Cherry walked, alternating between being lost in thought, panicking at her lack of awareness, jumping at every hint of movement, and then calming down enough to get lost in thought again. The thick layer of clouds broke up as she went, revealing a sun at its peak. The sunlight shone on vacant bridges dripping with ivy and ducks nesting in the flooded ditches between old roads. The lake grew more distant, and rotting shore houses changed into rotting apartments and shops. As the parking lots expanded and the streets widened, the path not only became more exposed, but also held more room for wights to gather. Worse, the trail didn’t seem to be heading in the right direction anymore.
From her time in the university area, Cherry had some vague memory of the trail leading past the stadium and to the narrow waters of the Cut. But she hadn’t lived all the way down on the canal; she’d been a mile or two north of it. What if the trail didn’t go all the way there? When she began her journey that morning, the trail had been going almost straight south, along the water. Now that she was drawing closer to her goal, it had veered inland. Even if it reached the Cut, it might be after a long detour. And as her surroundings became more open, the route became more dangerous.
Cherry could leave the trail, but which way should she go? She had better start pinpointing her destination more precisely. Unfortunately, Leo had only given her hints about his location because, of course, she had told him to. Why had she listened to Jackie’s theories about wights spying on the mail system? It was comical to imagine the creatures stopping a messenger, reading through one of Cherry’s letters, then carefully sealing the letter up again and letting the messenger go on their way. But she’d been cautious, and as always, Leo had done his best to accommodate her.
Still walking, Cherry reached in her pack for the letters from him. She found a passage she had circled:
Before I go, a brief fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a lovely princess named Peach who wanted to see a friend to the south. After journeying for the better part of a day, she grew tired and bored, so she rested on a very high seat and treated herself to a hot dog. A wizard was also there enjoying the view, and he invited Peach to come stay at his home nearby. He even had an extra guesthouse for Peach to stay in. When Peach woke up the next day, she was almost to her friend’s house. Her family had wished her luck, and that luck led her right to her destination.
If things get too tough for you up there, you’re always welcome. I’ll have one fresh happily ever after waiting for you.
Cherry had known as soon as she read the letter that the place with the high seat and hot dog was the university stadium. But she still couldn’t guess what landmark the wizard’s home was supposed to reference. Judging by this letter, while Leo’s burrow was past the stadium, it was still fairly close to it. That meant Cherry’s best chance was simply to head to the stadium and hope that she’d recognize her next steps. Thankfully, the stadium was also huge. Maybe she could spot it from a distance and head in that direction.
Something large moved in front of Cherry, and she jumped. A mother deer stood on the path only a yard or two ahead, flanked by two near-grown fawns with shiny gold coats. The mother bobbed her head up and down as she gazed at Cherry, curiosity in her liquid eyes.
“Aren’t you supposed to be afraid of me?”
The mother only flicked a black-tipped ear before plodding forward and around Cherry, her fawns following. They didn’t spare another glance at the human on their path. Cherry sighed at the indignity of it, but she couldn’t blame them. Few people knew how to hunt deer without guns, and guns were a quick way to summon a chorus of wights. At least if the deer were bored with her, she didn’t have to question if they were deer.
Cherry continued on, looking through the brush for a good vantage by which she might spot the stadium. As if granting her wish, the trees ahead of her parted, cracking open a window that overlooked much of the city. She hesitated. The trail led over a pedestrian bridge above a wide commercial road. The chain links under the bridge’s rails were free of vines, offering no cover. Once Cherry walked far enough on the bridge to see the lay of the land, she could be visible for miles.
But what was her alternative? If she wanted to continue down the trail, she had to cross either the bridge or the road beneath it. While the bridge might be a little more exposed, at least it would let her see whether she was heading toward the stadium.
Cherry took a breath and stepped onto the bridge. A crisp breeze cooled her brow as she crouched low over the railing. The wooden planks beneath her feet were slippery and covered with moss. They sank an inch as she stepped on them. She just clung to the rail harder. She couldn’t spare the time to focus on her footwork; she had to look at the city.
Four lanes rolled under her feet, broken glass sparkling over the pavement. Neatly parked cars lined the road, quietly collecting leafy debris and blooms of rust. Dark streaks of algae smeared the rectangular buildings on either side. Their wide roofs sagged under waving grasses. Beyond, the hills of the abandoned city were brushed with cloudy bursts of green and gold leaves.
Cherry pulled off her cap to let the sun warm her face as she looked south at that gentle landscape. She could almost think it was a September ten years ago – another Mid-Autumn Festival when her family flew across the globe to celebrate together. That in a few days, they would all be lining up at Maxim’s to collect their mooncakes, or heading to Victoria Park to see the dazzling lantern displays. Those times were gone, but even so, she was again traveling to reunite with someone she cared about.
There – the white rim of the stadium peeked above the trees to the south, about 20 minutes away by foot. Thankfully she’d made the effort to look; the trail here was heading west. She would leave the path and head straight for the stadium. But this was a dangerous intersection to cross – the ground was flat and the pavement free of obstructions. If there were any wights in the area, they’d be on her in minutes. Leo would never hear from her again.
Cherry would have to backtrack and search for a place with more cover to cross. She straightened and turned toward the safety of the trees.
A crack echoed through the air, and the bridge gave way beneath her feet. Cherry yelped and flailed as she fell. She grabbed at the rotten planks and then the thick beams beneath them. Her fingers caught the top of a beam, slowing her descent, but then the wood slipped from her grasp.
Pavement slammed into her feet and her bottom. Her backpack cushioned her spine as her head flew back and grazed the asphalt. Cherry starred up at the mossy bridge, flinching as moist splinters rained over her face. Her whole body throbbed. Oh god, she was lying in the middle of the road. And she’d yelled. Get up. Get up now!
Cherry turned herself over, wincing. She struggled to her feet and grabbed her fallen cap. She didn’t think anything was broken. If something was sprained, she would have to run on it anyway.
She sprinted south toward the stadium, clenching her teeth to distract from the pain in her legs. The block was so long; she should have gone back to the trees. Too late now, she had to keep running until she was across. She was almost at a large intersection. On the other side, an overgrown field was guarded by a waist-high fence. The field didn’t have much in the way of trees, but it had brush at least. Cherry gasped for breath, pushing herself to cover the remaining distance.
She vaulted over the fence, and her shoe caught on the wire. She crashed to the ground, bruising a shoulder. She spit out the grass seeds in her mouth and struggled to get up.
A low boom sounded behind her, followed by an enormous clanking and crashing. Cherry yanked her foot free; some part of her shoe ripped with it. She scrambled away from the fence and dared a look back. Dust filled the air on the other side of the intersection. One of the commercial buildings now resembled a pile of rubble – the ceiling had collapsed. Cherry let out a breath. Everything crumbled sooner or later.
Later would have been better. She’d already made enough noise, and this only guaranteed wights would come to investigate. Keeping low in the grass, Cherry scanned the old field; she had to get cover as soon as she could. If she stayed hidden, the wights might attribute all the noise to the collapsed roof and leave again. Unfortunately, the bushes she’d seen from across the intersection were more blackberry mounds. They would have to do.
Cherry carefully waded between the mounds of bramble. Blooming morning glory wound itself around the canes, the two plants waging a silent battle over the abundant sun in the treeless field. Even with the competition, all the light made these blackberries plump. Cherry’s stomach complained at the sight, but she pushed on, searching for places where the morning glory was thick enough to cushion the thorns. The battling greenery closed around her, shielding her from anyone – anything – that might come looking.
The tension left her shoulders, and she grabbed the jar of soaked oats from her bag. Quietly as she could, Cherry opened the jar and picked blackberries, adding their sweet tang to her meal.
She felt a little better with the oats and berries in her belly, but she was exhausted, and she couldn’t leave the thorns, not yet. The sooner she went back into the open, the more likely the wights would still be about looking for her. She had an empty jar; she’d spend the time filling it with berries for Leo. He’d been trying to make a passable pie crust; had he done it? If only she’d gotten his most recent letters. She crept further into the bramble, pushing aside the grasping canes and reaching for one bunch of blackberries after another.
A faint voice rode in on the wind, someone calling for attention over a distance.
Cherry froze. The wights were here.
The voice came again. “Cherry!”
She gasped. How could… Wights had never known her name. She’d never heard of them knowing anyone’s name unless they’d just been told. The voice was too distant to be recognized, but someone knew her. Someone was trying to reunite with her. Jackie? Cherry smiled. She must have read Cherry’s letter and tracked her here. Where was she?
Cherry lifted herself onto her tiptoes to peer over the bramble, but then stopped herself. She crouched back down. What was she doing? If Jackie was really alive, she’d be up north somewhere. She would never come so far south, much less shout in an open area.
The shout was a little louder. Neither low nor high in pitch, it felt warm and familiar, like a lost friend or family member. Cherry closed her eyes and thought back. Could it be Leo? She’d only met him in person for one night; she couldn’t remember his voice. No, it couldn’t be Leo. He had no way of knowing she’d left her burrow.
Cherry opened her eyes and drew in a shaking breath. She had to accept that it was a wight. Somehow, it knew her. Oh god, what if it had been tracking her the entire time she was traveling? No, then it would have no reason to call to her like that. It was trying to draw her out. She needed to stay put, stay silent.
“Up here, I’m waving at you!”
It could see her. Run. Cherry straightened her sore knees and hissed as thorns lashed at her thighs. The brambles caught on her backpack, and the sleeves of her jacket, and her pants. Cherry drew her machete. She hadn’t kept herself alive for the last ten years to be stopped by some mean fruit.
Cherry brought the machete down once, twice, thrice. She pushed through the mound, biting her lip and holding back a cry as the thorns tore her skin. If she didn’t slow down and untangle them, the thorns would draw blood. So draw blood. Just go!
She pulled down her cap brim to shield her face and breached the last of the mound. She was free. The yelling was behind her, begging her to wait, pleading with her not to go. She had to ignore it, to focus on what she was doing.
She ran, stumbling onto a small residential road and following it toward tree cover. The street grew narrow and then turned to gravel, disappearing into clover and dandelions as willow trees closed in. She pushed through light underbrush until the dense canopy blocked her view on all sides. She couldn’t see the stadium. Had she fled in the right direction? Was she even heading away from the wight rather than toward it?
Should she even head away? What if the voice was Jackie, after all? Maybe Cherry was wrong about her mentor’s single-minded focus on survival. Maybe she did care enough to follow her all the way down here. Cherry remembered the last moment with Jackie. How she had paused and looked Cherry in the eyes, like she had known. If I don’t come back…
Remember me? Forget me? Forgive me?
Maybe it didn’t matter. If a wight had tracked her this far, Cherry would disappear too.