Ara . . . I made a mistake, we all did . . . go back to the beginning . . . it’s not too late. As the only female to survive the devastating virus, Ara hasn’t seen another human in months―not since her father disappeared. The plague has swept away humanity, and Ara’s world is desolate, haunted by the ghosts of her former life. Her mother. Her sister. Kaden and his crew live by a code: stay alert, stay alive. When they catch Ara stealing from them, they are furious―and confused. She is the first girl they have seen in three years. And while Kaden knows taking her captive is wrong, he tells himself he’s doing it to protect her. But with Ara determined to follow through on her father’s mission―Go back to the beginning. End the plague―Kaden becomes mesmerized by Ara’s will and beauty. He knows he will do anything to help her, even if it tears their worlds apart.
Release date: December 7, 2021
Publisher: Wattpad Books
Print pages: 416
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The Last She
H. J. Nelson
I crouched below the ruined bridge and scrubbed the blood off my fingers. River rocks tinged with gray, ochre, and green wavered beneath the current. Father would have reached for one, but I didn’t. Instead, I rubbed my hands against each other, watching the swirls of red disappear into the flow.
Look, Ara, three skips. Think you can get four?
All around, the trees faded to colors of blood and pus, as if no time had passed. But no traffic roared across the bridge, and the center had given way, the two ends stretched out like doomed lovers’ hands. My camouflage backpack rested between the eaves of the bridge, and below it, a squirrel lay spread-eagled on a river rock. His body was laid open, his face crushed. Without a bow or bullets for my pistol, I’d had to smash him with a rock. I couldn’t risk lighting a fire and had eaten only the kidneys, liver, and heart. The salty taste and chewy texture only reminded me how long it had been since I’d eaten a real meal. And that I needed a proper weapon.
The new tech will fail you, same way it failed the world. A gun is your new best friend.
But my pistol was empty. Which meant I was about to put into action a plan my father would never have approved. Find a group of men, steal their weapons, bullets, or both, and be gone before they knew what happened. I wiped my hands dry, fished out my backpack, and started back up the steep riverbank. The squirrel’s blood had dried beneath my nails, but I let it be. My hands had been stained by worse.
I pushed through the tall weeds until I found the overgrown trail that ran beside the river and the prints I’d found fresh last night. I remembered the trail; it had once been a mecca for young families, full of expensive houses and the flashy new tech machines my father hated. Out here, on the edge of the city, the lots were large and the massive houses were built right up next to the river, with backsides made entirely of glass. Now the expensive houses crumbled, and the Midwestern city once known for its hospitality lay still.
Yesterday a group of men had stopped here for water, then left the river behind and headed deeper into the city, where the buildings grew thicker. There were prints where they’d laid down heavy packs, and if I had to bet, one of those held a weapon.
There are no such things as friendly men, Ara. Not in this world. Not for you.
I tightened the straps of my pack and followed the tracks. The city grew slowly around me, as did the silence. No low drum of cars, no hum of airships, no voices. Only the wind and lonely birdsong. The plague killed females first and fastest, to the point I knew of no other female survivors. But even if a few men had been spared, it hadn’t been enough to keep the world from falling apart. Gas stations and other businesses soon pressed in between the encroaching trees, signs faded, weeds and vines growing thick. I passed an abandoned airship lost in waves of billowing waist-high grass. The front half was crumpled, as if it had lost power and fallen straight from the sky. Growing up, almost every family I knew had the new, shiny airships that zipped through the skies, but my father had always preferred the older technologies: steel and oil. In the end, neither had brought salvation.
The driveway reflected the full heat of noon, and though the neighborhood should have been filled with the noise of laughing children, lawnmowers, and airships, it was quiet. Only my father’s voice rang out through the dry, summer air as he loaded another jug of water into the back of the truck.
“Ara, did you put the matches in?”
“Yep, and two lighters.”
He tossed our backpacks on top of the other supplies in the truck bed. With them we could go three weeks in the Sawtooths, or even farther north into Canada. Bottled water, canned and dehydrated food, two containers of gasoline, two sharpened axes, our bows, and other supplies lined the truck bed. I’d never appreciated the supplies he kept until now. When news of the plague started just a few weeks earlier, the stores had emptied almost overnight. A week in, I’d heard Mother and Father talking late at night in the kitchen, and when I woke, she was gone. “A trip, to visit her sister,” my father said, with eyes that couldn’t meet mine. And then my sister Emma and I were separated. Under no circumstances were we to go into each other’s rooms. My father brought us food and water. The first night I snuck out onto our rooftop and tapped on her window and her blue eyes greeted me with mischief. But three days ago, the day the electricity shut off, she answered my tap with white eyes weeping tears of blood. I nearly fell off the roof in terror.
The fear and silence when Father left with Emma that night made it hard to breathe. The world had fallen apart around me, but I hadn’t cared or noticed till mine did. I sat on the roof all night, joined by the steady whine of cicadas, the distant sound of gunshots, and the steady thump-thump-thump of earth as our neighbor dug two deep, long holes in his backyard.
In the early dawn, they returned. Father carried her cradled in his arms. I could breathe again. He didn’t tell me where they’d gone, only came to my room and told me to pack a bag. But I had a child’s faith that she would be all right, that he had taken her somewhere that would make her well again. That was why we were leaving today.
Now Father’s prized hunting rifle lay in the front seat, the pistol with which he’d taught me to shoot in the glove box. He’d changed into his hunting gear: a wool lined jacket, dark pants, a camouflage cap, and heavy boots. Unlike Emma, people always picked me out as his daughter. Same hazel eyes, same sharp cheekbones, same auburn hair.
He pulled the tarp over the truck bed and shut the tailgate. We were lucky he was a romantic who loved the old tech. While others had switched to airships years ago, Father kept his guns in a safe and the car under a tarp in the garage.
The leather squeaked beneath me as I climbed inside. Loki, our husky, whined from the back seat, unhappy at being alone. Usually he sat with Emma and me on either side of him.
“I could sit in the truck bed with Loki if Emma wants to sit here?” I said. “Then we’d still be separate?”
He started the car and began to back up, not meeting my eyes.
“It’s just us, Ara.”
The wrongness of the moment twisted my gut even now. It was a horrible thing we did, leaving her. A decision that has haunted me ever since. Maybe my punishment was that all I had now was an empty pistol and my father’s final words: to go back to the beginning.
The tracks left the river path and moved west, pushing first through thick weeds and then following a dirt path that snaked through neighborhoods full of fading houses, shattered windows, and streets littered with cars and airships. Weeds, leaves, and dirt smothered all. I kept the rising sun at my back, and after an hour of walking came upon the remains of what I guessed was the men’s fire from last night. The ash was still warm; if they’d started at daybreak, I couldn’t be more than a few hours behind. If I could find where they camped tonight, I could steal the gun and be long gone by morning.
Rusted cars with grimy windows littered the roads and several times I passed collections of bones and dried flesh that I tried not to look at. The city grew thicker and I passed a dozen yellow buses, stationary, in front of a brick building. FORGIVE US had been spray-painted in white on the wall. It wasn’t my school, but I stared anyway. It had been only three years since the world had ended, but I could barely remember the sixteen-year-old whose biggest problem was if she’d get back together with Sean Dennis, or if any colleges would offer her a track scholarship.
Funny, I’d once looked for others to race and now I spent my life avoiding it. My legs were thinner now, but just as fast. A fall breeze drifted between the abandoned houses, carrying scents of rot and decay. Most of the doors and windows had been boarded over, but some had been torn open, gutted clean as a fresh kill by scavengers like me. Only a few bore a red X painted across their front entrances. These were left untouched. The sun climbed higher, and I checked over my shoulder more and more often.
At noon, I came upon the second mistake the men made: a plume of smoke blackened the sky two miles west, dead on their current path. I scaled the largest tree I could find, a solitary oak with a tire swing attached, and surveyed the area. Trees and houses stretched as far as the eye could see. The farther I looked, the harder it was to make out the houses’ missing shingles, faded paints, or fresh covering of vines. Nothing moved but the smoke drifting into the sky, all framed by the mountains rising in the distance. Why send a signal to the whole world? Stupidity? Overconfidence? Both? Part of me wanted to stay in the tree and wait till nightfall. I didn’t know how many men still roamed the city. But I hadn’t seen anyone else all day. Still, I was playing a dangerous game.
I left the tree behind and approached the fire slowly. The scent of burning flesh hit me well before I sidled up next to the bonfire, its warmth deceptively inviting against the chill of the day. It had been lit in the middle of a cul-de-sac, between a rusted Chevy and a blue minivan with no wheels. Buried beneath smoldering branches was the blackened body of a large animal. The scent of burning fur was almost unbearable, but even through the flames, I could see the white eyes. The animal had been infected.
The weight of the empty pistol felt suddenly heavier against my back. In the beginning, Father and I hadn’t known that animals could get infected too. Then, in the mountains, we’d found an enormous bear with white eyes weeping blood; the same sign humans showed. Only this bear walked with jerky movements and charged at anything that moved. We tracked it for three days, before Father finally used two precious bullets to end it. Together we burned the body. After that we’d run into other infected animals, all grown far beyond their normal size with white, bleeding eyes, a jerky stride, and an aggressive nature beyond any I’d seen when they were wild. It made them easier to kill—they almost always charged—but the thought of meeting one now, without a weapon, terrified me. These men also must have known the dangers of the infected animals, as they’d burned the body. It made me wonder what else they knew of the plague. Not that I would ever get a chance to ask. The only thing more dangerous than an infected animal was a man.
Walking around the fire, I was unable to resist tracking the kill. A split heart, splayed wide. An elk then, and a large one at that. The tracks were spaced close where the first shot had taken him, then wide where he had run, a pool of blood where he had fallen then surged upward before the second shot downed him for good. I hadn’t heard a gunshot, which meant they’d taken him with a bow. And one hell of a shot at that.
So, a group of four men, confident enough to light a bonfire in midday, armed and proficient enough to take down an infected elk. I rocked back on my heels, tracing the smoke still rising like a black flag.
They were good. But Father and I had been better.
Ara . . . I made a mistake, we all did. Go back to the beginning . . . go back . . . it’s not too late.
I stood up and followed the men’s tracks. Stray leaves blew across the street, catching flame and burning dangerously close to nearby houses. I didn’t bother to stop them. Let the world burn; it had never done anything for me.
The tracks became harder to follow, crossing over into cracked blacktop in silent neighborhoods where thick brush had sprung up between buildings. A sense of wrongness prickled my neck as I passed into a section of trees cut through by an overgrown dirt road. The thicker covering made my heart pound and feet fall silent, the trees full of shadows. The road wound back and forth through the trees, and I stopped next to a rusted car and tilted the mirror to me. The glass was cracked, coated in dirt, but I didn’t need more than a glance to make sure my auburn hair sat tucked beneath my cap. It was too long to pass for a boy’s cut; I’d need to cut it soon. The mirror showed a face thinner than I remembered, my once-pale skin tanned from months of outdoor living. My clothes were faded and baggy, for warmth and protection only. Nothing to suggest my sex. Even if anyone saw me, they would mistake me for a boy.
Something moved in the mirror. I spun. The world stopped as he stepped out from the undergrowth, not twenty feet from where I stood. The first human I’d seen in months. A man.
Neither of us moved.
My entire body stiffened with fear. He was tall and well built, with curly hair and strange, green eyes, like the forest itself was watching me. In a different life, I might have thought him handsome, but now I saw only an enemy stronger than myself.
How the hell had he gotten behind me?
“Beautiful day for tracking, don’t you think?” He had a slow smile, almost like a dare. He took a step forward.
I pulled out my pistol in one smooth motion, even as my hands trembled. His smile faded and seconds inched by as he took in my gun, my tattered clothes, my thin form. He lifted his hands slowly.
“Listen . . . Why don’t you put the gun down? We can talk.”
“I’m not much for talking.” My voice was soft, but my heart was running itself ragged. Besides my father, he was the first human I had talked to in almost three years. And if I’d had a bullet, I’d have put it in him without blinking.
He took another step forward. “Look, I’m not going to hurt you. My name is Kaden, I live nearby. Let me help you.”
“I said stop!” I shook the gun at him.
He stopped, but his eyes became hard. “All right, go ahead, shoot me. Can’t say I don’t deserve it.” The gun trembled in my hands as he took yet another slow, measured step forward, his eyes locked on mine. “But see, here’s the thing. I think if you were going to shoot me, you would have already. My bet? That gun is empty.”
“You want to bet your life on that?”
He stopped again.
“How about this?” I took a step back, motioning with the gun. “You go your way. I go mine. No harm done.”
He didn’t move. His eyes flicked to the trees behind me.
It’s a trick, don’t look.
“How about this?” he said. “Surrender, and when we get back to the clan, I’ll put in a good word for you. We could use a smart kid like you. We’ve got food there. You don’t have to starve anymore. And my men won’t hurt you.”
Behind me, a twig snapped. My insides went cold.
Don’t hesitate, Ara. There are no friendly men in this world. Not for you.
I pulled the trigger.
He flinched, but I’d already flung the pistol at him and vaulted into the forest. I dumped my backpack and sprinted through the trees. Better to have nothing if it meant my freedom.
Without my pack, I flew, adrenaline surging through me. They wouldn’t catch me; I had the fastest 200-meter time in school as a freshman. A glance over my shoulder showed me the curly-haired man—Kaden—was still in the clearing. Another man raced parallel to my left, but he would never catch me. My feet barely seemed to touch the ground—
—until I slammed full force into a body. It was like running into a wall; a wall that wrapped its arms around me.
We went down hard and the forest became a blur of trees and grass. I caught a glimpse of red hair, long limbs. Kicking and thrashing with a vicious desperation, I gained my footing and lunged sideways when his hand caught my left foot. The forest floor rose up as I crashed forward with a flash of pain, fighting to rip my foot away.
Kaden’s weight hit me, and this time the fight was different. He dug his knee deep into my back, crushing me. My fingers scraped against rocks and dirt as I struggled to throw him, but he only pushed harder, harder, until I buckled, my face grinding into the earth. I wanted to scream for Father, but I was alone, left only with the lessons he’d taught me. I got my elbows under me and tried to roll sideways, to throw him off. He pressed down harder. Black spots flickered in my vision. I couldn’t breathe. A heavy hand pressed down on my lungs, making it impossible to move, to think. I thrashed, weaker now. Still, his body pressed. The harder I fought, the more the blackness filled the edges of my vision.
“Hey, hey, steady there!” He sounded concerned. “You’re all right. Just calm down.” His weight lifted a fraction.
He knocked the wind out of you. You’re okay. Breathe!
“That’s the boy who was following us?” A deep, slow voice from my left.
“Yeah, no wonder. He looks half-starved. Probably just looking for food.”
This came from Kaden. God, he was heavy. But through the panic came a single thought: He didn’t know I was a girl.
“Anyone with him?”
“You think he’s part of a clan?”
“Nah, I mean . . . look at him.”
The weight of their eyes was suddenly as heavy as the silence. I didn’t like that I couldn’t see them with my face ground into the dirt. Then—
“Jeb, come help me check him for weapons. He had a gun, might have a knife too.”
My leg muscles tightened, screaming to run. What did checking me for weapons entail? There were a few things he’d notice if he checked too closely.
I readied myself for Kaden’s weight to lift. My breaths came shaky and shallow, fingers tingling as I prepared for the race of my life. Instead, powerful hands grabbed my arms, and held me steady. For a brief moment the weight lifted as Kaden stood. I kicked wildly, making contact with someone, hearing a satisfying umph.
The satisfaction didn’t last long. Sudden pain exploded across my lower thigh: one of the men had swung something hard against me. The pain radiated down my leg and I swallowed a whimper. Another set of hands held my legs now, and I was shaking, blinking back my tears.
What sort of pain would I endure if they found out I was a girl? Hands worked steadily up my leg, squeezing my thigh viciously. I jerked, but the hands kept moving. Maybe he would just search my back? When he paused at my waist, I allowed myself a feeling of hope.
The metallic note of a knife leaving its sheath broke it. Slicing upward, the knife cut through my shirt and cool air swept over my back. I closed my eyes.
“What the hell is . . .” I could almost hear him making the connection in his head at the sight of my bra. I was skinny, but even then, a woman’s shape was still different from that of a man.
“Turn him over.”
The pressure released. My window of opportunity. Like a viper, I flipped over, kicking the man who’d been searching me full in the face.
I should have aimed for Kaden. He tackled me and was sitting astride my waist before I could get to my feet. Damn! His eyes blazed into mine with a sudden understanding.
He reached forward and ripped my shirt away completely, not even bothering with the knife. Then he pulled the hat from my head. Tangled, auburn hair spilled down around my shoulders. My hair was one of the few features I was proud of; thick and straight, hinting at red in the light. I cursed myself now for not cutting it. Not that it mattered. I was trapped beneath a strange man, shirtless except for my bra, my pale skin exposed to the sunlight.
Kaden spoke first. “It’s a girl.”
He said it with such disbelief that, had I not been terrified, I might have been insulted. I resisted the urge to spit on him. The other men came closer. My eyes burned with humiliation and fear.
“I don’t know how you were raised but sitting on a girl is not a polite way to introduce yourself.” Or at least, that’s what I probably should have said. What actually came out was a mix of profanities that amounted to, “Get off me. NOW!”
Kaden smiled, not at all cowed. Without taking any weight off me, he looked up at the others. “It’s definitely a girl.”
“Can’t be. There’s not any left.”
This from the boy with red hair, freckles, and long limbs—the one whom I guessed had been running alongside me. His eyes seemed too big for his face, and they were filled with a sort of innocent longing, like he saw in me a lost mother or sister. I didn’t want to imagine what the other men were thinking.
It didn’t take long to find out.
“We should check, make sure it’s really a girl, all the way,” said the man with the drawl and the small, rat-like eyes, the one I’d run into. He was balding and had a rash across his arms. The left side of his face was an angry red, and I realized with satisfaction that he was the man I’d kicked. His eyes traveled down my body.
“No, it’s a girl.” This from Kaden. Somehow, I felt like he was the leader here. His green eyes trailed over me, and my face flushed. I returned his gaze with all the hate I could muster.
Then, suddenly, the weight was gone. I sat up slowly, surveying the men surrounding me. Besides the boy, Kaden, and the ugly one I’d kicked, there was a tall man with a hatchet strapped to his waist who hadn’t been part of the fight. His deep bronze skin was contrasted by facial hair peppered with gray, a detail worth noting as I’d not seen anyone over thirty who’d survived the plague, besides my father. I stood, favoring one leg, still burning from the hit.
“Sam, give me your jacket,” Kaden said.
The younger boy, Sam, took off his jacket and handed it over. He stared at the ground, face littered with freckles and hair unwashed. Kaden tossed the coat at me. When I caught it, I considered throwing it at his feet, but settled for glaring at him instead as I pulled it on. I was outnumbered, and my leg throbbed. In a foot race, I could beat every man here, except maybe Kaden. Even standing still he looked fast, with long legs and an athletic frame.
He caught me watching him and smiled. I decided I could outrun him; but I’d put a knife in him first, to be sure. I crossed my arms. The jacket was well worn, soft, and still warm. When I breathed in the scent of leather, there was a metallic tang—blood, in my mouth. I had bitten my cheek when falling and didn’t even notice.
“What’s your name?” he asked. A simple question, but I hadn’t been asked it for so long.
“What’s your name?” I countered. Even though he’d already told me his name, I felt caught off guard, not sure I wanted to tell this group of men anything about me. Even my name.
“Kaden. That’s Sam, Issac, and Jeb.”
Sam, the youngest of them, gave me a soft, boyish smile, contrasted by Jeb’s leer: he was the ugly one I’d kicked. Issac looked me square in the face and nodded, a quiet sympathy. He looked the oldest of the group, maybe even older than my father.
“Ara,” I finally said. Short for Arabella.
Kaden picked up a rope from the ground, and I realized that was what Jeb had swung against my leg. He stepped forward, and I jerked back when I understood what he meant to do. “You’re going to tie me up?”
He smiled, watching me through oddly long eyelashes. “Will you come with us if I don’t?”
“Then it doesn’t look like I’ve got much of a choice.”
A cold breeze drifted through the trees, carrying scents of the forest, smells I’d spent the last three years in and had protected me—until now. He tied my hands in front of me with the meticulous movement of someone who knew what they were doing. I leaned as far as I could away from him, shifting the adrenaline, pain, and panic back with a plan. They’re just men. They die as easily as animals. I could still steal a weapon. I could still make it home.
While he tied my hands, Sam ran back to the clearing and returned with my pack and my gun. He pulled out the magazine.
“It’s empty,” he said, sounding confused.
Kaden smiled knowingly, but I refused to acknowledge that he’d been right. ...
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