Awake, page 17
Her eyes filled with tears. "I remember that. I am so proud of you, Noah. You really have grown into a wonderful man." She kissed me on the cheek and then looked around, sighing in content.
I wasn't a wonderful man, but I hoped tomorrow might correct that, even a little. I was going to do the right thing. It was the right thing by Scarlett, myself, and Eternal Light. Not only was I going to do everything I could to save her life but I was preventing us being murderers.
Scarlett stood with her parents as people came forward and kissed both of her cheeks. She played it so well. She was withdrawn enough to play the nervous card but smiled and interacted enough to make people believe she with us all the way. She wasn't the only one that was nervous, we all were, but for different reasons.
I managed to get a minute with her out of earshot of everyone else when we both went back for more food. Donald watched us; I didn't even need to look around to know that. I kept smiling.
"How are you feeling?" I asked. It was an innocent question and one that everyone had asked her, but I was referring to our escape, not the ritual.
She nodded, giving me a reserved smile. To everyone else, she'd not quite forgiven me yet and still acted cooler to me. She probably didn't have to pretend that much.
"I'm okay," she replied. "Nervous."
"I think we all are a little. Don't worry, though, tomorrow is going to run smoothly and then everything will be alright."
Fear flashed through her eyes. "Yeah, everyone has been reassuring me all day."
"They all love you and want you to feel at ease with what's going to happen."
I knew she was talking about the same thing I was, but hopefully everyone else thought it was about the ritual. Please trust me, Scarlett.
"I know that. It's been a huge change, and I've only just had time to stop and think about what's coming. I'm a little scared."
"That's natural, Scarlett, but trust me when I tell you that it will be alright." I had no right to tell her to trust me, not after what I'd done, but I was all she had now. The responsibility was overwhelming, but I made a promise not to let her down again.
"Do you really think so?" she asked.
I didn't want to lie to her; the odds were heavily stacked against us, but the only choice was to try. "I know so. Stop worrying and enjoy tonight. This is all for you, Scarlett."
Donald stepped behind her and smiled at us both. "Noah is right. Come and enjoy the evening, everything will be fine tomorrow."
Scarlett smiled up at Donald and followed him back to their seats. I wasn't sure how I felt about her being able to lie and manipulate so easily, but then she was facing death so I couldn't question her character too hard. And what I was doing and had done was no better. I was lying to everyone I loved - everyone but her.
"Tell Finn not to eat everything, I'm just running home for a second," I said to Mum.
Her eyes immediately filled with concern. "Are you alright?"
"I think I have a headache coming on and I want to make a tea in case. I won't be long."
She nodded. "Do you want me to make it?"
"No, you stay here and enjoy. I'll bring it back when it's made," I said, walking off.
I had our bag and needed to pack and stash it. The only chance to plant it in the forest would be now while they were all distracted with the festivities. Scarlett watched me go back to my house, but I didn't look at her. I didn't want anyone to see me looking at her and become suspicious, not that they would. You didn't turn your back on Eternal Light, your family and the community. Jonathan and Marissa had. They'd lost their chance at eternal peace, tranquillity and happiness. They would get nothing when they died.
Same as all of us really.
I closed the front door and ran to the kitchen, boiling a pan of water to make tea. Then I went to my room and pulled the rucksack from under my bed, filling it with some clothes and fleece jackets that I'd set aside in my drawer, water and food that I'd stashed right at the back, and a pair of shoes for Scarlett. There wasn't a lot in it really, enough for one day. I didn't want to be weighed down when we had to run as fast as we could.
I made the tea and left it on the side while I went outside to creep into the forest. I could hear everyone talking and laughing, but I was far enough out that I couldn't be seen in the dark. I hope.
The sky had clouded over, making it darker. It was as if some other force was helping me get her out of there. I felt every thud of my heart as I crept past the lake. If I were caught that would be it, I'd be out, and Scarlett would die. There was so much riding on this.
Letting Scarlett down was the last thing I ever wanted to do but it was a huge possibility.
I walked slowly, being careful not to make too much noise when I stood on fallen branches. It was stupid, they wouldn't hear a stick breaking over the sound of the fire and everyone's talking, but I was scared and paranoid.
There was a collection of bushes relatively close to the edge of the forest and the lake Scarlett would be cleansed in. It was my chosen hiding place for the bag now and me tomorrow.
Breathing deeply, I gave myself a quick pep talk.
Crouching down, I shoved the bag under the bush, covering it with leaves and whatever else I could find on the floor. My eyes scanned the area to see if anyone had broken away from the group. The houses furthest away from the fire were just silhouettes, so I was confident that I couldn't be seen from where they were. Still, I stood up and crept back as fast as I could.
It'd been cold in the forest and I was glad I'd packed the fleece jackets and a change of clothes and shoes for Scarlett, she'd be running straight after getting out of water and would be freezing.
I can do this.
I WOKE WITH the strongest urge to throw up. My stomach rolled and flipped. Today was the day. The day with only two outcomes: Noah and I escaped, or I died. Apparently there was going to be a day of celebration, lots of big meals and well wishing to send me on a safe journey where I'll wait to be reunited with each of them when they die.
I literally couldn't understand why it didn't sound ridiculous to them.
Laid out on the chair beside my bed was a soft mint colour sundress and new underwear. The only time I was told what to wear was when I had to be in something white for the rituals. This was green and clearly laid out for me to wear. I hadn't been here long but long enough to establish a routine and to be scared if it was broken. They ran the community so smoothly I would nominate them to run the world, if it weren't for the fact that they were all insane.
"Good morning," Fiona said when I got dressed and made my way into the small kitchen.
"Morning," I replied, wishing for a cup of coffee to settle my nerves. Green tea was about as good as it got here.
"Breakfast is in ten minutes, would you like some tea before we go?" she asked.
I shook my head. "No, thanks."
"Please don't look so nervous, Scarlett."
Please don't kill me.
"I'm trying," I replied, forcing myself to smile at her. "I know the pain will only last a few seconds but..."
Tilting her head, she held the tops of my arms. "It is understandable, of course. Don't fear it, though; revel in the knowledge that you are destined for something much greater than this world can offer. You are a miracle."
I need a miracle.
Gulping, I replied, "Okay. Thank you."
Every single time I had to pretend to agree I felt my heart sink further. It was wrong, and I hated having to act like I was fine to be sacrificed. Talking about the ending of my life wasn't an easy thing to do, and I had to do it with bloody cheer.
"Good. Now, are you sure about that tea?"
"I'm sure." It tastes like pee. "What's for breakfast?"
"Ah, we're having fruit, freshly made bread, and pastries."
Their food was incredible, but I could've killed for a bacon sandwich. It was my last breakfast, shouldn't it be what I want?
"No need," Donald said, walking into the room and leaning against the table. "It is all in hand and they want to give us a few moments alone before the day starts. I just want to thank you, Scarlett. I know it couldn't have been easy, especially after what you have lived through with Jonathan and Marissa."
The sound of my parents' names made me ache. I missed them so much it hurt. But I was doing everything I could to get back to them, and I was sure they were doing everything they could to find me.
He smiled. "None of that matters now because you are here, and you have made us so proud. We have always known you are an inspiration, and nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing you grow into a beautiful young woman who is willing to take her destiny with such grace and elegance. It will be with a heavy heart that we let you go, but I know it won't be long before we are reunited again. Fifty years, or whatever we may have left, is nothing compared to the eternity awaiting us."
I wondered if he actually listened to himself.
"Thank you," I said. "I know my transition hasn't been easy on anyone, but I didn't know the truth."
"Oh, we know," Fiona said, "And we all understand. No one has ever thought badly of you."
I couldn't have cared less if they thought badly of me.
"Okay, good, I don't want them to," I lied and smiled.
I wanted to throw myself in the lake now so we could get this thing started and over with. Glancing at the clock, I counted down. Five hours.
AFTER EATING BREAKFAST together, we had to help set up the hall. "Are you coming with us, Scarlett?" Willow asked, linking arms with Skye. She and her twin sister were the only teen girls here. There were four children, but they weren't yet teenagers. I tried my best not to remember names or make much of an effort with anyone other than Donald and Fiona.
It would be too tragic to hear children talk like the rest of them.
"Yeah," I replied and then turned back to Fiona. "Is that okay?"
She smiled brightly. "Of course, it is. We are now headed to the barn so we'll see you there in a few minutes."
"We won't be long," Willow said. "We just want to talk to Scarlett a bit; we haven't had much chance to yet."
And this was the only chance they'd get. One way or another, I wouldn't be here in two hours.
"It has been a strange and busy week, hasn't it?" Skye said.
"Understatement," I muttered. I didn't want to talk to these girls or be their friend. That was pointless.
"Right. Yes, obviously," Willow said. "I'm sorry we didn't get to spend much time together. Noah told us you're an amazing person."
Skye grinned and added, "Not that we didn't know that already."
How often did Noah talk to them about me? Were there weekly reports? I fisted my hands. No, don't think about that. I couldn't look back, not now.
It had to be in the past.
I had to trust him.
"Well, thanks." We started to walk towards the barn at a leisurely pace. The same pace me and Imogen walked anywhere at.
"What's high school like?" Skye asked, completely taking me by surprise.
I frowned. "Um, it's okay, I guess."
"Sorry," Willow said, "We just haven't been to a public school. Obviously."
"No, you never got the chance to experience that. Noah hadn't even had a movie night before..." I stopped myself. What the hell was I doing? Why was I talking about this? It was sick. We weren't friends and never would be. And I couldn't talk about what happened with Noah so casually when it still burned.
"He said he will miss that. I know he is a lover of the outdoors, but he did enjoy the films," Willow said.
I wanted to hit her. I knew he enjoyed it. He may have lied about everything but he reacted to the movies, and you couldn't fake laughter like that. I hated that she was trying to make me feel better about Noah. I didn't want to talk about him with anyone. It was private, and it still hurt.
Skye touched my arm, and I fought hard not to whack it away. "We are very glad you're here, Scarlett."
Through gritted teeth I replied, "Thanks."
They walked in ahead of me, and I stopped to look up at the brass clock above the barn door. One hour and forty minutes.
I stepped into the building and something that felt like an explosion went off in my head. I cried out and gripped my forehead. Everything slotted into place, and I felt dizzy. Memories came flooding back all at once making my head pound.
The barn inside looked identical to the warehouse. I saw the final ceremony, the one after the cleansing. I was little. I started to cry when they laid the leaves on the ground inside the stone circle. They held me down. Dad had a knife. I was screaming. There was fire. The curtains were alight. Hot. Too hot. People ran, trying to find something to put the flames out with. Chaos. Terror. Pain.
Then Mum - Marissa - grabbed me. And...darkness.
I couldn't breathe. Turning, I ran out of the barn and leant against the wall outside. Oh God, that's what they were hiding. I was scared before but now I remembered, everything was a million times worse.
I didn't want them to know something was really wrong. I wasn't supposed to not want this.
"Scarlett!" Fiona said, hot on my heels. She bent down to meet me eye to eye. "What happened?"
Gulping, I replied, "I was remembering, but I couldn't really see anything. It gives me headaches. That's all. I just had to get some fresh air."
I wanted to scream at her. I remembered her hovering over her young child watching and not caring how worked up and scared I was. How could she?
Oh God, I'm going to throw up.
"Are you alright now?"
No! "I'm fine," I replied, straitening up and smiling. It took everything I had. "Like I said, I just needed some air."
"Why don't you go with Bethan and Noah?" She pointed to where they were in the field. "I'm sure they could use some help harvesting the potatoes."
They were having a feast after I was slaughtered, and she wanted me to help prepare for that. She was beyond sick.
Trying to keep the sarcasm from my voice, I said, "Good idea."
I left her as quickly as I could and made my way over to the field beside the meadow. They were both happy to see me, for completely different reasons. "Fiona asked me to come and help," I said.
Bethan smiled. "We love having you. The potatoes aren't buried too far down, so you should get them up easily."
There were about five other people digging up potatoes, too. How much were they going to eat? They would all eat together, celebrating, for fifteen nights after I was gone. It was disgusting.
Harvesting was about the only time I got alone with Noah, and even that wasn't exactly alone. We still had people everywhere, watching me in case I took off. If I thought I could make it alone I would go in a heartbeat. Noah was risking a lot to help me.
We were on our hands and knees picking potatoes from the ground and putting them in a basket. It was warm, but I felt freezing. I focused on my task and realised this could be one of the last things I'd do. My heart raced with nerves. I felt trapped, cornered, and I fought to keep playing along until the time was right.
Once the potatoes were picked and everything was ready, it was time to get dressed for the ceremony. Fiona took me back to the house, and I was instructed to have a bath and get ready in the dress she would set out on my bed.
I did as I was told because there was little else I could do right now. After soaking in a bubble bath, using most of it up as my own little screw you, I got out, dried and went back to my room.
Unsurprisingly the dress I was to wear was full-length and white. It was pretty and thankfully not a slim fit so I would be able to run properly in it. I held it up - this is what I'm supposed to die in. Not many people knew what their last outfit would be. I instantly hated it.
I pulled it over my head. It fit me perfectly. It had lon
There were no shoes, and I was afraid I'd have to run through the forest barefoot. There wasn't a lot I could do about that. I couldn't ask for shoes and have Fiona question why I'd need them if I was getting in a lake. Besides, I'd run barefoot over a bed of nails or hot coal to get away.
I looked in the mirror and took deep breaths to calm my nerves. I could do this. I was strong.
"Scarlett, are you ready?" Donald called.
Time to fight for my life.
TWO THINGS ENTERED my mind as every member of Eternal Light stared at me from the meadow. One, no matter how hot it was outside it never warmed the water enough for it to not be cold. And two, if this didn't go to plan I would be dead in forty minutes.
Noah wasn't there. He walked out with them but soon disappeared around the back of the houses. I didn't watch where he went from there through fear of it gaining the attention of someone else. Obviously, he'd positioned himself right at the back and when they'd said whatever crap they were saying and while kneeling down with their eyes closed he'd slinked off.
Since they'd stood up and opened their eyes they hadn't stopped staring at me.
I pretended to look around, turning my body so I could take a few unnoticed steps back towards the other side. Running in water wasn't easy, and I would be slow to get out, giving them plenty of time to make it around the lake. I had to give myself as much time as I could. At least they would be further away as they called upon nature to accept and cleanse me for the final time.
Soon I had to run for my life in a cold, wet dress. Noah said he was packing me some clothes, but we couldn't stop to change until we knew we'd lost them. I had no idea how long it would be before I could change. Or how cold it was going to get in the forest at night.
In the distance, I could just about see their lips moving but I had to strain. Some of them had their eyes closed again. Why couldn't they all do that? My heart started to pound. How long would they chant for, and why hadn't Noah called me yet? Had someone realised that he'd slipped away? He said they'd be so focused on what they had to do to that he didn't see a problem with getting away. I couldn't be so confident - this was my life on the line.
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