After traveling the country in hopes of reaching the sanctuary of home, Rowan finds herself in a world turned upside down. Her parents are gone, and she's surrounded by people she barely knows, and the only refuge she's ever known is anything but safe. Zombies have taken over not just her hometown, but the rest of the world as well, and now she must work with fellow survivors, Devon and Kiaya, to find a way to survive this strange new world.
Too bad the extinction of civilization hasn't erased the complications of everyday life. Between learning to survive in a world overtaken by the dead and struggling to work through her grief over losing everything, Rowan must navigate her growing attraction for Devon, as well as deal with her suspicion that something isn't right with some of their fellow survivors.
Just when she thinks she has a hold on the emotional rollercoaster of this new world, someone from her past makes a surprise – and unwanted – reentry into her life, bringing with them a seed of hope that threatens to once again flip everything upside down.
Grab book two in Kate L. Mary's exciting new zombie apocalypse series!
Release date: August 7, 2020
Publisher: Twisted Press, LLC
Print pages: 319
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Far from Safe
Kate L. Mary
I stared out the window, unmoving. Mesmerized.
Maybe. It was difficult to tell what I was feeling. So much had happened so fast, and yet at the same time, it felt as if years had passed. Mostly because of what I’d lost. Everything, really. My entire life had been washed away in a matter of days. I’d gone from hiding in my dorm room in Phoenix where I’d felt almost untouched by the pandemic, to being here and having nothing. My future was gone, and probably every one of my friends, and I had no clue what had happened to my dad. He’d been working in the emergency room at a hospital not too far from here, but we hadn’t heard from him in a week, and odds were good that he was dead—along with eighty-five percent of the population. I doubted I’d ever know for certain, but I also wasn’t sure which was worse. Not knowing or…
I searched the bodies on the street, spotting her after only a second, and my gut clenched painfully.
Maybe not knowing was better, because I couldn’t imagine anything more devasting than seeing my mother like this.
The sky grew brighter by the second, but the neighborhood was still dark. It wasn’t empty, though. That would have been too much to ask for. We’d arrived at my house the day before yesterday to find my once picturesque neighborhood overrun with the dead. They’d come out of the woodwork at the sound of our cars, and now the street outside my house looked like some kind of twisted block party or a meeting of the undead.
And my mom was one of them.
I’d been standing at my window for what felt like hours now, watching the sea of bodies as they stumbled around. It had been dark at first, but the bright moon had helped illuminate the rotting faces on the street. Every now and then, I’d spotted her. Dad’s red Harvard Medical School sweatshirt had made it easy to pick her out of the crowd. The thing was filthy now and ripped, as were her jeans, and she was barefoot. That was something I hadn’t noticed the first time I saw her, and something I couldn’t stop staring at. Every time I looked at them, I had the strange urge to smile, which resulted in a choked sob bubbling up in my throat. I couldn’t help it, because it was just like my mom to be one of the only zombies on the street not wearing shoes or socks—some of them were even wearing slippers. But she was barefoot.
I covered my mouth when a laugh tried to burst out of me. It was quickly followed by a wail that felt like it was on the verge of ripping its way out of my throat.
I had to get out of here before I went crazy.
It wasn’t quite morning, but I’d heard movement a few times and knew some of the others were up, and suddenly the idea of being with someone else—even these people who were still practically strangers—sounded as comforting as slipping into a freshly made bed, the sheets still hot from the dryer. Despite my desperation to be around other living people, I still had to force myself to turn away from the window.
I’d just opened my bedroom door when a creak sounded in the otherwise silent house, and I froze. The hall was dark, but a shadow moved through the blackness just outside the office door, and a second later, Kiaya came into view.
“You’re up,” she said, her voice soft and as gentle as she was.
“I’ve been up for a while. I just needed some time to think.”
Her dark, wavy hair was down and wild around her thin face, and it bobbed when she nodded. “I understand.”
I looked past her to the room she’d just vacated. The door was cracked about an inch, but Zara was nowhere in sight.
“Is your sister still asleep?”
Again, Kiaya nodded.
“How’s she doing?”
“Okay, I think.” She let out a long sigh that was thick with exhaustion. “At least I hope so. She’s always been the sensitive one, and we haven’t seen one another in a while. Too long. It’s hard to get a read on her.”
The words hung in the air between us, and I thought about what she’d told me just before we’d left her sister’s house. Their father had never been in the picture, and their mother started using drugs when they were very young. Kiaya had done her best to look out for her sister, but a lot of times they’d gone without. Without their mother, without food. When Kiaya was ten and Zara was seven, the authorities finally stepped in, and the girls were put into foster care. Kiaya blamed herself, both because she was the oldest and because she was the reason the authorities had come.
It explained a lot, but I still knew so little about her, and even though I hesitated to ask, afraid she would clam up again, I felt like if she was ever going to open up to me, now was the time. There was safety in the darkness. You didn’t have to look someone in the eye while you talked. You could pretend you were alone.
“You were put into different foster homes right away?”
“Not right away.” The words were slow and hesitant, but I got the impression she wanted to tell me. “We were both with one family for six months or so, but then we were sent home. Our mom got her act together, and the courts believed she deserved a second chance. Or something like that.” Through the darkness, I saw her shoulders lift in a half-shrug. “I don’t get the reasons behind everything they do. Plus, I was only ten.”
“How long were you back with your mom?”
Kiaya shifted, making it seem like she wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about it.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said quickly.
I wanted to get to know her better, but I didn’t want to push her.
“No. It’s okay,” she whispered then let out a long breath. “Less than a year. When they took us the second time, they couldn’t find a home that would take us both. Zara went to the Wilsons’ and stayed there, but I bounced around for a while. I was fifteen when I was placed with my last foster family, and I stayed there until I graduated.”
I couldn’t imagine not caring about what happened to a child who had lived with you for three years, but that was what Kiaya had told me.
I doubt my foster parents have thought about me since the day I left.
“The last time Zara and I saw each other was right before I left for college, so it’s been about two years.” She looked back toward the room where her sister was sleeping. “I stopped at her house to say goodbye, and I think she was happy to see me, but she’s always been… guarded. I guess that’s the right word for it. Like she’s afraid to get her hopes up.”
The sisters had that in common.
“Well, you’re together now,” I said.
“Yeah,” Kiaya replied, her voice low.
We hadn’t known one another long, and at first, I’d been sure I didn’t even like her. Her constant silence had annoyed me, mainly because I was a talker. But as the world began to change and things grew more serious, I’d learned to appreciate it. Now, I couldn’t imagine being with someone who felt the need to fill every moment with chatter. It wouldn’t have felt right. Plus, I admired Kiaya’s goodness and strength. She had a resiliency I hoped to be able to learn. She was a survivor, which was something I was striving to be as well.
Tentatively, hoping the darkness would bridge the gap between comfort and awkwardness, I reached out and took her hand, giving it a squeeze. “We’re all together.”
“Yeah,” she said again, this time the word sounding a lot more confident.
I gave her hand another pump before releasing it. “We should go downstairs and see what’s going on. I’ve heard footsteps, so I know someone is up.”
“Good idea,” she said.
We headed for the stairs, passing the cracked guestroom door. In the dim light—courtesy of the flashlight we’d left on—I caught a glimpse of Randall sprawled out on the bed, Lexi curled up with him and Mike at his other side. Hank was on the floor in a sleeping bag, but I couldn’t see him. Thinking about the kids reminded me of the talk Devon and I had that first night home, reminding me why I needed to be strong.
“Lexi and Mike have lost their mom, and they’re just kids. Hank, too. They need you to be strong, Rowan. We all do…”
I barely remembered arriving at my house or the following day. I’d been too focused on the crushing grief of seeing my mom as a zombie. Still, I knew Devon had carried me inside while the others rushed to shut the garage and barricade the doors and windows. For a while, the dead had beat on them, but eventually they’d been distracted by some other sound and most had wandered off. Not far—they were still on our street—but at least they seemed to have forgotten about us. For the time being, anyway. It couldn’t last, though, and we knew it. We’d taken yesterday to rest and catch our breath, but eventually we would have to leave the house, which would alert them to our presence all over again.
When we arrived here, I’d felt like I was in a dream, barely able to comprehend what was happening. Vaguely, I remembered showing everyone around the house before crashing, and the others hadn’t been far behind. Randall, the kids, and Hank had found their way to the guestroom, Kiaya and Zara to the office where we had a pull-out couch. We had a finished basement, and Miller and Buck had crashed on the couches down there, and Lisa on the one in the living room, but I wasn’t sure about Devon. He’d been by my bed when I woke the first night, just sitting in the darkness like he’d been waiting for me to wake up. He’d comforted me, given me a pep talk, and helped me believe I could find a way to make it in this crazy, messed up world. Now, it was time to put that belief into action.
The flicker of candlelight was visible as Kiaya and I made our way down the stairs, and I paused once we reached the bottom. The living room was to the left, and the dining room to the right. Buck, the sixtyish man we’d met in Shamrock, was sitting at the table, an empty glass and a nearly full bottle in front of him. Scotch. My dad hadn’t been much of a drinker, but he’d enjoyed the occasional glass of whiskey or scotch, as well as a cigar when my mom wasn’t looking. It was awfully early for a drink, though.
Buck was staring into the glass, but he lifted his gaze when I took a step into the dining room. At some point while I was sleeping, he’d removed his ponytail, and his white-gray hair now hung free. It was wispy and fine, with fraying ends that told me he hadn’t gotten a trim in a long time, and it aged him ten years. Or maybe that was just the expression in his gray eyes.
“Morning,” I said.
He gave me a strained and somewhat guilty-looking smile as he nodded to the glass. “Takes the edge off.”
“My dad said the same thing,” I lied.
I didn’t know why, but I got the feeling it was what he needed to hear at this moment.
Buck leaned forward and grasped the bottle, turning it so the label was facing him. “It’s good stuff. Better than I could ever afford.” He lifted his gaze to meet mine. “He had good taste.”
My throat tightened at his use of past tense. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried it.”
It was all I could think to say.
Buck gave me a sad smile that was barely visible through his scraggly beard. “Maybe later we can have a drink together. In honor of your father.”
“Yeah,” I whispered.
Tears had filled my eyes, but I blinked them back. It was so like me to cry. Happy, sad, angry, or embarrassed, it didn’t matter, every emotion resulted in tears. It was something that had always bothered me, but never as much as at this moment, because it made me feel weak.
Buck stared at the bottle in his hand for a few seconds longer before pulling the cork free. The pop was loud in the otherwise quiet house, as was the trickle of liquid as he refilled his glass, but I’d already turned away and didn’t see how much he poured.
Kiaya was behind me, still standing at the bottom of the stairs, and like me, her attention was on Buck. When her gaze met mine, I could see my own concern reflected in her brown eyes. Buck was a nice man, but we didn’t really know him, and this was something I hadn’t anticipated.
We stayed where we were for a few seconds longer, neither of us talking, before I shook my head and continued to the living room. A handful of candles had been set up. On the fireplace mantel and the end tables, as well as across the kitchen counter, and like the dining room, light flickered off the walls and created long shadows that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
Everything was so familiar, and yet entirely different at the same time. It was quieter and dark, and the house felt hollow and empty even though more people were in it now than had been throughout most of my life. It was like I’d stepped into a science fiction story and found myself in some kind of alternate reality where everything I knew was a distorted reflection of what it should have been. Like Coraline, the creepy stop-motion movie that had come out a few years ago. In it, a little girl had discovered a door to a world that was a twisted version of her own, where her parents had buttons for eyes and sewed the lips of the blabber-mouth neighbor shut.
If only I could find a way out like she eventually had.
Devon was in the kitchen, but no one else seemed to be around as I headed his way. The soft thud of Kiaya’s footsteps said she was behind me, but I didn’t look back. I was too focused on Devon, who was frowning at the handful of jars and cans lined up on the counter in front of him and seemingly oblivious to the fact that Kiaya and I had come into the room. Soup, tomatoes, and vegetables—although I had no clue where those had come from since I couldn’t remember my mom ever serving anything but fresh veggies—were among the few items. It wasn’t a lot.
“What’s going on?” I asked, keeping my voice low, both so I didn’t startle him, and because in this world it seemed wrong to speak at a normal volume. Even if we were inside.
Devon looked up, his blue eyes focused on me, and something about the flickering light made me remember how he’d looked when we first met.
Kiaya and I had been traveling with a fellow student, Kyle, but he’d gotten sick, and we’d been forced to stop at a motel in Vega, Texas. I’d been on the verge of losing my composure when we arrived, but somehow had managed to hold it together until I was out of the car. I’d broken down the second I stepped out, though, and Devon had been the only person around to witness it. He was looking at me exactly how he had that day. His sharp, blue eyes sweeping over my face as if trying to absorb every thought and feeling going through me, and just like then, my scalp prickled under the scrutiny.
His square jaw tightened like he was biting back something that wanted to break free, and his Adam’s apple bobbed twice before he finally said, “I don’t know if staying here is safe or realistic.”
The same thought had been nagging at the back of my mind. The house was too out in the open, impossible to fortify, and surrounded by other homes that probably held even more zombies just waiting to escape. It wasn’t safe, and logically, I knew it. But knowing it and hearing Devon say the words out loud were two different things.
My back stiffened, and my fingers curled until my nails were digging into my palms. “This is my home.”
“Rowan.” Kiaya’s soft voice cut through the silence, and a second later her hand was on my arm, gentle and soothing.
She didn’t have to say anything else.
I exhaled, blowing out my frustration, and my shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry.”
Devon nodded, unmoved by my outburst. He didn’t look the least bit surprised by it, and his focus had already returned to the food lined up on the counter.
“This is pretty much all that’s left in the pantry other than some cereal and crackers.” His gaze flicked up to mine. “It looks like your mom hadn’t left the house in a while.”
Everything in me tightened, but this time, it wasn’t from anger. It was pain. Raw and nearly paralyzing. Like nothing I’d ever felt before.
“I told her to stay home,” I managed to get out.
I’d had a good reason to ask that of her. I’d wanted her to stay safe, wanted to make sure she wasn’t exposed to anything. I’d wanted her to be here when I arrived. It hadn’t worked, but even worse, it meant there was no food in the house, which put us at risk.
“We still have some things in the cars, right?” Kiaya asked. “From what we scavenged in Vega and at Zara’s house?”
Before leaving the first motel, we’d raided the cars in the parking lot, looking for supplies, and had taken any food we’d come across. It hadn’t been a lot, but at the time, it hadn’t concerned me. We were heading home, and I’d been certain that once we arrived, everything would be okay. Mom would take over just like she always had. She would know what to do, and I would be able to relax, would be able to let someone else take on the burden of making the tough decisions.
Only she wasn’t here, and she would never be again, and nothing in my life would ever be the same.
Just thinking about it made me want to curl into a ball.
“There’s a little,” Devon said, his gaze leveled on me like he could read my mind and knew I was on the verge of crumbling. “But not much. There’s really only enough food for a day. Two at the most.”
“Which means we’re going to have to head out for supplies soon,” Kiaya said.
“Yeah,” Devon replied, but he was still looking at me.
That first night home, he’d given me a pep talk, and I’d told myself I could do this. Told myself I could be strong, but in the face of this, knowing how little we had and how unprepared we were, I couldn’t grab hold of the same certainty. I wasn’t built for this world. I’d been an only child and coddled, had never had to work, never had to struggle, never had to fight. My parents had made sure I’d grown up in a cocoon of security, but now the safety that had always surrounded me was gone, and I didn’t know how to fit into this new reality. Didn’t know for sure if I could.
“Rowan?” Devon said, his voice low and soothing.
I swallowed, trying to push my fear and uncertainty down. It almost got stuck in my throat.
“We’ll have to go out.” My voice sounded foreign in my ears.
He nodded, but worry flashed in his blue eyes.
Kiaya took my hand, and I had the urge to curl into her the way I used to curl into my mom when I was little and scared or sick or tired. It was stupid. We were the same age. Still, it made sense. She was stronger than I was.
“Where are the others?” she asked. “Lisa and Miller?” Her gaze flicked to the small doorway that led into the dining room. “We saw Buck already.”
Devon followed her gaze, his expression clouding with worry and making my own concern resurface. He let out a deep sigh and ran his hand down his face, and the flickering candlelight left shadows on his features, creating circles under his eyes. Or maybe they were really there.
“Have you slept at all?” I asked, once again thinking about how he’d been sitting next to my bed when I’d awoken. He’d stood watch at the motel in Shamrock the night before we left, and then driven all night to get us here.
“I’ll sleep later.” He waved his hand as if trying to push aside my worry.
“Devon,” Kiaya said before I could, “you can’t go without sleep.”
He gave her a grateful smile, and for some stupid reason, my insides tightened. It wasn’t jealousy, not really, because he wasn’t interested in her. It was more like I wanted to see the same expression in his eyes when he looked at me. I didn’t want every glance he gave me to be full of concern.
“To answer your question,” Devon said, “Miller is asleep in the basement, and I think Lisa is in the garage.”
Kiaya glanced toward the door that led into the garage. “What’s she doing out there?”
“Not sure.” Devon shrugged, his focus already back on the food.
“I’m going to check on her.” Kiaya took a small step backward. “See if she needs help with anything.”
“Good idea.” He nodded but didn’t look up. It was like he thought if he stared at the food long enough, he could make it multiply.
Kiaya shot me a worried look before turning away.
I didn’t watch her leave, though. I was too focused on Devon. He was still messing with the food. He couldn’t stop touching the cans and jars, couldn’t stop shifting them around or organizing them, and it was starting to look obsessive.
“Devon.” I reached over the counter and grabbed his hand, forcing him to stop.
His skin was warm against mine, his palms calloused, and the touch sent a sizzle of electricity shooting through me.
He lifted his gaze, slowly but not hesitantly, and his blue eyes met mine. He didn’t say anything.
“You should get some rest.” I made my voice come out firm even though it wanted to tremble under his gaze.
“Can’t.” When he exhaled, his exhaustion was apparent in every line of his body. “I’ve always had trouble sleeping when there’s a lot going on, and I can’t seem to get my mind to shut off for even a second. It just spins in circles, going over everything I need to do. Which reminds me.” He didn’t release my hand as he came around the counter to my side. “I should check on your cut.”
Just the mention of the injury made it throb.
It happened in Vega during my first encounter with a zombie. Kiaya and I had wanted to search our recently deceased companion’s belongings for anything that might be useful, but we’d had no idea the dead were coming back. When Kyle attacked, the only weapon we’d had was a lamp. It had broken, though, and in the process of trying to fight zombie Kyle off, a big chunk of ceramic had gotten lodged in my back.
“Devon,” I argued when he released my hand and forced me to turn, “we have a nurse now. Lisa can take a look at it.”
“I gave you the stitches, and I feel responsible for how it turns out.”
I watched over my shoulder as he ran his hands up each side of my waist, moving my shirt out of the way. His expression was serious and focused, and his grip firm, and just like at the Western Motel, my body reacted to the touch. Goosebumps popped up on my skin, and my stomach fluttered the way it had when I was fourteen and had my first real crush.
I still wasn’t sure what was happening between us. It was crazy and ill-timed, but it was also mutual. Meaning there probably wasn’t much we could do to stop it at this point.
“It doesn’t look too bad.” Devon’s breath swept over my bare skin, and I closed my eyes when a shiver ran down my spine. When he spoke again, his voice was a whisper in my ear. “Relax, Rowan.”
I opened my eyes to find his face next to mine, and for a second, words were impossible.
“Will you stop doing this to me?” I whispered once I’d managed to find my voice. “Please?”
Despite the exhaustion in every line of his face, he smiled. “I’m just checking you out.”
“Believe me,” I tried to make my tone light in hopes of downplaying how much he affected me, “I know.”
He let out a low chuckle that echoed through his chest, then let me go. I turned to face him. My shirt was still hiked up in the back, so I pulled it down, all the while eyeing him. Hoping to figure out what he was thinking or feeling. He was leaning against the counter, his arms crossed so his biceps bulged. His expression unreadable in the darkness of the room.
We’d kissed back in Shamrock—or, more accurately, he’d kissed me—more than once, but not since. At the time, a part of me had felt so silly. Who ever heard of romance during the apocalypse? But standing in front of him now, I couldn’t remember why I’d felt that way. There was an undeniable attraction between us, and it wasn’t like the Earth had stopped spinning. Yes, in a way, the world had come to an end, but only the world as we knew it before. Life had continued for some of us, and even if the future we were facing was different than anything we ever could have imagined, some things would never change.
When we’d first met, Devon had driven me crazy, but I hadn’t been able to pinpoint why. Still, from the very beginning, something about him had bugged me, and I’d finally realized what it was. He’d reminded me of my first serious boyfriend, Doug Phillips, who’d dumped me for a cheerleader. I’d been head over heels, and he’d been my first everything. We’d dated most of my sophomore year, had gone to homecoming together, then prom. Then he’d dumped me for Jessie Simpkins a few weeks into my junior year.
At first glance, Devon had the same kind of swagger. He was the muscled guy who worked out more than he drank—a rarity in twenty-something guys these days—and who had the kind of body you’d see on the cover of Men’s Health. But it was more than that. He and Doug both had a cuddly, playful personality that contradicted their broad frames and made them more endearing. After Doug, I’d thought I was immune to that kind of thing. I’d been wrong.
Now that I’d gotten to know Devon more, I didn’t see much of a similarity, but every now and then he’d do or say something that would bring my ex to mind, and that old bitterness would surface. Like now. Staring at me with a smirk that said he could read my mind and knew I was ogling him. Not just that either. It said he knew he deserved to be ogled.
I could feel my defenses going up.
“What?” he asked when I didn’t say anything for a few seconds, a little smirk on his face.
“Nothing,” I said just as the door to the garage opened and quiet voices floated into the room.
I was more than thankful for the interruption.
Devon frowned, but I ignored him and turned to face Kiaya and Lisa.
“Morning,” Lisa said when they’d stopped in front of us.
She reached back and twisted her brown hair around her hand like she was going to put it in a bun. The action must have been subconscious, because she let it go only a second later and it tumbled to her shoulders in tangled waves.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
Lisa nodded, her bloodshot brown eyes focused on me. “I needed a smoke.”
I hadn’t thought she was the type. She looked too fit to be a smoker, her skin too flawless. Then again, the scent clinging to her wasn’t tobacco. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, but it was more than familiar at this point in my life. I lifted my eyebrows the way my mom would have if she’d caught me doing something morally questionable.
“Call it medicinal.” Lisa shrugged, but she didn’t look the least bit embarrassed. “I have anxiety, and it helps calm me.”
Buck had said a similar thing about the scotch. I wasn’t sure which would end up being more of a hinderance.
“I hope it helped.”
Lisa let out a bitter laugh and once again wrapped her hair around her hand. “Not sure it’s going to be possible to avoid anxiety.”
She had that right.
Footsteps pulled my attention away, and I turned as Buck joined us in the kitchen, the bottle in one hand and the glass in the other. He set the scotch on the counter but didn’t put it away, which nagged at me, and not just because I’d been raised in a house where everything had its place. The action said he was intending to drink more.
“Sun’s comin’ up,” he said, his words thick with Texas twang but not slurred.
“We have some things to talk about,” Devon said, “and we should probably do it before the kids wake up.”
“Probably,” Buck agreed.
“Miller?” Lisa asked, her brown eyes sweeping over us.
We all shifted uncomfortably.
Corporal Miller had been the self-appointed leader of the little group of survivors at the Western Motel in Shamrock, and just so happened to be a huge pain in the ass. I still wasn’t sure why he’d decided to come with us, especially since he’d called us fools for even considering leaving, but he had, and we’d let him, and now we were stuck with him. Even worse was the nagging feeling that he wasn’t being totally truthful about who he was.
Devon exhaled and shook his head. “He’s worthless, but if we leave him out, he’s going to make our lives a living hell.”
“More than he already does?” I asked, my words bitter.
Lisa snorted in agreement.
“I’ll get the son of a bitch,” Buck said.
He headed for the basement door, muttering under his breath as he did, but I didn’t catch a single word.
Lisa was eyeing the few cans and jars on the counter. “Is this all of it?”
“All I could find.” Devon turned his sharp, blue eyes on me. “Unless you can think of somewhere else your mom might have stashed food.”
Stashed food? He had to be joking.
“There was no reason for us to have a big stash of food,” I said with a shrug. “It was just the three of us, and I was away at college.”
Devon shook his head, and even though his annoyance wasn’t really aimed at my parents, I could feel my defenses going up.
Maybe we shouldn’t have come here.
My parents hadn’t exactly been preppers, but somehow, I’d still thought getting here would mean safety. It hadn’t, and now we were faced with the terrifying reality of just how unprepared we were. Maybe everyone—myself included—would have been better off going somewhere else. It was impossible to know, and much too late to make a different decision. Everyone was here because of me. They’d followed me, and now I had to toughen up, because regardless of how horribly unprepared I felt for this world, I only had two choices. Fight or surrender. I wasn’t ready to give up.
“Let’s sit down, at least,” Devon said, nodding to the living room.
He headed off, looking as if he was dragging himself across the room. Lisa and Kiaya followed, but not before grabbing the few candles sitting around the kitchen. The curtains and blinds were closed, making the house pitch black even though Buck had said the sun was coming up, and even the candles we’d managed to find did little to illuminate the room. It gave the house a spooky feeling, and a sudden fear gripped me. It reminded me of when I was young and I’d been certain there was a monster under my bed, just waiting for me to step out so it could wrap its icy fingers around my ankle.
A shudder moved through me, and out of a sudden desperation to see the sun and have some light in the room, I moved to the nearby window and pulled the curtain aside.
The sun was rising in the distance just like Buck had said, slowly illuminating the horizon and turning it brilliant shades of pink and orange and purple. My house sat at the end of a cul-de-sac, and behind it was a small pond, a walking trail encircling it, and beyond that a field. Since there were only a few houses in view, the area wasn’t clogged with the dead like the street out front, but a few shambling bodies were still visible in the distance. They weren’t what made me shiver, though. It was the emptiness of the world. No cars on the street, no lights in the areas that were still cast in darkness, and no noise. Even worse was the pillar of smoke. It was beyond the field and to the right, thick and black as it flowed into the air in a cloud that seemed to grow wider by the second. Was it a house? A business? What had started the fire, and would it spread? Probably. It wasn’t like there was anyone to put it out at this point. Was it close enough to affect us?
I let the curtain drop back into place when footsteps pounded up the stairs at my back. Buck appeared, shaking his head like he and Miller had already exchanged words, with the still sleepy corporal only a couple steps behind him, and the two men headed over to join the others in the living room. I needed to go, too, but I found myself frozen in place, dread weighing me down and making it impossible to move. I wished I was an ostrich so I could stick my head in the ground, which was stupid because the animals didn’t really do that. Not in real life. Still, it would have been nice.
But it was impossible, and what was more, I didn’t want to be worthless.
I exhaled, stretching it out, then sucked in a deep breath as I thought about the two options in front of me. Fight or surrender. I’d come all this way, halfway across the country, and there was no chance in hell I was going to give up now.
It was time to fight.
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