With their shelter destroyed and their sense of security shattered, Vivian, Axl and the group set off in search of a safe place. But the group's morale is at an all-time low, and they now know it's not just the dead they have to fear. Weeks of wandering brings sickness, death and loss to the survivors, and Vivian soon finds herself losing hope of ever discovering a safe place to live. To make matters worse, two members of the group go missing, leaving the others to wonder not only what happened to them, but if they will ever see their friends alive again.
After what happened in Vegas, Hadley feels like a stranger in her own body. When she and Jon get separated from the rest of the group, she finds herself confronted not only with the scars left behind by her ordeal, but facing the possibility of a new beginning with Jon at her side.
In a twist of fate, Vivian and Axl stumble upon a place that could be the group's salvation, only to have hope slip through their fingers once again when they are met with the most devastating blow yet . . .
Release date: April 28, 2015
Publisher: Twisted Press, LLC
Print pages: 333
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Kate L. Mary
The icy wind whips across the field, slamming into the brown grass and weeds in front of us. They’re tall, growing out of control, and they bow under the pressure of the cold breeze. I pull my jacket closer to my body when the gust hits me, wincing at the impact. It’s like being smacked in the face by a cold, angry fist. I hate winter.
“Is it supposed to be so cold this early in November?” I ask Axl as I hug myself tighter, trying to block the chilly air.
“Don’t got a clue,” he says. “Never left Tennessee ‘til all this started.”
His eyes never stop moving. Never stop surveying the area. After what happened in Vegas, he’s always on the lookout, and he’s been true to his word. He rarely lets me out of his sight.
I step behind a small group of bushes, trying my best to ignore the shivers shaking my body. My heart is pounding like crazy, but I should be calmer than this. There’s nothing around for miles. Open fields with tall grass and clumps of trees swaying in the wind. Mountains in the distance capped in white. But no houses. No cars or people other than our group. By the smell of things, no zombies either. This is how it’s been since we arrived in Colorado. Miles and miles of nothingness stretched out in front of us like the world just up and vanished. The towns aren’t clear, but the wilderness seems to be. It should help me relax, but it doesn’t. It has me more on edge than ever.
Axl’s gun is drawn when he turns his back to me. “I’ll keep a lookout.”
There’s no time to waste, so I drop my pants and squat. After weeks on the road I should be used to peeing out in the open, but I’m not. Within seconds the cool air has turned my ass to ice, and when the wind blows, pee splashes against my jeans. That should help the smell in the truck. As if it doesn’t stink enough already.
When I’m done, I don’t even bother taking the time to drip-dry. I’m shivering, and the longer I squat here the more likely I am to fall on my ass. It’s too cold and windy, and I already stink. What’s a little pee after all the shit we’ve been through? I yank my pants up and zip them just as Axl turns toward me. The corner of his mouth flips up, but it isn’t really a smile. There haven’t been a lot of those from him lately. Or from any of us, for that matter.
“My turn,” he says, tucking his gun away.
I exhale and watch the steam rise in front of me. The quilted flannel shirt I’m wearing isn’t thick enough to block out the wind, but I don’t want to give it up. It’s Axl’s. It reminds me of the time he took care of me when I was sick. When we first met, before the world had gone completely to shit. Before the dead started coming back. It’s a good memory, oddly enough. That was before I really knew him, but even then I had a feeling he was more than trailer trash. More than just a redneck. More than he gave himself credit for. That’s when I got my first glimpse of the goodness in Axl, and probably when I started to fall in love with him.
I pull the jacket tighter, crossing my arms and hugging it closer to my body. I’ll keep it forever if I have anything to say about it. Even if it is starting to smell pretty rank.
Axl doesn’t turn his back to me when he unzips his pants, and I exhale again. Steam rises up in front of me, then disappears. Carried on the wind.
“Must be nice to be able to whip it out like that,” I say.
He chuckles as I scan the deserted landscape in front of me. The trickle of Axl’s pee almost echoes through the quiet wilderness.
“Gotta say, sure am glad you can’t. I kinda like you the way you are.”
I shiver when a strong burst of wind whips across the field. My nipples could cut glass. “I think you’ve mentioned on more than one occasion exactly what you like about my body.”
He zips his jeans, and I turn to face him. When he smiles, it’s slow and easy, and only one side of his mouth turns up. The scar on his chin deepens, and I run my fingers over it. He kisses the tips when they reach his mouth.
“I like it all,” he says, pulling me against him.
I tuck my face into the crook of his neck as the wind swirls around us. He smells like sweat and dirt and the outdoors, and his skin is moist despite the cold. We’ve been on the road for so long none of us has had a chance to clean up lately. It would be nice to find a place where we could rest and gather ourselves. Lick our wounds after our losses in Vegas. At this point, my optimism is wearing so thin it’s like tissue paper, and I’m starting to wonder if there is such a place. It doesn’t seem like it.
“We need to find somewhere to stop, Axl. Soon.”
His cheek rubs against the top of my head when he nods. “I know.”
“Do you think there’s even a safe place out there for us?”
“We’re gonna try an’ find one. Someplace we can rest. Make a life. Be together.”
My eyes sting. I blink, but it doesn’t help, and before I know it the tears have escaped. Damn. I hate to cry, and I’ve had enough of it. After what happened in Vegas I feel like all I did for a while was cry. Cry from the memories and pain of losing friends. From the fear of losing Axl and maybe even a little bit of myself. I don’t want to go back to that person. Things are uncertain, but I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been.
I rub my face against Axl’s shirt to get rid of the tears, then pull back. The wind whips my blonde hair into my face, and when I run my fingers through it, I cringe. It’s stringy and greasy. Stiff. I need a bath and about a week of sleep. At this point, every move I make takes effort. I don’t know how Axl is still on his feet. He barely sleeps at all.
“Let’s take a break for once, okay? We’ll ride in the Sam’s truck and try to get some rest. Just be together.”
His stormy eyes hold mine for a second, then he nods and brushes the hair out of my face. “If that’s what you want.”
“It is,” I say, barely able to squeeze the words out when my throat tightens. Everything we’ve been through, and just one look from him still gets to me. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t met him. It’s something I don’t even like to think about, to be honest.
We head back to the group and find almost everyone outside stretching their legs. This is our first pit stop in several hours, and we’ve been cooped up in the truck for days. It’s been a while since we stopped somewhere to sleep and rest. Three weeks on the road, and the longest we’ve spent in one place was four nights. Every time we got even a little comfortable, something happened and we had to move. A horde or a group of people. Nothing feels safe anymore.
Hadley and Jon are shooting their bows, but even after all these weeks I’m not used to them being together. He was one of the men who grabbed us in Vegas, and after what happened to Hadley I have to wonder how she can stand to be around him. It would be hard not to blame him.
Parvarti is with them, shooting her bow like she does every time we stop for more than a few minutes. She’s gotten good. Better than even Angus or Axl. She cut her dark hair short a couple weeks ago, saying she didn’t want to keep it long when she can’t wash it. She has a good point. The cut is uneven and jagged, but Parvarti wears a red bandana tied around her head so no one can tell. Not that it matters what her hair looks like anymore.
When Trey was killed saving Hadley and me, I wasn’t sure if Parvarti would pull through. It knocked her on the ass at first, but after the shelter fell, she changed. Started working with Axl so she could learn to shoot and hunt. Volunteered for runs. The little girl exterior melted away, and underneath she was a survivor. She’s impressed us all.
Winston is leaning against the Nissan, his arms crossed as he silently watches the group. Axl takes a place next to him, and the men nod at each other but don’t say anything. They communicate better through silence than most of us do using words. Sometimes I wonder if they can read each other’s minds.
“I’m going to check on Liz,” I tell Axl, heading to the back of the truck.
Jessica, Sophia, and Anne are with the little girl, so she isn’t in any danger of being neglected. But when Nathan was bitten in Vegas, I made a promise I’d look out for his little girl, and I intend to keep it. Someone has to do it, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be her mom.
When I round the back, I almost bump into Angus and Darla. Making out. With as far down her throat as his tongue is, I’m surprised she can breathe, and his hand is under her shirt. Sometimes, I really wish we’d left her ass in Vegas. The two of them making out is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever had to see. It even tops the dead.
Angus pulls away from sucking my mom’s face and flashes me a grin that isn’t even a little charming. “Sorry, Blondie. Gotta get it in when we can.”
My stomach churns when Darla giggles. The schoolgirl bit doesn’t suit her. There’s nothing innocent or girly about this aging showgirl.
“Don’t mind me,” I say, forcing my way past them so I can climb inside the truck. At least they aren’t trying to screw in front of the kids. Again.
“So sensitive,” Darla says behind me. “Gets that from her daddy.”
I want to barf.
A few lanterns are on, lighting up the back of the truck and making it easier for me to see. The air is stuffy and stale, the perfumed scent of body spray and deodorant not quite strong enough to cover up the smell of unwashed bodies. Dirt, sweat, and body odor mix together to form a musky odor that almost makes my toes curl. I can’t get used to being unclean or being around so many people who haven’t washed.
Of course, it’s better than smelling like one of the dead.
Blankets and pillows and a few mattresses are spread out among the remaining supplies. Boxes form walls for privacy, but Jessica, Sophia, and Anne sit out in the open with the kids. Moira is with them. Kind of. She hasn’t really been anywhere since Nathan died.
We picked them up – along with their daughter, Liz – at Sam’s Club back when we made our first run into Vegas. I’ve never met a woman this dependent on her husband. When Nathan was still alive, Moira could go into hysterics just thinking about him leaving her sight. He went to Vegas with us anyway, only he didn’t make it back. A bite forced us to put him down. He didn’t even get to say goodbye, and Moira’s been a ghost ever since. If something happens to Liz, we’ll lose her mom for good.
“How’s it going?” I ask, kneeling next to the little girl.
Liz looks up at me with eyes full of questions, and the expression makes my insides constrict painfully. She lost her dad and her mom’s become as vacant as one of the zombies. I can’t imagine what’s going on inside her head.
“She’s doing great,” Sophia says, patting the little girl’s leg. “Right, Liz?”
Liz doesn’t respond, and the silence is painful. Maybe this world is just too harsh for some people. I hate to even think that when we’ve been fighting so hard to live, but I can’t help it. Life is hard now, and some people might not be equipped for it.
Jake coughs, and I turn to find Anne frowning at the little boy. Even in the dark truck, his face looks pale. He shivers, and Anne pulls a blanket up to his chin, but it isn’t from the chilly air and we know it. His fever has been high for a couple days now.
“He isn’t getting any better,” Anne says, shaking her head.
Sophia pulls little Ava against her like if she can just hold her daughter close enough, she can protect her from catching the bug. There isn’t much you can do to protect your kids these days, though. I’m proof of that.
“We’ll check the next pharmacy we come to, but Joshua hasn’t had much luck with the last two places. They’ve all been pretty ransacked so far.” I pat her arm, but my words have no hope in them.
We’ve been having a tough time finding certain things, antibiotics being one of them. The small towns we’ve passed through have been looted, but we’re trying to avoid the bigger areas. Cities are too risky, and it’s not just the dead we have to worry about anymore. Vegas taught us that. People have turned lawless, have morphed into something completely unrecognizable. They don’t even seem human to me anymore. They’re some kind of distortion that’s halfway between man and zombie. Something evil and twisted.
I look at Jake and something deep inside me stirs. It’s that thing I buried after Emily died. It hurts whenever it tries to make a reappearance, almost like it’s cutting my heart in two all over again. We have to find some medicine. Losing Trey and Nathan in Vegas and Arthur when the shelter fell was one thing. Losing them tore at my hope, but watching another kid die…that would be devastating for everyone. Like the world ending all over again.
“We’ll figure it out, Anne,” I say, taking her hand. “I promise.”
Anne nods, and Jessica looks away like she doesn’t believe in promises anymore. Her hope is dwindling. I can see it in her eyes every day. Winston, her dad, is holding on to his positivity. If it weren’t for him and Axl, we wouldn’t have made it this far. But Jessica is struggling.
We’re all struggling.
“Jessica, Axl and I are going to try to get some rest when we get going again. If you want to ride in the Nissan, there’s room.”
She shakes her head, then nods toward the other side of the truck. “Ask Al and Lila. I think they’re getting antsy back here.”
“Okay.” I give Anne’s hand another pat and look all the kids over before I get up.
No one else has caught whatever Jake has, but they don’t really look good. Liz is as much of a ghost as her mom, and Max and Dylan are shell-shocked. I don’t blame them. They both lost their parents when the virus hit. Moira and Nathan were the ones who found them. They were like adopted parents for the boys, but Moira’s pretty much abandoned them now. We’ve done our best to help her snap out of it, but nothing’s worked.
I think she’s a lost cause.
I head over to where Al and Lila are huddled together, smiling at each other like the world hasn’t ended and there are no zombies. Al is looking better every day. Stronger even. I still have a hard time believing he pulled through, but he did. Having Lila helped him. I didn’t know the spoiled girl had it in her, but she’s been a regular Florence Nightingale. She and Al are inseparable now.
“You guys want to ride in the Nissan?”
They both look up, and Al flashes me a smile. “Sure. Hey, when we stop again, do you think I can get some kind of hook or something?” He holds up his stump, and I do my best not to cringe. It’s covered, but it still freaks me out every time I see it. I hate remembering the day Joshua had to cut Al’s hand off. There have been a lot of bad days since this all started, but that one is near the top of the list for me.
“I feel like I’m at a major disadvantage,” Al says, shaking his head.
I have to hand it to the kid, he still has his sense of humor.
I roll my eyes even though I feel like giving Al a hug. He was Trey’s next door neighbor, and joined up with us in San Francisco after Trey had gone home to find his family had succumbed to the virus. Just like Al’s. Just like most of the world. Things may suck, but Al knows how to keep the mood light.
“You’ll have to talk to Axl about that one,” I say.
Lila groans and shoves him playfully. “You’re such a nerd.”
“I thought you kind of liked that about me.” He climbs to his feet and uses his good hand to help her up.
Lila’s grin lights up her brown eyes. Her dark hair is just as greasy as mine and her face is streaked with dirt, but even filthy, she’s beautiful. Plus, she seems to really love Al. Despite the misgivings I had about her when we first met, I can’t help liking her now.
“A sword would be nice,” Al says, almost to himself.
Lila rolls her eyes as we head to the back door of the truck, and despite every worry floating around in my head, I smile. Thank you, Al.
The three of us hop out and head toward the Nissan. Next to Axl and Winston, Joshua leans against the car with his shoulders hunched. His hair has gotten long and it won’t stay out of his eyes, and he’s thinner than ever. We’ve all lost weight, but on Joshua, it’s shockingly obvious. He’s tall and gangly and almost looks skeletal. I know he wishes he could do more. Be more. No matter how often we tell him he doesn’t have control over everything, he still takes it all to heart.
“How’s Jake feeling?” Joshua asks when I walk up, barely lifting his head to look at me.
I shrug. “About the same.”
Joshua nods like he expected as much and pushes himself off the Nissan. “I’m going to ride with the kids.”
When he walks away, his shoulders are even more slumped.
“We should get a move on soon,” Winston says.
Axl slings his arm over my shoulder and I lean into him, thankful for the support. The heavy exhaustion in my body makes me feel like I might collapse at any second.
“Who’s ridin’ in the car?” he asks.
“I’ll drive,” Winston says, then nods toward the dark blue SUV. “Angus and Darla have already climbed in. Looks like Parvarti, Hadley, and Jon, too.”
“We’re in,” Al says, still smiling. Always smiling. “Where are we heading next?”
I tune them out while they make plans. It’s always the same. Drive and hope we find something. Head to a town and pray it isn’t overrun. That there are more supplies. Like we’re just crossing our fingers and hoping we’ll stumble across a warehouse full of survival gear and food. I’m too worn out to focus on it right now, and I don’t have anything to add.
When they’ve finished, Axl leads me to the back of the truck. I pull myself in with shaky arms, then head to the mattress Al and Lila were lying on a few minutes ago. Jake’s coughs echo through the truck and there are a few quiet voices in the back, but otherwise it’s silent.
When the door is pulled shut, we’re plunged into near darkness, and I welcome it. I curl up on the dirty mattress, and Axl follows. He groans when he lays down, and the sharp sound feels like a knife slicing through me.
“Are you hurting?” I ask, rubbing his shoulder. Where he got shot. My chest constricts at the memory. I hate thinking about him getting shot, remembering all the blood and pain and uncertainty of that day.
Not that he’d admit it if he was. I catch him rubbing it when he thinks no one is looking, so I know it still bugs him some days. He just hates the thought of appearing weak.
Our mattress is mostly shielded by boxes, giving us some privacy, and I can almost pretend we’re alone when I roll onto my side. Axl lies at my back and curls his body around mine, pulling me close. I close my eyes, and within seconds the world begins to fade away.
* * *
Axl’s nose nuzzles my neck, pulling me out of my dream world. “You asleep?”
I’m still groggy and the gentle sway of the truck could put me right back under, but I can tell I’ve been out for a while. I feel more rested than I have in weeks.
Axl’s hand snakes up my hip, and he nudges my shirt aside. When his warm fingers touch my skin, my body starts to tingle. We haven’t had more than five minutes alone in over a week, and I suddenly find I’m wide awake.
I roll over to face him, and his lips find mine in the darkness. When I open my mouth, our tongues tangle together and heat pulses through my body. Axl moves his hand down over my hip and ass to my thigh, then pulls my leg up. Hitching it around his hip. He grinds his body against mine, causing sparks to ignite inside me. It’s been much too long.
“We have to be quiet,” I whisper.
He grunts against my lips as his hand slides across my stomach to the zipper of my pants. My heart’s pounding when it comes down, then he slides his hand inside my underwear, and I have to bite back a moan. His fingers tease me, and I close my eyes, moving against them.
I need this moment with him so I can feel alive.
“We need to make it fast,” I whisper.
“Yeah,” he replies, pulling away.
I barely hear the sound of his zipper as I shimmy out of my own jeans. When I yank them down, my underwear goes with them. I wiggle, trying to get them off, and they’re down around my knees when the truck lurches to a stop, nearly knocking Axl over. He stumbles but catches himself, and I freeze with my pants down around my knees.
“I guess we found something,” Anne says.
“Shit.” Axl grabs his pants and hops on one foot, trying to get them back on.
Shit is right.
I stay down, wiggling as I desperately try to get my pants back up. My underwear got pushed down too far though, and I can’t quite find them. People start moving around in the back of the truck, making my heart beat faster, and Axl has his own pants zipped before I finally manage to locate my underwear. I pull them up, then lift my ass off the floor so I can get my jeans back on too. I’m on my knees zipping them up when someone throws the door open and light pours into the truck.
“Damn. Thought you would be too goody-goody to get all freaky back here.”
The bright light makes it impossible to open my eyes all the way, but Angus’s words are loud and clear. My cheeks burn. I really didn’t want Anne and Sophia and Jessica and all the kids to know we were fooling around.
Axl grabs my arm and pulls me to my feet. “Shut up, Angus.”
My eyes adjust to the brightness just in time to see Angus spit. We didn’t find much food at the last store we hit, but he was able to find more dip. I can’t wait until the day he runs out. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Angus flashes us a monkey grin, then motions for us to step out. “In a minute here, you’re gonna be kissin’ my ass. Just wait an’ see where I found for us to go. Bet you two might even be able to squeeze in a little more alone time.”
I let out a deep breath and count to ten, biting back all the words I want to fling at Angus. Things between us have been a little better since Axl was shot, but I still want to punch him in the face about fifty percent of the time.
“What do you have for us, Angus?” I say when I’m finally able to get myself under control.
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