout. "Todd! Come quickly!"
"I'm going as fast as I can!" I shout/wheeze back. Viola turns towards me as I burst outta the tree line, gasping for breath.
"How far behind you was I?" I ask after my breathing pattern is back to normal.
"Only a second. You're getting faster- or I'm getting slower. Anyway, we're here. Look, it's the valley, just like Ben described! We've made it, Todd, we've really made it!" and as she says this looking into my eyes, her own bright and alive.
"We've made it?" I whisper, turning it into a question. I wonder over to the lip of the hill and look down at the valley.
Grass appearing to pulsate in the glistening afternoon sun. Colourful trees and bushes drooping with fruits of such ripeness I can smell their various scents in the air. A shimmering stream carving its way through the trough of the valley with such nonchalance it needn't be moving at all. It looks perfect for a new life yet also so very isolated. What happens if we need help- it's a day and a half to the nearest civilization. Too late for worrying now, and anyway, we'll be fine, I tell myself.
"It's beautiful," I hear Viola whisper in awe.
"It is," I whisper back, reaching for her hand and giving it a quick squeeze.
"And I can see something else that's beautiful," she says turning to look at me.
"So can I," I agree looking down at her. Then I add as a joke, "That wooden cart was an incredible piece of machinery." And she laughs at my stupidity which was my intention to begin with.
"You teaser," she says with a playful slap to my shoulder. "Maybe I wasn't talking about you after all, maybe I was talking about the cart as well." And we smile at one another cuz we both know exactly what the other thinks is beautiful. Still looking at her, I move my hand up her arm and bring my other around her back and we hug, rocking ever so slightly back and forth.
We hug tightly as I rock back and forth in Todd's arms. I love him and I know I keep saying that, but I do: words can never describe.
"I love you," I whisper.
"I love you, too. Pain-like love," he breathes onto my neck so softly it tickles.
"It's only painful when we're apart. And I don't intend to leave any time soon," I whisper back to him, only speaking my mind. He squeezes me harder, probably without even noticing.
"Too right," he replies and I know he smiles because his head is on top of mine and I feel his cheek pull taught.
And I tilt my head up so I can look into his eyes-
And I try to read him rather than his Noise,
Try to see the emotions in his head via his eyes not just because they're spilled out into the world.
And I can see what he feels-
What he feels for me.
For a second I think about how I hated it when he made himself silent, even though I know he only did it so that he'd not have to see the horrors of war repeated over and over and over again. He's looking into my eyes and I guess he's trying to read my emotions, too.
"You look so happy, Viola," he says almost frustrated at how difficult it is to put these feelings into words.
"That's good. I am," I tell him with a flash of a grin. And then we turn back to the scene of our new life, still rocking in one another's arms, and Todd rests his head on top mine again. For a few minutes we stand in silence dreaming of our future.
For a short while I stand with Viola in my arms and I think about the life I'm gonna have- the life I'm gonna have with her. And then a thought comes to mind that I furiously try to cover up for fear of upsetting her.
She looks up at my glowing red face...
And presses her lips to mine.
I close my eyes.
And I sense her close hers too. Somehow...
As we kiss I remember everything that I've ever gone through with her.
From finding her hole of silence in the swamp;
To her telling me her name;
To her suggesting we flee from Farbranch.
And I remember when she asked me to sleep outside that mill cuz my Noise was keeping her awake.
And how scared her scream was when Aaron smashed that cloth over her mouth.
And how she cried when we left Manchee behind.
How hard she hugged me when I woke in Carbonel Downs.
How light she felt when I charged down the zigzag road with her dying in my arms.
The emptiness I feel whenever she's taken away from me.
The fact that she's stolen from me all too often.
And then I think of how she always came back to save me.
From the Mayor,
And from myself.
And I love her so intensely. She is my life now and I feel as though it's her holding me the planet not gravity. I feel as though if she no longer existed I would disappear in a cloud of mist- like ink in water, spread so thinly I vanish. And the only thing I hate is that I can't make her understand just how much she means to me because words cannot describe our bond.
Our noses stroke each other's so softly it tickles. I smile as I hear Todd's memories of us together and in turn think of my account of the events that we've occurred.
"It looks like we've been together for a lifetime, the amount of stuff we've done. We've known one another nine months, though it feels like six to me," he says in response to his own thoughts.
"Nine months- plus the rest of our lifetimes. Is it long enough?" I ask teasingly.
"Oh, we'll make do with a lifetime, don't ya think?" he replies. By way of answer I hug him even harder, before muttering into his shoulder.
"We'll have to make do," I say with a melodramatic sigh. "But that means living every second of mortality. So..."
So I reach up to kiss him again.
Todd doesn't object but he seems uncertain. I even hear him considering the possibility that he hasn't woken up yet and is in fact still asleep on that tablet dreaming up perfect scenarios. The kiss isn't OTT or anything (a newly acquired phrase), it's just a soft peck: but the romance is ever so thickly hung in the air- I feel so joyful I don't know whether to shout or cry or laugh.
And again I think of Todd.
Not of the things we've done together but just of him;
Of why I love him as a person not as an object I tagged along with whenever I did anything exhilarating.
I think of his kindness, softness, care. His humour and quick wit.
The way he gave up everything to salvage whatever he could from this wreck of a planet.
And I hear him think of me as well.
My comforting words, honest nature and reassurance. My intellect and logic.
The way I gave up everything to salvage whatever I could from this wreck of a planet.
Todd's forehead is resting on mine and we smile when we look into each other's eyes.
I turn to the view in synchronisation with Todd, his hand still gripping my far shoulder.
"What shall we call this place? It's not just a settlement any more, is it, it's our home. And our home needs a better name than 'the settlement'," I whisper into his ear, stretching up on my tip-toes so that I'm tall enough to reach him.
"I'm not sure. I spose there'll be a vote later- but we could give it a personal name, you never know, it might end up being the official name as well," he replies, his volume normal, his eyes not leaving the view, as if he's searching for inspiration. For a while we stand there pondering it, Todd's hand now by his side but mine is slipped inside it.
"What about 'Nové Vlasti'?" I ask after a while.
"What?" Todd asks, perplexed.
"Nové Vlasti. It means 'New Homeland' in Czech. My grandmother lived there for a while on Old World- the Czech Republic- and she taught me a few phrases," I explain with a shrug of my shoulders.
"You can speak another language!" Todd shouts surprise and awe filling his Noise.
"Only a few words," I say blushing.
"I don't speak one word of nothing but English. Well, now I know two words of Czech but that don't count," he laughs. "Nové Vlasti. I like it." He says the name a few more times under his breath as if tasting the words on the tip of his tongue.
"Nové Vlasti je krásná, or, New Homeland is beautiful, and it is, ain't it?" I say and he snorts at my 'ain't'.
"It sure is," he replies.
And we hug one another as we gaze at our beautiful new home.
I don't ever want to let him go.
His Noise is only saying one word: Viola.
And feelings are tied to it; feelings of joy, relief... love.
I guess if I had Noise it would only be saying one word as well.
One word with those feelings tied to it equally tight: Todd.
"I love you, Viola Eade. We fought against the whole world, and guess what? We won," he whispers.
"And I love you, Todd Hewitt. We won, so now we can live the rest of our lives together. Till death do us part," I virtually mouth to him. And he bends down so his lips are right at my ear and breathes,
"Oh... we'll be together a whole lot longer than that."