After a few weeks away, here is more of the story.
Footsteps falling solidly on hardwood floors slowly started to bring Dakota to consciousness. Her eyelids felt gummed shut, and it was a struggle to open them. Her head was still pounding from her fall down the stairs, and she fought to bring her eyes into focus. To make matters worse, the fever that she’d felt nipping at her for the past day appeared to have manifested in full, judging by the amount of sweat her clothing now carried. Moonlight filtered into the room from a window above her, bringing panic to her thoughts. How long was I out, she wondered. Is it still the same night, or have days passed? She attempted to get herself into a sitting position, before an intense pain through her left arm forced her to bite off a scream of agony.
The pain in her arm finished bringing her mind to the forefront, even as it threatened to drag her under again. Shaking her head gingerly, Dakota took a quick glance around her surroundings. She was in a small bedroom, perhaps a child’s from the time before. The room was sparsely furnished, and the paint was peeling off of the walls, but she could tell it had once been a powdery blue. The bed beneath her was shorter than she was used to, and her feet had hung over the edge. A narrow window high up on the wall brought the moonlight in, and a closet was placed in the far corner of the room. Gritting through the pain, Dakota tried to shift again, this time hoping to get the entryway in her sight. Her hair fell over her face, and she made to brush it away with her right hand, quickly discovering that it had been lashed to her waist. The knot had been tied hastily, but there was no way she’d be able to undo it herself with only one hand. At least, not without wasting precious time.
The footsteps that had woken her walked further away from the bedroom she was in. The seemed to move with a purpose, and, based off of how heavy they sounded, whoever was keeping her here was male. A quick shiver ran up her spine at the thought. She hadn’t been overly trustful of men before the world had fallen apart. The last thing she wanted in the aftermath was to find herself prisoner to one. She peered through her hair, trying to locate her gear, her heart sinking to see that the only thing in the room other than her and the bed was a small wash basin filled with murky water. Her mind reeled, trying to piece her way out of this situation. If need be, she could still use her left arm. The pain was excruciating, but anything would be better than falling victim to one of the raiders that had popped up ever since the monsters had come.
Dakota prepared herself, trying desperately to control her breathing. Her injuries, coupled with the fever, made the task impossible, and she blinked away tears of both pain and frustration. Steeling herself for the worse, Dakota inched to the end of the bed, preparing to piston her foot up should an assailant get too close. The frame creaked beneath her as she did so, sounding to her ears as loud as a jet engine. Clearly, whoever was walking the hall heard it also, as the footsteps quickly started growing nearer. Dakota tensed her muscles, ready to spring into action, physical condition be damned.
The doorknob slowly turned, and the door into the room opened a slight crack. Whoever was on the other side wasn’t taking any risks, which really wasn’t a surprise. Anyone who’d survived this long wasn’t a fool, and Dakota knew that she’d have to be almost perfect in her execution if she was going to get out of this. She shifted her weight slightly, allowing for a better kick with her right leg, her eyes never leaving the door frame.
The door leaned in a few inches, and stopped. A gloved hand reached in near the bottom, rolling an apple towards where Dakota sat. A moment of silence hung in the air, before Dakota cleared her throat. “Can’t very well eat that with one busted arm, and one tied to my side,” she said, her face thick and gravely with thirst. “Try again.”
“Consider it a small goodwill gesture,” the person on the other side of the door said. Dakota had been right about it being a man wandering the halls, and her heart sunk. She wasn’t about to easily accept anything from someone she didn’t know, but knew the odds were heavily against her. “Can I come in?,” the man asked.
“Don’t see why not,” Dakota replied bitterly. “Or are you always this polite to your prisoners?”
The door opened fully, and Dakota saw that, while the voice was male, calling her captor a “man” was a bit of a stretch. Before her stood a boy on the verge of manhood, probably around sixteen or seventeen, but he clearly hadn’t fully gained the self-assuredness that comes with full manhood. Young eyes peered out from under a heavy brim, and what little facial hair he had was sparse, almost patchy. A look of confusion was settled on his face. “Prisoner?” he asked. “Why on earth would you assume that you’re a prisoner?”
Dakota glanced down towards her bound hand. “So you just bind up everyone who you meet, huh? Doesn’t seem too neighborly.”
“Neighborly, no. Safe, yes,” he replied. “I don’t know you, don’t know what you can or will do. I wasn’t willing to take the risk until after we could talk.”
“We’re talking now,” she said. “So how about you just untie me, give me my stuff back, and we’ll consider this all in the past.”
He looked at her, a seriousness in his eyes before he suddenly burst out laughing. “The past?,” he asked incredulously. “Seriously? You’re talking tough, but you’re in no shape to be on your own right now. What if the alarms start ringing? Listen, girl, your best chance of survival right now is to let me nursemaid you.”
Dakota flinched, knowing that he was right. The fever was raging and would only get worse without proper rest, and she needed to get her arm splinted if she was going to use it down the road. Still, the idea of being beholden to anyone made the bile rise up in her throat. “Never call me girl,” she spat resignedly.
He took a couple of steps closer, reaching down to scoop up the apple. “I don’t know what else to call you,” he said. “Not like anyone carries around their driver’s license anymore. Maybe if you give me your name, I-”
“Not gonna happen,” Dakota said, cutting him off. “And don’t think I want your name, either.”
“Suit yourself,” he responded. “Didn’t figure you for one to make anything easy. How about I call you Apple, since that’s what’s brought this conversation around?” He waited for Dakota to indicate one way or the other. She did nothing to relay her feelings on it, but he felt comfortable assuming that any negative thoughts towards the nickname would have been quickly voiced. “Apple it is, for now. You can call me Patch,” he indicated patches sewn onto the military-style coat he was wearing. “You know, just so we’ve got something to refer to each other as instead of ‘hey, you’.”
Dakota watched him carefully. Patch reached into one of the coat’s pockets, and flipped out a knife. Her knife. He casually opened up, and sliced the apple carefully, removing a bruised spot from where it had fallen. Her stomach rumbled, and she wondered again how long she’d been out, but she didn’t let her eyes stray from Patch or his handiwork.
“Nice knife,” she stated.
Patch paused in his activity for a moment. “It is,” he admitted. “And you’ll get it back when you’re good to go. But, for right now, it’s mine.” He finished cutting the apple up, resting the pieces on the bed just out of Dakota’s current reach. He looked down at her bound wrist, flicking her knife against the ties. A couple of quick cuts, and her hand was free.
Dakota suppressed the urge to grab him by the throat, instead keeping watch on him as she carefully picked up a slice of the apple. Another rumble of hunger echoed through her body, and she carefully took a bite of the fruit. The flavor of the fruit exploded in her mouth, and she had to fight the urge to eat too quickly. Forcing herself to take slow, deliberate bites, she nodded a silent thanks to Patch.
A slight smile curled the corners of his mouth, before looking at her left arm, hanging limply at its awkward angle. “May I?”
Dakota narrowed her eyes, but nodded approval at him. Gently, he took her arm in his gloved hands, carefully probing at it. After what felt like minutes, but was probably mere seconds, he carefully put it back down at her side.
“Well, it doesn’t seem broken,” he said. “Dislocated, maybe, but not broken.”
Dakota finished another slice of apple. “And how would you know?”
“Happened to me a few times before the creatures. Usually playing football. Plus, I’ve seen broken bones often enough to know that your arm’s still too straight,” he explained. “Of course, you could have some minor fractures through, but my money’s on a dislocation. I can set it for you, if you’d like.”
She eyed him again. She didn’t like the idea of letting him touch her, but he had been helpful so far, and she needed to get back on her feet as quickly as possible. She also knew that letting her arm go without treatment would make it less likely she’d regain full use of it. Resigning herself to the truth, she nodded. “Fine, but make it quick. I’ve gotta get moving.”
Patch took her arm in his hands and, with a slow, steady pull, positioned it back into the socket. Dakota kept her mouth clamped shut tight, the pain washing over her, sweat breaking out on her forehead, muffled screams kept behind her lips. When Patch finally let go of her arm, she carefully leaned back on the bed, closing her eyes, trying to ward off the explosions emanating from her shoulder. Her stomach rolled, and the apple she’d been eating threatened to betray her.
“Sit up,” he commanded. “We’ve got to get that arm slinged, and you really need to drink some water before you pass back out.”
“I’m not going to pass out,” Dakota argued, fighting off a woozy feeling.
“You’re a liar,” Patch responded. “And worse, you’re not good at it. Besides, you need rest more than you need to argue with me. So sit up and let’s get that arm slinged.”
Begrudgingly, Dakota sat up in the bed, propping herself up with her right hand. Patch presented an old, ratty shirt, which he looped over her shoulder. “Not pretty, but it’ll get the job done”, he said as he fashioned a makeshift sling. Resting her arm into it, Dakota was surprised to find that it was already feeling marginally better. She had been so certain that she’d broken it, she never even considered the possibility that it had just been dislocated. Maybe Patch was more useful than his age implied. She looked up again to notice that he was standing before her, a canteen held out. “Drink a bit,” he urged. “And then rest.” Dakota took the canteen from him, carefully sipping at the cool water within. After she drank what she felt she could, she handed the canteen back.
“Thanks,” she said.
He nodded. “Seriously, rest. That fever’s nasty, and you need to start healing the arm, too. Besides, you look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.”
“Months,” she muttered, already feeling a wave of exhaustion wash over her. Laying down once again, her eyelids drifted downwards. Her mind wandered through disconnected thoughts, and sleep overtook her.
When she opened her eyes again, the room was lit with bright sunlight. A damp washcloth was draped across her forehead, and Dakota already felt her arm feeling incrementally better. Her mouth was dry, but she noticed that another canteen had been put within easy reach. She even felt that her fever had broken, and she found herself wondering if there was still some jerky in her pack. As much as she hated to admit it, she had run across Patch at just the right time.
Carefully, she sat up again, reached for the canteen and took a careful drink. The water tasted clean and crisp, and she allowed herself a little more before getting out of the bed. She listened for the sound of Patch’s footsteps, but didn’t hear anything. Rising to her feet, she approached the door to the small room, opening it.
Swinging the door open, Dakota realized that this room had been built inside an upper level of the barn. A few other rooms were set in a semicircle around the outer wall. Across from them, a balcony peered down on the barn floor below. Clearly the barn had been converted at some point before the world had fallen apart, with no evidence that animals had been cooped within for quite some time. Dakota proceeded to walk cautiously to the next room, not wanting to give herself away. After all, Patch had helped her, but she wasn’t willing yet to place too much trust in anyone, let alone some boy she had just met.
The first room she passed was a small, sparsely equipped washroom. The porcelain of the sink was cracked, and the toilet was in disrepair; still, the room was clean, and wouldn’t have seemed out of place years ago. It brought to mind the bathroom she had shared with her sister before Cynthia had gone away to college. She pushed the memory out of her mind and moved on to the next room.
Dakota opened the door, seeing what had clearly at one point been an office. A desk was positioned against a large window, overlooking the farm beyond. A rickety chair sat before it, and an ancient typewriter, broken and unusable, sat forlornly in the center. More importantly, as far as Dakota was concerned, her pack was resting on the floor. She almost pounced on it, opening the pocket where she stored quick foodstuffs. Her hands fell on a packet of peanuts, and she tore the package open, forcing herself to keep from eating them too quickly. As she took the edge off of her hunger, she started looking through the rest of her belongings. Much to her surprise, the only thing missing was her primary knife, and she knew that Patch had taken that with him. He clearly hadn’t thought to scavenge her supplies, which made her start to wonder exactly how he’d survived this long. “Maybe he was just waiting to see if I’d die,” she said to herself.
“Or maybe I was hoping you’d pull through, and we could work together,” came a voice from behind her.
Dakota jumped slightly at the sound, then turned to look up at Patch. His hands were bloody, and he was looking at her intently. He noticed her eyes look at his hands, then locked eyes with her once again.
“Rabbit,” he stated. “Thought maybe you could use a little meat in your belly.”
Dakota narrowed her eyes slightly, but then nodded in acquiescence. She looked past him out into the barn proper. “Why’d you move me?,” she asked plainly.
“The house wasn’t safe. You were hurt. And I’d already scoped out the barn,” he answered. “Honestly, I’ve been holed up here for a while, and I saw your approach. Not as stealthy as you think.”
Something about his answer rang hollow, but Dakota didn’t have the energy to press the issue right now. She still wasn’t sure how long she’d been out the first time, and she knew that she’d barely had enough food to keep her going even before the mishaps in the farmhouse. Since then, having eaten only an apple and some peanuts was not going to help her. As long as he was telling the truth about meat, she was willing to risk sticking with him a little longer.
She forced herself to visibly relax. “Sorry if I’m seeming ungrateful,” she said. “Haven’t had the best of luck the few times I’ve run across people, and I’ve gotten used to doing this all on my own.”
Patch nodded, then stepped aside. “Look, I understand,” he said. “But we’re not all out to get you.” He turned on his heel, and started towards the stairs leading down to the ground below. Dakota followed him, seeing what appeared to be the makings of a cook fire, along with a couple of rabbits piled nearby. She was still disconcerted by the amount of blood for two small rabbits, but her hunger got the best of her, and she left her pack behind before heading down the stairs herself.
Patch proved to be a quick worker, and before she could really dwell on it, he was roasting the rabbits over the fire. The smell of cooking meat drifted towards her nostrils, and she felt herself salivate over the notion. Dakota sat quietly, simply watching Patch work. For his part, he was economical of movement, and seemed content to prepare the meal in silence. Shortly before the rabbits were done cooking, he produced a can of green beans, and set it to cook, as well. In contrast to many of Dakota’s recent meals, this was going to be a feast.
The silence between the two continued through the meal, each more focused on the food than on each other. Dakota chewed her food carefully, relishing the taste as it filled her mouth. She drank from the canteen to wash down some of the less tender morsels. Across the fire from her, Patch alternated between eating his meal and staring into the fire itself. Before long, the rabbit and beans were gone, and the crackling of the wood started to die down. Patch stood, pouring water over the fire before kicking dirt at it. He then clapped his hands together, and walked out of the barn.
The act of putting the fire out had snapped Dakota out of her reverie, and she couldn’t help but wonder where he was heading. Carefully, she rose, moving to the barn door to keep an eye. It was then that she noticed a water pump, clearly hooked up to a well or something. Patch was steadily pumping water into a bucket, and had a canteen lying nearby that he looked prepared to fill as well. The placement of the water pump explained why he’d been able to freely offer her water before, and also helped explain the washcloth that had been on her forehead when she woke up. What it didn’t explain was why he had eaten his meal with hands still covered in blood. Dakota was about to ask when Patch suddenly looked off in the distance, concern crossing his young face.
“What is it?,” she started to ask, but was stopped when he held one finger up to his lips, asking for silence. Stillness hung between the two for a few seconds before she picked up what had grabbed his attention so forcefully.
Across the still air, through the sun’s rays, Dakota’s heart fell. The alarms were ringing.