Thu, 20 August 2009 - 10:32 pm

To fight for

We finally left the hills behind today. The road levelled out beneath our tyres and the loom of unsteady earth lifted away from our shoulders. We’re all breathing easier now.

Sometime in the night, there was the underground rumble of rocks giving way, shaking us up out of our slumber. The rain had leeched away enough earth to send scree tumbling down to reshape the land, close enough to make the windows rattle.

Needless to say, more than one of us panicked. We fumbled for lights and then for faces with our beams. I had to count heads twice to be sure that I had everyone, and almost did it a third time because of a niggling feeling that someone was missing. Oddly enough, it was the brace on Dale’s arm that reminded me who was gone.

Once we were sure that everyone was together, we started to look for the rockfall. It was quieter than the last time, though that might have been because of the rain, so we rushed around inside the gutted corner store we had chosen to shelter us for the night. Flashlight beams just didn’t reach far or wide enough – everything is disorienting in the dark. Shadows play tricks, slipping around corners and across surfaces like liquid, making objects look big, or flat, or just not there at all. The faint slither of acid glinting off building exteriors didn’t help, either. I’d have given anything for a good floodlight.

It had been quiet for a while before we were satisfied that we weren’t close to the rockslide, or mudslide, or whatever it was. We peeled ourselves away from our chosen windows and gathered in the middle of the little store, and just looked at each other. Then we shrugged, someone gave a wry laugh at our skittishness (I think that was Matt), we all relaxed and Tia burst into tears. I think it was relief. I looked at Dale and found him pale-faced with tension. Thorpe hovered behind him like an angry bear.

The boys went and stirred up the fire; no-one was going back to sleep after that. Terry was trying to comfort Tia, but she kept shaking her head and hiccuping as if her tears were choking her. He looked so strained that I went over to see if I could help, put my arm around the girl’s shoulders and suggested that he let me try. He looked relieved as he went to join the others; he loves his sister, but I don’t think he gets girls well enough to handle this kind of thing.

 

I got her to sit down a little way from the fire where we could talk undisturbed. It took a while for her to calm down enough to speak, and I tried not to listen to the dripping of the rain in the meantime. It has taken on a menacing tone now, worming its way in, as inexorable as the monsters it creates if it doesn’t kill us. Watching the ceilings is a common pastime for us.

I tried to tell her that I got it, I understood – she was scared after what happened a few days ago. Afraid of being buried, afraid of dying.

She looked at me with awful eyes and said, “That’s not it. That’s not it at all.” Her voice was torn from the crying, but there was no mistaking her words. “I wasn’t afraid of dying: I wanted it.”

I had no idea what to say to her. The tears weren’t relief – they were disappointment. It wasn’t exactly a problem I had anticipated. The only thing I could think of was to keep her talking, so I asked her what she meant.

“When the ground closed over my head, I thought, ‘this is it, I’m gonna die’.” She sounded reluctant at first, but then it just spilled out. “I thought I’d panic, but I didn’t. I knew I was gonna die, and that was… okay. I could just let go and everything else would go away. This nightmare, this year – all of it. I wouldn’t have to worry about anything any more. All I had to do was take a breath. I was ready, and then… then someone pulled me out.”

She covered her face like that was the worst thing in the world. I mentioned her brother and she shook her head.

“Terry doesn’t understand. He’s been carrying me, this whole time. Making sure I’m all right, making sure I’m safe. I’m a burden; I make things harder for him. After we joined you guys and he didn’t have to worry so much any more – I haven’t seen him that happy in ages.”

I stared at her, mentally filling in her gaps. It’s not what she thought that horrified me: it’s that I could understand how she got to that place. My feet have touched that path before. “He won’t be better off without you.”

“You don’t know that. It’d be easier without me.”

I couldn’t bring myself to lie to her, to make up stuff we would both know wasn’t true. “There are plenty of people who need others to fight for them, to get by,” I told her. “I’m one of them.” I step up when I have to, when there’s no choice, but I know I wouldn’t have got this far without the protection of the others. I’m one of the weakest fighters. “And there are people who need to fight for someone else, or they won’t fight at all.”

She looked at me dubiously. “So what, I’m doing him a favour by being useless?”

“…in a manner of speaking, yeah.” It wasn’t exactly how I’d put it.

To my dismay, her eyes filled up again. “But I don’t want to be here any more. I don’t know if I can fight it any more. What if I’m not strong enough?”

I reached out to squeeze her hand. “Then let us help you. We’re all each other has got.”

I don’t know if she heard me. She nodded and seemed to take it on board, but I really don’t know. I asked her to think about it and left her to collect herself. Dale and Matt were singing some kind of ditty that stopped as soon as I came over and left Terry grinning. I rolled my eyes and told them to sing something we all knew. Eventually, Tia came to join us and even helped us fill the room with sound. We’re not the most musically skilled bunch, but we have bravado and the ability to make stuff up as we go.

 

We left the threat of landslides and being buried in displaced earth behind, but there’s a part of it still with us. Not just in the cuts and bruises we all bear; there’s that temptation still eating at Tia. We’re going to have to protect her from herself as much as from everything else.

The thing is, if she puts herself in danger, I’m not sure that we should stop her. None of us would blame her for choosing to get out of this life. She’s old enough to make her own decisions, but she’s not even twenty yet.

Once upon a time, I would never have considered this a question: the answer was always ‘no’. Now I’m not sure what I’ll do, faced with her choice. I’m not sure what this says about me.

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