Somehow, it was better like this. Going back. Moving to sit next to him silently and staring out at the expansive sea. It was warm and almost pleasant.
Ralph didn’t allow him to enjoy it, tensing immediately and glancing at him with sharp suspicion. “What are you doing here?”
“I—” The apology got stuck in his throat. “I’ll tend to the fire,” he muttered instead. “My boys will.”
There was a heavy pause as his words sunk in.
“You’re coming back?” Ralph looked surprised.
Jack couldn’t meet his gaze, only glimpsed the earnest hope battling doubt as he turned his eyes away from Ralph’s. “Yes.”
“But—the hunting, and, and the feasts—I thought you—”
“We killed Simon.”
The interruption was soft, but it effectively stopped Ralph’s stammering, and now both boys were staring at each other, wide-eyed and vulernable, unable to deny the spoken truth.
“We didn’t,” Ralph said, frantically. “It was an accident. We didn’t know. He—” He broke off, dropping his head. “We killed Simon,” he echoed faintly.
“What did we do?” Jack asked, staring down at his hands. They were trembling, and he fancied he could see blood on them still. “How did this happen?”
What did I do?
Ralph was looking at him contemplatively, but he didn’t answer the obvious: Jack had been stupid and irrational. Jack hadn’t followed his orders. Jack had been angry and impulsive. Jack had killed Simon.
Jack waited for these accusations which never came. Ralph said nothing, reaching a tentative hand out to touch his arm, but Jack shrank away and Ralph withdrew as well, dropping his hand back down to the space of rock between them.
“Because we let the fire go out,” he said, and Jack stared at him bleakly.
Because Jack let the fire go out, he must have meant. Because the fire had been Jack’s responsibility.
There was a ship. There was no smoke.
Simon was dead, and it was his fault. The thought continued to pervade his mind as he struggled for words. He wanted to apologize, but he was afraid, afraid he might not be forgiven. How far was too far? How many times was too many?
A human life. He’d taken a human life. How different it was, from slicing the throat of a pig. How terrifyingly real their situation seemed now.
“We need smoke,” Ralph elaborated when he didn’t reply. “Because without it…without it…we won’t get rescued.”
But Jack was upset again. “They won’t come. Where are we? No one knows. We don’t even know. No one knows we’re here,” he continued, voice rising. “They won’t come.”
“That’s why we need the smoke,” Ralph insisted, “so they’ll see us and come save us.”
“We’ll be here until we die. We won’t ever be saved.”
“We will!” Ralph snapped. “We will, we just have to wait, and we need to have smoke. We need a fire.”
Stupid Ralph and his stupid fire, hopelessly hoping…
If only he could lend Jack some of that conviction. Hope had been their only stabilizer, and he’d lost his, and he’d—
“I won’t let it go out again,” he promised, and he opted again for the evasive route, skirting around a verbal apology but letting it hang there between them, unspoken.
“Bring your hunters, then,” Ralph said after a moment, gruffly, awkwardly, like maybe he wanted to forgive but he didn’t know how to say it, either. “And I’ll call an assembly, and we can—”
And it was so stupid, wasn’t it? Everything? Stupid and terrible.
Hunters, Ralph had said. They were supposed to be a choir. What were they doing here?
“Ralph,” said Jack, and his voice was strangled. “Ralph.”
Ralph looked at him, the silent question in his eyes.
“I want to go home.”
Ralph’s expression changed; he seemed to waver a little. “Me too,” he whispered, and something inside Jack crumpled.
“I want to go home,” he said again. “I want to go home.”
And Ralph was repeating, “Me too, me too, I want to go home,” and they were crying and grasping each other’s arms and dusk was falling and it was getting cold, but Ralph’s tears were warm as they splashed on his shoulder, and his breath was warm as he gasped and sobbed against him, and Jack’s face was pressed into his stinky, matted hair as he cried, as they cried, saying over and over again, “I want to go home, I want to go home,” and again their differences had been pushed to the side and a new connection had been formed between them, because they were just two boys, and they were only twelve years old, and they hadn’t asked for this burden, to somehow hold everything together with their bare hands, and they were only twelve years old.
They only wanted to go home.