"What's the grossest thing you've ever done?"
"The grossest thing I've done?" Skylar asked, glancing sideways.
Dale smirked in the flickering firelight.
Skylar smirked herself, staring into the flames. After a moment, she answered, "Wearing the same gym clothes three days in a row."
"That's what you're giving me?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "I've seen you do grosser."
She shifted on the wooden log so that she could swat his arm. "Maybe I don't gross and tell."
"Okay, what's the grossest thing you've ever seen, then?" he asked.
She thought for a moment. "Sean eating a banana."
He raised his eyebrows again.
"Sean eating a banana that was in his locker for two weeks in seventh grade," she continued.
"It was still seventh grade when he ate it, right?" asked Dale.
Skylar chuckled, poking at the fire with a stick. "So you too. Grossest thing you've ever seen."
"Coach Stinson, getting out of the dunking tank at the fall carnival that time," he said, chuckling as he caught her eye.
"In those shorts!" Skylar nodded, making a face.
"Nothing to the imagination," nodded Dale.
"Okay, my turn." She fixed him with a calculating look, and he feigned nervousness. "What would you do for...all the farms in Jericho?"
"What kind of question is that?" he asked.
"Well, I can't ask what you'd do for a million dollars," she shrugged.
"I wouldn't hit them with mortars," he said, folding his arms.
She groaned. "No, it's not supposed to be that kind of question. I mean, like, if the town was saying 'We're going to sell you all the farms, but first you have to do this,' what would you do?"
"Well, what are they making me do?" he asked.
"I don't know," she shrugged. "Run down Main Street naked."
"And who would be there?"
"Everyone," she said. "Gray Anderson, Miss Sullivan, Jake Green, everyone who used to babysit you."
He shrugged. "I guess."
"Really?" she asked, eyeing him.
"It's for all the land," he said. "I'd remind them I wouldn't have to feed them if they laughed."
"Okay," she said, in a somewhat teasing tone of disbelief.
He smirked. "Okay, would you do it?"
"Yes," she answered quickly.
"Okay, you'd run naked through Main Street. But would you sing a song for everyone, karaoke night at Bailey's?"
"For all the farms?" She raised her eyebrows. "Sure."
"In front of Gray and all the Greens and Sean and the Carmichaels?" he continued in his own teasing tone.
"Sure," she repeated, feigning annoyance.
"But you wouldn't sing when Archie wanted to pass the time in the truck," said Dale, glancing over his shoulder at the truck where their comrade snoozed in the cab.
Skylar shook her head. "So? Doesn't mean I wouldn't. Okay, your turn."
He stretched his arms, looking up at the starry summer sky. "You're on a deserted island. Only one thing with you."
"Oh, this one," she said with exaggerated exasperation. "I've never heard this one before."
"Your answer's probably different now though," he said. "You wouldn't pick your hair dryer now, would you?"
"I would never have said hair dryer," she said, narrowing her eyes. Smiling then, she leaned back, holding onto the log to keep her balance. "I guess I'd have to pick something boring that would help me survive. A ... lighter or something."
He nodded, and she sent him a challenging look. "Okay, then. You. What do you want with you on a deserted island?"
"Besides you?" he asked, a smile playing at the corner of his lips.
She rolled her eyes. "Yes."
"A gun," he answered.
She paused, suddenly not smiling. "On a deserted island?"
"What are you going to shoot, the snakes?" she asked, frowning.
He looked into the fire for a moment, but then flashed her a hesitant smile. "You don't know how dangerous they can be, those snakes. And I'm no Indiana Jones."
"Yeah," she nodded, trying to smile along. "My turn then." She paused. "What's something no one else knows about you?"
He shrugged. "Lots of things."
"Name one," she said, challenging him again.
He looked down for a moment. "I...I don't know if my dad's alive."
She took it in slowly, nodding.
"Same with you, I guess," he said quickly. She nodded again. "And you?" he asked.
She thought for a moment. "I got myself lost on purpose once."
He raised his eyebrows.
"I was at the zoo with my aunt and uncle and I purposely hid in the penguin exhibit. Waited 'til they were gone and went off on my own." She smiled faintly at the memory. "I went and looked at the lions, the elephants, and the otters before going to the lost and found office. I'm not sure exactly why I did it. I was mad at my cousin that day. He kept making fun of me."
"It's not that funny," she said. "My aunt was practically crying when they came in, and I was just sitting there eating ice cream. If I were my aunt and I knew what really happened I might have killed me."
He continued to laugh.
"Seriously, Dale!" She sent him a look of reproach. "It's probably one of the worst things I've ever done."
"Yeah, no, you're a little monster," he said, shaking his head and trying to be serious.
She looked into the fire, not saying anything. The mood seemed to be catching, and he found himself contemplating the flames quietly too. It happened a lot, in their world. Remembering other times, other people, could change any moment.
He poked at the logs in the fire, glancing sideways at her. Her features were barely visible in the dim light, but he knew the expression on her face. She caught his, and gave him a small smile, though her face remained serious.
"Skylar, can I tell you something?" he asked, a little surprised at the sound of his own voice, beginning a thread he hadn't known he was going to start.
"Yeah," she said, still looking into the flames.
"Can I tell you the worst thing I've ever done?"
She was silent for a moment. "Yeah."
"I killed someone."
Silence. Crackling wood. Summer at night. Silence.
He stared forward, wondering at the sound of the words. Never had he said them out loud, and they seemed strange, more real, than in his head.
"Dale, you -" she glanced at him, her face a mixture of emotions. "I thought we didn't know for sure, if any of us -"
"Before New Bern," he added, fixing his eyes on the blue part of the flame.
"You did?" she whispered.
He nodded slowly, wanting to fold his arms against the sudden chill of the night, but holding himself still.
"But how, how didn't -"
"Mitch Cafferty," he said, the name striking a strange hollow sound.
She was silent, and he couldn't look at her face.
"Right after Gracie," he said.
She was silent again.
"I buried him in the woods," he continued. "No one found him, as far as I know. No one knows."
"Except me," she said quietly.
He nodded. "I wanted to tell you, but I didn't."
"I'm sure no one wants to. Tell something like that," she said.
"I didn't want you to know about that. That side of me." He glanced at her. "Didn't want you to hate me."
She swallowed slowly.
"But you know now, so you can," he said quickly.
She hugged her arms around herself.
He was silent.
The summer night. An animal in the woods. The fire crackling.
She pulled her legs towards her. "I'm going to go to the bathroom."
"You want me to stand guard?" he asked.
"Okay, I'll give you space. Sorry. You don't have to say anything." He folded his hands in front of him, hunching his shoulders.
"Dale, I really have to pee. I'm not just running away," she sighed, standing. "But I think I'm going to sit in the truck after."
"Yeah," he nodded, not watching as she strode away across the grasses.
He sat completely still, staring into the light as if it could burn his eyes and change things, erase things, and he wouldn't have to see her walking away, in his mind, even though he wasn't looking.
He could see her walking away, around the other side of the truck so neither he or Archie could see. She'd go into the trees, not very far, but far enough.
When they'd first started going on these runs together, they didn't stray very far from the truck, even to do what she was doing now. Didn't stray too far from each other. It was something he had gotten used to, this year, having her nearby. Nearby so that even when he couldn't see her, he knew he could reach out.
It was so strange really. A year ago he would never have imagined this. Of course, everyone said that, everyone said that over the dumbest little things. "A year ago I would never have imagined living off freeze-dried fish." Or candlelight. Or hand washed clothes.
But that stuff wasn't so huge to him. Making do wasn't that different. Struggling to survive, struggling against people who seemed to want him to fail. That he could imagine.
He couldn't have imagined her. She was different.
He'd had a thing for her, that was true, for a while. He couldn't really remember when it had begun. Maybe ninth grade. Maybe before that. He hoped not that much before. Skylar was so annoying in elementary school. The thing he had for her was annoying too. Like a bruise, or pop rocks candy. Equal parts painful for all the pleasure it could give. More painful, really. He would think about her at night, staring at the ceiling of his bedroom in the trailer. Think about what kind of sheets she slept on, think about how she looked in gym class, rolling up her sleeves and showing off her tan, even though the teacher always scolded her. He'd think about her lips when she licked them, or when they turned red from the Freezies she bought in the cafeteria or at Gracie's, or when she pressed them into a thin line when she was really irritated. He would think about these things and think about how annoying she was. How annoying with her shallow, stupid answers in history class, her shallow stupid friends, that condescending look of smug confidence she wore. And he wanted to touch her. Imagined touching her, even though he told himself he hated her. Imagined, knowing it would never be real.
And she wasn't anything like he imagined her. The real he'd seen this year was different. She was more real to him than most people. She was brave and she was scared. She was strong and she was vulnerable. She wanted to see good and she was dismayed at their world. And she was like him.
She was always surprising. He didn't know what part was most surprising, but he hadn't expected to find he was like her. He'd always thought they were so different, really two different species - normal and annoying. Nothing was normal anymore, and he no longer thought she was annoying.
She'd brought him home and they'd lived, sharing, surprisingly at ease in each other's company. He'd brought her with him when they'd needed to get their fair share of the produce, and she'd surprised him with how easily she fought for what was theirs. It was theirs now, not his or hers, and it seemed natural to fight for it together.
He had always felt alone, in one way or another. Always different. Always outside, looking in. Most surprising of all then was probably the way he realized he was coming to depend on her. Depend on that feeling he could reach out without seeing, and know she was there. Let go and fall, through the blackness, and know he could reach her.
He couldn't remember quite how it happened. It had grown somehow, so slowly they hadn't seen it, and there was no way to measure it. Not like when he was a kid and his mother drew lines on the wall, over his head, to show how he was getting taller. There were moments, like those ticks on the wall, where he realized they were growing together. Quick flashes between long times of reflection. Like their world, since the bombs, fast times and slow periods of survival, each as important as the other.
The day they first gathered supplies as a team, showing Mr. Fredrickson just how forceful they could be, it was both. It was all, really. All of the things making up the world. Life and death. Heart pounding and relief. Danger and thrill.
They lay in front of the fire, laughing with a strange sort of euphoria. They'd pushed back at the world, and won. They had done it together. He'd felt her confidence, her strength, without even having to look at her, and he was sure she'd felt his.
He'd felt it that day, that thing between them, invisible but holding them together so he could reach out to her without seeing and know she was there. She'd leaned on her side, telling him she'd wanted to be there, and suddenly they'd closed even that distance between them.
She'd kissed him, and held on, and he'd kissed her back. They'd shifted, moving the sleeping bags, reaching for more of each other in the flickering light. Her weight against him was comfortable, real, and dangerous. His heart was pounding. His hands practically shook as he reached to touch her. Her skin against his only seemed natural. Where they had been going, it was natural. He had had to ask.
"You sure?" he'd asked.
"I am," she'd nodded, pulling him closer. She paused in the darkness, asking quietly “You?”
He leaned forward to kiss her. "I want to be here," he whispered, kissing her again. "With you."
He had stayed there, with her, awake long after she was asleep that night. Staring at her living room ceiling, the comfort of her leaning against him, her arm across him, his arm around her. Not anything like he'd ever imagined it. More.
He had never been so close to someone. So much the same. Wanting the same thing. Escaping from the same world. Finding a new one all their own.
He'd wanted to hold on. Hold onto to her, to that strange and unexpected thing that grew between them. As days and weeks passed, it seemed as though he did.
She surprised him again, in little moments. Stealing the horses from Hank. Holding on to that part of herself that gave the Carmichaels a fair deal, when he wouldn't. Things that surprised him, but shouldn't have, because he always realized, with a small smile, that it was her. He knew her.
He'd never known anyone like this. Never felt he could reach out and fall like this. But there was one thing.
One thing she didn't know about him.
One thing he didn't really know about himself, until it happened, and so many nights after, he still hadn't known what to do with it.
He'd tried to push it away in waking hours. Tried to relegate it to the part of his brain that pondered things coldly. Not the hot, fast moving part, that had taken over that night after Jonah Prowse had been exiled. Or that night with Skylar in front of the fire.
She should know, he'd thought, often enough. Should know the monstrous side. How far he could go, had gone. Who she was really sharing everything with.
But he'd wanted her, needed her. Not wanted to give up that trust he had in her. Her trust would be gone, if she knew, and what would they have then?
He trusted her more than anyone. Knew her better than anyone. He had to trust her with this. Let her know him. Let her decide what to do with it.
They were the same in so many other ways. Growing together. Struggling and triumphing. Fighting. Loving. But this was different.
He wanted her in a way he'd never expected. Needed her like he never knew he could. Couldn't give up that bond, intangible and invisible, but holding him together.
She needed him too. He knew that. Knew her well enough to know. They were together in this, growing together. But she would need to know.
The time never seemed right. Too good a day. Too bad a day. Too much going on. The war. The military.
Tonight had been an ordinary night. Ordinary for the past three weeks anyway. In the three weeks since the war, they'd learned so much about what was going on, yet it was only the beginning. From what they learned on the road, there was more to find out. A vast open space of unknown. They would find out, the both of them. But she needed to know.
So he had done it. Crossed the last expanse between them. Closed the distance, just like that night in front of the fire. Unexpected, just like that night, but really, inevitable too.
Whether it was fair or not, he'd done it. Like that night, there was no turning back. That night there'd been nothing more between them and they'd slept intertwined.
Tonight there was nothing more in between them and she had walked away.
He let out a world weary sigh and poked at the fire again. It was out of his control now. Everything was changing, and now he could only see how it moved next. He didn't look up and peer through the darkness at her, but he could see her, in his mind, picking her way back over to the truck, climbing in on the passenger's side.
Skylar tried to ignore Archie's gentle snores as she sat in the truck, her arms folded against the dashboard. Her mind was far from the cab and the big red-bearded man lolling back in his seat. She was remembering another evening, not very long ago.
The first night they'd gone on one of these trips, after the ASA came to town.
When she'd known he was going, she'd made her decision quickly.
"You are?" he'd asked, sounding only slightly wary.
"Yeah. I've got to see what's going on, as much as you do."
"You don't believe them, do you?" she'd asked.
He shook his head.
"So we need to go out there and see what else people are saying. If nothing else, get information."
"Yeah." He'd looked at her for a long moment. "But you don't need to do it, you know."
"Yeah, I do," she'd said simply. "And you need me."
She'd fixed him with a serious look, one she knew he would understand, and he nodded.
It was only a few days after the war. The war they'd both fought in, for the brief time it lasted. That day had been strange, kissing and hugging and standing together, walking forward with guns over their shoulders. Crying over Johnston Green's death. Watching the sky rip apart with fire. People falling around them.
She never would have expected it a year ago.
Now it made sense. She'd learned not to measure by anything she remembered from a year ago. They weren't the same people of a year ago.
They weren't the same young people of ten years ago, the young people who had populated Jericho and spent time playing pool and swimming at the dock, hiding their drinking from their parents and riding around in cars when there was nothing to do.
They were different from what the Jake Greens and Emily Sullivans had been, at their age. They were new, part of this world, growing with it.
She sometimes stared at herself in the mirror, trying to figure out if she looked changed. She seemed to, though she couldn't pinpoint what exactly was different about her hair, her eyes, her nose. She could see the difference better on Dale, when she smiled at him across the table, looked at him in a crowded room, watched him when he was asleep.
What had he been to her before? A timid creature, lurking around, staring at her with those eyes of his. Annoying. Judging her. Implying things without ever actually talking to her.
What was he now? Beautiful, she would think as she brushed her fingers through one of his curls, careful not to wake him. Fierce, she would think as she saw him standing on the counter in the store, speaking to the refugees, his eyes aglow. Strong, she would think, running beside him in the field, driving beside him in the truck, lying beside him at night.
His eyes, his nose, his cheekbones, his ears - none of it was different, and yet everything was.
The girl of a year ago wouldn't have paid those eyes, nose, cheekbones, ears, attention. Wouldn't have lingered on them, memorizing them, as she often does. But that girl had no place here.
The person she was now saw more. She saw the world around them in sharp relief. The things they would have to do to live in it. Rules they would have to bend, solutions they would have to come to with no one telling them what to do.
She saw plainly now the way things were. Not what they should be, or shouldn't be. Just how they were. The good that could come out of things, and the bad. Just like them.
As she sat in the truck, she thought about him. How well she knew him. Knew the good and bad that could come out of him.
His secret was shocking, in the most general sense, but it didn't surprise her altogether. She'd known, sensed, a kind of darkness in him for a while. Seen the changes. Knowing, hearing it said out loud, was different.
It was terrifying. That one sentence. One fact. One thing about him. One thing he could say so easily.
But she knew him. So well she could see him, that night, see the look on his face as he walked forward, his gun in his hands. She could almost see his mind, twisting and tormented, those days after he'd found Gracie.
It was painful. Knowing what had touched him. Knowing it was his choice. Knowing it had somehow touched her, though she'd never known it in words.
But so much was painful. And in all of it, there was something else. Them. Growing beyond pain, terror, into people who could live, survive this place.
How would she get past this? How would he? How did they get past anything? Somehow they always did, even though it had seemed impossible, those early days after the bombs.
But whenever she felt a part of herself giving in, giving up, another part rose and took over.
She felt the strength of all those parts of her, moulding and shaping her to live another day, hour, minute in this world.
She felt the strength of him, of everything between them, somehow adding up to more.
She felt a chill as her mind went once again to the dark thing now between them, that she'd always sensed but never put in words.
She got out of the truck, carefully shutting the door, fixing her eyes on his figure, silhouetted beside the tiny fire. She took a breath and walked towards him.
He glanced up at her as she took a seat beside the fire again. She stared into the flames, dancing so carelessly in front of her, unaware of the world.
There was silence. Crackling. Very faint snoring.
"How did you feel?" she asked.
He looked slowly over at her.
"How did you feel, after?"
He spoke slowly, as if pondering this for the first time. "I still don't really know. I wish I hadn't done it. But I honestly think I would do it again."
She stared into the fire, listening.
"I never knew I could do something like that. It's not a good feeling...but I also felt powerful. And sick."
"We never know, do we?" she whispered.
He shook his head. "Since it happened, I've tried to figure it out. What the right thing is. If I can even do the right thing. If there is any right."
"And what do you think?" she asked.
He swallowed. "I think there is," he said slowly. "I think, going out there, doing what I can, is the best I can do now."
"But you..." he faltered. "I understand if you can't..."
She sat still for several moments. He waited.
"I don't know if we're doing the right thing," she said. "I don't know if you can ever make it up to yourself. And I can't change it, and I know you can't." She sighed, but she turned to look at him. "But I know this is where I want to be. And I think it's what you need to do." She paused, watching him, and continued. "I think we can only go from here."
"Really?" he asked, after letting a moment pass in silence.
She nodded carefully, but resolutely. "This is us, now. I'm not...it's not like it's easy. It won't just go away. But I want to be here."
She smiled a faint smile. He looked at her, taking time before whispering, "Thank you."
She reached over and laid a hand on his arm. He placed his hand over hers. They sat, listening to the sounds.
The crackling and popping wood. Summer at night.