Marla fiddled with the twig, turning it this way and that, scratching the thin bark off with a dirty fingernail. A hell of thing, saying goodbye was. She’d never gotten good at it, which was stupid because it happened so often. Permanence wasn’t a thought anyone had anymore – no one stayed in the same place long enough to raise awareness, and with everybody in motion, you said goodbye all the time. Billy had stayed around the meadow for a week, but a week was pushing it, and then he was gone. Kay had taken Marla in for three days, but then they found Kay, and Marla had run.
It had been different with Anlis. She’d been with Marla from way back. They’d run together more times than Marla could count, but always together. In this world where a week was a long time, they’d run together for a year, or near enough so as not to matter. How do you say goodbye to someone like that, especially when you knew you’d never see them again?
She’d met Anlis during the late-summer rush from the hills. The storms that came from the west had caused floodwaters to come cascading down into the valley, and for a while it had been a mad rush into the trees. Moving without caution didn’t come easily to anyone these days, but when the wall of water came, you were caught between certain death and the risk of getting caught. Marla had climbed into a tree that wasn’t going to be tall enough and was trying to decide if she could swim to a taller one when a voice called out to her. Anlis had tied a handful of logs together with some vines – it wasn’t a proper raft, but it kept her out of the water – and Marla wasn’t very big.
And, as it turned out, Marla’d reminded Anlis of her daughter, born before it was all like this, when parents and children lived together and the idea of the future went beyond the next night’s sleep. That made Anlis old – one of the oldest people Marla had ever seen – but meant that Anlis knew what it meant to have a family, and she offered one to Marla, such as she could.
But now Anlis was gone, caught by a trap near the edge of the woods. She was usually good about spotting them, but this time, she’d flat-out just missed it. Marla had barely escaped, though she’d seen it all, the tree flexing, the branch swinging, Anlis’ neck snapping. She’d seen people die before – everyone had – but unlike all the others, she didn’t feel like running and hiding. Anlis had meant something to her beyond another face around a campsite and another warm body on a cold night. She couldn’t just leave her body where it lay, couldn’t let them find her and do whatever they did after death.
She’d never seen someone dig a grave for another person before, but the instinct to hide Anlis’ body was strong. Marla found a flat rock about twice the size of her hand and began digging. Being the rainy season, the ground was soft and moved easily under her hands. She knew that every hour she spent at the site of one of their traps was dangerous, but she couldn’t stop, not until the hole was big enough to protect the one person in her life who’d ever really mattered. The day came and went, and it wasn’t until the light was fading in the west that Marla was able to lower her friend into the hole and cover her up. She collected leaves and twigs from nearby and tangled them with ivy, doing her best to disguise what she’d done, and then there was nothing more to do but say goodbye.
Marla dropped the twig she’d been fiddling with and turned to go, not sure what else there was to do, when the tears came, cutting mottled streaks through the mud on her face. How could she just leave her friend in the dirt like this? No one would know she’d lived, that she’d mattered, that she’d been more than an ambulatory nothingness. But what to do? She couldn’t leave a gravestone like she’d seen in the old cemeteries – that would be a big giveaway.
Then she had an idea. People passed from one place to another, and sometimes they dropped things. What if she left something of Anlis’ – something that mattered to her but wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. Marla opened Anlis’ pack and began ruffling through it. A candleholder that they’d used on the nights they were lucky enough to find shelter. A flask that held clean water. And…no, that was enough. Too much would be obvious. She placed the candleholder and flask on the ground, arranging them so they’d look like they’d just fallen there, but not hiding them under the detritus. Stepping back, she considered the scene and knew that she’d done the best that she could by the only family she’d ever have. Turning, she walked off into the falling night, letting the tears fall just a little while longer.