Chapter 1: The Outsider searches for the remedy for guilt
A sneak peak into my next novel releasing at the end of June! Painted on the Wall, The Partner Assignment (Book 2), will test Will and Aurora to their very limits.
Guilt can eat you alive.
Without further ado, read on!
Year 149, during the end of the world.
I’m shivering violently as we stare down at Officer Dilby’s grave. The wind and rain rip at our legs but at least the thunder and lightning has ceased. My shivering is a mixture of adrenaline, fear, and cold, in no particular order.
Trapped. We’re trapped in this situation together. Do secrets bond people or break them?
Will’s expression is unreadable. We’re still holding hands, grounding one another, attempting to absorb our shock. The evening went from an incredible journey to the top of the wall, to hiding from the Bernie-turned-dead-Cadaver and Officer Dilby-turned-living-Cadaver.
Then Will killed Officer Dilby. He shot him in the head with an arrow to save me.
This is when Officer Dilby’s eyes returned to their normal, human green colour, and we decided to bury the body. The City Council, the Protection, and President Maroon would never believe that he was actually a living Cadaver. They are obsessed with blaming every situation on the Outsider radicals within the city. Within this side of the wall.
Will would undoubtedly go to jail for murder if anyone found out.
We were taught that Cadavers were extinct, that the Outsiders beyond the wall are the threat, but the Cadavers never disappeared in the first place. After all this time, the world never actually stopped ending. It only took a vacation while the God of Fire figured out how to possess living souls to get beyond the wall protecting Oxbow City.
For all we know, the wall may be useless now.
Will moves first.
Sloshing through the mud wordlessly, he guides me back through the wet forest and to the path. I’m thankful that he’s here, that I’m not experiencing this alone. No matter what happens, I won’t survive my own thoughts if I let my mind wander. Letting myself think too much is scary. Isolating myself after the incident at the beach led to my depressive state. Will pulled me through that and now he’s pulling me through this, figuratively and literally.
I draw on him when I need strength. Stability. Dependability.
The path leading back to our campsite feels different. It’s the same path but perhaps we are different people now, on a different journey than before. We started as a couple sneaking to the wall, having innocent fun, and now we carry a hefty secret. A murder.
A justified murder, in self-defence, but a murder still.
I can tell Will regrets it. Maybe regret isn’t the right word, because he did say that some people are worth killing for, however I know he is shaken. He’s probably wondering how he could have acted differently to save everyone even though I’m certain there was no other way out of it. I’m not sure what to say. He’s always comforting me but I don’t know how to comfort him. He holds his bow in a white-knuckled grip. Trudging down the path through the rain, hands still joined, we finally break through the clearing to our campsite.
Will’s phone beeps violently, startling us, and he yanks it out of his pocket with a shaky hand. I had forgotten about the perimeter Will set up before we left. My initial thought is Mason and Tim. How long have we been gone? Will’s phone hasn’t made that alarm sound since we left, meaning there hasn’t been any activity in the area, and it appears unchanged. The horses sleep under the hut, tails twitching, and the walls of the tents concave with each gust of wind. We poke our heads into Mason and Tim’s tent, confirm two sleeping forms that are definitely breathing, and zip it shut again.
Entering our own tent, we stare at one another, wondering what our next move will be.
“Put some dry clothes on,” Will says emotionlessly. Lifelessly. “I’ll take watch outside the tents until sunrise, then were getting out the hell out of here.”
“You shouldn’t be out there alone. I can come with-”
“No. I’ll take watch and you get warm.”
My head is spinning. “Wait, just wait a second, okay? We should wrap your arm and stop the bleeding.”
It’s like I’ve jogged his memory that the dead Cadaver scratched him. Will nods and strips off his jacket mechanically, setting his weapons on the tent floor but still within reach. I’m digging through the bags for the first aid kit with shaky hands, fingers cold as ice. I wish I could move faster, make my joints nimble again but they’re just too frozen.
Finally, I’ve found the kit in one of our riding bags and I rip off my wet coat to avoid dripping all over the contents. How would this moment have played out if we hadn’t run into the Cadavers? I was on an emotional high after our kiss on the wall. I wish we could return to that moment, to that sensation of euphoria…
“Will?” I spin, clutching my exposed arms. My skin is riddled with goose bumps. My mouth gapes for a moment but I can’t find the words.
I hadn’t realized he changed into a sweatpants and hoodie already. “What is it?”
Concern is etched on his exhausted face. One side of his face is swollen, his cheek bone red, a purple and yellow ring forming around his eye where Officer Dilby kicked him. He’s rolled up his sleeve, exposing the scratches from the Cadaver still bleeding down his forearm. The blood is bright red with white puss leaking from the edges of the wounds.
It takes effort to hold back my revolted reaction. “Let me do it.” Guilt, a heavy, heavy guilt, settles in my stomach like a weight filling me up. I might never be able to eat again if it doesn’t subside. Is there a remedy for guilt?
One battery powered lamp is our only source of light, which sits above our sleeping bag.
He kneels on the sleeping bag and I follow suit. Pouring disinfectant on a small cloth, I grip his wrist and press it to the cuts. Will watches blankly, unflinchingly, and I worry that I’ve lost him.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumble as I work. “This is all my fault. I started this problem at the beach and now you’re hurt because of me and innocent people like Officer Dilby are possessed… and dead…”
Will watches as I finish cleaning the scratches and wrap his arm with gauze. Should I tell him that I’m grateful he killed Officer Dilby? It was an awful turn of events but it was him or me… right? Would that reassure him? What frightens me most in this moment is Will, who’s face is dull and tired. Where is my favourite lopsided grin? I’m desperate for some expression of normalcy, some kind of inappropriate joke to make me hopeful again.
I need to fix him. Bring him back to me.
I am a selfish person. I want Will to be my rock when he obviously needs a rock of his own.
“You can cry if you want,” I whisper, closing the first aid kit. When I look up, I’m met with a curious expression on Will’s swollen, dirty face.
“Thanks but… I think I’ll pass.” He shoots me his sideways smirk. Relief floods through me, settling my heart rate and anxiety levels immediately. When did I become so attached to his face? Did it happen overnight or slowly over time?
I let out a breath of worry built up in my lungs. “I was worried I’d lost you there. It’s hard to know how to feel after…”
“I know.” Neither of us needs to finish that thought.
We’ve drifted closer and oddly enough it’s as if he knows I need him to lighten the mood. After he was the one who killed a deadly creature for me, a possessed human being, he’s the one comforting me.
“It’s strange,” he begins, “I’ve been trained for years on how to kill someone, the logistics of it, the mechanics of the it, but they don’t train you for what happens afterward. The second-guessing, the regret, the relief I felt when that thing collapsed. I just wish… that it didn’t happen like that. I didn’t want my first kill to be tonight with my girlfriend’s life on the line.”
I bite my lip. “Girlfriend huh? Bit presumptuous don’t you think?” I attempt to lighten the mood with some lame sarcasm. “You’ve only saved my life a couple times. I’ll need a few more close calls and a couple rescues sprinkled on top to really make a decision.”
“Right, what an embarrassing assumption,” he plays along in a low voice. “What on earth would make me think you liked me? Especially not the way you attacked my mouth on top of the wall, only good friends do that to each other. We couldn’t possibly be dating.”
I shrug nonchalantly. “What can I say? We are best friends. Isn’t that the standard greeting between two old friends?”
“Here’s me hoping you don’t have any other best friends.”
My laugh is shaky but firm and I grasp onto the flow of banter between us. But then our laughter fades and were left watching one another.
Snatching another cloth, he begins wiping at my face, peeling off a facemask of mud. “Now where is that pretty face? Nope, still a swamp monster. Wait a second,” he finishes his last swipe across my forehead. “There’s my girl.”
Our noses are an inch apart. I glare and swipe the towel from him. After folding it to the clean side, I wipe the grime off his face, taking extra care around his bruised eye. He shuts his eyes and sighs.
I swallow thickly to make the lump in my throat go away. “I don’t really know what to say. I wish I could redo tonight. Rewind it and change the outcome even though I’m glad you saved me. I’m scared by what’s coming.”
The lamp casts ominous shadows across our tent.
His eyes flip open and his look is scrutinizing. Will runs his fingers along my cheek, sending shivers down my spine. “I never want to hear you scream my name the way you did tonight. That was a horrifying scream.”
We lock eyes in a deep understanding, entering our own little world.
I’m the one to break it first. The pressure of his gaze, the way he can see right through me, sends shockwaves through my nervous system. “Do you think that Cadaver will come back for us?”
“I doubt it, it’s wounded. But if it does, I’ve got my bow ready.” He indicates his bow and arrows lying on the tent floor next to him, which does comfort me. Oddly, his hand shakes when he points to the bow. Is he coming down from the adrenaline high? Will is always so assuredly confident. It must be the cold getting to him.
Will leans forward hesitantly, gauging my reaction. His lips are parted slightly, and I know where he’s headed, so I meet him there. Our mouths meet easily, similar to the hundreds of kisses we’ve shared before. It changes slightly, into a deeper kiss, one that reflects the confusion behind our ever-changing relationship. Regardless of the circumstances, this familiar contact is soothing, and I wrap my arms around his neck.
The shoulder I used to slam the sewer door open pinches uncomfortably at the movement and I flinch back involuntarily.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I rub my arm. “Just my shoulder. You can stop all your birthday surprises now please. I think I’ve had enough.”
He smirks as usual, but I sense his guilt underneath. “I actually had a kidnapping planned to finish off the night, should I cancel? I doubt I’ll get my deposit back though.”
I’m about to tell him to shut up using some colourful language when the sound of a zipper catches us both by surprise. Will is reaching for his bow when Mason and Tim’s outlines appear in the opening of our tent.
“Mason! You scared us half to death,” I sigh, clutching my beating heart as if it might pop out of my chest. The wind has picked up again, sending chilly raindrops down the tent flap.
Will clears his throat. “What is it?”
“Can we sleep in here?” Mason whispers as the wind howls into the tent. Torn on how to respond, I look to Will.
He shuts his eyes, rubs his forehead once. “Sure. Now get in here before you catch a cold.”
Mason and Tim hop inside, zipping the tent shut behind them. Mason throws his sleeping bag overtop of ours and collapses on it, wiggling his way between us. Will and I shuffle apart reluctantly to make space in our tiny tent for two more bodies.
“Were you guys sleeping?” Mason asks, slithering into his sleeping bag.
“Yes.” Will and I reply in unison. Our answer is too hasty, but they don’t notice.
Will continues. “We were fast asleep. That’s why you scared us when you opened the tent.”
“Why was the light on then?”
“To keep the monsters away.”
My lips quiver as I bite back a smile. Then I recall how real that statement is and the muscles in my cheeks holding my smile quiver.
“It stinks in here. And you guys look gross, like you rolled in the dirt.” Tim points this out as he follows Mason into the bag. It’s true, even though we wiped off the worst of the mud our skin is still dirty and we’re both visibly beaten down. I must be accustomed to our smell, but I can imagine we reek like wet dog mixed with other disgusting scents from the sewer and forest.
Will tugs at the neck of his sweater. “Enough unsolicited opinions, it’s time to sleep.”
I lay next to Mason, who presses his back against me. Will is readying himself for guard duty and I’m wishing I had the gumption to go outside with him.
Mason perks up when he notices Will stepping toward the entrance. “How come you’re not sleeping?”
He doesn’t turn back. “Checking on a few things, don’t worry. Everything’s fine.”
Everything is not fine. I wonder if I should confess to Mason, but what would that do? Scare him to death probably, it’s not like he can do anything to help. Am I a coward for allowing Will to sit outside alone? What if the Cadavers come back? Can he stop them all before they reach us?
“Will!” I panic as he unzips the tent, raindrops splattering onto the sleeping bags. What do I say? How do I tell him to stay safe without the boys knowing there was any danger in the first place?
“Don’t run into any trees. Please?” Surprisingly, I keep my voice steady.
“Don’t worry Aurora, I promise I’ll be fine. I’ll keep you safe.” He steps outside but glances back, adding one last comment with a weight to his voice that’s nearly imperceptible. “From the trees.”
Is it possible to keep a promise that’s out of his control?
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