FOR THE ALLY AMBASSADORS.
THANK YOU FOR COMING TO ADRIA!
When the screams come, I can’t be sure that I’m not dreaming.
I bolt upright in bed. The walls are thin, and I can hear the shouting, the force of something being thrown against the outside wall of the cabin, shattering in the place just above my head.
The wall shakes.
The ceiling creaks.
And I roll off the narrow cot, shaking.
I know better than to be afraid, but it’s instinct now as I wrap my arms around my knees, pulling my legs close to my chest. In the age-old war between fight and flight, I’m Team Flight. Even in my thin T-shirt and bare feet I want to run faster and faster, farther and farther until I reach the end of the earth.
But instead I creep toward the window and look out the dirty glass, and a stark truth hits me: I’m already there.
“Is that all you’ve got?” Alexei’s voice slices through the morning air. The sun is up, but the rays have yet to burn through the heavy fog that covers the ground like a blanket fort we can’t help but hide inside.
“I’m gaining on you, buddy,” my brother yells.
“Yeah.” Alexei circles around him. “Let’s see you do it again.”
How many times have I seen them fight like this? Too many for me to count, I’m sure. This is the part where my brother is supposed to launch himself at his best friend, where they are supposed to tumble to the ground, Jamie a little heavier, Alexei a little taller, the two of them a whirl of limbs and strength. But that doesn’t happen.
Instead, my brother takes a step, unsteady and uneven. Then another. And another. It’s like he’s being sucked into quicksand.
Despite the dew on the ground and the chill in the air, sweat gathers on my brother’s brow and his body shakes as he takes an unsteady swing at Alexei, who ducks, then swings back.
Alexei is being gentle with Jamie. That’s how I know that things really are as wrong as I remembered.
Jamie lashes back, but Alexei just pushes Jamie’s fist away.
“Again,” Alexei says, and they resume their positions.
It’s like Alexei’s training a child, a little boy who is a long, long way from being his equal. And the thought makes me want to cry.
The pair of them dance around, maneuvering slowly, until I come into view.
Alexei stops. “Well, I guess the princess decided to join us.”
It’s a joke. A taunt. A tease. The fact that he’s technically correct is what’s supposed to make it funny, but I don’t feel like laughing.
I can barely remember what laughter sounds like.
“Some of us need our beauty sleep,” I taunt back.
“I’ll say,” Jamie comments, and Alexei smacks him on the shoulder in a way that has nothing to do with Jamie’s recovery or his training. Instantly, my brother’s countenance changes.
He looks at Alexei. “Don’t make me hurt you.”
Alexei smiles. “My friend, there is absolutely nothing I would welcome more.”
He means it, and so the next punch is slow but steady. It’s like watching two fighters wearing training wheels. I’m supposed to think that Jamie’s getting stronger, faster. I’m supposed to be pleased with his progress.
But I’m too busy being happy he’s alive.
The slap of skin against skin echoes through the stillness. In the distance, a bird calls. As the fog lifts, a pair of bald eagles swoop across the sky. I’ve seen their big nest on the other side of the island, near the steep stone cliff and rocky ledge. They’ve spent their morning pulling big, fat salmon from the cold water and are now returning to the nest. Safe. Sound. Free.
Not for the first time, I find myself officially envious of birds.
My brother stumbles, catches himself, and doesn’t fall. But he’s slow to regain his balance. He’s still too thin and far too weak.
“Jamie, why don’t you rest for a little bit?” I suggest.
“I just woke up,” he tells me as he slaps at Alexei’s broad shoulders one more time.
“Good,” Alexei says as if he hasn’t heard me. “Again.”
“Jamie,” I say, “you don’t want to push it.”
“No, Gracie.” My brother stops and whirls on me. “That’s exactly what I have to do.”
He sounds like Dad, which means there’s no use in arguing, so I ease away from the cabin and the boys. “We’re running low on kindling, so I’m going to go …” I trail off but gesture toward the tall pine trees that surround us.
“Don’t go far, Gracie!” Alexei yells as I move toward the shelter of the trees.
There is no place far enough.