We first heard of the bounty from a dear friend. A young poet named Oliver Buckley, who was later killed for not revealing information about us to the Hunter. When I received word of his death, I knew that we would never stop. We would run until the end of the earth, and then we’d jump, because we would never pay for what we did.
Four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Each. Dead or alive. We weren’t worth anything until we did something meaningful.
Louis Gold deserved to die. There is hatred in this world, my darling Songbird. There is evil. And when we killed him, that disgusting man who wronged the both of us, we did not feel a sliver of regret. We felt freedom. We felt invigoration. We felt love.
So, yes, we ran. We ran and we didn’t turn back.
Two hours after Oliver informed us of our bounty, we were trekking through the thick Georgian woods, three miles north, leather bags filled to the brim with survival supplies. Heading for North Carolina, and then even further. We weren’t afraid, or sad, or angry. We were excited.
“Where shall we go first?” You chirped.
“Boston?” I asked.
We walked onward, the sky above us a flame of pink and red and yellow. I watched it writhe as the tops of the orange trees swayed in the wind. Together, we dreamed of a new life. A new home, a new environment. Freedom.
“Emily?” you asked.
“You think there’s a hell?”
I looked down at the leaf-covered dirt. I wondered why you asked the question. I wondered if, deep down, you could feel the gravity of what we’d done; if you could imagine a bleak, melancholic future.
“I hope there is a hell,” I said, “So that gibface son of a bitch that got us into this mess can rot in it.”
You smiled, “Me too.” You wrapped your hand in mine. “My mama always said I’d go to hell one day,” you whispered. “I s’pose I believe her now. But I ain’t afraid. So long as I’m with you, I ain’t afraid of anythin’.” I leaned into you.
That first night was peace. We slept in a dirt clearing, in the open autumn air, mother nature’s creatures keeping to themselves. A pink blanket to soothe our backs, a blue blanket to warm our fronts. We watched the stars, and then we watched the darkness, and then we watched the incoherent dreams that followed a hectic day. We woke early, ate a couple of apples, packed up, and continued our journey.
I always loved the woods. The way they felt clean without being clean. They reminded me that our earth is alive, that the world is much bigger than we are. They made everything shrink, in a way.
We reached Blairsville that evening, where we visited an old professor. He told us about Oliver. You cried then, in the professor’s living room, your head buried in my shoulder, your warm tears staining my shirt. I hated when you cried. My darling Songbird, how could I ever let you be unhappy? I ran my fingers gently through your hair and gulped.
“It was probably a mistake, having you here,” the professor said. “But, what’s done is done.” He paused. “I’m not scared of death.” He turned his head to the urn that rested on his mantel and sipped his tea.
I spoke up, “Thank you for telling us, Jack.”
“Thanks for the food, as well.”
You looked up and nodded to Jack. “Thank you,” you whispered. You wiped your cheeks and sat back, looked down to the floor and refused to look back up. He patted his hand on your knee, “It’ll be okay, kid,” he said. “Y’all are strong. You’re brave. And I don’t blame ya for whatchya did. If given the chance, I’d do it too.”
We stood. “Best be off, then,” I said. “Thanks again, for everything.”
“Wait,” he stood, “One moment.”
He left the room and came back ten seconds later carrying a small wooden box.
“Here,” he said.
It was heavy. Carefully, I placed it in my bag. I had a feeling I knew what it was.
“Only use it when necessary,” he said. “It can be quite scary to fire.”
“Will do. Thank you.” I turned to leave.
“And Emily?” He looked at my face, and I watched his sorrowful eyes. “I’ll be waitin’ for a letter,” he smiled. The sadness disappeared for just a moment. “So long as I’m still breathin’ after tomorrow.”
I nodded, and we left.
The Hunter traveled in the night.
He didn’t need the money. He didn’t need the notoriety. He needed the challenge. The adrenaline. He followed the whispers to Jack’s house, and when he creaked the door open, Jack was sitting there, waiting, shotgun in hand. He pulled the trigger, but the Hunter had already swung to the side of the building. A hole blew through the front door. “Where’d ya go?” Jack taunted. “Ya fuckin’ rat.” The Hunter pulled a bottle of gin out of his satchel. He took a swig and listened as Jack paced the house, glancing out each window. The Hunter then ripped out a sheet of notebook paper and stuffed it into the neck of the gin bottle. He lit it aflame and tossed it through the hole in the door.
Jack grabbed the urn, whispered, “Soon, my love,” and hurried out the back door. He sprinted into the woods, but the indisputable crack of a rifle rang through the air. It felt cold, when it entered his back. He kept running. A second crack. He stopped, then. Two holes through his chest. He crumpled to the earth’s floor. He cradled the urn, kissed its lid. A third crack.
“It’s so peaceful,” I whispered. We laid under a bush, ten miles north of Jack’s cottage. Our pink blanket used once more to shield us from the dry leaves and hard dirt. I held your head against my chest and stroked your hair.
“I can’t believe Oliver is dead.”
“I know. I feel so horrible.”
You shuddered into my body.
“That poor boy. I hope he put up a fight. May he rest in peace,” I said.
You nodded, “May he rest in peace.”
“I do hope Jack ends up okay.”
“Me too. Such a nice man.”
We sat in silence for a moment.
“Are you scared of death?” you asked.
“No. I’m only scared of losing you, my Songbird.”
“Do you not lose me in death?”
“No, darling. I’ll still be watching, down from the heavens.”
A light wind passed above us, and the bush quivered. A few dead leaves fell, and you turned your head, your ear up against my heart.
“Not from the pits of hell?” You asked, curiosity in your voice.
“What we did was just. I do not doubt that.”
You picked a twig off of the bush to the left of us.
“I don’t want to die,” you said.
“I know, my Songbird. And you will not, not while I’m here.”
“I want to stay with you forever. In life and in death. Until the Earth is gone and God makes something new.”
I kissed your head. “So be it.”
I was thankful for our position, because you could not see the tears that streamed quietly down my cheeks.
“We’ll be okay,” you whispered. I wonder, did you sense the sorrow? The involuntary jerk that travels through one’s body when one begins to sob, even discreetly? Could you feel it?
You’re the reason I never stopped.
The moonlight shone down on us, through the gaps in leaves, and we became ghosts.
The next morning, it rained. We bathed in a pond, the rain cleaning our faces and the water our bodies. I yelped as a large fish slid across my leg, and we laughed. You sang an old folk tune, one we both remembered from the before times, and we walked northward, on and on.
But I felt a storm inside.
That night, the rain had subsided, but the storm remained. We were in North Carolina by then, close to the mountains, and the stars had reluctantly revealed themselves against the darkening sky. I began to hyperventilate. I ripped the bag open and pulled out the box. The pistol was cold and heavy. My hands shook as I raised it from its home within the wooden confines and clumsily put the box back.
“Emily, wha--” I placed my hand over your mouth. I quickly snuffed out the fire and let the darkness consume us. I backed up, my arm around you, into the tree. We crept around it and leaned forward, up against the bark. Snapping twigs plagued the air. I gulped.
A loud pop. The wood in front of us splintered. A warning shot. I could feel the tree shake when the bullet entered its hard flesh. My hand gripped tightly against your delicate lips. I could feel your tears, wet against my palm. I could feel mine, too. We quivered with fear.
A second pop, a second splinter. I shifted and peaked my head around the trunk. Darkness. A third pop, to the right. I could see the white spark penetrate the black air.
There was no moonlight, that night. The snapping twigs got closer, until finally I smelled the sweet, woody tang of his cologne. That was Death, just inches away from us. I raised the pistol and pulled the trigger.
We heard the yell, and then we ran. We ran until the earth-shattering pops stopped following us, until the white sparks in the night died out. We ran until the yellow morning sky painted itself over the night’s nothingness and the trees stopped dancing and the nightingales silenced their songs. We ran until we were free. And then we laid, silently, against a grassy hill. We caught our breath and sipped slowly from our water canisters. The gun lay limp on the ground beside us.
“Emily?” You whispered.
“Yes, my Songbird?”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, darling, I’m okay. Are you?”
“I think so.”
I closed my canister and turned to face you. And then, I laughed. I tucked your rust-colored hair behind your ear and cupped your face with my hands and kissed your nose.
“Do you think he’s still coming?” you asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I do.” I couldn’t bring myself to look into your eyes.
You gulped and nodded. Then you laughed, too. We stayed like that for a while. Happy. Hopeful. Breathing in the scent of leaf and tree and love.
“You know,” I whispered, “I used to dream about you. All the time. Back before we even started talkin’. It was never really anythin’ dirty, just me talkin’ to you. Normal stuff. I still remember it. Dreams where we were just happy together.” I paused. “I always liked you. I was just too afraid to say somethin’.”
“I liked you, too. The way you looked at me. It took so long for me to accept it. But I couldn’t resist. You drove me crazy. Some days, I’d try to avoid you. Pretend you weren’t really there. I wanted to drive you crazy, too.”
We giggled. We thought back to our youth, then. The perfect past; the longing we’d felt for years. The moment we both knew; the moment we both dove off the ledge.
The dawn songbirds’ delicate songs floated gently down from the treetops, drifting through the morning breeze.
“Ever think we can be free, Emily?” you asked. “Have a nice house, read fiction books, write stories about our pasts? Drink tea in the mornin’ and tend to a small garden?”
“I don’t think we can, my Songbird. Not for a long, long time.”
You nodded. I realized then that the dream we had before was dead. We'd never be free.
But out of it's death, a new dream was born.
“But I’ll always feel free with you,” I said.
“And I you,” you said.
“Then I s’pose we don’t need any of those things.”
“I s’pose not.”
“You ready to keep goin’?” I asked. I hope you understood, back then. The things I felt for you. I’ll never stop loving you, my darling Songbird. Not even when you’ve forgotten, not even when the memory of our journey and our crime and our passion have left you forever. I’ll never stop.
“Always,” you said.