Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Seventeen: The Mysterious Nathan Trowbridge
When Nate goes about finalizing our shelters for the evening, I’m all set to volunteer; the strain of physical labor against my anxious muscles sounds actually kind of wonderful—who knew? But Bradley beats me to it, so I do an about-face and fuck off into the woods as quickly as possible. With Tristan and Duc off on their own mission, I have another idea for how I can be helpful without having to share the same air space with Bradley just yet.
With my back against the tree Nate and I had occupied earlier, I spread a layer of clean leaves on the ground in front of me and begin to pull items from my bag, one by one. When the bag is empty, I pack a one-hitter from Nate’s resupply, light, and survey my worldly possessions.
The results are . . . interesting. My compass, a hotel sewing kit, a key chain consistining of a bottle opener and corkscrew, on which resides the keys to my house, garage, and car. (Because that’ll come in handy.) Notebook, pencil, pen, extra pen.
Lighter, half-empty book of matches, the one-hitter, my stash, a paper clip (a crucial companion of the one-hitter). Crumpled-up tissues, a tiny thing of ibuprofin. A handkerchief. Travel antibiotic ointment and a couple of Band-Aids. (Hey, a girl’s gotta be prepared.) Two extra hair bands (not counting the one on my wrist), a small comb, lip balm. The granola bar. A tiny mirror in the shape of a penguin. My phone (which I’d turned off as a precautionary measure, just in case we ever find ourselves within range of a phone tower ever again). Three credit cards, one debit card. Expired library card, Planetary Society membership card, coop membership card.
These few blunt strokes paint a simple but surprisingly accurate portrait, which is fucking unsettling. If we don’t make it out of here, if this is where I die, the contents of my bag are all this world will ever know about the person I used to be. My tombstone will say, “Here lies Adelaide MacAlister, Neurotic and Vain Preparer for the Worst, Snobby Stoner Super-Nerd Who Never Could Abide Her Own Planet.”
For all our nuances and variations, can our entire lives be summed up by the trinkets we carry? Are our values so easily defined by the objects we hold dear? Do we keep them with us to protect them—or do we secretly think of them as talismans, keeping them close for our own protection?
I sigh and pick up the compass, absently rechecking the direction Tristan had pointed. But when a loud crash from deeper inside the woods startles me out of my inventory, I drop the compass and scrabble to my feet to find Tristan and Duc a few trees over, laughing at a log lying on the ground in front of them—or, more likely, laughing at however it got there. It’s a sweet, genuine moment between them that somehow makes me feel very homesick, and very alone.
While it’s true that I want to talk to Tristan, I also don’t want to interrupt them. I back away as silently as I can, which is to say I pretty much make as much noise as humanly possible—but when I hear Nate crashing back to camp with an armload of irregular branches in various sizes, since Bradley looks to be nowhere in sight, I hurry to join him.
“Hey,” I say, slinging the bag containing my entire life across my body and falling into step beside him as we begin to walk up and down the forest in a slow loop, scavenging wood for the final shelter: his own.
“Hey,” he says, amusement in his voice. “How are you feeling?” So he’s back to his cheerful self. Good; I didn’t like that brooding thing underneath the surface, whatever it was.
“A big green alien thing popped out of my stomach earlier and ran off, but I’m feeling better now.”
He laughs, dimpling away any remaining anxiety that hadn’t been laughed out of me by the rabbit offensive. “Good to hear,” he says, selecting a branch and freeing it from the twisted undergrowth.
Because the forest around us has gone through so many uninterrupted cycles of growth and death, there is a wealth of branches everywhere, most of them dead long enough to break easily against a thigh or a foot—a small miracle, Nate’s Swiss Army knife being the sum total of our lumberjack gear (oh, the irony)—and Nate seems to hone in on exactly the size and shape he needs with each new piece.
As it turns out, Nate’s shelters are generally going a hell of a lot better than the rabbit-hunting did. They hadn’t just worked, they’d worked impressively well. He’d managed to build each person a kind of Lincoln Log lean-to against a tree, close enough to to each other to be considered the same camp, but with enough distance between them where we’d each have relative privacy. We’d still be sleeping on the ground, but the were airy enough not to feel claustrophobic, and with the interior stripped bare of rogue branches and the space cleared of the sharpest debris, they look almost inviting.
I shake my head. How can a person be so good at being outdoors and so miserable at knowing what he can eat there?
Which reminds me—that isn’t the only mystery surrounding Nathan Trowbridge, and Tristan isn’t the only one I’d been meaning to have a little chat with.
“Hey, but Nate? I was . . . I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
He slows, his look of friendly interest now also mixed with skepticism. As if I could potentially say something he really, really doesn’t want to hear.
“Before the break-in,” I say, surprised at how easily those words come out of my mouth considering the guns, “when I was downstairs in No Dragons Press?”
He doesn’t look at me “Yes?” he says in a quiet voice.
“They said—they were going to kill you.” Hearing myself say it aloud makes my breath catch in my throat. “They were going to do something to Tristan and kill you.”
Nate says nothing.
“They were going to kill you,” I repeat, just because it sounds so unbelievable. “But then they saw me, and something changed.”
Nate stops walking and turns to face me, perfectly in frame between two giant trunks of ash. It’s a little difficult to phrase what
I’m trying to say under his sudden scrutiny, but I give it the old college try.
“Bradley told me—” I swallow. “Bradley said they were looking for me, too. Or somebody was.”
Nate says nothing. He simply watches me.
In the back of my mind, I hear: So that’s what you’re calling yourself now . . .
I breathe out. In. Then: “Where are you from?”
He doesn’t speak for long moments, maybe hours, and I have to keep myself from prompting him. I let him think. Then his serious eyes connect with mine.
“Addie . . . you can’t know everything about a person—about anyone. Bradley, for instance—” Then he stops.
I frown. Bradley is my business, and if I want to distrust him, I don’t need any help from Nate. “Bradley has nothing to do with it.”
He rakes his hand through his hair, obviously frustrated. “Forget it. Bradley, Duc, Tristan, everybody—people have secrets. I have mine.”
This, of course, doesn’t explain a thing.
Sure, everyone is allowed to have secrets. The regular kind, like who they secretly want to have sex with or who they secretly did have sex with or how much they secretly spent on pizza delivery last month. The kind that doesn’t involve being another person, or me.
“That’s stupid,” I tell him.
He shrugs, breaking eye contact. “Stupid or not, it’s true.” He shifts his weight, preparing to head back into the woods.
“Nate—” I tug his sleeve, pulling him back to face me. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean what you’re saying is stupid. I’m just . . . frustrated. I’m sorry. I understand.”
Except no I don’t. Not a bit. What could be so big, so important, that he won’t tell me about it—that he won’t trust me with it?
What does Bradley have to do with any of this—and seriously, what about me?
Nate gives me a smile that lacks sincerity, then makes eye contact again, but only briefly. I’m sure my return smile looks about the same. “Thanks for understanding.” After a moment, he bends to hoist a log into his arms, and he walks on.
But although we may have smoothed over this latest wrinkle, something in his face before he turns away tells me a wedge remains, a new division between us. Now, despite our best efforts to move forward, there is a known secret—a giant ugly one we can’t ignore or pretend doesn’t exist. And something tells me this, having secrets, is what our friendship looks like now.
And I don’t like it at all.
Lost in thought on my way back to camp, I stumble upon Duc and Tristan again almost before I realize it.
“Hey,” I tell the ground, glancing quickly up at Duc. I can’t look at Tristan. Not yet.
“Listen, Tristan,” I begin. “I wanted to apologize. For, you know, being overly emotional and acting like a child. I’ve just been, I don’t know, under a lot of stress lately . . .” I stop talking. It just sounds way too stupid to continue. I mean, come on—who hasn’t?
“We’re somewhere outside our own space-time,” he says. “Emotional reactions are understandable.”
“Yeah, but that happened to all of us,” I point out, “not just to me. I’m the only one who chose to deal with it by having a breakdown.”
Duc frowns at me. “I doubt it was a choice, Addie.”
Good point. Though I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.
In a very small voice, I say, “Tristan . . . I’m sorry.” The rocks on the ground in front of me begin to blur, of course. A sound of clattering wood, followed by a second, announce Nate and Bradley’s return, but I don’t look up.
I see motion, then, as two brown shoes blob their way into my line of sight. Before I can react, a hand clamps onto my shoulder and gives it a squeeze.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Tristan tells me firmly when I lift my gaze to him, and I suddenly remember how tall he looked to me that day I’d met him on the doorstep of No Dragons Press. “I’m the one who should apologize. And I am apologizing,” he says, hand still resting on my shoulder like we’re performing some kind of ceremony. He looks around at everyone, who has by now gathered to see what irrational antics Addie is up to now.
And just like that, Tristan has usurped my own meager apologies, Spartacus-style.
“I was obsessed,” he continues in a soft voice, as if he’s talking to himself. “I do that, get obsessed with things . . .”
I reach up to my shoulder to give his hand a brief squeeze. “Duc and I have been talking,” Tristan continues, “and . . . well, I have something to tell all of you.”
The tone in his voice snaps my attention back to Tristan’s ceremony. Something about this definitely doesn’t sound right. My eyes flick over to Duc, standing next to Nate and watching Tristan speak with as placid an expression as ever, and I wonder if he knows what Tristan’s about to say.
Tristan fills his lungs, pauses. “I can’t feel the pull,” he says in a rush of breath. “I can’t feel it anymore. I could still see most of it at first, but . . .” He dips his head. “I don’t know which way to go.”
Worry ripples across Nate’s face. “We saw you pointing, Tristan. What do you mean, you don’t know?”
Tristan turns to him, his eyes very large behind his frames. “Well, I mean, before, I could see which way to go, see it, like a line, or—no, not a line, really . . .” He pauses, as if he’s trying to figure out how to express such a huge idea in mere words. Then he shakes his head, like he’s snapping himself out of it. It’s a little fascinating, watching all of this play out on his face; for one surreal moment, I feel like I’m looking directly into his head. “But now—” He shrugs, looking lost. More lost even than when we’d first arrived. I hate seeing it.
Nate steps forward. “Is it gone, or is it just that you can’t sense it anymore?”
Tristan shrugs, a frustrated gesture. “Maybe it’s me. I can’t tell. Or maybe it’s gone.” He shakes his head, and the way he juts his lower jaw out makes me think of an aggrieved child. “I just . . . I remember knowing. Whatever I knew, I know I knew it.”
Duc nods, as if this makes perfect sense, while Nate continues to look doubtful. Bradley, meanwhile, has adopted a look of benevolent patronage, which I’m kind of starting to wish he’d lose.
But I suppose it does make sense. Tristan had been running around for months back at the Press, utterly single-minded; he’d given up his graduate program for it, connecting links in his head and building a structure apparently designed (by someone) to bring us here. He might not remember that pattern, but the fact that we’re standing here now is proof that it once existed for him in a very real way.
I figure, if Tristan can’t trust himself after all that, who can he trust?
“Then that’s the right way,” I declare firmly, standing and pointing in the exact direction Tristan had. North-northeast, 23 degrees.
All eyes turn to me, Tristan’s and Duc’s in pleased agreement, Bradley’s and Nate’s in surprise.
He may be entirely responsible for our current conundrum, but Tristan has scored major points with me by diverting my embarrassing public apology, and the look Nate is giving him now makes me want to defend the guy.
And here’s the thing: it isn’t like Tristan is entirely at fault here. Not one of us chose to step out of that pink sphere of electricity to safety when we had the chance. Nate had even stepped back into it, on purpose. Tristan may have lit this particular fire, but each of us jumped into it willingly enough.
“Addie,” Nate says kindly, “we only have a vague idea which direction we’re headed. Think about a triangle. If our angle is off even a little bit—”
I wave his explanation away, cutting him short. I do know a little bit about angles, thank you very much, but even if I didn’t, I know something he doesn’t know. Something that makes his explanation irrelevant.
I point, again. “North-northeast, 23 degrees—that’s the direction Tristan said we should go, and that’s the direction we’ll keep heading. Until there’s a good reason to think otherwise, that’s our best chance to get home.”
Duc nods, dark eyes shining with some emotion I’m not sure I’m meant to see, and after a moment, Nate nods too. Tristan beams at me in a way I would have found impossible had I not seen this exact expression once before: in the basement of No Dragons Press, surrounded by his strangely beautiful creation.
“Addie—how do you know?” Bradley asks me in a whisper. His voice holds no hint of challenge. He sounds . . . impressed. Looks it, too. His eyes are wide and wondering, and there’s something in his face that I haven’t seen for a very long time. Something I recognize from much earlier times.
“I paid attention,” I snap at him, more to mask the heat creeping up my cheeks than out of any real irritation with the question.
I don’t mention the compass. Not because I’m hiding it from him, but because every word is another opportunity for me to drop my guard, so easy to maintain in his absence, so difficult when he’s looking at me like that.
“Hey, Addie,” Duc calls, waving a pile of large leaves. “Want to help me with—”
“Yep,” I say, hardly caring what he wants but sensing an immediate escape route, and I duck away from Bradley before he has a chance to see anything in my face that he recognizes, too.