The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Page 26


Finally, my braided strips run out and the heavy rope begins to make its way across the divide between us. My body trembles in fear as I watch it span the gap and I constantly measure the amount left on the porch and how much space is left to cover.

I almost weep with relief when Harry grasps the thick rope and begins to wind it around a sturdy branch in their tree. Travis pulls his end taut and ties it off on a beam in the attic. The floor shudders beneath us with such force that I am forced to grab Travis to keep from losing my balance.

Glancing inside, I can see the trapdoor straining, Argos skittering around it, barking and growling. We're running out of time.

Chapter 28

Not wasting a moment, Travis dashes back into the attic. I hear crashing as he turns over and empties a large barrel once filled with flour, a cloud of fine powder shrouding him from view. He hauls the barrel out to the edge of the platform, his entire body now lightly dusted white. I want to laugh at his ghostly-pale appearance but his skin looks the color of death.

The color of the Unconsecrated.

I slip my hand over his and squeeze it. He tries to smile in return.

As I convince Argos to jump into the barrel Travis uses extra rope to make a sling around it, attaching it to the line spanning out to the platforms so that the barrel can travel from our porch to theirs. Argos whimpers, claws at the sides, and it's everything I can do to keep him from jumping out.

“You must go with him,” Travis tells me.

“But what about you?”

“Please, Mary, don't argue. Please do this for me.” Sweat beads in the flour dust on his face and I can see how rigid his muscles are. How scared he is. And so I nod my head and crawl into the barrel, holding the squirming Argos to my chest.

“Duck,” Travis shouts to me and I pull my head into the barrel just before hearing a loud thunk. I inch my eyes over the rim and see an arrow sticking out of the barrel where my head had been moments before. Argos lets out a deep bark as if offended by Harry's terrible aim. Tied to the arrow is the rope I had braided and Travis tucks it into my palm, the other end stretched to the platform.

“Hold on tightly,” he says and then he pushes the barrel off the porch and we are swinging in the air before I have a chance to scream or protest or kiss him good-bye. I have to fight against Argos as he kicks and whines and scrabbles against me. I almost lose my grasp as Harry tugs on the braided rope, pulling us across the divide.

When we get to the other side Harry lifts me from the barrel and Argos skitters around us, sending up puffs of flour with every step. I'm still coughing, great shudders that rack my entire body, when I hear Cass gasp as she looks at the house I just came from.

I turn to look. Travis is pulling himself onto the rope, awkward and ungainly.

He struggles to wrap his bad leg around it for support and then slips, both legs falling from it so that he's only holding on with his arms.

And then his fingers slip and he falls back to the porch. He wipes his palms on his pants, clouds of flour appearing.

“We need to send the barrel over,” I say.

“There's no time,” Jed says.

Even from here, on the edge of our platform, I can hear the insistency of the Unconsecrated as they bang through the walls of what used to be our sanctuary. I watch as Travis glances over his shoulder and I can see the color drain from his face and his whole body shudder.

My throat closes as he reaches a hand to the rope, as he wraps his fingers around it for a second time.

Harry grabs my shoulders, as if to comfort me or to protect me or to hold me up, and I want to shrug him away as an unnecessary distraction, as something that pulls me from the task at hand which is to focus all my attention on Travis as if I can will him across.

He stumbles and instantly he is dangling out over the space, his two legs kicking and spinning. Behind him the Unconsecrated emerge from the door of the attic, pushing their way out onto the porch. Travis bites his lip and I feel as if we are holding the same breath.

One of the Unconsecrated—a young woman with orange-red hair—reaches for Travis as he dangles like bait. She steps off the porch in her attempt to get to him and her hands slide down his legs and catch on his feet and suddenly Travis is holding on to the rope with only one hand.

The Unconsecrated woman pulls herself up, her face closer and closer to Travis's foot. Already I can see pricks of blood where her jagged fingernails sink into his flesh. Her mouth grows closer. His fingers slip, a few already dangling free.

I feel myself jolt and move to the rope. I want to scream but it's trapped in my throat, strangling me. Blood begins to drip over the Unconsecrated woman's hands, making her grip slick, causing her to double her efforts.

Another Unconsecrated lunges at Travis and he too falls from the porch, dislodging the woman who was already dangling from Travis's foot. With his newfound lightness Travis swings his body forward and wraps both legs around the rope. He lets his head drop back just a bit and I know that he faces the horde of Unconsecrated just a little more than an arm's length away.

“Move,” I want to yell but again I'm silent. I can feel Jed and Harry noiselessly chant the same word.

With one hand and then another Travis eases his way toward us. The moaning of the Unconsecrated fills us, washes over us all as the rope dips from his weight, dropping him closer to the hordes beneath him.

I realize that the barrel carrying both Argos and me was too much weight. We must have loosened the knots or overstrained the fibers of the rope.

The world is too bright at that moment, the light of a dying day, the sun sharp in my eyes as I watch Travis make his way to our platform.

The rope dips lower, strains under his weight, and suddenly there's a new sound. A popping as the old rope begins to unravel.

I move forward but Harry's hands hold me back. “There is nothing we can do,” he says but I shrug him off.

I slide to the edge of the platform, snaking forward on my stomach until I am as far out over the void as I dare.

“Travis,” I call out. “Travis, you must hurry.”

He shakes his head, his hands now frozen. One of the Unconsecrated stumbles out of the attic, onto the porch and lunges for him. As he falls he hits the rope, sending it swaying and causing even more popping sounds.

The rope dips even lower, impossibly low. The Unconsecrated beneath Travis are in a frenzy now. Straining up, their fingers seeming to grow closer to him with each breath.

“Travis, you have to listen to me.” He shakes his head again. I can feel the tears choking my words, closing my throat.

“The rope is snapping,” Jed says to me, his voice soft so that Travis can't hear. “He won't make it.”

“Mary, you shouldn't watch this.” It's Harry, his voice low, a gentle murmur as he comes to stand over me.

“No, I will not leave him!” I stand and take the rope in my hands as if I can pull him back, lift him up away from the horde below.

The rope quivers under my grasp, vibrations from Travis's jumping muscles echoing through every strand. I want to close my eyes and push myself to Travis, to be there by his side and pull him back myself.

But I know that it would be useless for me to go after him. The rope would snap under our combined weight and we would both die.

I look out at him, trembling like bait cast out in the water. “Travis.” My voice still thrums like a growl, not allowing any dissent. “Travis, you will listen to me! Forget about the Unconsecrated, forget about the rope. Forget about everything but my voice. Close your eyes and listen to my voice.”

He doesn't do what I tell him to do and I snap at the line with my fingers. “Do it!” I yell louder than I have ever yelled in my life.

His eyes immediately close. “Now, I want you to reach out toward me and grab the rope.” I watch as his hands slowly begin to move. Infinitesimally at first and then with more confidence.

“Yes, good job, keep coming,” I reassure him as he moves his other hand closer to us. The rope begins to sway with his movement and under my own fingers I can feel it give just a little as more fibers unravel, as it loses more tension.

“Faster, Travis. Move a little faster.” He's sweating now but he nods his head and soon he's pulling himself up the valley of the line.

The Unconsecrated are in a fervor beneath him as blood slides from his ankle, down his calf and drips from his knee. The moans are a physical force rolling over us all but still Travis moves closer.

Behind me I can feel the tension in Harry and Jed as they watch, as they chant Travis forward under their breaths, afraid of voicing their hope and breaking his concentration.

“Help him!” I say to them and they move as one to where the rope crests the platform and they are there when Travis comes within reach.

Finally, Travis is safe on our side of the chasm and I collapse from the lightness of it all.

Chapter 29

It's dark when I wake up. I am alone in a bed, piles of covers almost suffocating me. I start to fight my way through them when I feel fingers caress my cheek. I close my eyes against the familiar sensation.

“You made it,” I whisper, raising my hand to cover his. I feel my body sink back into the bed with relief.

And then I remember. “Your leg,” I say, struggling to sit up.

He pushes against my shoulder, his touch light but insistent, pushing me back into my warm nest of blankets. But I resist and stay seated. “It's fine,” he assures me. “A few scratches.” He chuckles under his breath. “She had nails, sharp nails.”

In the dim light I watch as he shakes the memory out of his head. His face looks a little drawn, his eyes tight with a twinge of desperation.

“But you made it,” I tell him.

“I did,” he says.

For a moment we are silent. Listening to the world as it wakes up. To the moans of the Unconsecrated below.

“How long will we last here?” I finally ask.

He shrugs. He holds his hands limp in his lap now. “They've been talking about rigging the same system that we used to get here to get us to another path. To leave the village and escape these platforms.” He stops, rises from the edge of the bed, looks out the window. “But there has to be someone on the other side for it to work.”

He turns back to me. “One of us would have to get to the Forest. Would have to be there to tie off the rope.”

“But how? How could any of us get there? It's too far to the fence, there are too many…”

The rest of the sentence hangs in the air between us. Travis doesn't nod or say anything but rather pulls a chair from the wall to the side of the bed, its legs scraping over the wood of the platforms. He sits, crosses one leg over the other. I notice that he has a strip of cloth wrapped around his left ankle that he tugs at absentmindedly

“When?” I ask. “When will they try it?”

He still doesn't meet my gaze. Instead, his eyes seem to drift around the room, to see everything but me.

“Right now the idea is to wait until winter. Hope that it's a harsh one that will slow or freeze the Unconsecrated. Jed and Harry have taken stock of the supplies. So long as we have enough rain to fill the water barrels we should be able to last until then.”

“Months,” I say under my breath.

“Yes, it would be a long wait,” he says. Again he tugs at the bandage around his ankle as if it's too tight and I reach out a hand to cover his. The muscles in his arm twitch at the touch.

“I wonder what that means for the two of us,” I say. He doesn't answer. His flesh feels cold under mine, empty. He still isn't looking at me and I pull back from him, tugging the covers around my shoulders.

Something isn't right between Travis and me. Something has changed but I don't know what it is yet.

“Tell me,” I whisper. Fearing the worst.

He shifts in his chair and I see him wince as he places his bandaged foot back on the floor. He stands, paces to the window and then back to the chair.

“Yesterday all I could think about was saving you. Saving us.” He pauses as if trying to figure out what to say, how to order his thoughts into words.

“It was only yesterday?” I ask. He smiles, breaking the tension for a moment.

“Mary,” he continues, “when I saw you in that hallway with the Unconsecrated pouring over you …” He shakes his head as if to dislodge the memory. “A part of me wanted to die at that moment. To switch places with you so that you would survive, so that you would make it.”

He grasps the back of the chair and his knuckles begin to turn white.

“I realized something then, Mary.” He loosens his grip, drums his fingers against the wood. He paces back to the window as if trying to postpone what he'll say next. I pull my knees to my chest, trying to prepare myself for anything.

“I haven't been fair to you,” he finally says. My skin tingles; every sense sharpens. I can hear the way he breathes, the air entering his lungs, his heart pumping in his chest. I can still smell his fear.

“I should have told you earlier what Gabrielle told me. About the ocean.” He looks at me now, his eyes pained and pleading. It's as though everything around me drops away until it's only Travis and me, together in this tiny room high up in the trees.

“What do you mean?” I ask and my voice feels small in my ears. My heart pounds ferociously now. “You told me she said nothing to you. That you didn't talk.”

He taps one finger against the wood framing the open window. A morning breeze lifts his hair for a moment, circles the room and then slips away. He closes his eyes as if to savor the feel of fresh air on stale skin.

“Gabrielle had been to the ocean,” he finally says.

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