Farther ahead, the trail disappeared into the brush. Was the pavement broken after all? No, it was a blackberry bramble. A small barrage of canes sprouted from one side of the path, leapt over it, and rooted back on the other. The serrated leaves were turning scarlet as clusters of dark berries shriveled on their stems.
She stepped back and looked for a path around the bramble, but more thorns dominated the space. Taking a detour around it would make lots of rustling noises. Even using her machete to cut through would make more noise than she could afford with the wights so close. At least the canes weren’t anchored into the ground. Since the bramble was still small, she might be able to crawl under them.
She took off her backpack and pushed it ahead of her. Using her machete to lift the canes in front of her, Cherry worked her way under, the clover tickling her nose from below. Her stiff cap shielded her head, but a few thorns pierced her jacket. She stifled a cry and pushed on. She focused on the canes ahead of her, trying not to think of how easy it would be for the wights to sneak up from behind. Finally she neared the other side. After one last row of canes, the trail continued, blissfully clear.
There, something ghostly moved.
Cherry froze. A fluffy white cat with a few gray spots sat on the path, licking a paw and rubbing its head. Cats weren’t uncommon; the burst of rodents after the Departure had given them a good start as feral animals. But this one had long white fur, clean with no sign of matting. The wights hadn’t needed to chase Cherry after all; they knew exactly where she was. They had simply elected to wait and catch her off guard.
Retreating would only give the wights more time to close in. A cat-sized wight couldn’t have much hypnotic charm; she might be able to get past it. That was, unless more waited in ambush, but then she was doomed regardless. She had to go forward. Cherry lifted the last canes with her machete and crawled out.
The cat paused its licking to gaze at her with blue eyes. It seemed unsurprised by her entrance, but it didn’t move toward her, and nothing emerged from the brush to capture her.
Was it really a wight? If it was, she had to find a hiding place and stay there until thirst overcame her. If not, she could continue her journey south. She would give the cat a test. A wight wouldn’t touch her on its own; it would try to lure her into making contact. She took a breath and held her hand out. The cat put its paw down and sauntered closer. Cherry’s heart pounded.
The cat was only a foot away. Its fur looked a little damp, but the nose was bright pink and its eyes clear. It came a few steps closer and stretched out its neck to sniff her hand. If it actually touched her, it couldn’t be a wight. But wait, what if her outstretched hand counted as her reaching to it? What if a wight could catch her like this? Cherry yanked her hand away.
The cat drew its head back and glared at her as though affronted.
Cherry let out a breath. This was definitely a cat. She took the plunge, reaching down and giving the cat a friendly scratch along the cheek. The cat leaned into it. Cherry didn’t feel any different, but she probably shouldn’t have done that. If it had been a wight, that would’ve been the perfect ruse. She’d couldn’t bring herself to care just then; second-guessing every nice thing in the world was exhausting. What she needed now was to move along before the real wights arrived.
Cherry set off down the path at a fast walk. The cat followed, begging her with its eyes. Would it pursue her all the way south and past the stadium? She tried to lean down and pet it when she could; the last thing she needed was for it to start meowing. Cats didn’t meow unless people were around, and Cherry wasn’t going to bet her life that every wight within hearing range didn’t know that. Luckily, the cat wasn’t inclined to make noises. It preferred to jump in her path, halting her forward progress.
The white fluffball certainly acted like someone’s pet; was there a burrow nearby? While Cherry scrambled to avoid wights out in the open, she might be a few yards from a sanctuary that could hide and feed her for another day. Right then, she could be walking over the tunneled pathways of a warren, an entire village of basements concealed from spying eyes. But she’d never find one before the wights found her, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be welcome. A stranger was more likely to be a wight than not.
If not for that, Cherry would already be living with Leo. They’d met while they were traveling, and they hid for the night in the same overgrown playground. He hadn’t been sure she wasn’t a wight, and she hadn’t been sure he wasn’t. Maybe if he hadn’t kept calling her Miss Lam, or she hadn’t tried to share her water, they would have trusted each other. But they couldn’t stop being nice, so the next morning they reluctantly parted ways. Based on what she knew at the time, it was the right choice, but that hadn’t stopped Cherry from regretting it ever since.
The white fluffball hissed and bolted into the brush. Cherry spun around. What had scared it? Could it be… Further down the trail and through the dense clump of young maples, bright colors shifted. Faint singing rose above the patter of raindrops. Wights. If they couldn’t see her through the trees already, they would any moment. She needed a place to hide now. But the trail here was bordered by leggy ferns and tall grasses. It wasn’t thick enough.
There – twenty feet back up the path was an English laurel, a thirty-foot version of the bush that hid the trail from her earlier. Its large glossy leaves made it look thicker than it was. Cherry raced into the dark hollow at its center and then scrambled to the back. Would it conceal her well enough? She could still see the path through the gaps in the foliage. What if the wights could see her through them too? It was too late to leave.
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream
They sang the tune in perfect rounds, so there had to be four singers. The song grew louder, and what looked like a happy family heading out for a picnic appeared down the trail. A scruffy man carried a rosy-cheeked toddler who was too busy munching carrots to join in. A girl in grass-stained overalls hefted a basket, shifting to put it on her other shoulder. A smiling woman with a messy bun had her arm wrapped around the elbow of another man – a man who smiled as much, but glowed less, and didn’t quite sing on key.
Cherry sucked in a breath. He was a real person. If she’d seen him on his own, she might be suspicious of him, and if she saw one of the wights on their own, she might think they were real. But next to each other, the difference was obvious: the smudges of dirt on his clothes weren’t so artful, and his hair looked like he’d cut it himself without a mirror. A pock mark marred his cheek. This man was as real as Cherry, and the wights were about to make him disappear forever.
How could she stay hidden while another human being was led away? He was right in front of her; maybe if she jumped out, grabbed him, and ran… Cherry put her face in her hands. She couldn’t. Even if by some miracle she freed him and escaped herself, it wouldn’t be enough. They said that once someone touched a wight, they were forever charmed. You could overpower them and drag them back home, but they would beg to be let go. Sooner or later, they would escape and never return.
The group was passing near the laurel, their steps a mere two feet from where Cherry hid. Luckily, the wights were focused on their current victim, smiling at him as they sang. Except for the toddler. His head turned as his gaze wandered. He looked curiously at the laurel, and his bright eyes fixed on the spot where Cherry was crouched. His hand reached out in her direction. Cherry cringed, burying her head behind her knees and holding her breath. Just pass by. Nothing to see. Pass by.
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” continued as she took shallow shaking breaths. Slowly the song faded, but she didn’t dare move. Were the wights really gone or had they fallen silent to trick her? Something rustled the leaves nearby. She shrunk into herself, squeezing her closed eyes.
A sharp meow brought her back to the world. The fluffy cat sat on the trail, looking at her expectantly. Cherry emerged from the laurel and gave it a scratch. The cat had saved her when the wights came, and now it was telling her they were gone. She’d heard cats didn’t like wights, but this… Had someone trained this cat to be a guardian of the trail? Or was it just the instincts of a pet that wanted attention but wouldn’t go near wights to get it? Regardless, fortune must favor her.
The cat followed her a little further, past a miniature forest of sumac trees, under the empty eyes of mossy houses, and over a few lichen-covered walkways. Then it sat and curled its tail around its paws, as though it had reached some unknown border. Cherry stopped. Wights were using the trail now, so it was only a matter of time before she encountered them again. Could she handle them alone? She had no choice but to try. She should be grateful the cat accompanied her as long as it did.
She took off her pack and fetched the can of tuna. Cherry couldn’t leave without offering something in return for its help, especially since its caretaker could have just been taken. She struggled through opening the can, and then she scooped out half the fish and put it on some matted clover. The cat purred as it ate.
Cherry gobbled the rest herself. She thought it tasted a bit off, but then, she wasn’t sure what fresh canned tuna tasted like anymore. She gave the cat one last stroke. Maybe when she reached the end of her journey, she would adopt her own cat. Leo had mused about getting dogs or pigeons that could carry mail, but they wouldn’t need all the letters anymore. They could talk to each other into the long hours of the night, munching on sun-dried plums. She would finally get him to call her Cherry, though she had to admit “Miss Lam” had grown on her.
She shook herself; this was no time for daydreams. Without the cat keeping watch for her, Cherry had to be alert. As long as she spotted the wights before they spotted her, she could duck out of sight. Once the wights saw her… People said it was useless to run, even though the creatures never made chase. She hoped she never found out if that was true.