Don't miss the stunning conclusion to the Lost Light trilogy!
When massive solar flares strike the planet, a million tons of superheated plasma rips through the Earth’s atmosphere. As power grids fail across the Northern Hemisphere, the entire world balances on the brink of chaos.
THE HOPE WE KEEP is the riveting final installment in the apocalyptic survival series exploring the resilience of humanity after a series of devastating coronal mass ejections. Set in the rural wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this exciting new series from Kyla Stone features flawed characters grappling with the light—and darkness—within them.
Release date: May 1, 2023
Publisher: Paper Moon Press
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The Hope We Keep: A Post-Apocalyptic Survival Thriller
A twig cracked behind her.
Thirteen-year-old Shiloh Easton spun and reached for her crossbow. Pulse thudding in her ears, she scanned the woods from left to right, right to left, searching for threats. Deep shadows blanketed the woods. Late afternoon sunlight spilled in panels through the leafy canopy, trees tall as sentinels surrounding her, towering pines and dense green balsam firs. Ahead of her, the deer trail angled to the right and disap peared around the bend. Deer hooves left fresh imprints in the damp earth.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. It was a feeling more than anything else. Something—or someone—was out there. Following her. Watching her.
Planting her feet, she nestled the crossbow’s butt stock against her shoulder, her cheek pressed to the stock, lining up her domi nant eye with the sight. She tightened her grip, index finger balanced on the trigger guard, the sleek fiberglass bolt ready to fly.
Black squirrels rustled in the leaf litter scattered across the forest floor. Robins and sparrows twittered from the branches of a great spreading oak. She inhaled the comforting scents of the forest—rich soil, wet leaf litter, and pine sap.
Her mouth had gone bone-dry. She had a hydration bottle with a filter in her pack, but she didn’t reach for it. The stock of the crossbow dug into her shoulder. Beads of sweat trickled down the back of her neck.
Movement out of the left corner of her eye. Her heart kicked against her ribs. She shifted the crossbow to the left, squinting as she examined the shadows, the way the light played across the birch, maple, and ash trees. Deeper shadows pooled beneath the rhododendrons dripping with pink flowers.
The shiny leaves of the blackberry bushes five yards to her right trembled as if something large had brushed past moments ago.
Fear knotted in her throat; she fought it back. Shiloh held her breath and strained her ears, steadying her breathing the way Eli had taught her.
It was the deer she was tracking, or a black bear. Or a raccoon. Maybe it was nothing. It didn’t feel like nothing.
There. Ten yards to her southeast, a shadow lurked among deeper shadows. Was the shadow denser than the others? It appeared to deepen, shifting in a manner contrary to nature. The contours of the forest seemed to bend into the shape of a crouched human figure.
Perhaps it was a hunter trailing a deer, like her, or her wild imagination playing tricks on her. Or maybe it was a monster, a windigo lying in wait. According to Ojibwe legend, the windigo was a malevolent, flesh-eating spirit roaming the woods in search of humans to devour, body and soul.
She was distinctly aware of her aloneness in the Hiawatha National Forest, which consisted of almost nine hundred thou sand acres of rolling hills, flat plains, wetlands, and winding rivers and streams, a vast wilderness tucked into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along the vast and rugged shoreline of Lake Superior.
The radio was clipped to the belt at her hip, but it only crackled with static. Without realizing it, she’d wandered out of range in pursuit of her prey.
The closest help was several miles away in Munising, popula tion two thousand or so, the closest town to the famed Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. She was on her own.
She’d spent the day searching for deer, but deer had grown scarce close to town. Everyone and their brothers, cousins, moth ers, and in-laws were traipsing the woods in Alger County, hunting for white-tailed deer, elk, cottontail rabbit, feral pig, ruffled grouse, and even weasels and coyotes—whatever meat they could find.
Her stomach growled loudly. She flinched at the sudden noise. The dense shadow lurking within the trees didn’t flicker in response, didn’t move. Her ragged breath was the only sound. She forced herself to stay calm. She was just skittish, her nerves on
edge, jumpy. But then, everyone was jumpy these days. Two months ago, brilliant auroras had lit up the heavens as a series of powerful super-flares erupted from the surface of the sun. As massive bursts of radiation struck the Earth’s magnetosphere, power grids were destroyed, transformers overloaded, and power lines burst into flames. Induced currents burned out satellite circuit boards, obliterating GPS, telephone, internet, television, banking networks, and high-frequency communication systems. In a matter of days, the infrastructure of half the world was annihilated.
Everything was ripping apart at the seams.
The daylight glinting through the trees began to change, turning golden as the shadows lengthened, stretching long fingers across the leaf litter. The first hint of coolness kissed the back of her neck. She had a few hours before sundown; it was past time to head back.
Studying the quivering shadows, she couldn’t shake the disconcerting feeling that something out here which did not belong—an evil she couldn’t see or name, lurking in secret places, prowling and skulking in the shadows, biding its time.
That she was the hunted, not the hunter.
The sound came again. Leaves crackled off to her left. A shuf fling noise as something moved furtively across the forest floor.
The birds had gone silent. A hush fell across the forest. Sound dimmed but for her blood whooshing in her ears. Despite the heat, a cold sweat broke out on her forehead.
Her pulse leaped against her throat. Her finger slipped from the trigger guard of her crossbow to the trigger. Every instinct screamed at her to run, to flee.
She didn’t. Resolute, she took a quiet step closer. She moved stealthily, heel to toe, squinting to decipher the indistinct shape of the thing hidden in the trees, the crossbow held up and ready.
Mosquitoes landed on her bare skin. Black flies buzzed inces santly in her face. She didn’t dare swipe them away. Another step closer and—
A burst of movement. With a flurry of wings, a wild turkey darted from the underbrush., She caught a flash of brown and white feathers and iridescent plumage. Ten feet in front of her, the ungainly bird screeched as it scurried across the deer trail, headed for the deeper thickets of witch hazel and chokeberry.
Shiloh recovered in an instant. Finger on the trigger, she swung to the right, sighted the turkey, and released the fiberglass bolt.
The bolt flew true. It buried itself in the turkey’s feathered chest. The bird let out a startled squawk of pain and flopped onto its side, its scrawny neck and head writhing in the dirt.
Sheer relief flooded her veins. Shiloh hastened to its side, dropped to her knees with the crossbow beside her, and swiftly put the creature out of its misery. “And here I thought you were the windigo come to life. Stupid me.”
Unslinging her backpack, she wrenched the bolt from the carcass and tossed the dead bird into the canvas bag she’d brought, then stuffed it into the pack and slung it over her shoul der. “Thanks for dinner—”
Behind her came the heavy crack of a twig underfoot. Shiloh spun, reaching for the crossbow. Too late.
A shadow loomed over her. Before she could react, someone seized her from behind, grasped her arms, and hauled her off of her feet. A large calloused hand clamped over her mouth and nose. Her right arm was wrenched painfully behind her back. Fear pierced her like a fishhook. For an instant, she froze. Then Eli’s training kicked in. She fought like a wildcat, wriggling, scratching, screaming, the sound muffled by his meaty fingers. The hand completely covered her nose; she couldn’t breathe. Clawing frantically at her attacker’s hand, she grabbed the little finger and yanked down as hard as she could; the bone snapped. Flinging her head back, her skull connected with his face. Bone crunched.
He growled in rage. His grip on her face loosened, but not enough.
Writhing in his grasp, her lungs bursting, she managed to half turn and jabbed the point of her elbow at his eye. With a curse, the attacker’s hand slipped from her mouth. She forced her jaw open and bit down on the webbed skin between his thumb and pointer finger. Warm, coppery blood squirted onto her tongue.
She wriggled from his grasp and fell to her feet. Whirling, she struck at his throat with the heel of her palm. He made an enraged choking sound as she kneed him in the groin.
Before she could hit him again, her attacker swung at her with a huge fist. He punched her in the side. Pain exploded through her ribs. White spots danced in front of her vision.
He hit her again in the solar plexus, slamming her to the ground and knocking the breath from her chest. Her lungs convulsed and spasmed. Eternal airless seconds passed.
He stood half-bent over her, breathing heavily, clutching at his injured hand. He was tall and muscular, with sloped shoulders and a broad, ruddy, sweat-streaked face. The stink of something foul and unwashed emanated from his pores.
He leered at her with bloodshot eyes. “You little slut! You’ll pay for that!”
Frantic thoughts spun inside her head: Mexico City, Mexico; Managua, Nicaragua; Panama City, Panama. She forced herself to stay present, to fight as hard and as fast as she could. Scrambling to her hands and feet, she skittered backward, desperate to get away from him.
He grimaced, revealing brownish-yellow teeth in advanced decay, the gums red and swollen as he stared in shock at his bloody hand. “You bit me, you stupid little—”
“Touch me again and I’ll kick your balls into your throat!” Fury mingled with the fear churning in her gut. The crossbow lay beneath the beech tree ten feet away. She wouldn’t reach it before he did. It was unloaded, basically worthless.
The bolt that had shot the turkey was nestled in the pine needles next to her feet, half-buried. He hadn’t noticed it. “You’re a brave one. Too bad you still have to die.” Straighten ing, he stalked toward her, drawing a knife. “You’re worth too much dead, Shiloh.”
Her pulse thundered in her ears. Frantic thoughts stuttered through her brain: How the hell did he know her name? Why was she worth money dead? No time to worry about that now.
On her hands and knees, she seized the bolt in one hand; in the other, she clawed up a handful of dirt.
Her attacker bent low to seize her by the neck. Shiloh hurled the dirt into his face. Simultaneously, she lunged upward and stabbed the bolt into his groin, shoving it in as deep as she could. She twisted and yanked violently.
The man jerked back with a howl. The bolt was torn from her fingers. She lost her balance and fell back onto her butt. Her chest heaved with panic and adrenaline.
With both hands, he gripped the quivering bolt where it jutted from his pelvis, shrieking in agony. Bright red arterial blood pulsed from the wound.
She’d hit his femoral artery. It had slowed him. But he could still kill her before he bled out.
With a roar, he came at her.
Leaping to her feet, Shiloh ran. She sprinted to the crossbow and grabbed it as she raced into the woods. Terror vibrated inside her skin and thrummed through her teeth.
Barreling through the forest, she tripped on a root. Stumbling to her feet, she ran on. Branches slapped her face. Thorns scratched her arms and legs. Her surroundings a blur, she craned her neck to check her six, convinced danger was nipping at her heels, death in hot pursuit.
There was nothing behind her. That didn’t mean he wasn’t chasing her, didn’t mean she was safe.
Finally, she reached M-28, bursting out of the woods a quarter mile north of the trailhead. Racing to the hidden spot where she’d stashed Eli’s bike inside the tree line, she unlocked the padlock, seized the handlebars with trembling fingers, and yanked it out to the road, weeds catching in the spokes.
Shiloh rode toward home like a bat out of hell.
The heat of mid-July beat down on her head and shoulders, hot even as the sun sank below the tops of the trees. There were no vehicles on the road except the abandoned ones. Grass and weeds grew tall around fenders and bumpers, vines creeping from the forest and ensnaring tires as if Mother Nature was bent on reclaiming the earth, one car at a time.
Her heart still thumped in her chest like a jackrabbit. Her ribs ached from being punched, but other than that, she was unharmed.
The attack hadn’t been random. He’d stalked her through the woods. He’d known her name. Someone had paid to have her killed. But why? And what did it mean?
Pumping her legs like pistons, her palms sweaty on the handlebars, Shiloh rounded the curve on M-28, glimpsing the welcome sign to the hamlet of Christmas outside Munising.
There was something on the side of the road, something that did not belong.
She slammed the brakes. The tires squealed, leaving skid marks across the pavement, nearly hurtling her over the handle bars. The bike came to a halt in the center of the road.
She thought this day couldn’t get worse, but it could. Things could always get worse.
On the left side of the road, something hung from the top of the telephone pole. The figure slowly rotated, as if pushed by an unseen hand. It didn’t seem real, like a Halloween decoration or a scarecrow staked in a cornfield.
Drawn by some ghastly compulsion, Shiloh drew closer, taking in the gruesome details: unkempt nut-brown hair, the pale rubbery skin of the face, the ripped and tattered shirt that was once white. A noose was wrapped around the throat. The head lolled to the side, the chin resting on the top of the shoulder as if the dead man were simply dreaming.
Flies buzzed in dense clouds around the corpse. A puddle of dried blood stained the dirt along the shoulder of the road. As she approached, carrion birds flapped their wings and squawked belligerently at her, as if these death-eaters had more right to this place than she did.
Shiloh shuddered. A dead body strung up in such a grisly display was meant to be found, meant to instill horror, to strike fear into the hearts of those who beheld it.
Something was coming—something worse than anything they’d faced before.
Lena Easton shielded her eyes with her hand against the blistering sun. The humid air was stifling. Sweat dampened her temples, her underarms, and the small of her back. Even in jean shorts and a tank top, her long chestnut hair yanked back in a ponytail, she was melting.
The heat agitated the crowd. People jostled against her, pressing forward like a larger organism, beating to a drum of quiet desperation that grew louder with every passing second.
The scent of sour sweat filled her nostrils. Elbows bumped into her; someone stepped on her heel. She tried to retreat but there was no room, no give. Someone shoved against her back.
She checked to ensure Shiloh was right at her shoulder, afraid of losing her in the teeming crowd. Her chest constricted at the thought of the attack in the woods yesterday. She’d nearly lost her niece; she was determined to keep Shiloh within sight at all times.
“This is a bad idea,” she said under her breath. “We should go.”
A couple of hundred people had gathered in the Munising High School parking lot. At the front of the crowd, a FEMA emer gency resupply semi-truck was parked, where it had been unloaded through the gym’s side doors. Two Guardsmen stood sentry at the school’s front doors to keep potential thieves out of the gymnasium, but from what Lena could see, most if not all of the supplies had already been distributed.
Four National Guardsmen surrounded the semi-truck, their body language stiff, shoulders back, feet planted, their expressions grim, bordering on hostility as they kept the crowd back. They didn’t point their M4s at anyone but carried their weapons low and ready. Everything about them telegraphed aggression.
Shiloh warily scanned the crowd. “We have to get the antibiotics.”
Lena wanted topical and oral antibiotics, steroids, antihista mines, and other meds to help the community and ease the backlog of patients at the local hospital. She wasn’t here for insulin, though she’d gladly take diabetic supplies if FEMA offered them.
Before they could move, a man in glasses stepped onto a makeshift podium in front of the truck. Even though it was ninety degrees and humid, he wore a dark blue jacket with FEMA embla zoned in white on the back.
Below him, the undersheriff, Jackson Cross, attempted to calm the crowd, along with his deputies, Devon Harris and Jim Hart, and police officer Ramon Moreno. Next to Munising Police Chief Sarah McCallister, Sheriff Underwood stood with hunched shoul ders near the front of the truck, a recalcitrant expression on his face.
Jackson met her gaze over the crowd and gave a rueful shake of his head. Her heart sank; she wouldn’t be getting the antibiotics she’d hoped for.
“Where’s our food?” someone shouted.
“Feed our kids!”
“We’ve been waiting for hours!”
They weren’t wrong. Lena’s stomach grumbled. Her legs were rubbery, muscles aching from standing for three hours. The FEMA emergency delivery had arrived hours late. She had snacks in her pack, homemade granola bars wrapped in aluminum foil, but she didn’t touch them.
Her anxiety rising, Lena’s gaze swept the crowd again. Some folks looked like they hadn’t eaten in a week. Their faces had thinned; some were already gaunt, their clothes wrinkled and unwashed. Everyone looked haggard, bedraggled, worn down.
The fear of the coming devastation held a destructive power all its own, an invisible force clawing into people’s hearts and minds, sinking talons deep into their brains. It was making everybody crazy.
Luckily, the U.P. was rural, where people could hunt, fish, and grow gardens, but complete forced self-reliance without access to stores, gas stations, or pharmacies was proving an incredible hardship—for even the most prepared.
“Look.” Shiloh angled her chin at the right side of the seventy foot-long semi-truck. Several punctures were scattered across the aluminum side panel. “Bullet holes.”
“They must’ve been ambushed on the road.”
“Explains the guards being all jittery.”
Lena repressed a shudder. “Yeah, it does.”
“Thank you for your patience!” the FEMA representative said into the megaphone. In his mid-thirties, he was short and slim, his blond hair was mussed, and there were deep bags of exhaustion beneath his eyes, his black-framed glasses skewed. He introduced himself as Milton Sanders.
“What’re we supposed to feed our kids?” someone yelled. “My mom’s about to die of heart failure! We need those meds!” “We understand; we’re working on it, I promise.” His voice was high and squeaky with stress. “We’ll relay information to your sheriff as we have it.”
“Where the hell are the rest of the supplies you promised?” a middle-aged woman shouted.
Another woman pushed to the front of the line. Lena recog nized Dana Lutz, a tough, brazen woman in her forties who always seemed to find herself in the middle of town drama.
“You’re lying!” She had no megaphone but didn’t need one. Her throaty voice carried over the apprehensive rustling of the crowd. “You promised us supplies and meds and you’ve got nothing left! You only brought enough for a hundred people. What about the rest of us?”
“Ma’am, step back, please,” Sanders said. “This is an orderly proceeding—”
“I was here early. I overheard you telling the sheriff you weren’t coming back. Raiders attacked FEMA shipments on the highways. The roads up from Detroit and Chicago are far too dangerous. Isn’t that what you said? That FEMA has zero supplies left anyway, at least, not for us regular people. It’s all been siphoned away by the rich.”
Shiloh said, “Oh, hell no.”
For a tense moment, the crowd was absolutely silent. Then a cacophony of panicked shouting broke out.
“Give me my blood thinners!”
“We need heart meds!”
“My mother has cancer!”
“I don’t have a thyroid. I need meds to live!”
“I paid taxes! Where the hell is FEMA when we need it?” “You’ve got no right!”
Sanders shouted useless platitudes into the megaphone, waving an arm in a futile attempt to regain the attention and trust of the crowd. That wasn’t gonna happen.
The crowd’s outrage hummed through her veins and vibrated in her chest. The solar flares weren’t FEMA’s fault, but the govern ment could’ve handled this catastrophe far better than they had so far.
By refusing to make preparations, through their hubris and stupidity, the world’s leaders had hurled everyone headlong into destruction. Their house of cards held together with lies, duct tape, and delusion had utterly collapsed.
The whole planet was suffering for it.
“Time to go,” Lena said. “Stay right by my side.”
“I’m not a little kid,” Shiloh said.
“People are desperate. They’re doing things they never would’ve done before, not in a million years. Survival is a powerful motivator.”
They were both thinking about the man who’d attacked Shiloh in the woods, not to mention the dead body strung from a telephone pole. Neither of those acts had been motivated by survival but by something far more insidious. It terrified Lena to her core.
Shiloh scowled. With her oil-black hair and eyes like two bits of coal in her elfin face, she looked so much like Eli. The ancient arrowhead tied to a piece of rawhide string woven into her braid glinted in the sunlight. The girl was sharp as a blade, one hundred pounds of spit and fire—as fierce and stubborn as her father, too.
Lena said, “We have to be careful.”
“Okay, okay,” Shiloh muttered. “Fine.”
Before they could move, an altercation broke out along the fringe of the crowd. People screamed insults. Two men shoved each other, the second man falling back and knocking over a middle-aged woman and an elderly man. A dozen people surged into the fight, their voices rising and fists flailing.
Sheriff Underwood stepped onto the platform and seized the megaphone from the FEMA agent. Brad Underwood was an imposing black man in his fifties with ramrod posture, a clean shaven jaw, and hard eyes. He was used to getting his way.
The sheriff shouted, “Everyone remain calm! Panicking won’t change anything!”
Underwood continued to speak, but his words didn’t calm anyone. The crowd grew more agitated, surging toward the FEMA truck, shouting and making demands no one could meet, let alone the impotent FEMA agent.
Tense, Lena scanned the crowd again, her nerves raw. People were balanced on the razor’s edge of civility. A sort of madness had overtaken them, a hive mind of anger, fear, and desperation. She took hold of Shiloh’s arm, and they backed up, pushing through the masses toward the rear of the parking lot. The crowd thinned as they reached the perimeter of the cracked asphalt. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath until they broke into the open air.
Something hard poked the small of her back.
Lena spun, instinctively reaching for her pistol.
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