“You know,” she says, “it wouldn't be so hard if they didn't both love you so much. If it weren't always about you. Even growing up, it was always about Mary.”
“That's not true,” I say. But my words don't sound convincing for I am too empty to put up much protest.
“Oh, it is true,” she says. Her tone is light, contemplative, not angry. “Growing up, Travis always wanted to hear your stories. He wanted to know what your mother told you and you passed on to me. Harry wanted to know what you liked and didn't like. Always it was about you. What you wanted. What you knew.”
“I'm sorry,” I tell her. Because I don't know what else to say.
She shrugs. “I don't say it to pick a fight,” she says. “I just want you to understand me. Understand why I've changed. Why we've all changed. I guess I just want you to be my best friend again—but that can't happen if I'm angry at you and you pretend I don't exist.”
“I've never pretended you don't exist,” I answer.
She laughs, almost like breathing. “I don't blame you, but there was once a time when I would have come first with you, when I would have been more important to you than anything or anyone else. And when I no longer came first I got angry. Because not only had I lost Travis and Harry when they both fell in love with you, I lost you as well. Even before the breach. And it wasn't until I found Jacob that I understood. Because he comes first with me now.”
I still don't know what to say to her.
“I guess I'm trying to forgive you. And I'm telling you that I no longer care about Harry and Travis and all of that. I only care about Jacob and making sure he has a full life. That he can grow up and find his way in this world. Jacob is like a son to me now and all I have ever wanted was a family.” She shrugs. “Now that I have him everything with Harry and Travis seems meaningless. A useless waste of emotion.”
I lie back against the platform, feeling the sun-warmed wood through my clothes. Large white puffy clouds slip through the blue sky, going along their way as if nothing has changed in the world underneath. As if the world is anything other than death and decay and pain.
“It's just that sometimes when there's not much hope in the world it seems time to put things right,” she says.
“There's still hope left,” I say. “They're working on a plan.” I try to find shapes in the clouds but everything eludes me.
She laughs again. “You mean their plan to wait it out until winter and try to sneak to the fences? I don't put much faith in that. I think this will likely be the end of us, up here in the platforms.”
The Cass I knew growing up was not so pragmatic. This world has changed us all, forced us to make terrible decisions when we weren't ready.
“I'm not willing to give up hope,” I say eventually. “And I will not give up the ocean.”
“I figured that would be the case,” she says. “But I just wanted to make sure you know that if it comes between you and your dream of the ocean and keeping Jacob safe, I will choose Jacob.”
“I know,” I tell her. And then after a little while I add, “You make an excellent mother, Cass.” I want to add that it's my hope we'll find a way out of here, find a safe place where she can get married and have a big family. But I don't. Instead, I ask her if she wants to join me in finding shapes in the clouds and we spend the afternoon side by side looking at the sky as if the world around us is not as it has always been.
I'm startled awake and I throw my arms out to the side, hands reaching across the sheets for Travis or Harry—anyone. But I'm alone and each breath sears into my lungs as I struggle to remember what broke me from my dreams.
I hear the word again and then it's my brother in the doorway, Jacob slung over his shoulder, and I realize that he's hazy, the world is hazy, and that's when I begin coughing.
“Mary, you have to come now,” he says and then the doorway is empty, tendrils of smoke curling in his wake as if they too are disturbed by the nighttime commotion.
With a hand holding my shirt over my mouth I step from the bed and let my bare feet slip over the floor, looking for obstacles. Someone grabs me as I near the door and yanks me into the fresh air and before I have time to orient myself I'm pulled down to the platforms, where I see the others huddled.
At my back I can feel the blaze, the hungry flames that are consuming our refuge bite by bite. Tearing through the other houses in the trees, growing bright as they eat away at the supplies and race along branches.
We are all at the edge of the platform where I spent the afternoon cloud-gazing with Cass. She's now trying to hold Jacob, who is shuddering, sobbing and apologizing. Jed, Harry and Travis all stand with their sleeves rolled up, their foreheads glistening with sweat as they stare back at the flames.
The air is so dry it crackles, drowning out the moans of the Unconsecrated.
We are trapped, fatally so. Beyond us is nothing—the wide stretch of village below with puddles of Unconsecrated. Behind us is the fire, slowly eating its way down the long platforms.
Every now and again flames drop like liquid onto the Unconsecrated, which become walking furnaces lighting each other ablaze, spreading the inferno to the structures in the village.
“Maybe the flames will kill them all and then we can escape,” Cass says, her chin resting on Jacob's convulsing body.
The men don't answer. Instead, they stand frozen, as if action would be too risky. I can already see blisters spreading across Jed's right arm.
Our world is filled with heat and light and finally Travis says so softly that his words are almost drowned, “One of us will have to get through them. One of us will have to go to the path to tie off the rope. We have to get off the platforms and onto that path.”
Cass squeezes Jacob, slipping her hands over his ears as Jed and Harry nod.
“And it can't be you,” Harry says to Travis, “because of your leg.” I roll his words around in my head, searching for the accusation, but I don't find it.
“I could go,” I whisper. I wait for their objections, pray for them, and after too many heartbeats they come. Simple, straightforward.
“No, you won't go,” they say. “It will be one of us.”
Jed and Harry don't look at each other as they contemplate which one of them will sacrifice himself for the rest of us.
“I can at least get the rope,” Travis mumbles as he hobbles back down the platform, back toward the fire that grows ever closer.
Jed places his arm over Harry's shoulder and Harry places his arm around Jed's waist and they walk a distance away, bending their heads together.
They look as if they're in prayer and I wonder if this is all my fault because I stopped believing in God so many months ago. I wonder if I gave up my belief in the ocean, if I gave up Travis, if I gave up everything that stood in the way of me and God—if I could save us.
If I could save them.
Travis slips around Jed and Harry huddled together and kneels awkwardly at the edge of the platform closest to the Forest of Hands and Teeth and the path that could be our salvation.
I crawl over next to him and help him tie the knots.
“I don't understand how this will work,” I tell him, my fingers shaking and fumbling.
“It will work the same way it worked to get us over here. But someone will have to be on the other side to tie off the rope,” he says.
He places his hands over mine, the feeling so warm and familiar. “Those days back there, in the house. That is my world. That is my truth,” he says. “That is my ocean.”
In his eyes I can see the jumble of words that roll through his heart and when he opens his mouth he says only, “I wish I could have kept you safe.”
He trails his finger across my lips and then stands to take the rope to Harry and Jed, to prepare them for the crossing.
My legs buckle until I'm no longer kneeling and before I understand what's happening a figure runs past me, his steps uneven, and launches from the edge of the platform, flying out over the ring of Unconsecrated below us and landing with a thud and a roll. In each hand he carries a blade, the firelight glancing off the metal.
He recovers, stands and then begins to stumble toward the Forest, toward the gate and the path, my brightly colored braided rope tied around his waist and trailing out behind him.
At first he's alone and the Unconsecrated don't notice his presence. But then they move toward him. They sense him, crave him.
“Noooo!” I yell as I crawl forward and grasp the edge of the platform, as if I can take the braid in my hands and yank him back to safety.
The sobs tear at my body but I don't let them out. Instead, prayers rush from my lips as I repeat over and over and over again, “Please, please, please, please.”
He stumbles, he falls, he gets up but he can't keep up the pace of the sprint. His leg is too weak. His gait is too lopsided. His body is too broken.
“Please, please, please, please …”
The Unconsecrated reach for him, their fingers pulling at him, their feet stumbling across the braided rope. He's constantly yanked back, brought to his knees as the rope is pulled tight.
“Please please please please …”
I can hear him yell when the first one reaches him. He lashes out at them but there are too many. He embeds a blade in one and before he can pull it free he's pushed back, stumbling. I can see the blood spread out against his shirt. My brother begins to tug at my shoulder, trying to pry me away from the sight, but all I know is that as long as I don't take my eyes off Travis he'll be okay and will make it to the fences unharmed, uninfected.
He stumbles again and the Unconsecrated begin to pile on top of him.
“Please, please, please.” I fill every word with my life, willing to trade mine for his.
An arrow whizzes past my head and then another and another and another. Each piercing a different Unconsecrated. They begin to fall and finally Travis emerges from underneath the pile, stumbling toward the gate.
Harry stands behind me, his crossbow a blur of action, his cheeks pale and wet but his aim determined and true. Leaving me, Jed goes to his side, takes up a second crossbow, and together they begin to fell the mass of Unconsecrated.
Joy erupts inside me, belief and salvation so pure I feel as if light pours from every inch of my body.
For a moment, for one exquisite and blinding moment, I have complete and utter faith that Travis will make it to the fences unharmed. That we'll live and that I will see what's beyond the Forest. That I will see the ocean. I squeeze my eyes shut, hoping to contain the feeling.
And that's when Travis falls again. That's when his screams reach my ears and I crumble, my arms no longer strong enough to hold up my empty body.
“Please,” I whisper one last time. Travis stands, staggers, reaches the fence and throws open the gate. A few Unconsecrated follow him through before he can get it closed but Harry and Jed dispatch them in short order, one arrow after another bringing them down.
Travis is finally alone and safe. Blood covers his clothes and even from here I see his chest heaving. And then he raises a hand and waves and I feel the shudder of the platform as Harry and Jed fall to their knees behind me.
“No,” I whisper, unwilling to accept any of this.
It takes him ten tries before he's able to lob the end of his braided rope up and over the solid branch of a large tree growing beside the path.
We feel the flames growing stronger at our backs as he begins to pull the rope across the void.
As one we hold our breath. The heat sears us. Argos whimpers and Jacob shudders as the thick rope inches across until finally Travis pulls it tight and ties it off.
It sways back and forth. Our salvation. Travis collapses against the tree and before anyone can stop me I heave my legs over the rope, cross my ankles and begin to pull myself hand over hand away from the burning platforms. I hear Harry call my name, I feel him reach for my feet, but I lash out, refusing to be brought back.
“It's not safe yet!” Harry calls out. “You should let one of us go first, just in case!”
I shake my head. Concentrating on one hand and then the other. Ignoring the burning skin under my knees.
“You don't even have a safety rope!” he yells out.
I grasp the rope tighter and let my head fall back just a bit so that I can see Travis, my world upside down. He is leaning against the tree and slowly, as I watch, his head slumps to his chest.
“No!” I yell.
“You don't even have a weapon if he turns!” Harry shouts.
But I don't let their words distract me—I concentrate only on one hand in front of the other. The strain in my muscles. The rope splitting through my flesh. I focus on Travis and my need to touch him, to feel him, to heal him.
When I reach the other side I let my legs drop, blood beginning to pool back into my feet. I am facing the platform, Jed and Harry and Cass and Jacob highlighted by the flames.
I look down, my neck straining between my arms. To my left is the Forest of Hands and Teeth, where the Unconsecrated are beginning to gather, beginning to shamble toward us. To my right is the path leading into the darkness.
Directly below me is Travis, his body bloody, his arms up-stretched, and I am suddenly paralyzed with fear. Fear of the way he stands, the way he reaches for me, the way the blood cakes on his skin, the way he waits below—as if to devour me.
My mouth opens to scream but no sound comes out. I am hanging by my hands, my body heavy, and it's hard to breathe. I feel my fingers begin to slip, the blood from the rope digging into my skin making my flesh slick. I try to regain my grip, to heave my legs back up, but my arms are too tired. My muscles shake with the effort of just hanging and I'm angry at my haste in not allowing Harry to wrap a harness around me.