P r e v i o u s N e x t
Peyton focused on keeping the handle of the spade from slipping in his sweaty palm as he pushed the blade into the soil over and over again. Digging up potatoes was a lot more difficult of a task than he’d thought it would be. He’d probably been out here an hour by now and he’d only taken about three or so off the plant. Would three be enough for a stew? Probably not for eight people. He could always go without, but three wouldn’t be enough for seven people either. He needed to pick more. Two more? Maybe five would be enough. It wasn’t like the whole meal was just going to be potatoes and water. With everything else that was added to the stew, maybe no one would notice the lack of potatoes, right?
He upturned another potato, rubbed the skin— it didn’t peel off, which meant it was ripe— plucked it from the plant, and set it aside. Then he stiffened at the sound of footfall behind him. Peyton dropped the spade. He looked behind his shoulder, forced himself to relax, then he smiled and waved. “H-hi.”
Blake walked straight up to him— leaving Avery behind— and crouched to the ground, staring out at the upturned potato patch. “What’re you doing?”
“Just… digging up some potatoes. Rowan— he— he asked me to do that.”
Blake looked down at his little collection and poked at the largest potato, rolling it out of place. “Looks like you’ve got a decent amount of them already.”
“Y-yeah. I guess.” Peyton nudged the potato back in place. “I was wondering if they’d be enough for everyone. Do you think it’ll be enough?”
“Looks like it to me.” She patted his shoulder, either not knowing or not caring about the way he tensed up underneath her touch. “Hey. Avery and I were planning on going to the rope swing. Wanna come along with us?”
“Well… I— I don’t know. I think— I think I’m supposed to be staying here.”
“Why? You have something else to do besides picking potatoes?”
“No. But… b-but still. What if someone wonders where I am?”
Blake waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that. We leave without telling anyone where we went all the time. As long as we’re back before sundown nobody cares at all. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from here, anyway. Come on. It’ll be fun.”
Peyton reached for the spade again. Smoothed out the lumpy dirt with it, once, twice, thrice. “I don’t know. M-maybe. I have to… maybe I’ll just stay here.”
“You don’t really want to stay out here all by yourself, do you? Nikita’s out hunting with Umber and Rowan, Jules is probably starting dinner, and Taylor’s doing… whatever she usually does. Sewing. Or maybe helping Jules. Do you really want to sit here staring at the potatoes for the next three hours?”
How would she react if he said yes? Peyton shrugged, pulling his shoulders closer to himself. “W-well… I guess that you have a point there.”
“Of course I have a point.” Blake reached down and took his wrist in her hand, shaking it so that he dropped the spade back into the dirt. “Just take the potatoes inside and come. In fact— let Avery do it. So you can’t sneak away from us.”
Peyton ducked his head, but he pushed himself off the ground with his free hand, allowing Blake to help him up. “Okay.”
“I promise you won’t regret it.” Blake let go of his wrist, leaving it warm and tingly, and stepped aside to let Avery pick up the potatoes. “Just go and put them on the kitchen table. Then check up on Jules to make sure he won’t need anything else.”
Avery walked off, and Blake and Peyton were left alone. Peyton shuffled his weight from foot to foot. “S-so— Blake, um—”
“What do you think of the Outskirts so far, then?”
“Well, it’s going… good, I guess.”
Blake smiled, leaning back on her heels. “Don’t worry. Avery had a pretty hard time adjusting too. Taylor managed to get her out of her shell, though— with my help, of course.” She paused. “Nikita did that for you too, I’m guessing?”
Blake’s smile turned to a grin and Peyton had to force a smile of his own away. “It’s good that you’re finally branching out to spend time with other people,” she said. “We really are happy that you’re spending more time with us.”
“Yeah, definitely! You know— Avery and me didn’t really have all that many friends in the City. In the Academy or back in Cascadefalls— the district we grew up in. We mostly just kept to ourselves— to each other, you know? And— well, we didn’t spend long enough in the Academy to make a lot of friends. Everyone here is too old to really hang out with, you know? So the both of us are glad there’s someone actually our age here now— and actually willing to put up with us.”
“Oh. I— I guess.” She did have a point. He did kind of miss having conversations with people close to his age. It was… nice. Maybe if they’d known each other in the Academy, things would have been a little different.
The sound of a door slamming took Peyton out of his thoughts. Avery came out of the house with free hands and a bright smile. “He said we can go,” she said. “And Peyton, he also said that the potatoes you gave him were fine.”
“That— that’s good.”
“Anyway,” Blake said. “Let’s not stand around here talking and being useless all day, right? Let’s actually go and do something… sort of productive. Or fun, at least. We’ll lead the way, Peyton. Just follow us and you’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” Peyton watched Avery and Blake turn and start to walk off, hesitating for a moment before he finally picked his feet off the ground and followed after them. They weren’t walking very fast at all, so it wasn’t too hard to keep up. Thankfully. Sometimes just walking felt absolutely exhausting for him these days.
A warm, silent dewyness hung in the air, like it was the beginning of summer instead of well into autumn. It wasn’t unpleasant, but still unusual… if it was so humid, then why wouldn’t it rain? Especially since it hadn’t rained for a long while, and rain was supposed to happen more in the fall. Or maybe it was more humid because of the river. That did make sense, didn’t it? Peyton looked up. “H-hey— you guys?”
Blake turned around and raised her eyebrows. “Hm?”
“Has it— you know— has it rained since you’ve gotten here? I was wondering, because… I don’t think it has since Nikita and I entered the Outskirts. It’s… supposed to rain a lot in the fall.”
Blake and Avery exchanged glances. Then Avery shrugged. “We’re… actually not too sure about that,” she said. “We think it has once or twice, not counting little drizzles here and there. Yeah. One or two real storms.” She looked up like she expected a downpour to crash from the perfectly blue sky at any moment. “You’re right that it usually rains more this time of year, though. But maybe it rains more in the City, for some reason.”
Blake crossed her arms, kicking at the dirt. “You aren’t asking for it to rain, are you, Peyton? You realize that the roof leaks when it rains too hard. Avery found that out the hard way. One of the cracks is right above her bed. You better hope that there aren’t any above yours.”
“W-well… I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out the next time it rains or something. Hopefully there aren’t any holes. I think… I think that’d be a little bit annoying.”
“It is.” Blake shook her head, turning away. “It kinda sucks. It’s a nice house, but it’s not like the City where you can easily repair any leaks or cracks or anything. But at least it keeps us… mostly dry, right? Better than walking around in the open all the time, that’s for sure. Avery and I’ve had enough of that.”
“Y-yeah,” Peyton said. “You’re right.”
“Mm-hmm.” Blake trailed away, walking in silence for a while longer. “But besides that, I like the Outskirts better than the City. At least we don’t have to worry about being in too much danger out here. Not as much as in the Academy, anyway.”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
Blake gave him a look. “What I mean,” she said, “is that the City and the Academy were dangerous. Didn’t you know that? Isn’t that the entire reason you left?”
Peyton curled his fingers into his palm, shrugged and looked down. His slippers were all but worn to the thread, now. Would Taylor be able to repair them? Or make him a new pair of shoes? It was a miracle he hadn’t gotten any bad blisters yet. If he’d known he’d be trekking through the Outskirts when he jumped out that window, he would have brought his shoes with him. He would have brought another outfit with him. And soap, and a toothbrush, and a comb.
“Peyton? Earth to Peyton.”
A pair of fingers snapped an inch away from his face and he flinched. Blake lowered her arm, narrowing her eyes. “You sure you’re feeling okay? You just zoned out for a while there.”
“S-sorry.” He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing the thoughts from his mind. “I guess— I guess I did leave the City because I was in danger. B-but I think I’d go back if I could.”
“Why? You miss your friends?” Avery asked.
Peyton bit his lip. He squeezed his hands against each other, shrugged, and then nodded. “I— I guess. But just like… in general.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. That’s kind of a sore spot for him.” Blake rubbed the back of her neck. “Hey, don’t worry about it, Peyton. You have us now.” Peyton didn’t respond. Blake chuckled, kind of awkwardly. “You don’t want to talk about your past— I get it. But would you be interested in hearing ours? It’s kinda neat, I’d like to think.”
“W-well— I guess. That sounds… interesting.”
“Okay. Great.” She started to walk faster. “It was the… second day of us being at the Academy, I think? Or the third? Either way— it was a few days since we’d enrolled. And we found out pretty instantly that something was wrong.”
“What— what do you mean?”
“Someone disappeared. Maybe multiple someones, actually.” Blake shrugged. “I don’t know the specifics or anything like that— something the City did probably made us forget. But Avery and I knew that we didn’t want to be the ones who disappeared next, so…” she shrugged. “We ended up leaving. It wasn’t that hard to do at all. If you do ever go back to the City, Peyton, maybe tell them to do a little bit of renovation on the walls.”
“O-oh. Okay. I will.”
Blake scoffed again, shaking her head. She began to walk just a bit slower. “We had… there was someone else travelling with us before we came here. Another girl. But we ended up leaving her behind.”
“Wh-why did you do that?”
“Because she was starting to… well, scare us,” Avery replied, cutting in for Blake. “She never was… well, the friendliest of people. But it just got worse after she left with us. So we just left and found this place after a couple of days. We still miss her, though.”
Blake poked her in the side, pouting. “I keep on telling you not to worry. She’s fine.”
“How… how can you be so sure?” Peyton asked.
“I can’t be completely sure. But I do know that she’s too stubborn to just curl into a ball and give up. Trust me— if you knew her, you’d get it.” Blake’s lip cocked up in a mischievous little grin. “She’s gonna show up to this place ready to constantly harp on us sooner or later, I can promise you that.”
It was… nice that Blake was so optimistic for her friend. But in the Outskirts, was stubbornness really enough to get someone through anything? It wasn’t anything like the tales Peyton had been told when he was younger, but it was still dangerous, especially being all alone. Slipping and breaking a bone or something similar could be serious, especially with no one there and nothing to help. What would happen to them then?
Nausea bubbled in Peyton’s stomach, and he grasped his upper arm again. The City had its own issues and problems, but at least it was relatively safe if no one did anything wrong. But if someone did do something wrong… was termination painless compared to a lost person in the Outskirts? It had to be quicker, at least. But neither of them seemed very desirable.
Peyton shivered, digging his fingernails into his arm. Out of nowhere he stuttered, “I… I think I almost got terminated.”
Blake turned to face him, raising her eyebrows. “Really? Is that what they call it— the whole disappearing thing?”
“I— I don’t know. I guess. I think it was.”
“What happened?” Avery said.
Peyton bit his lip. Both Avery and Blake had stopped walking by now, looking at him and him only. Great. “I— I— I think a Seeker bird was chasing me,” he said. “I was probably already in trouble because I’d been taken away for questioning, for… some things. But then I escaped, because I didn’t— I didn’t know what would happen to me, and then I saw the bird, and it was chasing after me, and then… and then I escaped.”
“Oh. I see.” Blake nodded, acting like she understood even though she probably didn’t. “That must’ve been scary. I probably would’ve just curled up and cried.”
A smile twitched onto his face. “Y-yeah. I definitely felt like doing that, too.”
“You did? Well. That isn’t too surprising.”
“What— what do you mean?”
“Nothing. Forget I said anything.” Blake skipped a few feet away. “We’re almost at the rope swing, now. Try to keep up.”
“Um— okay. I will.”
She continued skipping away, a warbly, off-pitch ditty drifting in Peyton’s direction. It made the hairs on the back of his arms and neck stand on end. He rubbed them away. “We don’t… we don’t have to race her, though. Right?”
“No. She’s just… really energetic, that’s all.” The smile didn’t leave Avery as she followed after Blake. “That’s what I love about her, though.”
“Oh.” Peyton swallowed down his apprehension. Blake still skipped ahead of him and Avery, her feet dancing over the mud and leaves like she’d known the Outskirts her entire life. She and Avery must have been here for a while. How long ago had they left? They were the same age as him, which meant they had to have come to the Academy the same time as him, so if they’d escaped from the Academy that must’ve meant they couldn’t have been here for more than a couple months.
It was strange. They acted like they’d been here for much, much longer. Were they really able to adapt that easily? Would they have adapted that well in the Clink? Peyton had been there just a little shorter than they’d been here and even though he was away from that place forever, just the thought of being in there again was enough to spring tears to his eyes. But then again… there wasn’t nearly as much freedom in the Clink as there was in the Outskirts. At least here there was grass to walk on, fresh air to breathe in and a variety of food to eat. If he’d taken a different direction in the tunnel after falling through the trapdoor— if he’d come to the Outskirts first instead of the Clink— would he have done the terrible things he had? Maybe he wouldn’t have.
But then he wouldn’t have met Nikita. She would still be stuck down there. She always said she was grateful to have been given the opportunity to leave, in spite of the circumstances. Maybe he could ask her when she got back from finding food. She’d say she was happy, of course— she always did— but… still. Besides, he wasn’t talking to her as much as he usually did. He’d have to start that up again. He still liked her the most, so it wasn’t like it’d be a chore. Maybe when they got back from the swing, Nikita and the others would be back from getting food, too.
“Blake’ll probably wanna go on it first.” Avery’s voice was light and high-pitched, taking him out his thoughts instantly. “Hope you can wait.”
“O-oh. Sure. I can wait.” The swing. She was talking about the swing. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to go on the swing. It was probably dangerous. What if the branch it was connected to ended up breaking or something? Blake and Avery had done it often and it hadn’t broken… but what if their weight on it constantly had brought the branch or the rope to its breaking point? Then they could fall and get hurt. Then he wouldn’t be able to help them because he knew nothing about first aid. Maybe Taylor would rush to their rescue at the last moment. Or Rowan, or Jules, or Nikita. Fix them right up and everything would be alright. Peyton couldn’t help but smile thinking about it.
“Here we are!”
Peyton dug his feet into the ground to come to a shaky stop. Avery was pointing to a tree, just a couple yards away from the river. And attached to the tree was— oh, yes, it looked just as ratty and used as he assumed it’d be. The ropes had frayed, dirt and moss growing between the fibers, and the block of wood attached to them didn’t look that much better. The tree was gnarled and though it looked sturdy and strong, it also looked old. Was hanging an entire person’s body weight on it really a good idea?
Blake pushed the wooden seat. She watched it swing back and forth a few times, and grinned at Peyton. “Isn’t it great?”
“Um— yeah. It is… great.”
Blake slapped the seat, stopping its aimless dangling. “It’s a lot more durable than it looks. Trust me.”
“I… I guess.” Peyton shrugged, fiddling with his hands. “Hey— if you guys only came here just recently, and you’re the only kids here besides me, then— wh-who put up the rope swing? And why? It looks like it’s old.”
“Rowan did, I’m pretty sure.”
“Yeah. Taylor told me he did, when she first showed me. Heck if I know why, though.” Blake climbed onto the swing and kicked her feet into the dirt. “Little help here.”
Avery stepped forward and pushed Blake’s back, creating a steady rhythm as Blake started to swing. “Maybe adults like swinging, too,” she said. “That’s likely, right? I mean— even adults like to have fun, sometimes. You remember how Ma and Pops used to be.”
Blake’s smile dropped off her face. “Yeah. I do. I… I miss them.”
Avery pursed her lips. “Yeah,” she said after a while, still pushing. “I miss them, too. Do you think they… know?”
“They don’t. It’s not like they were talking to us any after we left for the Academy.” Blake scoffed, kicking her legs to the sky as Avery gave her a particularly strong shove. “It feels like we have this conversation every other week. Can’t we talk about something else?”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.” Avery pushed Blake a few more times. The creaking of the branch was the only thing breaking the silence— and then Avery glanced over to Peyton. “Did you have a good relationship with your parents?” she asked. “Ours were basically our best friends. Older than most City parents. They got us right at the age cutoff— raised like three other kids before us, or something. But they were still great.”
Peyton tensed, tried to relax and failed. “Um— w-well, yeah. I liked them. They were… so nice to me. They were always so kind and loving and…” he trailed off, swallowing the lump in his throat. “I— I don’t know how many kids they had. Th-they always acted like I was their first, b-but…”
Avery stopped pushing Blake as hard. Blake slowed down enough that she was able to stare at Peyton, raising her eyebrow. “But?”
“B-but… I— I don’t know.” He wrapped his arms around himself and turned away. “I… I don’t— I don’t think I want to talk about this. Sorry.”
Avery stopped pushing Blake. “Sorry. We… didn’t mean to upset you. We should know your soft spots by now. Um. Do you… wanna talk about something else, then? We didn’t mean to chase you away.”
“It’s… it’s alright. I know you didn’t mean to chase me away. B-but— but let’s just talk about something else. I think— I think that’d make me feel better.”
“Oh. Okay.” The smile flashed back onto Avery’s face. “Wanna try the swing? I think Blake’s probably tired of it by now.”
“Yeah. I’ll let you try it now.” Blake dug her heels into the ground, stopping her swinging at last. “I can push you. Just tell me if I’m going too hard or too soft, okay?”
Peyton sidled back. “Um— I’m not sure. It— it looks kind of dangerous.”
“It’s not dangerous at all. Didn’t you just see me on it? Come on. I’ll show you.” Blake got up and walked over, holding a hand out to him. “You can just sit on it at first. Then I’ll push you a bit, see how you like it. That sound good?”
“W-well… okay. I guess— I guess that it does. But not too high. Don’t swing too high.” Peyton let her take his hand. It was warm and clammy.
Blake guided him to the swing, reached up to rest her hands on his shoulders, and slowly lowered him onto the seat. “There. You’re sitting on it. Not that bad? The world isn’t ending?”
Peyton scooched back a little, reaching up to grab the ropes on either side of him. The twine between his fingers felt… odd. Slimy and dry at the same time. Broken, askew strands of the thing poked into his palms and fingertips. The seat was harder than he’d expected it to be, but it still sagged a little bit under his body weight. None of it was… exactly painful, but it wasn’t very comfortable either. “I— I guess it’s okay,” Peyton said. “It feels— it does feel a little bit weird, though. Like— the rope and the seat.”
“Yeah. It can take a little bit to get used to it. I was thinking about putting a cushion on the seat or something, but then it’d probably just get moldy when it rained. Just consider it extra authenticity.” She walked out of Peyton’s line of sight.
Peyton twisted to look for her. “Wh-where are you—”
A pair of hands planted right in the center of his back and pushed, hard. Peyton squeaked and lurched forward and if it weren’t for him gripping onto the ropes like a lifeline he would have undoubtedly tumbled to the ground. But he went up, already swinging a lot higher than he would have preferred to be swinging, but before he could recapture his breath and tell Blake to slow down, she was pushing him again. Peyton ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut, torn between curling his legs up to the seat and digging his heels into the ground to stop himself. Every time he swung back down his stomach twisted. He was going to vomit. Or maybe he would fall and break every bone in his body. Or—
“Don’t close your eyes, Peyton! Looking makes it more fun!”
Even as he was plummeting what felt like a hundred feet to the ground, Peyton cracked one eye open— clenched it back shut as Blake pushed him again, a bit gentler this time— opened it again. Then both of his eyes. He could see— the trees, the treetops, the sky, and then he was falling again, everything becoming a blur of blue and brown and green.
“You’re doing great, Peyton. Just keep your eyes open! Oh— and kick your legs out when I push you so you can go a little higher!”
Oh. He got it now. Peyton relaxed a little, even with the wind flying past his face and his stomach jumping to his throat and dropping to his feet every other second. He swung back down, the wind buffeting his hair— Blake pushed him and on less than a second of thought he kicked his feet out, the added momentum carrying him just a bit higher in the open air.
He squeezed his eyes shut, but a wide, uncontrollable smile stretched across his face as he swung down. Again, Blake pushed him— she and Avery were still cheering and clapping— and Peyton let himself go just a little higher. “It’s fun, isn’t it?” he could hear Blake yell.
Peyton nodded, a giggle bursting from his throat. “Y-yeah! It’s fun! It’s really fun!”
Another shove. Peyton flashed his eyes open. The sky was bright blue, and the forest— the forest— someone was walking around in the forest. The clothing— the hair, long and black— Nikita! She was walking around aimlessly, as if looking for something. Peyton’s breath hitched in his throat. He couldn’t get anything out; he couldn’t move his hands off the swing ropes or turn himself around to tell Blake to stop swinging. The wind stung his eyes and made his ears ring, but he just kept on staring. Then Nikita looked toward him.
He was light and weightless— lighter and more weightless than he’d been before, ascending, ascending— and then he was falling, falling hard. There was the sky, and then the treetops, and then the trees itself and then— a shock of white, the grass, bright green and shivering. Dirt, then air, mud, bumps and twinges of pain— and then he was laying flat, the sky twisting above him.
Stomping and yelling, through a thick, cloudy haze. It sounded like it was coming from Avery and Blake. Peyton groaned. Left arm, right arm— right leg, let leg. Everything felt alright, or at least alright enough that he could push himself up from the ground. He sat up, touched his face. His fingers came away… wet. Wet, warm, and sticky. Was he… bleeding?
He hiccuped, another moan bubbling behind his lips. He wiped his sleeve over his eye before he opened them, blinking the smudged mess of greens and browns away. Then he looked down.
His hand— it was absolutely caked in thick, sticky filth. His entire body was. His hands, his clothing, his feet— when he ran his fingers through his hair it felt wet and tacky, too. A salty, almost bitter taste lined the top of his gritty and heavy tongue. He’d eaten some of it. He’d fallen off the swing and rolled in, eaten the mud. All of that had happened in front of Avery and Blake. And probably Nikita, too. He should’ve just stayed at the potatoes.
“Peyton! Peyton— are you okay?”
A pair of hands grasped onto his shoulders and the momentum sent him keeling forward. “Peyton,” the voice— Blake— said again. “Are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?”
The hands on his shoulder went away, only to shove themselves into his face. He pushed them away, blinked a couple times. “I— I’m okay,” he breathed. “I just fell. That’s all it is.”
“Really? You sure?”
Peyton wiped the mud off his nose and nodded again.
“Okay. If you say so.” A pause. “Alright. If you’re okay— can I just say— that was amazing?”
“Yeah! You did, like— a whole three-sixty before you hit the ground. And then it looked like you were breakdancing when you—” she broke off and laughed again. “Oh, gosh. I’m sorry. It was great. I would’ve looked a lot worse if I fell like you did.”
He looked away, his cheeks going hot. “N-no. You probably wouldn’t’ve.”
“Yeah, no. I’d be so dizzy and discombobulated and everything. You handled it like a champ.” She grabbed his hand. “Uh… come on. I’ll help you up. We should… probably take you to the river to get you cleaned up or something, right?”
“O-oh. Yeah.” Peyton twisted around, looking past his shoulder. The swing was still fluctuating back and forth, about one or two yards or so away from him. He’d only flown that far? It felt like so much more when he’d been tumbling through the air and rolling through the grass. He’d been making such a big deal over nothing. He tried to rub the heat from his cheeks with his free hand, but he only succeeded in getting more mud on his face.
Blake squeezed his hand, her mud-coated fingers slipping against his. She giggled. “Hey— come on, Peyton. Avery’s waiting for us.”
His arm raised above his head as Blake stood, tugging him in a feeble attempt to make him get to his feet as well. He clambered to stand up— and then he lost his footing. He stumbled forward, and if it weren’t for Blake holding out her arms to hold him back, he would have undoubtedly crashed into her and sent them both to the dirt. His face flushed hot and he took a few steps back, training his eyes on the mud he’d just slipped in. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
Blake shifted her weight from side to side. Raised a hand, stopping it at his face. Slowly, gently, she pulled Peyton’s stringy, muddy strands of hair away from his temples and cheeks. She lowered her hand to rest it on his shoulder, squeezing it slightly. Then she laughed. “Gosh, Peyton— you are just so cute, you know that?”
Peyton’s heart rate spiked. Avery was laughing behind him too, bright and tinkly. Something about that made him laugh as well. He looked down and fiddled with the bottom of his filthy shirt. “Well… th-thank you, I guess.”
Blake just laughed again. She squeezed his shoulder, quickly, softly, before she stepped back. Her cheeks were ruddy and glowing, sweat- and mud-covered hair sticking to them. She brushed it away and looked at the ground, that shy little smile never leaving her face. “Um— let’s go… get you cleaned up, right?”
“Oh. Oh, yeah. You’re right.” That idiotic grin was still spread across his face, he could feel it. Blake took her hand in his again and started her way to the river, Avery following right behind them. The insects and birds sang, but the only sounds worth paying attention to in that moment were their footsteps and the short, giggles still occasionally bubbling from their lips.
Peyton didn’t know if he’d ever fallen to the ground after he’d flown off that swing. He didn’t even mind his pants sticking to his legs or the grass tickling at his ankles as he and Blake approached the little creek. He lowered himself to his knees and cupped some of the water in his hands, rubbing it all over his face. The dirt and sludge that had settled there had started to set and harden, and feeling it soften and wash away was the most satisfied he’d felt in days. He shook his head to dry away the water and Blake used her sleeve to daub away some droplets on his chin. He laughed again. Swiping the hair away from his face, he looked up and attempted to actually straighten his face, to look just a bit more serious for once— then his expression dropped itself for him.
Nikita was standing by the other side of the river. How could he have forgotten about her? She was the whole reason he’d lost his nerve and ended up falling off the swing in the first place. The warmth that had disappeared from his face came to life again, no doubt turning his cheeks a healthy scarlet. He wiped the last few strands of hair from his forehead and temples, smiled brightly, and waved.
She didn’t smile or wave back. But she did walk over. Her eyes flickered between Peyton and Blake, each glance just a little longer than the last. “What are you two doing?” she asked. “Well, I guess the better question would be: what were you two doing?”
Blake rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. “Well… you see, Niki— me and Avery and Peyton were playing on the swings before. And… I think maybe when it was Peyton’s turn, I pushed him just a little bit too high, because—”
“—because I fell off the swing and rolled into the mud.” Peyton looked down, fiddling with the hem of his shirt. “But it’s alright. I’m getting cleaned up. And I didn’t get hurt. So… you don’t have to worry, Nikita. I’m fine.”
He expected Nikita to nod, to smile, to tell him that it was alright and that she was glad he was okay, that she was glad he finally made new friends. But she didn’t. She motioned for him to stand, already in the process of turning away. “Come with me.”
Peyton opened his mouth, closed it, looked at Blake. Blake raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Well… he didn’t want to keep Nikita waiting, get her upset. He clambered to his feet. Nikita didn’t bother looking back to see if he was following before she was walking off, back into the shadows of the dense trees. Peyton waved at Blake and Avery. They waved back. Peyton offered them one last smile, before he’d jumped the creek and trailed behind Nikita.
It wasn’t until they were well into the forest that she spoke again. “You’re a mess, Peyton.”
Peyton wiped his face and combed his hand through his hair. Some flecks of mud stuck to his fingers, dirt still plugged up under his nails. It was almost funny. Just a few months ago the thought of getting so dirty would have horrified him, and now he was barely phased by it. He had to keep himself from laughing. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I am a mess. But… don’t worry about it. I can clean myself up. I was actually doing that before you came to get me.”
“That isn’t what I’m talking about, Peyton.”
“Oh. Then… then what’s the issue, then?”
Nikita finally turned to face him. Her lips were pressed together, a crease etched in between her eyebrows. Her jaw clenched, wobbled from side to side. “Weren’t you just scared of Blake a few days ago?”
“When’re you talking about?”
“When she asked you why we had come over here, Peyton. Don’t you remember?”
Oh, yes… of course he remembered. How could he have forgotten? He had ended up making a fool out of himself in front of everybody. He rubbed his cheek, staring at his sullied slippers. “I do remember. Of course I do. But… I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”
“You were afraid of her just a few weeks ago. And now you’re acting like you’ve been her closest friend for years. I saw her pushing you too high. I saw her pushing herself into your space, even when it was clear you were okay.” She crossed her arms over her chest, uncrossed them, held a hand above Peyton’s shoulder. “Is there something you want to talk to me about?”
“Well… no. Not really. Nothing is the matter. I know I was scared of her before, but— but now she’s my friend. You really don’t have to worry about me, Nikita. I’m okay.”
She didn’t look convinced. If anything, her frown only grew deeper. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because… she’s nice. She’s nice and supporting. And so is Avery. They told me that they wanted to be my friends. And… and Blake apologized for scaring me, too.”
Nikita pursed her lips, glancing to the side. “Your friends back in the City were nice, too. Weren’t they?”
Peyton faltered. He rubbed his upper arm, staring at the ground. “Well— yes,” he said. “They were. They were nice. But… I don’t see what that has to do with—”
“And even though they were nice, they still ended up hurting you. Right, Peyton?”
Peyton winced. His tongue felt like stone, his lips suddenly dry. “Well— yeah, I guess. But— I don’t— it’s not really the same.”
“How is it not?”
Peyton squeezed his hands against each other, his heart thrumming in his throat. “B-because Blake and Avery like me. They said they did. They told me.”
Nikita rested a hand on his shoulder, rubbing it. “People can say things they don’t really believe, Peyton. And I’m not even saying that Avery and Blake are trying to be mean to you. I’m sure they actually really do like you, and want to be your friend.”
He looked up at her, backing away so that her arm slipped off his shoulder. “Then what’s the problem?”
Nikita’s hand remained suspended in the air for a moment, until she slowly lowered it. She searched Peyton’s face for a few, long moments. “I’m just concerned about you, that’s all. Concerned for you and them.”
Peyton rubbed his arm again. “Why? You don’t have to be. I’m okay. It’s not like she meant for me to fall off the swing, or anything.”
“I’m not just talking about that.” Nikita touched the side of his face, right by his hair, and her fingertip drew away stained with mud. She flicked it away. “Teenagers are finicky things, Peyton. You never can know what they really like or want— or if that’s the thing that they’re going to like or want a week from today. You can never tell if they’ll just turn on you for no reason at all. That can end up hurting people. That can end up hurting you.”
“Well— I know that. But… they like me. I don’t think they want to hurt me. Even if they end up not liking me after a while.” He swallowed, but his heart stayed in his throat. He looked down. “And… and I don’t want to hurt them. I just want to be friends with them.”
Nikita didn’t say anything. Peyton wasn’t sure if he wanted to look up at her, to see the expression on her face. But he did anyway. Nikita returned his stare. She looked… sad. Disappointed. She opened her mouth. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to hurt Sawyer either, Peyton. And we both know how that ended up.”
The world crumbled. Peyton gagged, then coughed, clenching his teeth so hard that his jaw throbbed and his vision warped. “I didn’t— I d-didn’t—!”
“I know you didn’t mean to. But you still did. I’m sure you regret it, but it still happened.” She dropped her hand from his head, leaving him naked— exposed. “Do you want to hurt one of them like you did him, Peyton? Or do you want one of them to get the chance to hurt you, like your friends in the City did? That’s how you got sent down to the Clink in the first place, isn’t it?”
It was hard to breathe. Peyton pressed his hands into his eyes, shaking his head. His throat whistled as he sucked air in, each breath more difficult and more painful than the last. “N-no! I didn’t! I didn’t! I don’t— I d-don’t— I don’t—”
“Shh. I know you didn’t mean to. I know you don’t want to do that again.” Nikita wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close to her chest. “I don’t want that to happen, either. Which is why I’m talking to you about this now, before it’s too late.”
Peyton hiccuped, coughing as the pit in his stomach grew bigger. He grasped the fabric of Nikita’s shirt and pulled himself closer. “B-but I want— they want— they like me. I don’t want— I don’t w-want them not to. ”
“Don’t you want them to be safe more than you want them to be your friends? Anything can go wrong, no matter how much you like each other.” She squeezed harder. “It isn’t fair to risk their safety— their lives— just because you want them to like you, is it?”
She was right. He knew she was right. He didn’t want her to be but she was. He coughed, squeezing his eyes shut, and pushed his face into her chest. “I— I know. I’m s-s-sorry. I’ll— I won’t do it again. I promise. I promise.”
Nikita pushed her fingers into his muddy hair, massaging his scalp. “I’m not saying you can never talk to them again, Peyton. I want you to be happy. And if that means talking to Avery and Blake, then that’s what I want you to do. But I also want you to be safe. And for you to be safe— well, I just don’t think getting very close to them is a good idea.”
Peyton sniffed. His eyes stung no matter how many times he blinked. “Wh-what am I supposed to do, then? I didn’t— I d-don’t want to—”
“Just stay with me.” Nikita rubbed the nape of his neck. “You can still talk to them, but make sure you stay with me. And if something happens with them, come to me. Okay? I’ll keep you safe. I’m patient. I won’t leave you like they might.”
“O-okay. Okay. I— I will.”
Nikita ruffled his hair. It did nothing to make him feel better. His limbs felt heavy, like they’d been forged out of stone and iron instead of flesh and bone. He pulled away from her, wiping the dirt and tears from his face. He hiccuped again. “I— I’m t-tired.”
“I know you are, Peyton. But we have to get you cleaned up first. You can’t lay down in the bed all covered in mud.”
She was right. He had to get all the mud from tumbling in the dirt washed off him first. He ducked his head, unable to look Nikita in the eye. “Wash up by… w-wash up by the stream?”
“If that’s what you want to do. That’s where we usually bathe, isn’t it?”
“But— b-but Avery and Bl-Blake might still be there. I don’t…”
Nikita didn’t say anything. Peyton forced himself to look up at her. Her expression was soft, but carefully guarded as she reached up to touch his face. “We’ll go to another part of the river, then. It’ll be alright.”
Peyton only nodded. Nikita put a hand between his shoulder blades, guiding him through the trees— farther away from Avery and Blake. He still looked around, heart half-lodged in his throat, even as the forest thinned to reveal the river and it was clear that they were alone, even as Nikita coaxed him to the ground.
He planted his hands into the riverbank, staring at his warped, wiggling reflection in the murky creek. He couldn’t see himself clearly. The house didn’t have any mirrors, and neither had the Clink. He couldn’t remember really utilizing any mirrors back in the Academy, either. It’d been so long— he didn’t know what he looked like, anymore.
“Are you going to clean yourself up, Peyton? Or do you want me to help you?”
Peyton pushed his hands into the water, the chill of it snaking around his fingers. His head hurt. “C-can— can you help me?”
Nikita was already dipping her hands into the creek. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll always help if you want me to.”
Nikita cleaned his hair, arms and legs, and Peyton only moved when she asked him to. It probably didn’t take any longer than ten minutes, but it felt a lot longer. When they were finished, the horizon was just starting to tinge itself yellow, and the air had a nip to it. It was going to be nighttime soon and they weren’t even back at the house yet. Peyton glanced up at Nikita, looked away. “My clothes… my clothes’re— they’re still d-dirty.”
“I know, Peyton. But we can’t wash them right now. We’ll get you a new set when we make it back, okay? I’ll ask and see if they have any shoes you can wear, too.” She pat his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
He got up and followed her. The walk back to the house was much, much too short for his liking. His head still hurt, and simply thinking about why it could be hurting made his stomach sore, too. His knees wobbled and the muck under his feet squelched and slipped. Any appetite he might’ve had was all but gone, now. He didn’t want to go into the house. He didn’t want to face Rowan, or Taylor, or Avery and Blake, be forced to look them in the eye.
His legs grew heavier and heavier as the dim orange glow of a fire came to sight. If Nikita hadn’t been right next to him, then… maybe he would’ve stayed in the forest until someone finally noticed him— which would have hopefully been never. But Nikita was here with him, and she spurred him forward until they were right at the edge of the yard, close enough for the winking fire to make them clearly visible against the dying daylight. Peyton’s feet cemented to the ground. Nikita put a hand on the small of his back, nudging him forward. “Go on. Just go straight upstairs if you’re nervous. I’ll be up there in a couple of minutes, alright?”
Peyton’s voice lodged in his throat, his stomach twisted into thick, heavy knots. He nodded. “O-okay. Okay. I will.”
Step after step, he forced himself to the door. He twisted the knob and shoved the ajar door completely open, the screeching hinges sending his ears to ring. The frantic dancing of lit lanterns and candles filled the room with eerie orange light— but no people to be seen. The floor creaked under his muddy feet as he crept up the stairs. It didn’t sound like there was anyone up here, either—
Frozen. His heart pumped slush as he turned around. “H-huh?”
“Glad to see you’re back.” Blake took a step through her room’s doorway, then paused. “Is… is Nikita back, too?”
The hallway was too small, too long. It was too narrow for him to back away. All the doors were shut. His room was all the way at the end. He couldn’t escape. He was stuck here, stuck here talking to Blake.
She blinked at him a couple times. “Uh… Peyton? You okay? Nikita came back with you, right?”
“Oh. Well… that’s good.” Pause. “Are you alright? What happened?”
Blake put a hand on his shoulder. Immediately, he backed away, digging fingernail-shaped grooves into his upper arms. “I— I’m fine. I’m fine. Pl-please— please just leave me alone. I’m f-fine.”
Blake frowned, her hand raising to his again. “You don’t… look fine.”
Peyton took in a few deep breaths. It barely did anything. Blake’s frown only deepened, confusion flickering in her eyes. Confusion, and something else— fear? Pain? Was he doing something to her? He didn’t want to do that. He didn’t. He didn’t. He had to leave.
“Peyton? Talk to me. Avery and I are your friends now, remember?”
Peyton closed his eyes, covered his face, turned away. “I have to— I h-have to go. I have to go. S-sorry.”
But he had already flown down the hallway, one of his hands groping blindly for his and Nikita’s doorknob. He threw it open the second his fingers closed around it, and then slammed it shut behind him.
The frame of the house shook. Time stood still. No footsteps. No voices. No sounds except for his heavy breathing and the torturous hum of regret in his ears. Blake wasn’t coming for him. That… that was good. It was. She couldn’t be worrying about him. She couldn’t. He’d hurt her. Like he’d hurt Sawyer. Then everyone would hate him— and rightfully so, too.
The weakened, rusty springs of the mattress groaned under his weight as he threw himself onto it, wrapping himself with the blanket. He buried his face into the pillow and sniffed, unable to hold his tears in for any longer. His headache was only getting more and more inflammatory, painful colors flickering behind his eyelids. But at least he was in here now, where he couldn’t easily hurt anyone anymore. He couldn’t hurt anyone if he was alone.
But he couldn’t stay in here forever. He’d have to leave eventually, face Avery and Blake and Taylor and Rowan and all of the others. If that moment never came, then it would be too soon. Peyton closed his eyes, curling himself up tighter in the sheets. He just wanted Nikita to come upstairs and be here with him. She’d make everything right. She’d make him happy again. But he’d been happy before, when he’d been playing with Avery and Blake… it was only when Nikita had confronted him that he’d gotten sad again. Had she… had she accidentally made him sad?
No. She knew what she was doing. She wanted him to be happy. She told him that. She didn’t want him to end up hurting anyone again. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. She knew that. She was trying to help him. She was. She was. Even if it meant that he couldn’t talk to anyone ever again. She was helping him.
P r e v i o u s N e x t