When I saw this ruined house the first time, I thought we would settle here. I linger a little too long as we pass the old chimney. Anya grips my hand tighter and pulls me forward, back to the forest. Now that I know her—truly know her—I see that there will be no settling in our future. Her romance is a different kind. An ambitious one. I take one last look at the town and the wall of smoke mushrooming over it as it burns to ash. I feel no remorse for those animals. We step, together, into the trees and I relish in the clean decay of the forest. It cleanses my body of the acrid, living rot of the town.
“There’s something you need to see,” Anya says. Her breath drives puffs of white in the cold air. I agree.
We move tirelessly through the trees, and in time, I begin to catch flashes of my own of my trails—a branch I broke in a special way, a blaze on a trunk. The trees are familiar again. I know their names. I feel their hearts. Lilliput Creek babbles in the distance and the sound of it fills me with equals parts nostalgia and horror. I open my mouth to warn her of the awfulness that thrives there, but she already knows it. She takes a sharp angle away from the creek, and circles back to a heading toward my cabin.
We pause at the edge of the forest. My little home stands there in the clearing, timeless. A tower of lumber dwarfs the cabin. I step into the clearing, but Anya raises her arm and holds me back. She slips a hand against my cheek and guides my face to hers. We lock eyes.
“I need you to have courage now,” she says.
My heart races. Whether from the warning, or from her touch, I don’t know. I nod. I steel my face. I take another step. Something stops me again. Someone exits the cabin—a man. He hoists an axe over his shoulder. Powerful arms raise the axe and split a log with a single blow. The man positions another log and lifts his axe again. His blade lingers in the air. His eyes swing in our direction. I shrink back into the tree line and hide my body behind a large trunk.
Anya rests a hand on my shoulder. “This is still your home,” she says.
I wait until nightfall, and then until the orange flicker of candles in his cabin dies. I creep into the clearing—a hunter again. I move toe-to-heel. Winter-dead grass crunches underfoot between the thundering strokes my pulse. My eyes dart around the darkness. I hunker down as I move in against the cabin.
I pass by his chopping block. The man took his axe in with him. He’s no fool. I slide along the edge of the house toward the window. I peer in through it with the moon looming over my shoulder. Pale light washes over the face lying in my bed. I recoil. My legs fail. I grasp at the air and my hand finds a grip on something, but it gives way. I hit the ground and an entire cord of firewood tumbles down with me in slow motion.
Feet shuffle inside the cabin. The world snaps back into normal speed. Metal drags against the wooden floorboards in the cabin. I scramble to my feet and I run. Tears well in my eyes as my legs pump.
It was me.
I tear through the shrubs at the edge of the forest and charge deep into the woods until the trees swallow me. I plant a forearm against a stump and hunch while I suck in hoarse breaths.
Feet crunch through the leaf litter somewhere not far behind me. It’s a gait I know. My breath slows. I wipe the tears from my cheeks with the sleeve of my worn jacket. Anya rests her cheek against my back and wraps her arms around my torso. My stomach flutters.
“You did this to me,” I say.
“Yes,” she whispers.
I draw in a long breath through my nose to steady my nerves. “I starve. I nearly died of thirst. I suffered for so long.”
She presses her cheek in tight against my body. Her lips brush my skin through the thin fabric of my shirt. “No. You did not suffer. You sacrificed.” She places a hand on my shoulder and pulls me around to face her. Those angelic, unreadable eyes burn into mine. “You made this moment, now, possible. Your perseverance. What I had to do to you was terrible, but it kept us safe from something worse.”
My mouth moves like a fish stuck on land. No words escape. She moves in her closer to me. Her chest presses in tight against mine. The sweet smell of her body drifts into my nostrils. Our lips nearly touch.
“How long will he—will I—be trapped there?”
“That place is beyond time.”
The world behind her eyes is spinning. “I don’t understand. How can he be stuck there if I am here now?” I ask.
“You chose to be,” she says.
Her voice is bright like birdsong. A gentle smile tugs at her mouth.
“Can you accept this?” Anya asks.
I don’t understand it—and I don’t even know what questions could yield answers that might help—but she is happy I made the choice I did. I am here, with her. “Yes,” I say.
She smiles—the Anya I know from the clearing. She’s so much more than that, but she is still that person too.
“Let’s go. There’s more to do,” she says as I smile with her.