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Kelly and Betsy poured out of the tent. Betsy immediately spotted Denny, and ran towards him. The top of his head was hanging by a flap of scalp. She froze, as Kelly knelt by him to check for a pulse.
“Goddamnit,” she said. “Why did you do this?”
“Your dumb, dead friend had a theory,” the detective taunted from the treeline. “It didn't pan out. Get it? Like a brain pan? Heh. I crack me up.”
“Damnit,” Betsy whispered, hot tears pouring from her eyes.
“What?” Kelly asked.
“I, fuck, blamed him. I was pissed. But I didn't want-”
“Shh,” Kelly said, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman. “This isn't your fault.”
“We're all fragile. And I was pushing on him so hard.”
“Not as hard as that prick,” Kelly said, glaring at the trees where the detective's voice had last emanated from. “And we're all stressed, too. I think, under the circumstances, we all deserve a get out of shitty behavior card.”
“He's dead, Kel. There's no forgiveness for that.”
“We, we need to get out of here,” Lark said, balancing herself precariously against the entrance to the tent. “No use, waiting for a sunrise that isn't coming.”
Betsy pushed herself off of Kelly, and helped Lark sit on one of the rocks near the dying campfire. “She's right,” Betsy said putting her hand supportively on Lark's back. “There's nothing left for us here.” Her hand came back bloody, and she winced. “And she's bleeding through her bandage. She needs real help.”
“Right,” Kelly said. “Lark, you should rest, maybe eat something. We'll gather up whatever supplies we can carry.”
“And pack light, no more than a backpack each. Sure, we can jettison stuff we don't need along the way, but we can't get back the energy we burnt through carrying it.”
Betsy went to the tent she was supposed to share with Angel. It was his tent, and smelled like his body spray. They'd been together long enough they bought sleeping bags that they could zip together.
She upended his backpack. Power bars and energy drinks dropped out, along with various survival tools, knives, a compass. And something she didn't recognize, a small box, plain and black with hard edges. She opened it, without any idea what she'd find inside.
Despite the box's outward lack of ornate decoration, the interior was covered in a lush, velvety purple. But it wasn't her favorite color that caught her eye, but a small ring held in a circular groove. “You goddamned fucker,” she said, her eyes filling again with molten hot tears. They'd been together for years, but she never expected... not even when he took her to the jewelry store to get her sized for a chintzy heart-shaped ring for Valentine's Day.
She wished she'd never seen it. But she couldn't go back, just like she couldn't go back to the world, where Angel was still alive. So for a moment she pretended she was there, that his hand was holding hers, and slid the ring over her finger. It fit, better even than the Valentine's mislead ring had. “I would have,” she said.
She refilled the bag, making sure the knives and compass were easily accessible, and adding in painkillers, bug spray and sunscreen from her own effects. Angel's bag had a rack for a sleeping bag. She rolled up their twin bags into one bundle; if they needed to stop to rest, being able to share one bag and body heat meant they wouldn't have to pack as many layers of clothes. Then she put on her sweater and her coat, in case it rained.
Kelly and Lark were already waiting. Lark had cooked eggs and some bacon, and they ate quietly. “You were supposed to rest,” Betsy said, taking Lark's plate. Lark's eyes lingered on the ring.
“What she means,” Kelly said, “was thanks for breakfast.”
“Yes. Thanks,” Betsy said. Lark nodded from Kelly to the ring, and her eyes got wide, too. “It was in Angel's stuff.”
“Shit,” Kelly said, swallowing. “It's beautiful.”
“Did you, know?”
Kelly furrowed her brow. “Makes sense; he asked a few dumb questions, right before the trip. Like, what your favorite wine was, or trying to figure out which of your songs was really your song.”
“And why he asked me to bring my Bluetooth speakers,” Lark added. “He said it was to connect to his phone, I figured he wanted music for the drive.”
“I wish we could carry them out,” Betsy said.
“We'll come back for them,” Kelly said, trying to sound convincing.
“Yeah,” Betsy replied, not believing her. “We should head out.”
“We should,” Kelly agreed. “Which way?”
“I assumed the road.”
“But it's open,” Lark said, “so we'd be easy to track, and vulnerable to attack.”
“But we wouldn't get lost...” Perhaps it was the relative quiet, and the fact that the water lapping against the shore was the only sound they could hear, but Kelly and Betsy's eyes both became excited at the same time, and they said, “The river,” in unison.
“The lake was man-made,” Kelly said, “either a reservoir or back-up capacity for a dam.”
“And because rivers were the original highways in this country, most cities are on a waterway if one was available,” Betsy added. “So we'd get the cover of the trees, but without the likelihood of getting lost.”
“Unless the river splits,” Lark said. “You know, sometimes they shatter into a dozen little creeks, which might not be easy to ford in my condition.”
“Crap,” Kelly said. “It's never easy, is it?”
Lark shook her head. “Life's hard. Then you die.”
“That felt like a really crappy motivational poster,” Betsy said. “So we should vote. And I'll go first, because I suggested it, so I'll take the chance of being the odd woman out. I think Lark's right. River could be dicey. And as much as I'd rather have the ability for stealth- it cuts both ways, and those things would have cover, too. But mostly, I'd rather not get caught someplace where we'd have to risk Lark's health to keep going.”
“See, from where I'm standing going first was devious,” Kelly said. “You get to set the terms of the conversation, frame the opposite choice as disregarding Lark's health.”
“I'm pretty sure it's not okay to insinuate an Asian woman is sneaky,” Betsy said with a grin.
“Whatever. I vote river. If we're out in the open and vulnerable, Lark's more of a target, not less. And we can keep following the water wherever it leads; eventually it either meets up with another road or civilization- but one far enough away from here that we won't be easy to track anymore.”
“You both understand that I can express my own concerns, right?” Lark asked. “I'm not moving well. And that's the real problem with the road. If it becomes a sprint... but at least in the woods everybody is compromised, from the uneven terrain to branches and roots and obstructed view. And with even a little luck, we can sneak past our predators. River.”
“Crap. I was being devious,” Betsy said. “Trying to make it easier for either of you to take the 'weaker' path with me. It didn't work; might have even back-fired.”
“The world may never know,” Kelly said.
“Oh, I did find one more thing, chilling in the cooler.” She produced a bottle of wine from behind her bag. “My favorite. It's a chocolate dessert wine. It should help with some of the lesser pain from the night, all the fights. And might get us moving a little faster at first. It's heavy enough not to be worth carrying, so if you're going to drink it, you should drink some here.” She used Angel's pocket knife to open the bottle, then tipped it to Lark.
“No way, Bets,” she said. “First drink's yours.”
“Yeah,” Kelly agreed. Betsy upended the bottle, and as she drank a tear slid down her cheek.
Next she handed it to Lark. “To the three of us,” she said, “still fighting.”