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After weeks on the road and devastating losses, the survivors have finally found safety. But as winter falls on Colorado, it brings with it both new challenges and new hope.
Axl and Vivian
With supplies running low and animals scarce, not even the freezing zombies can make the future look bright for Axl's group. And as the snow grows deeper, Vivian's concern for Hadley and Jon only becomes more intense. Each day seems to bring more challenges, and every week that passes with no sign of their friends makes it more difficult for the group to believe life can ever return to normal.
Jon and Ginny
Hope Springs is an opportunity to start over for Ginny and Jon. Even though their worries for their lost friends are never completely gone, the couple throws themselves into building a new world for their baby. But as Jon works to clean out the city, Ginny struggles to find herself and embrace the second chance she's been given. But with the ever-present threat of both man and the undead surrounding them, optimism is a difficult thing to hold onto . . .
Release date: November 30, 2015
Publisher: Twisted Press, LLC
Print pages: 315
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Listen to a sample
Kate L. Mary
The clank of metal jerks me awake, and I open my eyes to a room cloaked in darkness. I don’t need the light to know what the sound is, though. It’s the same noise that wakes me more often than not these days.
On the other side of the room, Ginny thrashes and moans, causing her bed to slam against the wall. I should be used to it by now, but the erratic thump of my heartbeat tells me I’m not. When a cry pierces the darkness, the pounding grows even more intense, and I roll out of bed so fast my legs get tangled in the sheets. I kick them off and scramble across the floor as Ginny’s whimpers grow more insistent. Every whine she lets out makes my gut clench tighter.
Dammit. I’ll never forgive myself for what I put her through.
“Ginny,” I whisper when I reach her side.
I run my hand over her head, and her damp hair clings to her moist skin. When she lets out another sob, her whole body jerks. I don’t stop whispering her name though, doing my best to ignore the painful squeeze in my chest. It usually takes a few seconds to bring her out of the dream.
Suddenly, she gasps and bolts upright, knocking my hand away and shaking the entire bed again. Her eyes are big and wide, and even through the darkness the whites are visible. She has the sheets knotted around her fists, and she’s gasping for breath, shaking. I pull myself up until I’m sitting next to her on the bed and run my hand down her arm, trying to ease the tension in her body while I wait for her to realize she’s safe. Because she is. Even if I have to die trying, I am going to make sure nothing bad ever happens to her again.
“It was a dream,” she finally says, but the stiff muscles of her forearm seem to tighten even more.
“It was. You’re okay.”
Ginny swallows and nods twice, then without another word, she scoots down until she’s as close to the wall as she can get. I crawl into the tiny bed at her side. My arms wrap around her small frame, and her body trembles against mine.
I can’t wait until we have a bed big enough for both of us. Ginny only sleeps well when my arms are around her. Of course, I don’t have a damn clue why she needs me so much. God knows I don’t deserve her trust. Not after what I did.
When the weight of the guilt feels like it’s going to crush me, I kiss her temple. Of course, that only makes me feel guiltier, because the gesture has more to do with easing my own pain than hers. Some of the tension in Ginny’s body eases, taking my own pain with it, but we both know this will be with us until the day we die. It will always hang over our heads. A cloud of guilt and pain so thick that if anyone could see it they’d think it was the end of the world. Again.
“Don’t leave me.” Ginny’s voice seems impossibly tiny in the silent room.
“Never,” I say, pulling her closer. Holding her tighter.
Damn you, Jon. Why the hell did you have to drag someone else into your problems? Why couldn’t you be a man and take care of things on your own? Damn you.
I’m still cursing myself when Ginny’s body relaxes. Then, not too long after that, her breathing slows until it’s nothing more than a quiet sigh. When I’m certain she’s finally out for the night, I allow my hold on her to relax a little. But not completely. If I ease up too much, she may start to cry in her sleep. It’s happened before.
The morning sunshine wakes me next, penetrating the thin layer of skin covering my eyes. Ginny’s body is still pressed against mine, but she isn’t as relaxed, and I don’t have to look to know she’s awake. When I finally manage to pry my eyes open, I find her staring at me.
“It happened again,” she whispers, but it isn’t a question.
I nod because I don’t know what to say. We’ve had this conversation, more than once. She doesn’t want me to apologize and she doesn’t blame me. It was a hard thing to believe, even harder to accept, but I finally have. Now, I just have to work on forgiving myself for what I did.
I’m not sure that’s possible, though.
Ginny turns her gaze to the ceiling and lets out a long breath. “Thank you.”
I want to tell her not to thank me, but again I remain quiet. She doesn’t want my apologies or my sympathy. All she really wants is to move on and leave that person behind. Only I’m not sure it’s really possibly. We’re doing better, but the sadness Ginny carries with her is never very far away, and sometimes when it rushes back it leaves me feeling breathless. And helpless. Especially at night.
After a few seconds of silence, Ginny twists her body like she’s trying to force it to wake up. “I guess we should get moving so you have time to eat before you have to head out.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I say, stretching my sore back before I roll off the tiny mattress.
Being crammed into the twin bed every night has taken a toll on my body. Or maybe I’m just getting old. I feel old. Older than thirty-one, that’s for sure. It’s hard to believe it’s only been a few months since the world changed. It feels like a different lifetime, and I’m a different person. Sometimes, I even find myself wondering if the life I had before all this was just a dream.
I twist and my back pops, which makes Ginny cringe. “Don’t suppose they have a chiropractor around?”
She snorts and pushes herself into a sitting position. “Doubtful.”
“Well, hopefully we find one soon. Otherwise, I’m going to get you a book as soon as we clear the street the library is on. You need a new career, right?”
“And you think chiropractor is a good place to start?” Ginny arches an eyebrow my way as she eases off the bed.
“Why not? We can grab a few zoms for you to practice on. Maybe you’ll be able to fix this whole mess with a simple spinal adjustment.” I flash her a smile, and when she returns it, something in me tightens in a familiar and comfortable way. There’s never going to be a time when I get tired of seeing her smile.
We get ready for the day, moving around each other effortlessly like it’s always been just the two of us. She doesn’t bother with makeup, and the clothes she throws on are simple and baggy. Warm.
My first wife, Carrie, was always well dressed. She never left the house without doing her hair or spending some time in front of the mirror, and I have a strong feeling Hadley Lucas was the same way. But Ginny likes to keep it simple, and I’m okay with it. Even with almost no hair, she’s beautiful in my eyes. She’s put on some weight since we arrived in Hope Springs, and her face is fuller now. Healthier. When it’s chilly her cheeks turn pink, making the freckles on her nose stand out. It’s her eyes I really love, though. They’re big and round, and greener than seems humanly possible. Like a spring meadow. Every emotion she feels is clearly visible in those eyes. The hopefulness that passes over her when a group comes back from a run, the fear she feels after one of her dreams, the joy of being in a safe place. The love when she looks at me.
I’d almost given up hope I’d be able to make her feel that way.
Breakfast is quick. Steaming oatmeal with canned peaches. We don’t have a lot of fresh food, but when spring comes, it will be different. The people of Hope Springs have plans in place for everything. The livestock we have now isn’t being slaughtered; instead, they’re working to increase numbers. Breeding while we still have canned goods and nonperishable items to go through. In the spring we’ll plant crops, and hopefully hunting will be better. If nothing else, we’ll be able to start killing a few animals.
They’ve tried sending out hunting parties, but there hasn’t been much success. It seems the animal population got hit just as hard as the human population did. Every time someone brings it up, my mind wanders to Axl and the others. Wherever they are, if they’re as low on food as they were the last time we saw them, winter is going to be rough. They depend on Axl and Angus’s hunting skills to get the protein they need to keep going. If they’re still in the area, it isn’t going to matter how straight the brothers can shoot. Not when there’s nothing to shoot at.
If they’re still alive, that is.
Ginny walks in front of me, carrying her plate toward a table already occupied by Gretchen, the teen we picked up after getting separated from the others. The guard she’s been spending time with, Mark, is already with her, and the two seem to be more interested in staring at each other than eating. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure they’re sleeping together. The condoms I had in my backpack have disappeared, and it makes sense Ginny would have given them to Gretchen. It’s not like we need them anymore.
“Morning,” Gretchen says, smiling when she tears her eyes away from Mark.
Her hair and makeup are perfect, and as usual she looks like she’s dressed for a day of shopping or something equally unrealistic. With as close as Mark is sitting to her, he might as well crawl into her lap. Their public display of affection usually makes Ginny uncomfortable, so I’m not surprised when I find her gaze focused on the bowl of oatmeal perched on her plate.
“Morning,” I say for the two of us.
“You ready for a day of clearing?” Mark asks when I sit across from him. “Should be able to make some real progress out there soon. The bastards are getting slow.”
“Let’s hope so,” I say with a nod. “They haven’t frozen completely just yet, but a little more snow and a little more time, and I think we’ll have them. For the time being, though, we still have to be careful.”
“Once they do freeze it will move faster. Right?” Gretchen asks, her blue eyes growing bright as they fill with hope.
I nod, but I’m just guessing. So far we’ve come across a few zoms that seemed to be so cold they could barely move, but not all of them are like that, and the ones still up and moving around are as determined as ever to bite our faces off. Things have been easier to take out than they were when we first got here, but we still have to be cautious.
“We’ll have the city cleaned out before spring,” I say firmly. “Don’t worry about that.”
Gretchen smiles and glances toward Mark, who’s grinning back. I can just imagine the thoughts going through their heads: a house of their own where they’re free to screw as much as they want without having to worry about anyone hearing them. It’s the same thing I would have been thinking at their age. Not now, though. Now all I want is a house for Ginny and me before the baby comes.
“Morning,” Richard says as he slides into the empty chair on the other side of Gretchen. He grins at the teen, making the skin around his eyes crinkle, and she returns it. He’s still smiling when he turns his gaze on Ginny. “How’s the hope for the future doing?”
Ginny rolls her eyes. “I wish everyone would stop saying that.”
“Can’t,” Richard says, scooping up a huge bite of oatmeal. “You and that baby are going to prove we can start over.”
Ginny shakes her head and her cheeks grow pink, but with her eyes focused on her oatmeal, I doubt anyone other than me can see her hesitation. Even though she doesn’t usually bring it up, I know she’s still torn about this baby. I can’t blame her, not really, but I can do everything in my power to make her feel comfortable and safe—and loved. For me, though, this baby is a new beginning. One I never thought I could have after I lost my first family, that’s for sure.
“Right now, we’re just trying to take it one day at a time,” I say, giving Ginny’s hand a pat. “What about you guys? Is the weather going to stop you from going out there?”
Richard scratches at his gray beard. “Not sure about that just yet. I’m thinking we’ve done ‘bout all we can in this area, and with winter coming, we aren’t going to want to go much farther.” He frowns and shakes his head. “Dax has other ideas, though.”
“He wants to keep going out?” Ginny says, perking up.
Richard nods, and I give her hand another pat, knowing that—as usual—she’s thinking about Vivian and Axl and the others. Every time a scouting crew goes out she gets her hopes up, but so far there’s been no sign of them. With winter coming and the snow getting deeper, there have been talks about putting those trips on hold for a few months. Guess Dax decided the risk was worth it.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I ask.
“Dax doesn’t seem too concerned with that,” Richard says. “He’s not really a cautious person.”
I shake my head as I scoop more oatmeal from my bowl. “Sounds like a dangerous way to live these days.”
Richard snorts but doesn’t say anything. He shakes his head, and I can’t help wondering what it means. He acts like Dax is a fool, but there’s something else there too. Only I’m not totally sure what it is.
I glance toward the clock and scoot my chair back. “I have to get moving.” No time to figure out what’s going through Richard’s head now.
I’m still chewing when I stand, pausing just long enough to kiss Ginny on the cheek.
“Gross,” Gretchen mutters. “At least swallow your food before you do that.”
I grin around my oatmeal as I pick up my bowl. “Have to seize the day. Take advantage of every moment. Can’t let a little oatmeal get in the way of showing someone how we feel.”
Gretchen just rolls her eyes, making me laugh.
“Be careful,” Ginny says, just as I turn away.
“Always am,” I call over my shoulder as I head across the cafeteria.
* * *
The bus is already running when it comes into view. I zip my leather jacket as I jog toward it, my boots sliding on the icy pavement. The few guys standing around climb on, so I pick up the pace. Don’t want them leaving without me.
I’m still a good fifteen feet away when Jim sticks his head out the open door. “Come on! We’re ready to go!”
I jog faster, and by the time I get there, I’m gasping. Every breath I let out sends a burst of steam up in front of me. The cold has the tips of my fingers feeling like little icicles in seconds. I shove my hands in the pockets of my jacket as I reach the bus. I hate winter.
Less than a second after I climb aboard, the door shuts behind me. The bus lurches forward before I’ve even made it two steps, and I have to brace myself on a seat to keep from falling. Guess they really were ready to head out.
“‘Bout time you showed up,” Jim says, slapping the seat at his side.
I drop down next to him, fighting back a shiver when the cold vinyl somehow manages to penetrate the three layers I’m wearing. “It’s fucking cold out there.”
He throws his head back and laughs like I just told the best joke he’s ever heard.
“I’m serious,” I mutter, rubbing my hands together.
“Oh, I know, which means you’re in for a big surprise. It’s only November. We got the whole winter ahead of us.”
He shakes his head and chuckles as the bus drives through town. Thanks to the steel plates welded to the sides, we can’t see a thing unless we look out the front window, but it doesn’t really matter. Right now everything just looks white. I feel like someone picked me up and dropped me in Antarctica, although I’m told it’s much colder there. I can’t imagine. It’s times like this when I really start to miss the desert.
I yank my hat lower, trying to cover the tips of my ears, and then pull on my leather gloves. They’re thickly lined and warm. Everyone on the cleanup crew has a pair, but it’s less about keeping us from freezing and more about making sure our fingers don’t get bit off. I feel like a biker every time I head out to work. Or some badass hero in a futuristic post-apocalyptic movie—which isn’t too far from where we are. Leather jackets and gloves and pants are distributed to anyone going into the city to clear, and they’re all big so we can layer them over our regular clothes. They must have raided a Harley Davidson store somewhere.
We drive through town in silence. Jim smokes while the people around us talk. The leather suits him better than it does me. His shaggy blond hair and messy beard make him look like he stepped straight out of Sons of Anarchy, but I’m not sure what he was before all this. He’s tight-lipped about his past, and whenever I ask, he just shrugs and tells me it’s all behind him now. It kind of adds to the biker persona, though. He’s younger than I am, probably by a good five years, but for whatever reason, it feels like he’s lived more. Seen more, done more, been around the world in ways I can’t even imagine.
“You have family before all this?” I ask even though I know he’s not going to give me more than a few cryptic answers.
“Everybody has family.” He grins and blows smoke out of the corner of his mouth, away from me.
“You know what I mean.”
“Was I married? Yup.”
“Never had the pleasure.”
“There’s still time.”
Jim chuckles again. “Have kids now? In the middle of all this shit? No thanks. It’s hard enough keeping my own ass safe.”
“I’m going to have one, you know.”
“Then God help you.” He blows more smoke out as he shakes his head, and we go back to sitting in silence.
The bus turns right, and only a block later it lurches to a stop in front of the gate. Conversation slows as the people around me get ready. Zipping jackets and pulling on gloves. Checking weapons. I touch the knives strapped to my belt without giving it a second thought. One was given to me my first day of clearing, but the second knife I borrowed from Axl. It has a wooden handle and blade long enough it could probably go clear through a zombie’s skull and out the other side. He was always cleaning the thing. Took special care of it. I grabbed it the morning we left, not realizing it was his until we’d already gotten separated from Angus and Darla. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to give it back to Axl. Until then, it’s going to keep me safe.
The gate opens, and a few gunshots break through the air as the bus lurches forward. Jim drops his cigarette on the floor and snuffs it out with the toe of his boot. When he slips his hands into his gloves, the expression on his face reminds me of someone going off to war.
“You ready?” he asks, just like he does every morning.
“Keep your eyes open and stay alert. Don’t think about that woman you got back there, or that baby you got coming. Think about you and me, and keeping our asses safe. They’re slower, but they can still rip your throat out.” He twists to face me, and his icy blue eyes are harder than steel. “Got it?”
I nod once.
This time when the bus stops, we all get to our feet. No one says a word. The door opens and Shep, our crew leader, jumps out with his gun drawn. Row by row, we file out after him. I step into the aisle ahead of Jim, and he’s close enough that when he exhales, the scent of tobacco fills my nostrils.
We reach the door, and behind me, Jim lets out a deep breath before sucking another one back in. He does it a few times, working to calm his pounding heart before we step out into the battlefield, just like he always does. Seems like a waste of time to me. Even if I managed to calm down before heading out there, my adrenaline would skyrocket the second I set foot outside.
“Ready?” I ask, pausing at the door.
“Ready,” Jim says firmly.
I’m too focused on what we’re about to do to feel the cold when I step outside, and my knife is drawn before my boots have even crunched against the freshly fallen snow. In front of us, the dead have moved in, and the people who were sitting closest to the door are already busy fighting them off. Jim and I jog forward, moving as a team. Side by side with each step we take until we’ve joined the others. The icy ground is already littered with bodies, but I don’t stop to take count.
“This way,” I bark, moving to the left, just past our team leader.
Jim keeps pace with me like he’s a shadow as we rush toward the advancing dead. It’s a bigger group than usual, but they’re just as slow as they’ve been since the temperatures dropped. It makes our job easier.
“Red jacket!” I call once I’ve set my mark.
Jim doesn’t say a word, but I don’t need a response to know he’s got my back. I reach the zom and wrap my gloved hand around his neck. The tips of my fingers dig in, and even through the layers of leather and wool, his decaying skin is cold. He growls and opens his mouth, giving me an eyeful of crystalized saliva. It shimmers in the early morning sun. The bastard’s eyes have frosted over too, and his skin has taken on a white tint like he’s covered in a layer of frost. He reaches toward me, but the movement is slow, and before he can do any damage, I slam the blade of Axl’s knife into the creature’s temple. His arms drop as fast as his body does, landing in a pile on the ground. I do a quick survey of the area before turning my attention to the dead man at my feet and pulling the knife free.
“Overalls,” Jim says when my guy is down.
He takes off, and I’m right behind him. This time, my focus is different. Jim is my concern, not the dead man we’re charging. My partner makes contact while I watch his back, scanning the area to be sure no other bodies get too close. Watching the zombie in front of Jim to be sure the bastard doesn’t get the upper hand. Doing everything in my power to make sure my partner is safe.
The zombie falls and I’m already looking for my next target. All around us, moans and growls ring through the air, mixing with the crunch of snow as men rush forward and the clash of blade against bone. The thump of bodies hitting the ground. On the buildings above us, archers and snipers sit, ready to take the zoms out if they get too aggressive. At our backs, the men guarding the line move the barricade forward as we work to clear, blocking the way for any more zombies. The system is intense, but intricately planned out and executed to perfection. It has to be, or we fail. And failure means death.
Jim and I work as a unit, taking turns killing the zombies just like we do every day. Today, the process is particularly gratifying for a couple reasons. At the end of this block sits a row of businesses, one of which is the OB/GYN. I’ve been waiting to clear this street since we got here, knowing it will mean better prenatal care for Ginny, as well as an ultrasound. It means giving our baby a better chance.
But while that building is my main goal, there’s another one I’ve got my eye on as well. I can see it in the distance. The sign is mostly covered in snow, but I know it’s there.
Jim grunts, brining me back to the present. My gaze moves back to my partner—where it should have been all along—and I find him struggling with a lanky bastard who’s at least a whole head taller than I am and a good seven inches taller than Jim. The zom isn’t as decayed as the others either, and his movements are less erratic. Especially when he reaches out and grabs a handful of Jim’s hair.
“Bastard,” Jim grunts, jerking his head back.
He kicks the zombie in the stomach, and the dead man stumbles back. Based on the howl of pain Jim lets out, I’m pretty sure the dead man took some hair with him.
Jim shoots me a glare more lethal than the damn virus that started this whole thing, then charges the zombie. I’m right behind my partner, cursing myself for getting distracted. I don’t know what happened when I was lost in my own thoughts, but it could have been bad for Jim. If he’d gotten bitten or scratched, it would have been all my fault.
Jim slams his knife into the zombie’s head, letting out a satisfied grunt when the blade sinks in. The dead man stops moving, and my partner pulls his knife free. He barely looks at me when I move onto the next zombie.
Shit, I’m going to get an earful when we’re done.
The rest of the clearing goes without incident, at least for Jim and me. A scuffle to our right makes me think someone else has a close call, but after my distraction earlier, I refuse to take my eyes off my partner. He’s depending on me. I can’t let him down. Not like I did with Megan. Not like I did with Ginny. Not like I did with all those other women at the Monte Carlo. I refuse to be a failure again.
We reach the end of the block, and the backers pass us, hurrying to set up the barricade while the archers take out a couple zombies that managed to break through the line. Jim and I head over with the other clearers, ready to provide backup, but things are pretty much settled by the time we get there. Still, we stand in tense silence behind the backers as they work to reinforce the barricade, claiming one more city block for mankind.
Jim spits as he shoves his knife in its sheath, then he turns on me. “What the hell was that?”
“I got distracted.” I manage to look him in the eye even though the ground is calling my name. I refuse to hide from my mistakes. That’s what losers do, and in this world, losers die.
“Exactly what distracted you, Jon? That little lady back there? Was that it?”
He points back toward the campus and I find myself cringing. It makes me feel like I’m a ten-year-old getting scolded by my dad, and it pisses me off, but I can’t defend my actions. He’s right. I let my thoughts wander, and in the process, put his life at risk.
“I’m sorry,” I say even though the words hurt when they come out. I never used to be such a screw-up.
Jim takes one step closer, still pointing toward the campus. “We leave our personal lives back there. Understand? That’s why I don’t play twenty questions with you on the way to clearing, because it’s stupid as shit and dangerous as hell. When we get on that bus, there’s nothing but us and the zoms.”
Other people have stopped to stare, and heat rushes up my neck to my cheeks. I screwed up, I can’t deny it, and even though I’d kick myself in the ass if I could, I’m not a child. His lecture is over the top, and guilt will only keep me from beating the shit out of him for so long.
“I get it,” I say, the words forcing their way through my clenched teeth.
Jim spits again and then jerks the hat off his head. He sweeps a chunk of blond hair behind his right ear and points to a bald spot on his scalp. The skin is red and dotted with blood where the hair has been ripped from its roots.
“This could have been a hell of a lot worse,” he says. “Tell me it won’t happen again.”
“It won’t,” I say, struggling between the dual desires to punch him in the face and apologize again. Shit. I hate feeling like such a dumbass.
Jim nods once before pulling the hat back on his head, then slaps me on the arm. “Good. Now let’s finish up.”
I’m still sitting in a stew of anger and embarrassment when I follow Jim to the nearest business. It isn’t until he stops at the door that I realize it’s the building that had me distracted in the first place.
Jim glances through the front window, which is amazingly intact, then turns toward the door.
When he turns the knob, he lets out a low whistle. “Somebody forgot to lock this place up. Not that it matters. Once the dead came back, this was probably the last place anyone wanted to go. Nothing useful in here.”
I nod even though I don’t agree. The second I saw it on the map yesterday, I wanted to get here. Maybe it would be stupid to other people, but it means something to me. I think it will mean something to Ginny too, although I’m not positive. We haven’t actually talked about it, but I can’t help feeling like this is something I need to do.
Jim shoves the door open, and a bell dings. I pull my knife while we wait to see if anything will happen. The stench that floats out tells us something died in here, but the silence in the store makes it feel empty.
“Could be an actual body,” I whisper when nothing comes charging toward us.
“Seems like it.” Jim pulls his own knife as he jerks his head forward. “You’re up.”
I suck in a mouthful of fresh air before stepping over the threshold. The glass display cases are coated in a layer of dust, but for the most part, everything seems to be where it belongs. It doesn’t look like anyone busted into this place, but the smell tells a very different story.
Jim comes in behind me, and the bell chimes again when the door shuts. My back stiffens, but still nothing happens. I take a few steps forward, feeling Jim’s presence behind me with every move I make. A few seconds later, I let out a low whistle, but still nothing moves.
We don’t talk as we make our way through the dark store. Jim flips a flashlight on, and the beam helps light the way as I head toward the open door behind the register. It’s probably an office of some kind. Where they have the safe or where the employees ate lunch. Whatever’s back there, it has to be where the stench is coming from. The front of the store is clear.
Right before I step through the door, my whole body tenses. I tighten my grip on my knife and steady it in front of me. Ready to defend myself as well as Jim. To prove I’m not a total screw-up—probably as much for myself as for my partner. At my back, Jim takes a couple deep breaths, and when I’m sure he’s ready, I step inside.
The tiny room is crammed full of boxes and supplies, so it takes a few seconds to locate the source of the smell. A man, or what used to be a man, is propped up against the safe. Behind him, the door is wide open, and diamond rings litter the floor. They glitter when Jim pans the beam of the flashlight across the room. He moves the light over the dead man, but there are no obvious injuries. No bite marks or cuts or bullet holes.
“What do you think it was?” I ask, crouching down in front of him.
“Suicide? Took a handful of pills, maybe. Not sure why he’d come here to die, but that’d be my guess. He’s been dead a while by the look of him.”
I pick a ring up off the floor and study it. The diamond is huge, over two carats. It’s square and clear and perfect. Exactly the kind of ring every little girl dreamed about before all this started.
It isn’t what I’m looking for, though.
I put it down and pick a few more up, studying them while Jim looks the man over. After a few seconds, Jim lets out a grunt.
“Son of a bitch!” he growls from behind me. “Is this what distracted you? Are you fucking kidding me? I almost got my head ripped off for a damn engagement ring!”
I don’t look up from the jewelry littering the floor. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Like hell.” Jim grabs me by the collar and hauls me to my feet. He spins me around and pulls me toward him until our noses are almost touching. “You’re an asshole! You almost got me killed and all you can say is, ‘You wouldn’t understand.’ Well, fuck you!” He rips the ring out of my hand and shoves it in my face. “I understand all this shit don’t mean a thing anymore, and if that’s what your lady wants, then you’re a damn moron for keeping her around.”
I push the ring away, not even blinking when it falls. “You don’t know her and you don’t know me.”
“I know you’re holding some piece of shit rock you probably couldn’t even afford to look at before all this.”
“I don’t want that one, and Ginny wouldn’t either,” I yell, shoving him away from me.
Jim stumbles back and slams into the desk, still glaring at me like he wants to shove the now-worthless diamond ring down my throat. I rip the flashlight out of his hand and pan it around until I find what I’m looking for, then scoop it up.
“This is what I wanted. Nothing else.” I shove the gold band in Jim’s face, and his eyes get big. “You don’t know what we’ve been through, so you can’t understand, but she needs this. It has nothing to do with jewelry or trying to act like the whole damn world hasn’t disappeared, it’s about me showing her I’m going to be there. No matter what. If you knew…” I shake my head and shove the ring in my pocket. “Forget it.”
I turn my back on Jim, too shaky and pissed to look at him a second longer. Maybe I let it distract me out there, and maybe he has a right to be angry about that, but I’m not going to apologize. This ring means something bigger than his little brain could possibly understand. Ever.
Behind me, Jim doesn’t move, and as the seconds pass, the silence hanging over us becomes heavy and oppressive until I’m not sure we’re going to be able to recover from this. I haven’t known Jim long—don’t really know him at all, if I’m being honest—but I get the impression he isn’t someone who forgets easily.
Finally, Jim exhales. He crosses the room to the dead man, not once glancing my way. “Let’s get this body out of here and move on to the next place.”
“Okay,” I say, turning to help him.
The sooner we get the stores cleared out and the bodies loaded, the sooner I can get back to Ginny.
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