Now, two decades later, Meg is facing a crisis of her own. Her father has vanished and is presumed dead, and her mom is teetering on the edge of insanity, but all Meg really wants is to return to the safe world she always thought she was living in. Only Atlanta isn't everything her parents thought it would be. The slums have grown and corruption is rampant, and despite the promise of democracy the new government has been slow to change. Through it all, the only consistency seems to be the zombies. Decayed and barely more than skeletons, there is no reason they should still be moving. But they are.
Facing the harsh world alone, Meg gets a job in the entertainment district of Atlanta where she meets convict fighter Donaghy. Angry at the world and his circumstances, all the fighter really wants is to be left alone. But when he gets swept up in Meg's problems, he finds it impossible to turn his back on her.
When a mysterious note resurrects old rumors about what the CDC is really doing, Meg can't help wondering if her father might have met the same fate that her uncle did twenty years earlier. With the help of Donaghy, she will search for the truth among the darkness that has settled over Atlanta, where they'll soon discover that the mutated virus has brought forth creatures nobody could have imagined, and the evil intentions of the men in charge are much more sinister than anyone ever thought possible, making the future look harsher than ever before.
***This novel is the first book in a new zombie/dystopian series, set twenty years after the final book in the Broken World series. While reading the first seven books will be helpful, it is not necessary to follow the plot of Twisted World.
Release date: September 23, 2016
Publisher: Twisted Press, LLC
Print pages: 337
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Behind the book
Twisted World is the first book in the Broken World spinoff series and picks up twenty years into the zombie apocalypse.
Twisted World: A Broken World Novel
Kate L. Mary
The air that swept over me was warm and sticky, and as suffocating as the wall I was sitting on. It caught my dark hair and whipped the locks around my face and neck until I felt like they were trying to strangle me. I brushed them aside almost absentmindedly, my eyes still glued to the distant horizon.
Below me, the landscape was green and lush and overgrown, the houses that had once held what I imagined were happy families had long ago been overtaken by nature. Even in the fading orange glow of the setting sun, it looked like a jungle. Occasionally, something moved. It could have been a bird or some other animal brave enough to venture out into the open, but at this distance, it was impossible to know for sure. Most likely though, it was one of the dead.
They were still out there. Moving across the deserted country like they actually had a purpose. How they kept going was a mystery that I doubted anyone would ever be able to solve, and not one I wanted to waste what little free time I had thinking about. Plus, it wasn’t like I had scaled this wall hoping to get a glimpse of the walking dead. The world out there was what I was interested in. Or, more accurately, the world that used to be out there. It was gone now, as extinct as malls and movie theaters, and a thousand times more intriguing. I’d never set foot in that world for real—hell, I’d never even set foot outside the wall I now found myself sitting on—but the answers to so many of my questions about the past were hidden in those ruins.
Mom was my age when this whole thing started. Just Twenty years old. Not my biological mother, but the mom who raised me. Vivian Thomas. Young and full of life, her future had held the promise of something better than what I currently found myself living. Then the virus hit and the world around her began to die, but she was a fighter, and somehow, through months of struggle, she made it here. To safety.
If it hadn’t been for the virus, she and Dad would never have met. In the world that was before, they never would have crossed paths, and even if they had, she probably wouldn’t have given him more than a second look. But after the virus, everything was different, and they were perfect together.
The smashed car underneath me rocked, making the whole wall groan. Even though I knew the wall was secure, I found myself gripping the rusty metal for support. The car shook again just as Jackson Star came into view. He pulled himself up and flopped onto his belly at my side, a grunt forcing its way out of him from the effort. Then he rolled onto his back and grinned up.
“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, pushing himself up so he could settle in next to me.
I rolled my eyes even as I returned the smile. “You say that literally every time you climb this wall.”
“It’s our thing.” He nudged me with his elbow before looking out toward the horizon, but the sigh he let out didn’t match my mood. It was more like exhaustion from climbing the wall than longing. “Today?” he asked, nodding toward the world in front of us.
“Shopping,” I replied, my voice coming out so soft that it sounded more like an exhale. “My mom and I are at the mall shopping for dresses. There’s a movie premiere this weekend. My first starring role.”
My biological mother, Hadley Lucas, was a celebrity during an era when most people had so few problems they could waste time reading about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. She’d been worshiped, and I was enthralled by the idea of her. I’d dug through hundreds of old magazines just hoping to catch a glimpse of her face, and watched hours of old movies with Jackson at my side, pretending that it helped me know who she was just a little bit more.
My obsession was only partly about her, though. Yes, Hadley was my mother, but I had a mom. A mom who’d held me when I was sick and cooked dinner for me every night. She’d taught me how to kill a zombie in the most effective way, and told me stories about what life was like before the virus wiped out most of the population. I didn’t need another mom. Not like that.
“First movie premiere?” Jackson cocked an eyebrow in my direction.
“She didn’t want me to be one of those bratty child actors,” I said, lifting my chin.
My obsession with Hadley Lucas was about the past. About being able to envision what my life would have been like if all of this hadn’t happened. I was luckier than most people my age in that aspect. I had documentation of who my mother had been and how she’d lived her life. Pictures even. Most people my age didn’t have a clue what their lost parents had looked like. They were shadows in their lives, always in the back of their minds, but never to have a face.
Jackson laughed and shook his head, and his brown eyes sparkled like one of the stars that dotted the dark sky above us. The little bit of light left on the horizon gave his brown hair a reddish tint, and when he turned his face toward mine, the shadow that cut across his profile made his features seem sharper.
Jackson was handsome. He wasn’t a tall man, but his broad shoulders made him seem larger than he was—of course, next to me everyone seemed large—and his skin had taken on an earthy bronze tone thanks to the harsh New Atlanta sunshine. Then there were the freckles on his nose and that little dimple in his right cheek. Those two things, coupled with the smile that he could turn on and off in the blink of an eye, helped soften his features just enough to make him approachable. As fun as it was for me to dream about who I would have played on the big screen, Jackson was the one who actually looked the part of a movie star.
“You could never be bratty,” he said, sliding his arm around my shoulders.
Next to his solid body I felt tiny, and it wasn’t just my petite frame. Jackson had a knack for making me feel young and helpless. Childish even.
I had curves that somehow got lost in my small frame, and arms that were thin and wiry despite the hard work I’d known all my life. My mother had been a slim woman, and I’d gotten that from her. Along with her smile and smooth, pale skin. Even her green eyes. But my hair was my father’s. Jon Lewis. All I knew about him was that he’d had dark hair and had loved my mother more than his own life.
“Anyone can be bratty given the circumstances,” I said, ducking out from under Jackson’s arm.
He frowned and shook his head, and then let out a deep breath that I mimicked.
This had been our life for the past year: him trying to love me while I shied away from it. Love was a killer. That much I knew for sure. I’d seen firsthand what it did to people in this world and I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude to be able to get through it. Husbands died while trying to clear the country, and wives gave up. Kids lost their parents and ended up in the slums, settling for the scraps of an already threadbare life.
Dad disappeared and Mom turned into a shadow of herself.
No. Love lifted you up only so it could drop you farther, and when you hit the ground it was like being thrown from the tallest building in the world. It didn’t just break you; it shattered you. Even my one attempt at romance had proven that to me. Although I wasn’t delusional enough to think that I had loved Colton, it had still stung when he died.
No. Romance and love weren’t things I was interested in.
I exhaled while shaking my head, hoping it would clear the memories and erase the pain. It didn’t, though. It never did.
“I need to get home,” I said, scooting away from Jackson before twisting my body around so I was facing the other direction.
With my back to the outside, New Atlanta loomed in front of me. The city was dark and gray despite the lampposts on the streets and the lights shining from windows. Everywhere I looked were living quarters on top of living quarters, with all of them so crammed together it was impossible to distinguish where one ended and the other began. My family had arrived in the beginning, shortly after the wall was built, so we’d been lucky enough to get an apartment. But many of the refugees who came here weren’t so fortunate. The existing spaces had filled up faster than they could build new ones, and people had found themselves living in tents on the street. Soon, they began making their own shelters, bringing in supplies from outside the wall, which resulted in dwellings that were little more than shacks. Barely able to sustain a family, let alone keep the weather out.
“It’s only temporary,” I muttered, shaking my head again.
That was the motto of this new government: We’ll pull together, we’ll rebuild. Soon things will go back to normal. The only problem with that was the fact that soon never seemed to come. I didn’t believe they intended to do anything about the slums any more than the people living in those shacks believed it. Not after all this time.
“What?” Jackson scooted over to sit beside me, his arm flush with mine.
His skin was warm, and I’d be lying if I said the thought of being with him wasn’t tempting. Lately, I’d found myself feeling more and more alone with each passing day, and Jackson had been my best friend since he saved my life when I was only eleven years old. There were moments, especially when we were alone, when thinking about the two of us together seemed as natural as breathing.
But right now, I wasn’t ready for that step, and I was starting to think I never would be. All losses I’d experienced over the years had piled up inside me, building a wall around my heart that was even taller than the one I currently found myself sitting on.
“They keep saying they’ll do something about the living conditions in the city,” I said as I inched away from him, “but they haven’t.”
“It takes time.” Jackson’s voice took on the hard tone he always got when I criticized the way things were run, and his expression was even harder. No wonder he intimidated people. “You need to let the people in charge do their jobs.”
“It’s been twenty years!” I shook my head when my voice echoed across the night sky. “We’re running out of time. Every few years some new illness spreads through the city, killing more people. There are so few of us left as it is. How long can we go on like this?”
“What can they do?” When Jackson turned to face me, his brown eyes captured mine. “The zombies are still out there. Almost Twenty-one years, Meg. How the hell are they still moving?”
“I don’t care,” I muttered, tearing my gaze from his.
“You should. We all should. That’s the key: Doing everything we can to figure out how those things work. They go and go and go, outliving those of us who are actually alive, and no matter how many crews we send out to fight them off, it’s never enough. The CDC creates a vaccine and things start to look up, but the virus mutates and before we know it, even that doesn’t work!”
He sounded just like his dad, reciting the same lines everyone’s heard a million times before, and I had to bite back the urge to ask him if he was gearing up to take his father’s place as Regulator of New Atlanta.
Instead of saying anything against Jackson’s father, I chose to let out a snort. “Don’t talk to me about the vaccine. It was my uncle, remember?”
Jackson slammed his mouth shut and looked away like it would take back the words he’d just thrown at me.
“Forget I said anything.” I scooted to the edge of the smashed car before once again twisting my body.
I caught a glimpse of him as I lowered myself down. He was still sitting on the car and his mouth was still clamped shut, but his eyes followed me as I climbed down the wall. They were cold enough to send a shiver down my spine, but somehow apologetic at the same time. I was seething, though. So angry I couldn’t bring myself to tell him it was no big deal.
I didn’t even know why I was mad. I’d never met the man who gave his life to help create a vaccine, and from what I’d been told by Uncle Al and Aunt Lila, Angus had been a bit of an asshole. True, in the end he’d done the right thing, and Dad sure as hell had never had anything bad to say about him—not really. The negative stuff was always said jokingly, like a pill that had been covered in chocolate to help it go down easier. It was obvious he’d loved his brother, and from everything Mom told me, he should have. Angus practically raised Dad.
Angus gave humanity a fighting chance, and even though he’d died in the process, my uncle was something even bigger than a legend to most people. I’d grown up hearing stories about him from Mom and Dad, as well as everyone else in my little extended family, but it was the people in the colony who’d made him seem larger than life to me.
Most of time, people treated me differently the second they found out who my uncle was. There were moments when it was nice, but mostly it had made me feel strange. Secluded. Maybe that was why I’d formed so few real relationships outside my close-knit little family. Other than my one boyfriend and Jackson, that is, and both of those had come later. Jackson had popped into my life during a time when I’d felt totally alone, giving me exactly what I’d needed in that moment: comfort. Colton, too, but in a different way.
I was so lost in thought that I made it down the wall without even realizing it, and the second my feet hit the ground I took off running. Suddenly, I felt like a kid again. Rushing home after a disagreement with a classmate or acquaintance. Only, back then I’d had someone to run to. If Dad was home, he’d listen silently to what I had to say, ready with advice that sounded wise despite the slight drawl marring his speech. Mom’s reaction, however, had usually been the opposite. She’d interject and ask questions. Calmly try to get to the root of the problem so she could help guide me in the right direction.
Now though, no one at home would be willing to listen to my petty problems.
I darted down the dark alley that led away from the wall, jumping over trash and other debris as I went. Anymore, most of the wall was impossible to scale, but Jackson and I had our special little place. Tucked behind a couple buildings, somehow it had been overlooked when they’d cemented the rest of the wall together a couple years ago. Or maybe, knowing how much I liked sitting up there, Jackson had talked his dad into leaving it.
I made it out to the main road and kept jogging. People waved as I passed by, and I nodded to the ones I recognized. The population had gotten so big that at times I could go a whole day without running into someone I knew personally—which was weird considering how few people had been left behind by the virus. It was nearly impossible for people not to recognize me, though. Between my relationship with Jackson and my last name, most of the time I found it impossible to hide who I was, and oddly enough, there were times when being recognized made me feel even more alone. Like now.
When I turned onto my street and the shantytown came into view, I finally slowed to a walk. The houses here were small and square, and the roofs so low that they barely left room for an average size adult to stand up straight. I’d never been inside one, but they couldn’t hold more than a couple mattresses for sleeping—my bedroom was bigger than some of them—and yet whole families found themselves crammed into the tiny spaces.
I reached the shrine halfway through shantytown and ducked my head, hoping to hide my face behind a curtain of hair. Candles were lit, their lights flickering across the darkness, and under them a few notes were held down by rocks. The small stone statue was of a man, although I doubted it looked anything like the person it was supposed to portray. I didn’t know for sure, though, because I’d never bothered to ask. No one seemed to know who had taken the time to carve the statue, but it’s been in this same spot almost as long as I could remember. The subject of this weird little religion was something my family did our best to avoid talking about, though. It was just too creepy. Even for me, and I’d never even met Angus.
My gaze was still focused on the statue when a woman stepped out of her makeshift home right in front of me, holding a bucket in her arms. The curtain she used for a door got wrapped around her shoulders, and even though she managed to shrug it off, she also succeeded in sloshing the contents of her bucket onto the road. The scent of urine filled my nostrils just as the liquid splattered across my shoes.
I jumped back, letting out a yelp. “Watch it!”
“Just a little piss,” she muttered, tossing the rest of the urine aside. It splashed onto the street, narrowly missing a woman and her two children. The mother glared at the woman, then hurried her children along.
“On my shoe,” I said, coming to a complete stop.
The woman’s eyes focused on my face and recognition flashed in them. Her gaze moved to the statue as her mouth scrunched up, and she shoved a few strands of greasy hair out of her face.
“Oh, I see how it is. Little Miss James has it too nice. She don’t want to see how the rest of us live.” The woman took a step closer, the bucket tucked under her arm. This time when she opened her mouth, I was so close that I could see the rotten nubs of teeth sticking out of her gums. “Can’t hide from the truth forever, girlie. This is the life most of us have these days, and it ain’t much better than what the zombies are living on the other side of the wall. We sleep in filth, we eat in filth, and we live with filth. This is the world!”
Her voice rose above the surrounding noise, causing people to stop what they were doing. Even though she was nasty and hateful and a total bitch, heat crept up my neck and over my cheeks. Every hair on my scalp tingled, and I stepped back, but the woman didn’t let up. She took a step too, and then another and another until she was so close that she was the only thing I could smell. And it wasn’t good. Urine and sweat, dirt and rotting teeth. Every inch of her reeked, and even though she was foul and repulsive and being near her made me gag, she was right. The life these people were living wasn’t much better than the zombies.
“Take a good look around before you go back to that apartment you’ve been living in,” she said, the words hissing through the holes in her mouth where her teeth used to be. “Then tomorrow, when you see your boyfriend, remember this. That father of his can do something about the way things are, but he’s choosing not to.”
I wanted to tell her that Jackson wasn’t my boyfriend, but of course that didn’t matter and she wouldn’t care. Not to mention the fact that no one believed me when I did bother to say it. We’d been lumped together for years, and I had a feeling it would probably always be that way. Even if we each got married to other people, there would probably always be whispers about Jackson and me meeting up on weekends. When you didn’t have much to distract you, gossip was an easy thing to grab onto.
Instead of bothering with silly details that didn’t matter to anyone but me—and probably Jackson—I took a step back. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t my fault, and I don’t deserve your anger.”
The woman’s mouth scrunched up, and I cringed away, waiting for her to spit in my face or fling more hate-filled words at me.
Before she could say anything else, a familiar voice cut through the air from behind me. “What’s going on here?”
I turned just as Al pushed his way through the crowd. He frowned at the woman before shooting a wink my way, and even though relief surged through me, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. Not only did I know people in every important position, but they were my family. It seemed like every time I had a problem someone swooped in to rescue me. Despite the longing I had to return to the way things used to be, my life hadn’t been hard. If anything, I’d lived the cushy existence that came with knowing people in the right places.
“It’s not a big deal, Uncle Al.” I gave him a smile that probably made me look like I was in pain. “Just a misunderstanding.”
Al didn’t look at me, and when his eyes narrowed on the woman holding the bucket, his frown deepened. For him. My uncle typically had a smile on his face, so even the smallest frown gave off the impression that he was furious.
“You giving Meg a rough time, Suzie?” Al shoved his hand under his hat and scratched his head. His other arm, most of which he lost back in the beginning days of the zombie apocalypse, was decked out in a sword contraption of his own making. It hung loosely at his side and was menacing despite the fact that Al was cuddlier than a teddy bear.
The woman in front of me shook her head so fast that more of her stringy hair fell across her face. This time, though, she didn’t push it away. “Just trying to educate the girl.”
“No need for that,” Al replied. “Meg is as smart as they come.”
He glanced around, his gaze only stopping on the shrine for a split second, and almost reluctantly the crowd that had gathered to watch our altercation began to disperse.
Only they didn’t go around us. They went through us, pushing their way between Suzie, Al, and me. Elbows and shoulders poked at my ribs as I was shoved to one side, then the other. I took a step back, trying to distance myself from the mob, but it was impossible. The crowd around me thickened until I couldn’t see my uncle anymore. A handful of people shot angry looks at Suzie, but the majority of them sent me glares that could wilt a head of lettuce.
I twisted away from a particularly evil scowl, once again trying to break free of the crowd, but it was impossible. They had me pinned. We were packed together so tightly that a thousand smells flooded my senses, each one more pungent and foul than the last. I turned away from a man whose mouth was so scrunched up that I was sure he was preparing to spit in my eye, only to find myself staring at the chest of another man who was so close that I could see how threadbare his shirt was. I tilted my head back so I could see his face, and smoky gray eyes met mine. They were piercing, but so bloodshot that it looked like the owner hadn’t slept for a month. At least. Still, there was something familiar about—
Before I even had time to think about it, the man moved closer. I tried to take a step back, but his fingers wrapped around my wrist, holding me in place. His gray eyes were the same shade as the hair on his head and face, and his beard was thick and unruly, reminding me of a movie Jackson and I had watched last week about a man who’d gotten stranded on a desert island after a plane crash.
The gray man’s fingers dug into my flesh, and my arm jerked back almost on its own as I tried to break his hold on me. Before I was able to, his free hand found mine, and something soft was shoved into the palm of my hand.
He leaned his head down, practically putting his lips against my ear. “Take it,” he hissed, his voice barely audible over the crowd still swirling around us. “Don’t read it ‘til you’re alone.”
His fingers fell away and I stumbled back, bumping into someone behind me who cursed. I blinked, and like magic the man was gone, melting into the sea of stinking bodies surrounding me as my fingers tightened around the paper in my hand. It barely crinkled and it was as soft as a piece of cloth, like a dozen different people had wadded it up a dozen different times. The way I was squeezing it probably wasn’t going to do it any favors, either.
What could this crazy man who looked like he was on the verge of dying from exhaustion have to say to me? I was nobody, not really. I might have known people in important positions, and I carried a last name that made people do a double take, but I was still just a kid in so many ways.
I glanced around, my gaze moving over the faces surrounding me so quickly that I barely even registered what I was looking at. Then, at the back of the crowd, I caught sight of Jackson. A mixture of relief at seeing a familiar face and terror at knowing I couldn’t keep a secret from him shot through me as I shoved the paper into my pocket. It was probably nothing more than the ramblings of a crazy man, but maybe not. There could have been more to it.
“Meg!” Jackson called as he forcefully shoved people aside so he could get to me.
He reached me at the same time that Al did, and together the two men escorted me through the throng of people. They towered over me, and between them I felt lost even though I should have felt like salvation was on its way. My heart, which was already beating wildly thanks to the confrontation with the woman, pounded even harder now, and beads of sweat had broken out across my forehead and upper lip.
“You okay?” Al asked when we’d made it across the street.
Now that we’d put some distance between Suzie’s shack and ourselves, the stink of urine had faded, but it couldn’t be avoided completely. Not when walking through this section of New Atlanta.
“I’m fine,” I said, forcing out a laugh. It nearly got caught in my throat and ended up coming out sounding more like a cough. “It isn’t a big deal, really.”
I grabbed a chunk of my hair and twisted it around my hand, working to calm my heart and slow my breathing. It wasn’t easy, but thankfully, the two men in front of me seemed to attribute my anxiety to the confrontation. They would never suspect that one of the members of the mob had slipped me a message.
Al shook his head, and his usual easy smile was replaced by a frown that was deeper than almost any I’d ever seen on his face. The only exception might have been the days we’d had to deal with death and loss in our family.
“The streets are getting dangerous,” Al said.
“They’re just trying to live,” I replied, suddenly remembering the anger Suzie had mistakenly aimed at me. I wasn’t the right target, but she hadn’t been wrong. Something needed to be done for these people. “Things have gotten bad. You can’t blame them for being upset.”
“They don’t have to live like this,” Jackson said, shaking his head. There was a look of disgust on his face as his gaze moved over the shacks. “They’re choosing to live in filth. If they worked harder, they could make a better life for themselves. They’re a drain on society.”
Al frowned, his gaze moving over Jackson slowly as if he were trying to see through him, right to his dark soul. My uncle shook his head and looked away, but his usual smile seemed to have been wiped from his face.
My own mouth morphed into a frown at the sound of the Regulator’s words coming out of Jackson’s mouth. He was better than this and I knew it. He just had to fight against his father’s influence so he could be the man he needed to be.
“How?” I whispered, keeping my tone calm so it would reach him and not make him shut down.
Jackson opened his mouth, but slammed it shut a second later. His eyes moved past me, back toward the shacks we’d just fled, but he didn’t say anything. He never did. His loyalty toward his father was unyielding, which probably had a lot to do with why I couldn’t take that next step with him.
I wasn’t ready to give up on Jackson, though. Even the striking man in front of me, who had been brought up by a power-hungry politician in a post-apocalyptic society, had to see that this wasn’t okay. It had been at least two years since any new housing units were built, and nothing was being done to help the people living in these shacks. The Regulator’s house, however, was pristine. No other homes inside the walls of New Atlanta compared to it. Not even the houses of the council members, who often had to share their large homes. Two families to a house was normal these days, except when it came to the Regulator. He was above the law because he made the law, not just here, but across the rest of the country. All sanctioned settlements bent to Garret Star’s will.
He’d been in charge since before the walls went up, quietly at first, and then stepping in to take control like he was saving the world from certain doom—at least according to my parents. Slowly, his influence had spread to other settlements as they popped up around the country. During the early days of reestablishing the government, Garret Star had the foresight to send crews out to oil refineries so fuel production could continue. He’d also trained crews on how to get the electricity running again, then sent them to other areas to help out. If the settlement in question cooperated—meaning they adopted the laws Star had put into place—they got help. If they didn’t, they were on their own. If they didn’t play by the rules they got no help from the new government, no vaccine when it was finally created, and no fuel. Nothing.
I had high hopes for Jackson, even if I couldn’t see us together, but deep down I suspected that he wasn’t ever going to meet his potential. His father’s reach was too wide, his influence too great. Jackson would never be as bad as the greedy man who had raised him—at least I hoped not—but I doubted he’d be the man he could be. The man he was with me.
Al was the one to break the silence. He twisted his head so he could glance down the street before settling his gaze once again on Jackson. “I’m late for patrol. You can make sure Meg gets home okay?”
My uncle gave him a studying look, one that said he didn’t fully trust the man in front of him, but he thought that same man at least had my best interest at heart.
“I’m fine,” I said.
Even though I loved that Al was trying to get along with my best friend—my family had been famously anti-Garret Star for as long as I could remember, and none of them loved that Jackson and I were so close now—I had no problem walking through the streets of New Atlanta by myself. Especially not when my own apartment building was practically in sight.
Despite my assurance that I was okay, neither Jackson nor my uncle looked my way.
“I can make sure she gets there,” Jackson said, and I couldn’t help wondering if he was somehow immune to the tone of my voice.
My uncle nodded as he scratched at his round belly, which seemed out of place on his still lanky frame. “Thanks.”
He, too, seemed to be unable to hear my overly feminine voice.
If I wasn’t so anxious to get away from Suzie and the mob, I’d remind my uncle of how many times my mom—both of them—had saved his ass.
Al, now assured that I would be okay with the big, strong man at my side, turned to look at me. “Be more careful.”
He grinned, which was disarming in itself, and then shot me a wink that helped ease the annoyance inside me. It was impossible to stay angry with Al, who was more like a large child than an adult most of the time. Especially when he switched his sword out for a hook and walked around impersonating Captain Hook—complete with an eye patch and a stuffed parrot on his shoulder.
My uncle hurried off, most likely headed for the extra night shift he’d picked up. Something he’d been doing more and more of lately.
Only a second later, Jackson had his arm around my waist and was leading me down the street. I let him even though I was still irritated from our conversation on the wall—which I still couldn’t pinpoint why—and the fact that he thought I needed him to save me. Yes, that was how we’d started our relationship, but I’d been eleven then. Things had changed. I’d survived loss that would have crippled most people these days and come out on the other end stronger. At least in my opinion.
“I’m sorry,” Jackson said after less than ten steps. “I was stupid for bringing your uncle up.”
His apology caught me off guard and my eyes were instantly filled with tears, which seemed to contradict the very things I’d been thinking right before he made his apology. I shook my head, unable to talk, and my dark hair swished over my shoulders, tickling my arm and probably Jackson’s as well.
“No. It was dumb for me to get upset, and it wasn’t even really about Angus.”
“I know,” Jackson said.
Of course he did. He knew almost everything about me. Had seen me at my worst moments. Hell, he’d held me at my worst moments.
I couldn’t form words well enough to let him know that I forgave him, but he knew. Together we walked in silence, Jackson’s strong arm around me every step of the way, almost like he was holding me up. His fingers were firm on my waist and felt so natural that I started to wonder if everyone else might have been on the right track about us. He was my best friend. Sometimes, it felt like he was my only friend. There was a serious shortage of people our age and forming relationships had never been easy for me.
When the virus hit twenty years ago, billions of people had died and come back as zombies, killing thousands maybe even millions more. Most of the babies born in the early years following the outbreak had died, but Jackson and I were some of the few to make it. He’d been here in Atlanta, which meant he got the new antibiotic the CDC had created. Me… Well, nobody really knew how I survived. Luck, probably. My biological father died before I was even born, and my mother only a few days after. If it hadn’t been for my parents—Vivian and Axl James—I wouldn’t have made it here at all. But I did and they raised me, and I had a good childhood despite the walls and the zombies and the death that surrounded us.
Only now, Dad was gone.
“I miss him.”
The words popped out before I had time to think them through, but I couldn’t regret saying them. I did miss Dad, and talking about him at home only made it worse because Mom’s delusions had taken over our life, making it harder and harder to get through a day without screaming.
Sometimes, I had a hard time forcing myself to go home at all.
Tears filled my eyes and spilled over before I could stop them, and Jackson stopped walking. He wrapped his arms around me, and seconds later my face was pressed against his chest. Even Jackson, who wasn’t a tall man, seemed to tower over me today. It may have had to do with my mood, though. I wasn’t that short, three inches past five feet, but at the moment I felt like a dwarf in Jackson’s arms.
“Jackson, I—” I tried to pull away even though his embrace was comforting. “I don’t want to…”
“Shhh,” he said, holding me tighter so I couldn’t escape. “This isn’t romantic. I know how you feel about that and I promise not to try and kiss you—even if it kills me.” The teasing in his voice made me smile through the tears clouding my vision.
“You’re too good to me,” I said, using his shirt to wipe my damp cheeks.
“I know. Trust me, I know.” He did his best to make the words light, but there was still a hint of bitterness in them.
I swallowed, but kept my head pressed against his chest. The Jackson I knew was sweet and caring, but that didn’t stop his father from getting into his head on occasion. The man wasn’t just powerful; he was manipulative. So much so that I sometimes worried it would suck all the goodness out of Jackson and leave nothing behind of the man I cared so much about.
I kept my face pressed against his chest and my eyes squeezed closed until I was sure the tears had finished. When I pulled away, Jackson didn’t try to stop me.
“Okay now?” he asked, his hands still on my shoulders and his thumbs gently stroking my skin.
“Yes.” I swiped my hand across my face as I let out a deep sigh. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to him being gone.”
“It’s hard, I know.”
He did, just like everyone else in New Atlanta. Probably in the rest of the world. We all knew what loss felt like. Some of us may have been too young to remember the original virus, but death was a regular part of life now. People got attacked while working outside the walls or got sick when we were between meds. The CDC might have been in Atlanta, but their resources were still limited.
Even worse, there had been other illnesses since the original virus. It seemed like every few years a super-charged flu swept through the settlement, claiming hundreds of lives. Jackson’s own mom had been a victim of the illness. It was before he and I were really friends, but I knew he had to miss her.
“How’s your mom?” Jackson asked, almost as if he was thinking of his own mother.
“Crazy.” The word came out bitter and hard, and I tried to swallow it down. I loved Mom more than anyone else alive, but lately it didn’t seem like there was much of her left. She’d been chipped away a little at a time, starting back when the virus first hit. Each loss had been like another chain thrown over her shoulders, bearing her down. “Losing Dad may have sent her over the deep end.”
“You have to believe she’ll pull through. It can’t be that bad.” Jackson’s eyes darted my way, watching me closely out of the corner of his eye. “She’s been through so much. Stayed so strong through all of it.”
I shrugged, and just like a few minutes ago, tears filled my eyes. This time for an older loss. One that happened so long ago it sometimes felt like a dream. But other times, like now, it seemed as if it had happened only yesterday.
When I didn’t say anything, Jackson squeezed my shoulders. “She’ll be okay.”
“Yeah,” I said, but the word had no hope in it.
Jackson waited for me to say something, but my throat was still too clogged with tears.
After a moment, he sighed. “Come on. Let me get you home before your crazy mom sends out a search party.”
I snorted as I allowed him to lead me down the street. “Parvarti would just love having to comb the streets for me.”
“And you say I’m well connected,” Jackson muttered.
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