"You know who they are?" I couldn't lie. A mild feeling of betrayal washed over me. Why couldn't she have told me about them before?
"I told you to watch me and follow me for now. I didn't tell you to take this road for no reason. I have friends here," she rolled her eyes and gestured at me to go on. I held my tongue and did as ordered but with reluctance. It was a relief to find safety in this godforsaken place at night, but that didn't stop me from feeling bitter at the girl for not saving me from the hours of agony spent floundering in the sloughs of terror and anxiety. Had she just told me one reassuring sentence. One.
We pulled up right beside the large camping van parked on the roadside. There was a man already outside, waiting for us to come out. Though the dark had settled and he had on a loose t-shirt covering all of his upper body, I could still observe the fine contour of his well-built body behind the thin fabric. 'DAMN', the gray t-shirt read. Yes. Damn.
"Heyo, Sica. How you been?" the buff man greeted Jessica with a wide, pearly grin hanging from ear to ear. Sica? Really?
"Fine and dandy, Jos," Jessica ran up to him and gave him a firm hug. I stood there awkwardly and studied the rocks and grains on the ground like they were suddenly the most interesting items in the world. They were more than just acquaintances; I was the odd one out, a mere stranger.
"So this' the plus one you've told me about?" the man Jessica called Jos pointed at me, not in a rude way, but just to get assurance. I stepped up to him and offered him a hand for him to shake before Jessica could speak in my stead.
"Yes. I'm Erik Becker," I tried on a smile. It must have looked hideous because I was eagerly attempting to hide the nervousness behind it and was failing miserably.
"And I'm Josiah. Josiah Nolett. Nice to have you here, man," he responded with a good-natured smile. But oh, the grip he had. He must have meant to give me a short, quick handshake but my bones felt dislodged after it happened. I cracked my hand behind my back, putting on a placid face just to hide the embarrassment and some kind of admiration.
"Good, good! We're all acquainted, now. Let's get inside, folks," Jessica came up to us two and grinned.
Before entering the van, however, I turned back and whispered to her: "When did you contact them and how come you told them about me?"
Jessica lightly slapped my back and uttered under her breath, "You passed out after round two, remember? Weak-ass. But you'll make progress." She pinched my cheek impishly.
My face reddened for the millionth time. "Don't you mock me like that."
"Baby steps, darling. Baby steps." Then she disappeared behind the door. I glared at the stray beam of light streaming from the crack in the door for a few seconds, and then forcefully swung it open.
The inside of the camping van was far more snug and well-decorated than anything I had expected. To be honest, the buff guy---Josiah---didn't seem like the one to keep his place nice and tidy, much less ornamented with delicate wooden horse carvings and flower paintings. Never judge a book by its cover, I rebuked myself. Until, well, someone new emerged from the back of the trailer that could be the explanation to all this candied homeliness.
"Well, hello, there," a pale boy with a slim frame and raven black hair sluggishly came up to us. He was wearing an oversized burgundy cardigan that reached down almost to his knees, and a pristine white shirt underneath. A little shorter than myself, the boy seemed around my age but with a more fragile look about him-the bags under his eyes did a huge part. Ah, a fellow insomniac.
Josiah immediately wrapped his arms around the boy's thin shoulders. I could assume their relationship right away. Either boyfriends or husbands. So Josiah was taken.
"Erik, meet Soeun. Soeun, say hi to Erik," he introduced both of us to each other.
"I already kind of did, but yeah, if you wish," Soeun shrugged Josiah's arm off and held out his hand. "Hi."
"Um...hi," I answered pretty awkwardly. Jessica hardly showed any effort to hide the laughter simmering from within her.
"I'm Soeun Jeong. You? Jos didn't tell me your last name so I'd like to hear it if you don't mind," the black-haired boy shook my hand once and promptly retracted his hand, stuffing it in his cardigan pocket like he'd touched something he was hesitant to touch. He was one haughty, talkative guy.
"Becker. But please call me Erik," I scratched my neck and averted my eyes. Whatever this guy was like once I got to know him better, the first impression I received from him was definitely not a pleasing one.
"Sure. I'm happy to meet ya, Erik." He didn't look happy.
"I'm sorry, he's actually a sweetheart, but meeting strangers sets him off, sometimes," Josiah shook his head and asked to be excused, though Soeun's ravishing face behind him morphed into a mask of something in between chagrin and disconcertion.
"Shut your mouth, Josiah Nolett," Soeun punched the big guy on the chest. I was taken by surprise for a moment, but Jessica hummed in my ear:
"They're always like that. Don't mind it."
"Baby, I get bruises, you know that?" Josiah complained, but his face was filled with pure affection plainly readable by anyone with functioning eyes. That was what sincerely surprised me.
"Okay, stop your love bickering and let's sit down and have a talk. We have some matters to discuss," Jessica clapped her hands, successfully winning the attention of every man aboard the trailer. I obliged and found myself a spot on the couch to plump down on. God, did it feel so ethereal to sit on a cushiony sofa; driving eight hours straight did no good to my ass or spine. The peculiar mixture of acute pain and numbness dissolved instantaneously as I leaned on the back of the couch and let out a blissful sigh. Jessica sat right next to me, arms crossed and legs also. Josiah and Soeun chose the other side, on two green armchairs apparently made for the two of them.
Soeun chucked an apple my way out of the blue. I would have seized it with the bones of my nose had my reflexes not been swift enough to catch it in my hand mid-air. Jesus, what was wrong with that guy?
"Eat it, you look famished," Soeun half-ordered, throwing another at Jessica and then taking a bite out of his. It was out of good will, but the method induced serious doubts out of me. How Josiah Nolett came to fall in love with the guy was a wonder. Though I must admit, his face was that of a celestial beauty's. Perhaps the process was similar to how Jessica had approached me and threatened me to take her with me to Elysia.
Elysia. Yes. I remembered. We were here for Elysia.
I sat forward, sudden fervor flashing in my pupils. "Thank you for letting us in, thanks for taking us in. But I don't quite grasp the situation here because Jessica hasn't even told me about you guys."
Soeun gulped down his lump of apple and shrugged. "Simple. We give you fuel, water, supplies and anything else you might need on the trip, and we say our farewells."
"And let you stay here for the night," Josiah added.
"Jos, I have not agreed to that," Soeun shot a hot glance at his lover.
"Guys, you can go one day without screwing, alright? We'll stay quiet and we won't take up too much space. Erik and I...," Jessica suggestively eyed me. "Can do intimate." My ears rang.
Soeun narrowed his eyes at us and exchanged glances with Josiah. Then they simultaneously broke into a knowing grin. "You always had a thing for blonds," Josiah chuckled.
"Hey, that's not the important part," I shattered the subtle atmosphere. "Why do you even help us at all?"
"Well, that's a long story, kid," Josiah sat back and pulled out a cigarette. "Mind if I...?"
"Yeah," I frankly replied. "Not indoors, please." Josiah nodded and put it back in his pocket. Soeun and Jessica turned to look at my face like they couldn't believe what I had just done. Well, I'm not a fan of smoking. So what? I avoided their questioning stare. "But tell me everything."
Josiah cleared his throat once and started his story. "As soon as the government began falling apart due to the War, the provisional government employed supply runners for the citizens in the evacuation shelter, and I was one of them. But my job didn't last long because the War destroyed just about everything and all the shelters became the target of the hostiles. I still kept doing what I did, though, although I was practically a non-profit freelancer in supply running. I knew where the canned goods were, where the water was, where all the gears for survival were, so I used that knowledge and strength to help people. Along with my...my ex-husband, Troy.
"Troy was a good-hearted man. We were truly in love with each other, and what we did. But one day...a missile from the hostiles hit his area and he was found dead the next day. In pieces. I was utterly devastated, body and soul," the solemn glint in his eyes served to mute me at once. This man had profound hurt within himself, and spilling that past out at this moment had to be burdensome beyond words.
"That was when Sica found me. She could have just passed me by, but she stopped in the way and handed me a handkerchief to cry into. When no one else was giving a damn about a man who had lost his other half. She gave it to me without a word and then left. But I couldn't let her go just like that. I had to reciprocate this gratitude I felt for her, so I volunteered to become a personal runner for her."
That was a whole new side of Jessica I could not have known without the story Josiah had just told me. So far, I only knew her as a car-thief, gun-bearer, and a heartless psychopath who exuded extreme sexual air like a winged creature emanating pheromone, but what I had just heard did change my view of her as a human being. Jessica did have compassion somewhere tucked away inside her heart covered in icy, sometimes fiery, armor. I gave my attention to Jessica, who was studying her chipped red nail polished with an uninterested look on her face.
"That's not all. Jess introduced me to Jos," Soeun took another bite out of his apple and before chewing it, shared it mouth-to-mouth with his lover and then broke it in half with his teeth. An unnecessary excuse for a kiss, I mused to myself. A triumphant smile, for some reason, was adorning his face. I raised my eyebrow, unable to comprehend the meaning behind the action. "I was one of the citizens that survived the bombing. Jess found me stuck under a fallen column and helped me out, even when she could have just left me to die and stolen my things. My cooking pan, my handy lighter, some food I had in my bag and such. I used to be a chef, so, yeah."
"But you're a thief," I eyed Jessica, quizzical.
Jessica pushed my face away with her fingertip and spat: "Only selectively to rich boys, jackass."
"Anyway, she linked me with her supplier, which happened to be Jos, and we'd been in love ever since." A bashful glow of pink rose under the dark shadows beneath his eyes. "That's why we owe Jess. We'd do anything for her if she asked."
"Alright, then. That's one new thing I learned about this mystery girl," I sent an inexplicable glance at Jessica to which she playfully bared her teeth.
"Speaking of which, how have you been doing, Sica?" Josiah asked with interest twinkling in his eyes.
"Nothin' much exhilarating aside from meeting this dork," she pointed at me with her thumb. "I've finally found a partner to share my journey to Elysia with, so I guess that's good news."
"Congrats on that, Jess," Soeun nodded. "Though our Erik here should prove himself if he can withstand such a long, tedious journey." That son of a bitch was getting on my nerves again.
"He'll learn," Jessica laughed it off before I could protest in anger. "Like he did quickly on the bed."
"Are you fucking seri---,"
"Fine, fine, I won't talk about it," Jessica tapped my shoulder twice to assuage my skyrocketing embarrassment and plummeting reputation.
"Well, would you like some tea? Or coffee? Snacks? We're short on nibbles in general but as you guys are special guests I can manage," Soeun got to his feet and looked around the three of them, seeking for an answer. Huh, who knew this boy could be so hospitable.
"Just water, thanks," I replied dryly.
"Coffee sounds lovely," Jessica winked.
"One for me, too, honey. And I'll bring the bread," Josiah followed Soeun down to the kitchen. It was kind of obvious what they were going for, so I leaned back on the couch, closing my strained eyes and consciously curtaining my mind from the distant sound of the two making out in the kitchen area. Jessica tittered softly and shifted her position so that her elbow was on top of the headrest and her face was looking straight at my profile.
"Aren't they a cute couple?"
"I don't understand how Josiah stands that Soeun guy. He's a pretty face with a hell of an attitude," I grumbled.
"Are you describing yourself?" she tilted her head, amused.
"You're kidding," I glared at her.
"Yes, I am," she giggled at leaned in closer until her soft fruity breaths tickled my cheek. "You're a half-pretty face because of that bandage covering your entire left side."
"Aw, fuck off," I swat her away with my hand. She was just messing around. The rather wild night we had shared before left my face in an even more aggravated condition, and when I woke up, there were bandages cleanly stuck on my face thanks to Jessica's work while I was blacked out and splayed out on the bed. "But thanks for taking care of me," I timidly added.
"No problem, darling," she pecked a bird kiss on my ear and blew air into it. I yelped and winced; it was...it wasn't uncalled for, but not expected.
While everyone on the trailer was distracted by some type of romantic act, there was another car approaching them at full speed. At a menacing velocity, the white sedan was advancing on the two parked vehicles full of people with no idea in what kind of brand-new crisis was about to befall them. Brand-new to everyone except for one individual.
"I see 'em," he murmured as the distance between his car and the two blinking yellow lights became narrower and narrower. It was time. Finally a chance to seize the moment, seize the bitch. His bitch.
"So I get to see my ex after all this time," the woman sitting next to the man gritted her teeth and glared straight at the lights in front of them.
Letting the car come to a stop a few hundred yards away from the camping van, the man jumped out of it and loaded his rifle with the rarest and most precious ammunition he had obtained at the black market. The rifle itself was a picturesque rarity, too. He grinned to himself, certain that he wouldn't fail this time.
While the woman stayed in the car, assessing the situation, the man approached the vehicles in long, proud strides and halted when he got close enough. Then he held up his gun, aligned the scope with the left back tire of the black Cadillac, and fired. A thunderous noise boomed from the machine, and he nearly stumbled back from the hefty recoil. A hole the size of a fist was marked on the tire, and he watched pleased as the car sat down, tilted uncomfortably to one odd angle.
Then the man laid my eyes upon the big trailer ahead of him. He bellowed on top of his lungs,
"I'VE COME FOR YOU, JESSICA GARCIA!"
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