* * *
Before the attack, Sam had been a bright, lively girl. I hadn’t really known her well, but looking back, I remembered she smiled a lot, the type of person who cheerfully helped wherever she could. She was particularly good at gathering – nuts, fruits and vegetables – and at caring for those even younger than herself.
I spent a lot of time with her in the weeks following her return. She was in a blind state of shock and had become sombre, silent, unsmiling. Her clear blue eyes held a new, vacant look and her pale, tawny hair hung lank and flat on both sides of her freckled, expressionless face. She needed ongoing support, someone to sit with her during her night terrors, when she screamed with a voice that never followed her into the daylight, and someone to sit with her during the day, in case she managed to find her voice.
We needed information about The Absolute, about where she had been and who the soldiers were, but she needed comfort and patience.
I won’t deceive myself, though. I didn’t stay at her side solely for her sake. I needed her as much as she needed me.
Melis and the team he had left with that fateful morning still hadn’t returned. They weren’t on the list of names sent back with Sam, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t been captured later. It didn’t mean something else hadn’t happened to them, either. The Great Disaster had left the land unstable; they could easily have had an accident. I had also started thinking about the possibility of other rebel groups roaming the globe – rebels that could be either friend or foe.
The longer they stayed away, the more these awful possibilities began to seem likely.
In the meantime, the compound needed to be re-organized and managed. I had to focus on that, for my sake and everyone else’s.
I appointed Nasir, a young man about Melis’ age, as a deputy to act in Melis’ place. Melis had always said Nasir was like a right-hand man to him; organized, responsible, thoughtful. Nasir would re-group those left behind, keep them training, and execute any of Melis’ plans he knew about.
Meanwhile, I had Sam move in with me. While she sat on a wall staring across the sunburnt field, I dragged her mattress out of her room, down dusty corridors and staircases with crumbling mortar pieces, across the open courtyard and into my sparse, grey-walled room. I wasn’t sleeping anyway and at least I would know that she was being watched over.
The screams would claw their way out of her throat each night. I would shake her, trying to dislodge her from her tortured sleep but she slept on as if in desperation. Perhaps re-living her nightmare was her only way to deal with it at first. Or maybe it was just too strong, held her too deeply. I wondered if she had always been such a heavy sleeper.
As if my own thoughts weren’t bad enough.
Everything seems worse at night, all worries magnified. During those terrifying, sleepless nights, I drifted on my imagination and through my memories, allowing them to carry me away from the grey sameness of life in the compound, with its identical, crumbling concrete rooms, its daily routines, its sparseness.
In trying to avoid thoughts about what – or who – The Absolute actually was, I spent a lot of time thinking about my old life. It would start with the memory of a smell – my mother’s cooking, my father’s aftershave, the flowers in the garden; flowers, that was something you didn’t see anymore. I wondered if they would start to grow again, somewhere. Sometimes part of a song would start me off, and before long I would be floating along on the memrories, letting them guide me through parks and picnics, holidays and school days. I indulged myself in the sweet pain the memories brought up, allowing the loneliness and heartache and all the questions about why my parents hadn’t told me the truth, how could they have kept something so huge from me, I allowed it all to carry me away.
No matter how sickened these memories and questions left me, it was better than thinking of the way they had died.
If I wasn’t thinking of my past, I thought of Melis. But that was almost worse. I knew how the other stories ended and knowing was better than not knowing. But Melis, I didn’t know how that was going to end – or if it had already. With him, I had grown from that automaton I had been the day he found me into someone new. Someone I still didn’t quite recognize. But someone stronger, more self-posessed and focused, more aware than I had ever been with my parents. With them, I had not had to think for myself. With Melis, I learned to think, to lead, to grow.
And without him? Without him, I felt more lost than I had those first orphaned days after The Great Disaster.
Thankfully, I never managed to get too morose before Sam started screaming. She gave me purpose. She needed me. She saved me from my thoughts.
As the days stretched out, the compound gradually settled into a new routine. A routine without Melis. A routine with me at the helm.
I wondered about moving, leading everyone somewhere new. The Absolute knew about us, knew our location. I wasn’t sure what else it knew. Did it know, for example, that our leader was gone? Did it have him? And would it be back for the rest of us?
I couldn’t quite bring myself to abandon the compound, not just yet, not without waiting a bit longer for Melis to return. If we moved out and he returned to an abandoned camp, he’d know what we’d done, he’d understand – he’d probably even approve. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. Not yet.