She’s been stumbling along for days. Weeks, maybe, but she’s not really sure how to count the passage of time by the setting and rising sun. It had been bad before these past few days, though, before her sister learned to trust her again. Thought it was just a small mistake, it was one that had almost cost them their lives, and Lila couldn’t accept that. Even now, as she staggers along, Lila remains a few steps behind her, keeping her within her sights.
There’s silence there between them, a silence that Ellie isn’t accustomed to; before all of this—before the distrust, before the weeks were refined into individual days, before they even cared to learn how to watch the sun tick away their minutes—Ellie could always count on her younger sister’s voice.
Lila jabs her in the back with her walking stick, a quiet shut up waiting to trip from between her lips, but she won’t dare speak to her now.
Ellie casts a furtive glance back at her, but Lila doesn’t meet her gaze, instead flicks two fingers in front of her. Ellie ignores her, decides that if they’re going to play at this game, then she’s going to make up some of the rules. She lets her feet crash over each other until she’s walking backward, nearly tripping over one of her heels, but then she remembers how to walk properly, and she grins toothily at Lila.
Lila swallows visibly, looking resolutely to the left of Ellie. Her hand tightens around her walking stick, knuckles whitening.
Ellie closes her mouth slowly, just watches her instead, watches Lila slow her stride to match Ellie’s troublesome journey backward. Her sister looks different here, with the pavement stark and empty beneath her booted feet, the laces all in a tangle so that she’s in danger of tripping over them. Her hair is a little matted, sticking up in odd angles; it’s been a while since the river, when Ellie turned the tables and edged a little closer than she’d been allowed.
She reaches up a hand, feels for her own hair. It’s grimy, and she thinks maybe she should start twisting her thick locks into dreads, give it purpose again. Lila opens her mouth as her fingers start moving, and Ellie can hear what she wants to say before she doesn’t say it. Lila closes her mouth and fixes her eyes on her sister, glares hard.
She flicks her fingers forward again, and this time, Ellie obeys. She almost falls as she’s turning, knees knocking together until she closes her eyes and focuses on her favorite Christmas cartoon. She starts humming before she opens her eyes, and Lila is the one to sigh this time.
Ellie doesn’t stop humming, and somewhere around dusk, Lila joins her.
Two days later, Ellie starts to lose some of her speech. She’s not using it much anymore regardless, but when Lila asks her if she’s thirsty, it takes her several long moments before she can answer her. When she finally does, Lila’s chin starts to tremble, and Ellie frowns, wondering if she’s allowed near now that they’re on the same playing field. Lila nods after a terrible moment where Ellie is forced to watch her little sister’s jaw work itself into a grind in an effort not to cry, and when she nods, Ellie scoots over and wraps her in her arms.
Lila doesn’t ask her how long it takes to lose your words, but Ellie thinks she’s learned how to count the days, something she knows she certainly doesn’t have the capacity for anymore, and really, Lila’s just marking her days until the end. Ellie wonders how many days she will see in this wasteland new world.
Six hours after she nearly forgets how to say yes, please in response to her sister’s question, Lila yawns and comes to a staggering stop. She looks over at the trees like she means to go off the road and find somewhere to rest, but then Ellie drops down to her knees and rolls over to her side. Lila shrugs and follows suit, though her movements are still fluid, and she moves with a grace they had both once possessed.
It makes Ellie smile, watching her sister squat, her feet pointed out in third position. Ellie shifts, body scraping along the ground as she tries to face her sister. Lila looks over at her abruptly, and Ellie snatches away the silence for the first time in weeks, “I miss tulle.”
Lila doesn’t miss a beat, “I miss steady hands on my hips, being in the air.”
“I miss having feet that worked,” Ellie says sadly.
Lila looks over at her. Ellie watches her, her mouth turning down into a frown that Lila won’t be able to see in the gathering darkness. Lila was never as strong as her unless they were on a cold floor with ribbons laced up their ankles.
The sun is low in the sky, dark behind the trees, and Lila’s teeth are sharp and too white when she speaks next, her voice an agonized whisper, “When do you stop missing it?”
“Grace?” Ellie asks even though she knows. Lila nods.
It is a cavern inside of Ellie, one of the few things she can still grasp onto and hold tightly against her. It is dark and awful enough that it helps her remember her words, helps her remember the words to her favorite Christmas cartoon, one foot in front of the other, helps her lie to Lila, “I barely noticed it leaving me.”
Lila sleeps with her back to her sister.
She’s nearly finished her dreadlocks. Her fingers are slowly going numb, and though she knows that’s not really the case, more that she’s losing the ability to move them properly, she keeps twisting her matted locks together. She finishes the day before her last, and she smiles, crooked and hopeless.
Lila returns her smile, and hers has gone a little lopsided, as well. She gets to her feet wearily, knees buckling together so that they crash into the pavement. She sighs, and it takes her several long, terrible minutes before she can push to her feet again and stumble over to Ellie. She opens her mouth to say something, but only a halfway there sound tumbles out, and so instead Lila settles for flailing her hands about near Ellie’s head until Ellie understands and sits up.
Lila takes her time piling her dreadlocks on top of each other, tying them off together and curling them around one another until she’s made a neat nest on top of Ellie’s head. Ellie pats at it and beams at her sister. She tries to speak, thank you, and Lila kisses her cheek when she just whispers air at her.
Her sister seems to come back to herself even as Ellie is fading farther away, and her permanent frown returns as she stares down at Ellie, who is slowly sliding back onto her side. Her chin wobbles, and this time, Ellie can’t muster the energy to move closer to her, so she just reaches blindly in the dark for her hand. She doesn’t know how to tell the truth anymore. Lila pulls her knees out from under her so she can curl up with Ellie, their fingers twined in the dark.
Ellie wants to tell her it isn’t much longer now, that Lila will probably go around the same time as her, that they’ll be together again, tulle perched high on their waists, silk on their feet, and—Ellie doesn’t sleep, doesn’t dream, Lila’s ragged breaths keeping her awake.
Just over a month since the river, since Ellie changed their lives forever—possibly, for the worst, though she’s not ready to admit that, yet—they find others. Ellie trips over her feet in her excitement and lands on her face, moaning softly. Lila picks her way carefully over to her, reaching down precariously and heaving Ellie to her feet. She leans on her sister for a moment before she remembers how little she’s become, how fragile her bones always feel, and she pushes away from her, rolling her shoulders back.
She reaches for Lila’s hand, who looks at her with bloodshot eyes, jaw unhinged a little as she stares at Ellie with a wild sort of hunger. She means to urge Lila along, to whisper something comforting to her to keep her going, but then Lila lurches toward her, and Ellie has to spin her away, holding her at arm’s length.
She shouts her name, shaking her as she does, and one snap of her head brings Lila back, sends her blinking and exhaling loudly.
There’s the sharp retort of someone calling them in the distance, and Lila looks over her shoulder quickly, gasping. “We’re here!” she screams, throwing her free arm up in the air and waving, “Help!”
Footsteps thunder through the tall grass as Ellie watches Lila’s arm wave through the air, transfixed. She’s making too much noise, but Ellie doesn’t know how to tell her. She hasn’t spoken in days.
Maybe it’s weeks.
She finds it hard to believe it’s really been a month since the river, but that was Lila’s quiet confession yesterday morning. Ellie’s still wondering why she’s still holding onto her hand, why she hasn’t finally given up on her, why she’s still tugging her along.
The others come bearing firearms, and Ellie nearly weeps with relief. They approach warily, and she can see their uncertain gazes flickering between them. She hears them murmur to each other, hears the words she’s been afraid to speak for so long, and she looks over at Lila, her sweet, dying sister.
She untangles their fingers and steps aside. Lila looks over at her, a quick snap of her neck, and there’s that hunger again, so unreal to Ellie, who can still picture her delicate sister leaping through the air, toes pointed perfectly, everyone standing to applaud her beauty.
“She was bitten,” she forces the words out as she steps away from Lila, whose head cocks to the side as she stares at Ellie, unblinking.
It echoes around them, a gust of wind picking at the tall grass so that it sways with Lila’s falling body, and Ellie lets out a broken cry as she watches her twist toward the earth, the bullet spinning her around, and she drops.
One of the others growls, and Ellie turns toward him. “You?” he asks bluntly.
Ellie shakes her head. She’s covered in guts and blood, her hair is matted with leaves and bits of flesh, and she smells awful, but hadn’t that been the point? Lila had kept walking alongside her, her hunger waning because her sister had smelled so familiar. Ellie thinks about the river as one of the firearms is jabbed in her direction, as one of them demands she prove that she’s not infected.
She’d wanted to die; being bitten seemed like the most absolute choice, but Lila was always getting in the way, as little sisters were wont to do.