Authors: Nikki Landis
I smiled. “Thank you. It’s beautiful.”
“Never as beautiful as you.” His mouth hovered above mine. I felt the beat of his heart beneath my hand as it rested on his chest. It raced like mine, matching hum for hum, and crashed inside our bodies. The strong cadence forced the blood in my veins to pulse erratically.
His fingers brushing across my arms and sliding back around my waist forced me to focus. “I’ll see you in a few weeks. Be safe my beloved Lizzie.” The catch in his throat was unmistakable. He didn’t want me to leave. “I’ll miss you. More than you know. Kiss me, you must leave to join the others.”
This kiss was so deep and passionate I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay right here, safe and secure, where nothing could harm me and no one could come between us. When he released me I stumbled, unsteady on my feet. He laughed and held me a moment, his eyes running over me in total devotion. I had difficulty breathing. My racing heart would not slow down. Placing a quick kiss against my lips, he stepped back, releasing me to the uncertainty of reality.
I walked away, my knees shaking, and left him in the afternoon sunshine. Only once did I glance over my shoulder, my eyes meeting his briefly, where every emotion, raw and unchecked, danced in the steely grey. Bathed in warm light, resembling some kind of angel, he was everything I wanted to run to, everything I desired, and everything I was unable to obtain.
How long did we have? How long would our love endure? War cared nothing of our hearts, their suffering, or their joy. We were a ticking time bomb. And God only knew how much time was left…
I was out training new recruits this morning. Mal and I were giving lessons on cleaning, loading and reloading, and handling your weapon properly. Basic gun one oh one. We were going to drill them later on assembling and reassembling their weapons as fast as possible. It was a critical skill to learn and master. One that would save their lives.
I walked along the line of recruits, stopping to help here and there if someone was having difficulty.
“Lizzie, how are things going?” Mal asked, when we had a spare minute.
“Good, nothing much to complain about at present. You?” I responded.
“Huh, life is what it is. Good enough. I guess.” He seemed to be watching me.
“I know. These new recruits seem promising. Several of them are very good.” I observed, watching them closely from a distance.
“They might make it. Hope there’s some good fighters. We’ve lost too many recently.”
Both of us were thinking about the night we attacked the caravan. Thirty soldiers lost to capture. Seventeen dead. And dozens injured, still in recovery and rehab.
“Mal, do you think they are getting enough training? Is there more we could be doing?” I asked, certain of his answer.
“We could always be doing more. Rifle training isn’t enough. The collision course is decent. But they will be too green when we go out in a few days. Many of them have no combat experience at all. This next attack is crucial. We still need more men.”
I figured he felt that way. Mal always thought we did too little to train new people. He hated to lose soldiers. It always hit him hard.
“Do you have any ideas? Maybe we should take a small squad and try some of the outlying cities again. There have to be more survivors. People are out there who are hungry and need protection from the militia.”
“Right. But Darren isn’t going to let you go off on some recruiting expedition, you know.” He winked at me.
“Huh? What do you mean? I can go wherever I want Mal.” My voice became high pitched in agitation. I almost squeaked like a little mouse.
He started laughing and put his arm around me. “You are so innocent Hun. Darren is in love with you and he is our leader. He makes the rules. You aren’t going anywhere.” His eyes were shining with mischief. I ignored it. “He’s not letting you step foot off this base without him.”
That pissed me off. “Wanna bet? Let’s go find him right now. I’m heading this thing up and you’re coming with me…please?”
He laughed out loud again. “Sure, honey, you lead the way.”
We left the recruits with Diva and found Darren in his room. He was pouring over maps, his desk and a large table were covered with them, scattered in multiple layers. He nodded when we came in.
“Hi guys. How were the recruits coming along this morning?” He didn’t look up.
“Not good Darren. A few of them will be ok but most of them are not good shots and will not be enough help when we head out in a few days. They need more practice. And we need more men.” I informed him.
“Don’t worry Lizzie. There are a few more coming from Ridgeway tomorrow and in the heat of battle people perform better than you think,” he responded, still pouring over the maps.
He wasn’t really listening, just placating me. Did he ever listen to my opinion?
It irritated me. “Darren, I think it is worth a try to reach some of the outlying cities again. I think we should take a small squad of people and go as soon as possible. People are out there who want revenge on the militia. We just need to look.”
“I agree. Good observation Lizzie.”
I raised an eyebrow. He was listening? He agreed?
“I’m glad to hear you say so. I plan on heading out this afternoon. Mal offered to help and I’m going to ask Diva and Big Dog. We might be gone a couple of days but we’ll be back in time for the raid.”
Darren finally looked up and stopped what he was doing. He looked at Mal.
“Did you agree to this?” He asked, suspicious.
Mal grinned. “She’s quite persuasive and too damn cute to refuse. I’m just a softie Boss.”
Darren folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t think this is a good idea right now Lizzie. You can indulge yourself on a rescue mission next week or on the last Friday of the month if you wish but leaving today is out of the question.”
I stared at him, becoming angrier by the second. They both looked at me, awaiting my reaction. I decided right then and there that I was going, with or without his permission. Let him try and stop me. He must have seen my decision on my face because what he said next made me so angry I saw red.
“You are not going Lizzie, by yourself or with anyone else. If you try to leave it will be an act of desertion. I will have you thrown in the brig. Do you understand?” He threatened.
“Yes, I do. Tell me Darren, when exactly did this become a dictatorship? I thought we were fighting for freedom. I thought the militia was our enemy. I guess I was wrong. Throw me in the brig then. I friggin dare you. I’m leaving this hell hole as soon as I get the chance!” I fumed, stomping out of his room.
I could hear Mal talking to him, trying to calm him down. Darren sounded upset, clearly tortured by my words. I was furious and didn’t care at the moment. I thought about leaving right then and there. I could try to find Alec. It could work. Maybe. But I wasn’t that stupid or desperate enough to try. Not yet.
I went to my bunk, stripping off clothing and changing into my bathing suit. I grabbed a towel and headed to the pool. I dove in right away, clearing the water in a wide arc, and started swimming laps. I lost count of how many I did. I kept swimming until I was so tired I couldn’t keep going.
Anger still vibrated from me. I jumped out and headed to the showers, starving and ready for chow. I stayed in the hot water a long time, letting it ease the tension in my back. I washed my hair, put in conditioner and decided to shave my legs. When I was done, I wrapped the towel around me and tucked it in under my armpits.
I stood in front of the mirror, wiping away the steam so I could see my reflection. With mechanical repetition I brushed through my hair slowly. I was incredibly angry with Darren. Furious. Seething. It was going to take a lot to make this up to me. How dare he order me around and threaten me? Who the hell did he think he was anyway? Dictator Darren. I huffed my breath, deciding to give him the silent treatment until he apologized.
I got dressed and walked to the pit, my hair down for once, drying in the air. The pit was packed to bursting today, noisy and familiar. The busy crowd and smiling faces felt like home. I walked in and grabbed a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs and peas. There was even garlic bread. Score. Another good meal.
I sat down next to Diva and Mal. Big Dog joined us and we started eating. The four of us downed that spaghetti like it was the last time we would eat. It was that good. I noticed Mal watching me. I looked at him and smiled widely, then narrowed my eyes. He laughed so hard he almost fell off the bench.
“What’s so funny Slug?” Diva asked.
“Someone had an interesting day. Seems our leader got more than he bargained for today. A very determined woman.” He chuckled again.
“Woman? Ah, our leader needs a woman to warm his bed. Might make him relax a little.” Big Dog announced.
I didn’t say anything. Diva and Mal glanced at me.
“He has his eye on someone but I don’t think she returns his affection. Pity. I might have to make a move on him myself. Diva love is hard to turn down,” she told us, shaking her chest. The motion sent her breasts rocking back and forth, since she was quite well endowed.
Mal did fall off the bench in laughter this time. Big Dog nearly choked on a meatball and then laughed loudly. Even I laughed, thinking how she would look trying to seduce him. The hilarity was short lived.
Darren walked into the pit amid our laughter, looking around until he saw me. I ignored him and looked down at my food, pretending to eat. My appetite was suddenly gone. I excused myself from the others and dumped my half eaten tray, chewing on garlic bread as I headed back to the bunks.
I needed to talk to someone. A confidant. Out of all the friends I had here, Mal was the closest. We had been through a lot together, stayed close to each other despite the craziness of the situation we lived in, and even saved each other’s lives more than once. Whenever I felt lonely or scared, I would seek him out. Whether I needed to talk, cry, or sit in silence he was always there for me. Tonight was no different.
I found him cleaning guns alone by lamplight. His tall lanky frame towered over the tables spread with dozens of firearms. Methodically he checked each and every one. If a weapon backfired and caused injury to a recruit, it would not be because of his carelessness.
He must have sensed my presence in the room with him.
“I wondered if I would see you tonight.”
I sat down next to him, propping myself up on a barstool. Absently I kicked at one of the legs, lost in thought.
“You know…I think you are much harder on yourself than you need to be.” His voice was soft, reaching out to me in the darkness.
He continued cleaning gun pieces, pausing here and there to look at them closely in the light. He blew down the barrel of a gun, sticking the cloth inside to scrape out residue.
“Mal…do you ever want to just get away?” I asked, watching his reaction as I spoke.
He seemed almost startled but quickly composed himself.
“How do you mean Lizzie?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes, especially lately, I feel like I need to leave.”
He set the gun parts down and turned to me. Silently he walked over to the stool and slipped his arm around me. I leaned against his chest, feeling safe and warm. I always felt like he was the big brother I never got a chance to have.
“I think I would go bat shit crazy without you here. But I understand what you are saying, more than you know.”
I hugged him tighter. “You’re the only person keeping me here Mal.”
“You know I am always here for you. Whatever you need.”
Tears filled my eyes. “I know Mal. Thank you.”
He picked me up and set me down on the table so we were eye level. His hands lowered and planted firmly on either side of me as he leaned close.
“Do you know that? Really? Because there isn’t anything in this whole wide world I would not do for you.”
I swallowed, searching his face. One lone tear fell down my cheek. Carefully he caught it with his finger and brushed it away.
“You are the most important person in my life Lizzie,” he whispered.
“Mal, I…” I couldn’t finish.
The tears fell freely after that. Frustration. Anger. All the pent up emotion dealing with Darren. It all came pouring out. I shook my head, unable to stop it. My head fell forward against his chest and I grabbed the material of his shirt, twisting it in my fingers but hardly noticed. I felt his arms wrap around me, strong and protective.
Mal let me cry, watching my face, and rubbing my back. When I was done, he pulled me close again. I stayed in his arms a long time.
“Mal, you’re one of the best people I know. I love you for all that you do and everything you are. I can’t thank you enough…for always being there for me.”
He didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence because I put my finger against his lips. I leaned back and looked into his eyes. They burned a brilliant blue. I laid my palm against his cheek before kissing him softly, my lips brushing the stubble on his face. Surprise made him jump slightly but then he smiled.
“All you have to do is say the word,” he whispered.
I knew. If I asked him to leave, he would come with me. “I know.”
Later he walked with me back to the bunkhouse and said goodnight. I could always trust Mal. His friendship was one of the greatest of my life.
The next morning I lay in my bunk, still angry, and even more frustrated, by Darren’s threats. I wanted to leave. I needed to leave. We needed more men, more fighters. I could ask Big Dog and Diva but they would not leave without his permission. It only left Mal to accompany me. I was uncertain if he would agree but I made the decision and calculated the risk.
At dinner, I pulled him aside, dragging him into a nearby shower house that was empty.
“Mal, I’m leaving tonight. I want to go on that mission and see if we can find new recruits. We’ll only be gone a couple of days but I can’t go alone.”
He sighed. “No, you most certainly cannot.”
I leaned forward and hugged him around his torso. “Please come with me.”
“I’m certain I will regret this.” His arms hugged me tight for a moment and then released. “When do we leave?”
“Tonight, after last call. Everyone will be asleep and we can sneak out through the back gate. The guards have a poker match. I doubt it will be difficult to slip passed them.”
Mal shook his head. “You are entirely too observant.”
We loaded our backpacks, filling them with rations and a change of clothing. I clipped my canteen and bedroll, added a second canteen, and hoisted it onto my back. Mal was even more heavily packed than I was.