The night was cold. Paul thought he knew what to expect having made it through the day, but the reality of it was frightening. He had a hard time keeping his eyes open so he busied himself with keeping the fire going as strongly as possible. The movement kept his joints from stiffening in the deadly cold.
The girl had moved and was now in the arms of the mysterious woman. Paul wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or if the girl was starting to feel more comfortable, or if in sleep she forgot where she was. He tried to figure out his own feelings about Kate. He felt a mixture of distrust and camaraderie. She was friendly and he wanted her to be genuine. Paul tried to not think about it and kept working on the fire.
He was bringing in the last of the door to burn when the woman startled him.
“Hey,” she said through a stretch. “How long have I been sleeping?”
“About five hours,” Paul said.
The woman leaned back on her arm. “Why didn’t you wake me?” she asked.
Paul kept adding to the fire. He nodded in the direction of the still sleeping girl curled up next to Kate. “Didn’t want to wake her,” he said. “It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
“What about you?”
“Well, I’m up now so you come here and take my place,” Kate said smiling.
“It’ll be morning in a few more hours. Might as well stay up,” Paul continued to focus on the fire.
“You don’t trust me, do you?”
“I can’t blame you,” she said. “I’m really not going to hurt either of you.” Scott looked up, but he didn’t have anything to say. Kate sat up. “Here,” she said taking off her pack and unstrapping her rifle. “Here is all my stuff. You can sleep with it.”
“What if something happens?”
“I’ll wake you up. That’s the best assurance I can think of,” she said. Her smile faded and was replaced with a look of concern. “Please get some sleep. You’re going to need it.”
Paul’s fatigue outweighed his judgement and he moved to replace Kate’s place next to the girl. He knew he would need some rest to make it though the next day’s walk. Kate moved to where Paul had been sitting and picked up his job tending the fire. Paul tried to relax and let himself feel how tired he was. The girl shifted closer to him. He hesitated but put his arm around her. Within minutes he was asleep.
The shivering woke Paul up. In his half asleep daze he tried to figure out why he was shivering. The cold was heavy and he tried to shake it off. With a start he jolted upright and looked around frantically. The girl wasn’t with him, the fire was no more than half glowing embers, and Kate was gone, along with all her things.
Scott stood up and nearly banged his head on part of the drooping ceiling. His legs felt numb, but he managed to run out of the small barn trying to spot Kate or the girl. He ran to the street, a fresh layer of thin ice covered everything, including any sign of where they may have gone. He heard his name from behind him and turned to see Kate holding the girl in her arms.
“Paul, what are you doing?” Kate said.
“Where were you? Where did you go?” Paul said through chattering teeth. He was still shivering and not only from the cold.
“She had to go pee. I brought her to the next barn over.”
“She was gone, your stuff was gone, the fire,” Paul said.
“I didn’t feel safe without my rifle and we ran out of wood an hour ago,” Kate said putting a hand on Paul’s shoulder. “It’s ok, she’s ok.”
Paul stumbled back to the barn and let himself drop. His heart was pounding painfully and his legs were numb. Kate followed him in and sat the girl down. She sat next to Paul and rubbed his legs. “You’ve got to get the blood flowing. I know it hurts but try to move them,” she said. “I’m sorry I scared you hun. I wanted to let you get as much sleep as possible.”
Kate put her arm around Paul. She called the girl over and the three of them huddled together. Paul started to calm down and warmed up a bit. His legs started to hurt, but he knew that was from the feeling coming back. After a few more minutes Kate stood up, picked up the girl and gave Paul a hand.
“Come on,” she said smiling again. “It’s morning. We’d better get going. Get your stuff; I’ll carry her for a while.” Paul thought to ask her why she was going with them but did what she said. He was still shaken and he didn’t want her to leave.
They ate on the move trying to keep their caloric intake high to fight the cold. Paul checked the map periodically, but he remembered most of the route. The walking was hard. The night had taken a toll on all three of them. The cold had a way of getting inside and settling down and the effect was cumulative. Paul’s legs still hurt and he was worried about frostbite on his still numb feet, but the longer they walked the easier it got.
The track took them through a lot of what Paul had seen the day before. Empty ice covered roads were flanked by empty frozen fields. Occasionally they would pass a patch of dead trees and the few houses they passed showed the power of the wind and cold.
They were worn out from the distance they had covered the day before, but they made good time thanks to Kate. She carried the girl for long stretches and even shouldered some of Paul’s weight when he slowed. He still wasn’t sure how she was invested in getting them to their destination on time. When he worked up the nerve to ask her she told him they were helping her find what she needed and that it wouldn’t interfere with his delivery. She ended the inquiry with another disarming smile.
Paul started to recognise land marks by the afternoon. They were getting close to where the prison was and where he spend most of his time as a driver. He handed the girl over to Kate and checked the map to make sure. The airfield was ten kilometres from the prison and they were nearly within sight of it. Paul had picked up prisoners and guards from the airfield before and traced the way to it on the map. Within a few minutes more of walking they saw the top of the control tower peeking over the horizon. Kate stopped suddenly. She crouched down and said goodbye to the girl.
“You’ll be ok,” she said. “Paul’s going to take good care of you – alright sweetie?” She gave the girl a small hug then stood up, turning to Paul. “This is where I get off hun,” she said adjusting her pack and looking off, away from the airfield.
“Thanks,” Paul said. “I, uh -”
“Don’t worry pickle, you’ll see me again.” Kate said. She then took Paul completely by surprise and kissed him on the cheek. She turned and left, leaving Paul dumbfounded. Her pace told him that he and the girl had been slowing her down. When she became hard to see in the distance Paul picked up the girl and headed for the airfield.