Jan 9 2014 5:00pm
Article 5, Kristen Simmons’ fast-paced and gripping YA dystopian series, continues with Three, available February 11th from Tor Teen!
Ember Miller and Chase Jennings are ready to stop running. After weeks spent in hiding as two of the Bureau of Reformation’s most wanted criminals, they have finally arrived at the safe house, but all that’s left is smoking ruins.
With their high profile, Ember and Chase know they can’t stay out in the open for long. They take shelter in the wilderness and amidst the ruins of abandoned cities as they head down the coast, eventually finding refugees from the destroyed safe house. Among them is someone from Chase’s past—someone he never thought he’d see again.
Banding together, they search for a place to hide, aiming for a settlement a few of them have heard about…a settlement that is rumored to house the nebulous organization known as Three. The very group that has provided Ember with a tiny ray of hope ever since she was first forced on the run.
The dream was changing. Even asleep I sensed it.
Before, it had been my mother and me, linked arm in arm, drawn down the center of our deserted street by the same violent destiny: home and soldiers and blood. Always blood. But now there was something different. Off. Needling at me like a riddle I couldn’t figure out.
The asphalt was still broken. Our neighborhood waited, silent and haunted, each condemned front door posting the Statutes like a warning of the plague. Above, a pale, flat sky spanned from shoulder to shoulder, and I was alone.
And then beside me, where my mother should have been, Chase appeared.
Not the Chase of now, but the boy I’d met long ago—messy black hair and the curious, daring eyes of an eight-year-old, white socks winking from beneath the jeans he’d already outgrown. He darted down the lane and I ran after him, giggling.
He was fast; every time I swiped at him, he escaped, my fingertips always just inches away from his billowing T-shirt. His laughter filled me with something warm and forgotten, and for a time, there was nothing but joy.
But the sky began to bruise, and the carefree way he kicked a rock down the middle of the road suddenly worried me. He was too young to know what was happening—that this place wasn’t safe anymore. With urgency, I reached for his hand.
Curfew, I told him.
But he fought me.
I tried to pull him along, but it was no use; his little hand was slippery in my grasp. The failing light tightened my fear.
They were coming. I could feel their footsteps inside my chest.
Darkness came, black as coal and just as thick, until I could no longer see the houses and all that remained were the innocent boy beside me and the broken street we stood upon.
A soldier approached, his uniform neatly pressed, his slim, agile build too familiar, even at a distance. His golden hair gleamed, a halo in the moonless night.
I knew how this part went, but my heart still thumped all the way down to my stomach. I tried to push the boy back, to keep him away from the man who’d killed my mother. You will not touch him, I told Tucker Morris, but no sound came from my lips. Still, the cry echoing in my head seemed to infuse Tucker with speed, and suddenly he was upon us, three feet away, aiming a gun directly between my eyes.
I screamed for the boy to run, but before I could turn to do the same, my gaze found the man’s face.
It wasn’t Tucker. Before me was a different soldier, one with pallid skin and eyes long dead, and a hole in his chest that wept blood. One we’d killed to escape the hospital in Chicago.
I gasped, tripped, and fell backward. And left the boy beside me exposed to the weapon.
Harper shot, a sound that made the world quake and the street break open. And when it stopped, the little boy lay motionless, a fist-sized hole punched through his rib cage.
I woke with a start, braced to fight. The image of the soldier— Harper—who Chase had shot while we’d been rescuing Rebecca from the Chicago rehab hospital faded, but left a sticky residue, making it impossible to fall back asleep.
My breath evened out, and as it did I registered the sounds of sleep: heavy breathing and the occasional snore. The hard floor beneath my back served as a reminder that we’d taken shelter in an abandoned house, a break from the beach where we’d slept the last three nights. The heavy moon, nearly full, peeked in a glassless window and helped my eyes adjust to the dark. Chase’s space beside me was empty.
I untangled the beach towel from around my legs. Six sleeping bodies were scattered around the room. People like me, who had come to the coast in search of the safe house—the only known refuge for those escaping the FBR’s oppression— only to find it destroyed. By some miracle, tracks had led away from the wreckage and a small team of us had followed them south, leaving those who’d been injured in the attack on Chicago behind. They waited for us in a mini-mart outside the blast radius, vulnerable with only a few healthy fighters to defend them and a meager ration of food and supplies.
It took several beats to shake off the dream and remember that Tucker wasn’t with us, that he’d gone with the carriers three days ago to tell the other resistance groups what had happened to the safe house. They were supposed to make contact once they reached the first post. We were still waiting to hear from them.
No matter how much I wanted him gone, I couldn’t breathe while he was out there, despite the help he’d given us over the past few weeks. At least when he was close I could keep tabs on him. Now it felt like I’d dropped a knife with my eyes closed, with only the hope that the blade wouldn’t land in my foot.
Someone was mumbling. Probably Jack, one of the survivors from the Chicago resistance. He hadn’t been right since the Moral Militia had bombed the tunnels and we’d all nearly been buried alive. His lean body spanned out like a star in the entryway while a guy from Chicago named Rat, every bit as short as Jack was tall, lay on his side just beyond him. Sean had fallen asleep against a weathered sofa, head sagging, palms open on his lap as if in meditation. Behind him, Rebecca curled across the cushions, the metal crutches in her arms taking the place of the boy who so obviously wanted to be there.
Though she should have stayed behind with the injured at the mini-mart, Rebecca had insisted on forging ahead. The pace was hard on her body but she didn’t complain. That worried me. It was like she was trying to prove something.
The other two that stretched into the dining room were from the Chicago resistance, and hadn’t given up hope that their families had somehow lived through the attack on the safe house, that they’d managed to escape and flee south.
From outside came the sound of twigs snapping. I rose silently and wove through the bodies to the open door. The air smelled strongly of salt and mold, both fresh and dirty at the same time. From over the sandbank whispered the ocean, the ebb and flow of the waves, the hush of the long grass between the beach and this decrepit seaside village where we’d made camp. It was called DeBor-something. The “Welcome to…” sign had fallen victim years ago to someone’s target practice; little copper punctures distorted the right side.
Once, DeBor-something had been posh; the gates that blocked out the poor had fallen, but were still there, stacked beside the burned security booth. There had been riots here during the War, like in a lot of the richer communities. What remained of the empty Easter egg–colored beach houses were ruins: scaffolding stretching like burned, blackened fingers into the sky, foundations half-collapsed on their weathered stilts, walls muted by layers of white salt and sand, and gagged by crisscross boards that blocked what remained of their windows. Somewhere close a rusted screen door slapped against the frame.
From the bottom porch step came another delicate snap. It was only Billy, all sharp elbows and shoulder blades, hunched over his knees. He was peeling the bark off a stick, and hadn’t seemed to notice my arrival.
A frown tugged at the corners of my mouth. If Billy was on watch it was near dawn. He’d relieved Chase earlier in the night. But Chase wasn’t here; the towel he’d slept on had been tossed near the window beside a trash bag that held our only possessions—two cups, a rusty kitchen knife, a toothbrush, and some rope we’d harvested from the wreckage.
Billy didn’t so much as shift as I tiptoed across the porch to sit beside him.
“Quiet night?” I asked cautiously. He gave me a oneshouldered shrug. The red light of a CB radio we’d harvested from one of the carriers’ trucks blinked on the step between his electric-taped boots. It was metal, and half the depth of a shoebox. Not as convenient as a handheld, but it was strong enough to connect to the interior.
At least, we thought it was strong enough. The red light was supposed to glow green when we had an incoming call, but had yet to do so.
My gaze lifted back to Billy. He’d been quiet since we’d been reunited in the safe house ruins. I knew he held out hope that Wallace, the one-time leader of the Knoxville resistance—and more important, his adopted father—was still alive, that he was among the survivors we tracked. But that was impossible. Wallace had burned to death in the Wayland Inn. We’d all seen it go down.
“There’s some canned stew left,” I offered. Hunger gnawed at my own stomach. Rations were running thin. He grimaced and kept picking the bark off that stick with his fingernails, as though it was the most fascinating thing in the world.
Billy could hack into the MM mainframe. A stick wasn’t all that interesting.
“Okay. Well. One of the guys found spaghetti noodles, did you—”
“Did I say I was hungry?”
Someone sleeping near the front door stirred. Billy lowered his chin back to his chest, hiding his defiant brown eyes under a greasy curtain of hair.
The silence between us strained. He’d lost a parent; I knew how that felt. But it wasn’t like we’d killed his father.
Not like we’d killed Harper.
A sudden chill crept over my skin, despite the balmy temperature.
“How long has Chase been gone?” I asked.
He shrugged again. Irritated, I stood, and made my way around the side of the house toward the beach, hoping Chase had gone in this direction. The grass was thinner to the right so I took that path, and winced when the climb up the dune sent a burning jolt up my shins. My legs had become their own war zone: purple and yellow bruises from the Chicago blast, blisters from my boots, and dime-sized welts on my ankles and heels from the gravel that had worked its way into my socks. But when I reached the top of the embankment, my pain was forgotten.
A burst of stars reflected off the black ocean, pure and bright as diamonds, with no competition from the lights of a city or base. The exact line where the water met the shore was hidden in the darkness, but its murmur was as constant as a heartbeat.
The vastness of it swallowed me. The cool, fresh air played with the ends of my hair, in the absentminded way my mother used to when we would talk. It was times like these I missed her most—the quiet spaces, when no one else was around. When I closed my eyes, it was almost like she was back.
“Still no tracks. Not since yesterday morning,” I said aloud, hoping she could hear me. I didn’t know if that was how things worked. All I knew was that I wished I could hear her answer back, just one more time. I twisted my heels in the sand. “No word from our people at the mini-mart. Chase thinks their radio is probably dead. It was on its last legs before we left.” I sighed. “No word from the team we sent to the interior, either.”
Each of us that was searching for the survivors took a shift carrying the radio, anxious to hear news from the other resistance posts. No one spoke the truth: that our team could have been captured. That the chances that anyone had made it out of the safe house were slim. That our friends, our families, were all gone.
“I don’t suppose you could tell us if anyone survived,” I said. “Guess that would be cheating.”
I opened my eyes and tilted my chin skyward in search of any sign of the bombs that had destroyed our sanctuary. But the stars were silent.
Before the War, I’d been so used to the noise I hadn’t even heard it. Cars, lights, the hum of the refrigerator. People. People everywhere—passing by in the street, talking on their phones, calling for their friends. When the Reformation Act decreed that the power be shut off for curfew, the nights got quiet. So quiet you could hear thieves breaking into houses two streets over, hear the sirens and the soldiers that came to arrest them. So quiet you could hear your heart pound and every creak in the floor as you hid under your bed hoping they didn’t come get you, too.
The silence didn’t scare me anymore. I welcomed it because it had strengthened me, made me more aware. But times like this I would have given anything to bring back the noise. To shout at the top of my lungs, I am still here, you haven’t beaten me! To tell everyone who could still sleep soundly because they were convinced the MM was at best our saving grace, and at worst a necessary evil, what had happened to me, and what they’d done to my mother.
A compression in the sand behind me pulled me from my thoughts. I spun toward the tree to my left, and strained my eyes into the darkness, gripping a fork in my pocket that I’d picked up in the street earlier.
“Who’s there?” I called after a moment.
A familiar shape emerged from under the canopy of dewsoaked leaves. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Relief rose within me, right along with the heat in my cheeks. I should have made sure no one was listening before launching into a one-sided conversation.
“Are you spying on me, Chase Jennings?” I planted my fists on my hips.
He chuckled. “Never.”
The sand shifted with each step that brought him closer, and for an instant the night behind Chase wavered, and he was back in the ruined remains of the safe house, digging through piles of broken wood and bent metal with his bare hands. Destroyed, just as the safe house had been destroyed, because his uncle was gone, because his last hope for our shelter was gone. But as quickly as it had come, the vision dissolved, leaving my throat swollen and my hairline damp.
I shook it off.
I couldn’t see him clearly until he was even on the embankment an arm’s length away. The black hair that grew so quickly was already fringing over his ears, and his jaw was scruffy from days of not shaving. He wore just a white T-shirt that seemed to glow in the moonlight and soot-stained jeans, torn through the knees, that frayed at his bare feet. His boots were tied together by their laces, and hung from one hand.
And just like that, I forgot the images that had clouded my mind. I forgot how I’d woken or what I’d dreamed. Something stirred inside of me, simmering with each moment his dark, glassy gaze held mine.
“Hi,” he said.
I smiled. “Hi.”
We hadn’t been alone much in the last three days, and when we had, Chase had been consumed by the search. He’d been a million miles away.
He didn’t feel so far away now.
I reached for his waistband, threaded a finger through the belt loop, and pulled him closer.
His shoes made a muted clunk as they dropped to the ground. His fingertips rose to my face and brushed along my cheekbones, his skin rough but his touch soft. They inched down the nape of my neck, down my spine, drawing me in as they came to rest around my waist.
I held my breath, aware of his hips against my stomach and the fluid way his shoulders rounded beneath my palms as he lowered his face to mine. I arched into the space between us so there was no longer him and I, but one. One form in the darkness. One breath, in and out.
His lips skimmed over my lips, side to side, as if memorizing their shape, innocent at first, but then something more, until the world beyond us dropped away. His eyes drifted closed and his embrace grew tighter and stronger, as if he could gather me inside of him.
My hands slid up the back of his shirt and traced the puckered skin from a scar on his lower back. He tensed in that way he did when he remembered things he didn’t want to.
The cloud that crawled over the moon hid his face. Sometimes it felt like the past was pulling Chase one way while I was pulling him the other.
Sometimes the past won.
I found the spot where the strong cords of his neck met his shoulder and kissed him there, in the place I knew would always distract him. His breath expelled in one hard rasp.
“You taste like salt.” I tried to make my voice steady, to give him something to hold on to. “You need a bath.”
His muscles loosened by the slightest degree. “Maybe you should take one with me.” I felt his grin against my neck. “Make sure I don’t cut any corners.”
My stomach fluttered. “Maybe I will.”
He went still. I giggled. But the thought of us together, like that, made my mouth dry.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked after a moment. He straightened, and my cheek found its place on his chest. “Couldn’t sleep.” He paused. “My head’s not right.” I heard
his sigh, and the scraping sound of knuckles dragging along his unshaven jaw. My fingers laced behind his waist to lock him against me.
“You could tell me about it,” I tried.
He broke away, and though I tried to hold on, it was clear he needed space. Apart, I felt the cold for the first time since I’d come to the beach. The air around us had shifted and now felt somber and humid.
In the quiet that followed, my dream returned: Chase as a child, stretched out over the ground, bleeding. A prickle of unease crawled through me. I wished I could read his mind; then maybe I’d know what to say to help him instead of feeling so powerless.
“He was never going to come with us—that soldier. Whatever his name was.” The words burst from him with enough force to make me jump.
“You mean Harper.”
His gaze shot to mine, the question clear.
My stomach dropped. Had we really never used his name?
I’d heard it a hundred times a day in my mind—over and over, like a whip coming down on my back. But Chase and I hadn’t said it out loud once. We hadn’t talked about what had happened in Chicago at all, and I wanted to. We needed to. We couldn’t keep pretending like it never happened.
He fell back a step.
“Harper was the soldier,” I said quickly. “The one at the rehab center in Chicago. The one we… you know.”
His expression changed. His whole posture changed. Became tortured and twisted in a way I hadn’t seen since he’d told me how my mother had died. The reminder was enough to make my stomach hurt.
“His name was Harper?”
“I… saw his name badge.” My arms crossed over my chest. I forced them down to my sides.
Chase retreated toward the house where we’d made camp, and when I pursued he held up a hand. Something close to panic swelled in my chest. The sand beneath my feet seemed to quake.
He turned. A forced smile flickered over his face, then went dim. “We need to keep moving. If it rains again today we’ll lose any chance of finding the others.”
“It’s my uncle,” he insisted, as though I’d somehow implied that we should stop tracking the survivors. My shoulders rose.
“He took me in after my mom and dad were gone,” Chase explained, as if I didn’t know. As if I wasn’t there when his uncle had come to pick him up after the car accident had killed his parents. “He’s the only family I’ve got left, Ember.”
His words felt like a slap. “What about me?”
“He’s my uncle,” Chase said again. As if this explained everything.
“He left you when you were sixteen,” I said. “In a war zone. He taught you to fight and to break into cars and then he left.”
The words hung between us. Instantly I wished I could take them back. We didn’t even know if his uncle Jesse had been at the safe house, much less if he was still alive. Regardless what he’d done, Chase cared for him, and it did no good to pick apart his memory.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Chase responded, focusing on the water. “He did what he had to do.”
A different past returned then: a hill above a gray stone base, sour tendrils of white smoke spiraling to the sky, a gun in my hand.
I’m a damn good soldier. I did what needed to be done.
My knuckles were white peaks, nails sharp in my palms. Tucker Morris had said those words right after confessing to my mother’s murder. Chase couldn’t use them; he was nothing like Tucker. He knew not everything could be excused.
But at the same time, I understood why Chase tried. If he slowed down, every disappointment, every pound of shame, weighed on him like a man in quicksand. And so he never stopped. He barely slept. He pushed on. Like he could keep running forever.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “You did what you had to do, too.”
The air was misting, heavy with the coming dawn, and in the dying starlight I could make out the shadows under his eyes, the damp ring around the collar of his shirt, and his fists, balled in his pockets.
Tentatively, I reached for his shoulder. Hard muscles flexed beneath my palm a second before he flinched away.
“We should go,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “We’ve got to get an early start.”
My hand fell, empty, to my side.
Come back to me, I wanted to say. But he was the boy in my dream, running away, and as much as I tried to hold him he slipped from my grasp.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s wake the others.”
Chase was right; rain was coming.
The night was lit by a straight, pink scar on the horizon, and from it rose a ghost of the sun, muted and pale yellow. The air became palpable, thick to breathe, slick on our skin. Nearly as heavy as Chase’s silence.
I wished I’d never said the name Harper—that I’d never even seen it on his stupid ID badge. I tried to banish it from my mind, but the harder I tried, the more I could see him. His crisp blue uniform. The high flush in his cheeks. The young soldier who’d nearly joined us in that Chicago rehab hospital before he’d gotten scared. I hated that he’d gotten scared. I hated that he’d blocked our path, and threatened to turn us in, and raised his gun. That he’d made Chase shoot him, because Chase never would have done that if he hadn’t been forced to.
It was Harper’s own fault he was dead.
The black tentacles of guilt that had snaked around my chest eased their hold. But in their place, something slippery remained.
I told myself it wasn’t right to think that way. That despite being a soldier, Harper was flesh and blood, just like us.
Just like Tucker. Who’d redeemed himself several times over, but who’d still killed my mother.
I shook my head to clear it. Traveling down that road just made me crazy. This was a war—just as much as the War that had brought it. And if Harper had chosen the right side, he’d still be alive. At least for now.
I still wasn’t sure where that left Tucker.
By the time we’d reached the house the others were already stirring and I was glad for the distraction. They packed quickly as there wasn’t much to pack, and with only a few mumbled words we moved out, heading south in the same direction we’d been traveling since we’d seen the tracks three days ago. Time was ticking—we’d told the injured we’d return to the minimart with a report within five days. Our return trip would be quicker without the search, but we were still cutting it close.
Every indentation in the sand was scrutinized. Every piece of trash that floated in the shallows was inspected. One of them would be the sign we needed: a footprint, or a discarded can from someone’s meal. No one wanted to return to the minimart with nothing to show. But an hour passed, maybe more, and there was still no evidence of survivors.
When it was my turn to carry the radio, I kept it in the trash bag over my shoulder so it wouldn’t get wet when the rain finally came. With the responsibility came paranoia; convinced I would miss the call, I checked the box every few minutes, but the red light had yet to flash green.
It was the smell that reached us first. The breeze had turned in anticipation of the storm, and carried on it a putrid, dead stench.
“What is that?” Billy finally asked, pulling the sweat-ringed neck of his T-shirt over his nose and mouth.
No one answered.
We slowed. Chase, Jack, and Rat took the lead, though Chase was the only one not to draw a gun from the back of his belt. Beside me, Sean put a warning hand on Rebecca’s shoulder, but she ignored him, leaning heavily on her crutches and shuffling onward through the sand.
Jack gagged. “Fish,” he called. “Dead fish.”
Billy and I moved up to see, but the closer I got to the front, the more nauseating the stench became. Taking Chase’s cue, I buried my nose in the crook of my elbow, and then stopped short as a sudden breeze swept aside the fog.
The sand here wasn’t fine and white as it had been, but black, painted by waves of sticky oil during high tide. It pooled in every divot in the ground, gleaming and pearlescent, even without the bright light. Littered all across our path were animals coated in it. Fish, turtles, sea creatures I didn’t recognize. Birds, white feathers tarred and matted, beaks open, eyes blank. Not even the bugs ate them.
It went on for miles.
I fought the urge to vomit; the bile in my throat tasted like rotting things. I imagined what it must feel like to choke on oil. How it would slosh in my lungs and coat the walls of my stomach, sleek and poisonous. A warning to turn back shook through me, but all that remained behind us was more death.
I glanced over to Chase, who stared forward, and I could feel his pity for all these living things lost.
“Sick,” whispered Billy.
We stood in reverent shock for only a moment more, and then with a deafening roar of thunder, the sky broke open.
If there were tracks in the sand they were swept away by the storm, so we moved inland and scoured the brush and trees beside the beach in search of bits of torn clothing, campfire remains, anything to show that someone had passed through. But the raindrops fattened, and it didn’t take long before our clothing was drenched. The clatter drowned out the noise. It wasn’t until Chase was standing before me, pellets of water bouncing off his bare arms, that I noticed he was trying to tell me something.
“I said Rebecca’s falling behind again,” he repeated as I checked the red blinking light on the radio for the umpteenth time. “Sean’s got to take her back to the mini-mart.”
He was the only one besides Sean and I that kept tabs on Rebecca. At first the others had given her wide berth, like she was bad luck, but now her presence was starting to wear on them. She wasn’t as mobile as the rest of us, which made her a liability. Most hadn’t even bothered to learn her name.
I glanced back the way we’d come, sore because he had a point—Rebecca should have stayed back, despite how much I wanted to keep her in my sight. The last time we’d been apart she’d been hurt, and this was the only way I could guarantee her safety. Still, though searching was slow work, her speed was half ours, especially through the brush and knotted roots off the beach. She wasn’t going to be able to keep up much longer.
When I turned back Chase was gone, having disappeared through the mist. A frown tugged at my mouth; he was clearly worried. Somehow Rebecca had become his responsibility, too.
Billy was nearby, and I grabbed his sleeve to get his attention.
“Have you seen Rebecca or Sean?”
He glanced around impatiently. “They were behind me earlier.”
The water ran in rivulets from the tips of my hair, and I shoved it back from my face and held a hand up like a visor above my eyes. Only gray surrounded us; the low light made even the trees lose their color.
I shoved through the underbrush back the way we’d come. The mud puddles deepened in the gaps between the trees and every sloshing step soaked my socks. The beach was to my right; surely Rebecca hadn’t waded through the oil and dead animals. To my left the grass grew tall and thick, and it struck me that any number of things could be living within it.
Rebecca could be hurt within it.
Sean’s call drifted over the slimy, wet field. Sweeping both
hands in front of me to clear the way, I surged forward.
“Sean! Where are you?” I was glad the rain was still loud. Though we hoped to find survivors, we didn’t know who lurked in the evacuated Red Zone. For the past few days we’d stayed as
quiet as possible so we wouldn’t attract unnecessary attention. Finally I saw him—head and shoulders above the grass that tickled my neck. He spun frantically, still calling for
“What happened?” I asked when I reached him.
“She was right behind me,” he said, a muscle in his jaw
bulging. The water matted his darkened hair and streamed down his face.
We pushed forward ten more feet, then twenty, until the grass gave way suddenly to an open, single-lane street. Rainwater cascaded down thick cracks in the asphalt, and weeds, some as tall as me, grew from the potholes. Boarded-up houses, all with a similar brick front, lined the opposite side.
Before I could make myself move, Sean had yanked me down into a crouch. Anyone could be hiding in those houses, aiming a shotgun through one of those busted windows. Maybe even one of the survivors we were tracking.
I searched the windows first, then the spaces between the buildings. Every door was marred by a Statute posting. Even the rain couldn’t peel them from the wood.
“There!” Sean pointed up the road to where a solitary figure stood on the center yellow line. Before I could stop him he was running, and with one final glance around I followed, eyes trained on the houses for movement. As we neared, the staggering gait became familiar, and two silver crutches came into view.
Sean didn’t slow as he hauled Rebecca out of the street. A short scream of surprise burst from her throat, and then she was fighting him, falling in a heap in the wet grass. Mud splashed over her clothes and freckled her face.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sean yelled. “We’ve got to keep off the roads, I told you that.”
Rebecca pulled herself up into a seated position, legs splayed out before her. She’d lost her crutches in the fall, and where they usually fastened to her forearms were raw, bleeding patches of skin. I bit back a cringe.
“Afraid I’ll get hit by a car?” She stared at him defiantly, cheeks stained, arms open to the empty street behind us.
“Yeah, Becca. That’s what I meant.”
“Stop it,” I said, inserting myself between them. “You never know who’s hiding in places like this. That’s all he’s trying to say.”
“He’s trying to say I’m a child. That’s all he’s trying—”
“Maybe if you’d stop acting like—”
“Sean!” I turned on him, pointing up the road. “Go find the others. We’re right behind you.”
Sean laced his hands behind his neck, then slammed them down in frustration. “Fine.” A moment later he disappeared through the grass and rain.
A deep breath to summon patience, and I squatted beside her.
“Let me see your arms.”
She kept them locked to her body, gaze still pinned in the direction Sean had taken off. Her lower lip quivered.
I rubbed at the tightness in my chest. “He’s just worried about you.”
“He hates me,” she said, so quietly I almost missed it.
I grabbed her crutches, needing something to busy my hands. Rebecca didn’t have to say it, but I knew she blamed us for her misery. I told myself for the hundredth time that she was better off with us than the FBR, that we wouldn’t cart her around or put her on display to dissuade citizens from corruption. But seeing her sitting in a mud puddle, arms bright with sores, not even attempting to shield her face from the rain, I couldn’t help but doubt myself.
That didn’t mean I was going to let her quit.
“Get up,” I told her. “Enough with the pity party.”
“You heard me. Get up.”
She balked, and when I didn’t back down she snatched the crutches from my grasp. Barely a wince came from her lips as she fastened the braces around her forearms.
“That’s not exactly easy in case you haven’t noticed,” she said.
I knew it wasn’t. I knew it was killing her and I ached to fix it, but I also knew if she was going to survive out here she couldn’t give up.
I fought the sympathy eating away at my insides and cocked an eyebrow. “Neither is sneaking out of a locked facility every night to fool around with a guard.”
Her ice blue gaze widened. “Ember…”
“You have to go back to the mini-mart.” I shifted. “Sean will take you.…”
“Ember.” She pointed to the trash bag I’d set on the ground beside us. “The radio!”
The red light was flashing green—the mouth of the bag had opened when I’d set it down and now the box sent a pale jade reflection onto the black plastic. Instantly, I snatched up the whole package, flooded with the need to answer, but knowing I couldn’t. The rain would ruin the machine.
“Come on.” I only took a second to weigh the consequences, and then sprinted toward the nearest house with the radio latched tightly to my chest, unwilling to miss this first connection with Tucker’s team. As far as we knew, they were the only ones who could tell the posts what had happened to the safe house.
Once under the shelter of the stone entranceway, I hurriedly removed the silver box from the bag then set it on the dirty cement. Beads of water gathered on the top of the metal and I tried in vain to wipe them away with my wet shirtsleeve.
Rebecca arrived, huffing. Unaccustomed to moving that fast with crutches, she bumped into the wall, but held on before falling.
“Do you know how to use that thing?”
“Yes.” In theory. I wished one of the others were here; even though Chase had walked me through the steps I’d never actually used a CB radio before.
“Then answer! Hurry! You’re going to miss it!”
“Keep a lookout,” I told her.
I unhooked the black handheld microphone, untangling the coiled cord from around the handle. The light stopped flashing.
“No.” I made sure the knob was dialed to the frequency we’d agreed to use and pressed the button labeled Receive Transmission, praying I wasn’t too late.
“Hello?” I tried. “Are you there? Hello?”
“What happened?” Rebecca asked.
“Come on.” I pressed the button to accept the call again. Again. “Please be there.”
“Take your time, why don’t you,” came the muffled voice of my mother’s killer.
I sat back on the damp pavement, exhaling in one hard breath. A deep scowl had etched into Rebecca’s face.
“Well it took you long enough to call.” My throat tightened, as it always did when I spoke to Tucker Morris. “Everything going all right?”
“Yeah.” He hesitated. “So far so good. Sorry I couldn’t call earlier. Had some trouble getting a connection.”
There was heaviness in his tone, telling me that something bad had happened. We couldn’t discuss it over the open radio. Even though this was an old frequency the MM didn’t use anymore, it wasn’t secure. They could always be listening.
“So how is it out there?” I doubted much had changed in the few days we’d been away from the cities, but if anything big had happened, we wouldn’t have known. Our CB radio wasn’t strong enough to eavesdrop on any FBR frequencies, and there wasn’t a news station reporting close enough to pick up a signal. It was easy to feel disconnected out here in the Red Zone.
“Oh, you know,” he said. “No one wants to starve in peace and quiet. They’ve all got to moan and groan about it.”
“Then maybe they should come with you,” I said. Join the resistance. Stop complaining and do something.
“Ha,” he said dryly. “Then what would they have to whine about?”
The truth was few people fought the MM because they were scared. It took something big—something like reform school, and losing your mother—to push through the fear to anger. That was when you could fight back.
“We went through this place yesterday, though that was different,” Tucker continued. “They had a sign at the front of the street that said, get this, it was a ‘compliant neighborhood.’ It was like they were proud of it or something. The place looked good—what we saw of it anyway. Nice-looking houses. We even saw a bunch of little kids in school uniforms.”
A compliant neighborhood? I wanted to gag. I wondered if they were bigots or just liars. How could a community embrace the Statutes? It baffled me, got under my skin. If everyone knew the MM was executing people for violations to their precious moral rules, they wouldn’t be so quick to boast their pride. Unless they were scared of course.
I changed the subject. “How are the others? Tired of driving?” The carriers used aliases, but I wouldn’t risk saying even those aloud.
“Fine. They’re just… visiting with old friends. We should get to Grandma’s house tomorrow. We already crossed over the river.” He snorted. “Now we just have to get through the woods.”
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.
I smirked at his chosen code name for the first post and sagged against the wall. They’d made it over the Red Zone border. At least that much was going right. Rebecca, who’d turned to watch the street, glanced back over her shoulder.
“My mom used to sing that song,” I said. She’d loved the holidays. For a moment, I could smell the pungent pine air fresheners she would spray around Christmastime to make the house smell “festive.”
I didn’t know what I was thinking, bringing her up now. If not for him, she’d still be here.
“Mine too,” he said.
I wrapped the coiled cord absently around my finger, picturing a woman singing to a young boy. It was tough to imagine that someone had loved Tucker like my mother had loved me. I wondered if she was alive. If she was proud of him. If she could forgive everything he’d done because he was her son. I stared at the radio, wishing I’d missed the call after all, but somehow unable to end it at the same time.
“What about you?” he asked. “Find what you were looking for?”
The concern in his tone took me by surprise.
“Not yet,” I said, stifling the sudden urge to tell him I was beginning to think we were wasting our time. “We’re going to keep looking.”
He was quiet for a while.
“I’ll call back tonight around curfew. We should be at Grandma’s by then.”
Curfew was at dusk. He was farther west than us, but it should have been around the same time.
“We’ll be here.” I clicked the button one more time. “Be careful.”
The light switched from green to red.
By the time we caught up with the others, they’d cleared the main drag of the next small town and had begun their initial search of the area. We entered the street behind a two-pump gas station that had been closed in the War, and took shelter from the rain in a small diner that had been stripped clean and now served as a home to a family of raccoons. The radio felt like it weighed a hundred pounds over my shoulder. I was ready to pass it on.
The seating area had been almost completely cleared out, and what was left showed evidence of riots. Only charred skeletons remained of the booths along the walls, and the vinyl floor was blackened and heaped with shattered glass and firewood. It had been a long time since I’d been to a restaurant—during the War, before my mom had lost her job. I couldn’t remember what kind of food we’d eaten, but whatever it was they’d brought too much, and we’d sent back half. Such a waste.
My eyes landed on three faded hash marks, scratched into the wooden counter, and immediately I thought of Three, the mysterious head of the resistance that oversaw the smaller branches, the group that was supposed to help us organize against the MM. Sean had told us about it at the Wayland Inn in Knoxville. Rumor was Three was supposed to operate out of the safe house. If they had, they were gone like the rest of it, along with any hope for change.
I stared at the marks again, wondering when they’d been made. Wondering if they were just scratches or something more.
The flimsy kitchen door hung by one clasp, and when I pushed inside, a twisted jungle gym of overturned tables and rusted wires was revealed. A line of cabinets were anchored on the wall. The doors were all open, the insides gutted what looked to be a long time ago. If there had been any survivors from the safe house, they wouldn’t have gotten any help here.
“Why don’t you rest,” I told Rebecca, sitting now on a round seat fastened in front of the bar. “I’ll come back and get you before we move on.”
“I’m fine,” she said in the same petulant tone Billy had used with me earlier that morning. Then, with a pointed look, she rose and backed through the exit.
I resolved to stop trying to be helpful.
The rain had begun slashing sideways, bending the tall palm trees that were already weighted by dead, untrimmed fronds. I stomped my feet; slowing down had spiked a chill straight to my bones. There was something haunting about this place. The salt in the air and the white sand on the asphalt. The heady combination of mold and wild, tropical plants. It was nothing like home.
We kept to the side of the main street, searching for some sign of the others, but they must have gone farther than I’d anticipated. Chase had to be somewhere close; he never would have disappeared without me. Had I been alone, I would have hurried—the wind was less forgiving as the clustered shops gave way to widely spaced homes—but Rebecca was confined to a shuffle.
Down the road something moved, its true shape indistinguishable through the rain. At first I thought it was one of our companions, hunched over a trash can or a discarded piece of furniture, but as we neared the dark shape broke apart into pieces and started creeping in our direction.
“What is that?” Rebecca had lifted her hand to block the rain.
Animals. I didn’t know what kind. I squinted only long enough to see they’d picked up their pace before the instinct to bolt raged through me.
“Let’s go.” I tried to sound calm, but my voice pitched with urgency.
Rebecca couldn’t run, so I ducked under her arm, half carrying, half dragging her toward the nearest shelter: a small, onestory home tucked back on a long strip of property. Her body tensed, making it harder to hold on to, and when we hit the gravel drive, I slipped and we tumbled to the ground. The radio, still in the bag, swung off my shoulder and out of my grasp. Rebecca shrieked; her crutches detached from her arms, flung into the brick siding of a one-car garage with a clang. From behind me came a growl, then the gnash of teeth. Desperation pierced through the buzzing in my brain. We weren’t going to make it to the door.
A cross between a scream and a sob burst from her throat as she suddenly jerked backward. She clawed into the gravel, arms working frantically to propel her body forward.
“Rebecca!” I swiped her hand but she was yanked out of reach again.
Blood pumping, I scrambled up and lunged for the crutches. My fingers found an edge of metal and I spun around, brandishing it before me like a blade. Beyond its protection were our attackers—dogs, domestic once, but now feral, bone-thin, and pockmarked with scabs. Their leader, a split-eared German shepherd, stalked us in a low crouch, fangs bared and snarling. Another had sunk his teeth in Rebecca’s pant leg and was shaking his head from side to side as if trying to tear the limb free. The fabric ripped, and she heaved herself under me.
Without another thought, I hauled back and swung the crutch as hard as I could. It connected with a crack to the side of the leader’s head, eliciting a pained yelp and then a moan so pathetic it made my jaw ache. The growls from the others ceased, and in those seconds something wound in the back of my shirt and yanked me away.
Chase’s chest pressed against my back, and over my shoulder his arm stretched out, pointing a gun in the direction of the dogs. His other arm wound around my waist and before I could find my balance he was dragging me up the porch steps. Sean was already there with Rebecca, and when I glanced back into the driveway, I saw the other crutch half submerged in a muddy puddle of water. The dogs were gone, as if they’d never been there in the first place.
I shook myself from Chase’s hold and fell to my knees beside Rebecca. The house shielded us from the wind, the awning from the sky, and as the tremors faded I realized I had become a sponge, unable to hold any more water. It dripped off me from the tips of my hair to my matted lashes, from my elbows and my fingertips and the jeans that now stuck to my legs.
Chase surveyed me carefully, but his eyes widened as they lowered, and he purposefully looked away. Quickly, I pulled the shirt away from my skin, realizing it was now painted on, the outline of my bra as clear as a print on the fabric.
“The radio,” I said with a wince. “I dropped it.” I hoped it wasn’t broken. Chase nodded and went to find it before I could make my trembling legs move down the steps.
“Did it bite you?” Sean was feeling his way down Rebecca’s leg, but she slapped his hand away as he neared the ankle. The denim that had been torn away revealed the heavy plastic supports she wore beneath her pants.
“It didn’t break the skin,” she said. Her face was pale as death, her eyes still roaming over the yard searching for the pack of dogs.
Chase bent to retrieve the crutch, which now bowed like a tree in the wind. Guilt swamped through me. Walking was hard enough for my roommate when both of her crutches were in working order.
He glanced warily at Sean, who looked at the bowed metal like it had just crushed his hopes and dreams. But instead of being upset, Rebecca clasped her hands over her mouth, and began to giggle hysterically.
I tried to keep my face even, but after a moment the same crazy laughter bubbled up inside of me, too.
“Sorry,” I managed. I tried to hold my breath. I didn’t know what was so funny.
After a shared look of confusion with Sean, Chase went to bring back the radio and other crutch.
“If you wanted a puppy, you should have just told me,” muttered Sean as he started reshaping the one I’d bent.
Chase’s brow was furrowed as he returned to the porch. He handed Rebecca the metal brace and removed the radio from the bag. The metal box now had a dent in the top, but the red light was still flashing, and the cord for the microphone was still connected. I sighed, relieved.
“It was my fault, going so far ahead. We’ll stick together from now on,” Chase said, tucking the radio back inside the bag.
I forced my mouth to straighten. “I had it covered.”
“Yes,” he said with a reluctant smirk. “You did.”
Rebecca cleared her throat. “We were so far behind because the other team called.”
Chase looked to me, brows raised. While I told them what
Tucker and I had discussed, he watched me closely, seeming to read my reactions more than listen to my words. I didn’t tell him I’d brought up my mom; I didn’t have to. He knew the conflict I faced every time I spoke to Tucker.
“Well, that sounds awkward,” said Sean.
“Thanks,” I said. He gave a short chuckle and threw his arm around my shoulder, just for a second until he caught Rebecca’s hurt expression and quickly stepped away. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen him touch her so easily and couldn’t.
When my pulse had finally slowed, and Rebecca was back on her feet—if somewhat crookedly—I followed the others inside. It seemed strange that they didn’t have to break the lock. It was the first house we’d come across where the door was already open.
Even in the rain the stench that burst from within was unbearable. I hiked up the collar of my shirt around my nose, fighting the urge to throw up, and tried not to think about the oil spill on the beach.
The front living room was completely preserved in its original state, evoking such a strong pang of nostalgia my chest clenched. The couch may have been covered by a thin skin of dust, but the pillows were still at perfect angles, and on the coffee table in front of it were three pre-War magazines, the pages warped and faded, but still readable.
I could imagine a steaming mug of Horizons hot chocolate on the table.
A wax candle, flame flickering.
My mother, toes curled under the back cushion.
I was vaguely aware of Chase, rifling through the kitchen, and the sound of drawers opening and closing.
I picked up one of the magazines and flipped through the pages, looking at the pictures of happy women, sexy women, clad in swimsuits and revealing clothes the FBR would later ban as immoral. There were articles on the pages; I didn’t read them, just scanned the print. It had been so long since I’d read something not sanctioned by the MM.
“Where’d you get that?”
My mother grinned, her eyes bright with mischief. She flipped through the pages of the worn magazine as though she was really interested, not just trying to get a rise out of me.
“Might have picked it up from one of the ladies at the soup kitchen.” She pursed her lips.
“Might have,” I repeated with a frown. “You know we’ve got an inspection coming up.” The MM hadn’t been through in almost a month. We were running on borrowed time. Every day this week I’d checked the house before and after school to make sure nothing contraband was lying around.
“Oh, live a little,” she said, rolling up the magazine and smacking me on the arm. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff they used to write in these things.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
“What kind of stuff?” I asked.
Her smile was triumphant. “Oh, you know. Just your run-of-the-mill treason.”
Makeup tips. Gossip about movie stars. And sometimes mixed in, political stories about the rise of the Federal Bureau of Reformation. Concerns about President Scarboro’s moral platform, and what that meant for women’s rights and religious freedom. The writers snuck those stories in between glamorous photo shoots and new fashions. They never advertised them on the front covers. They must have known the danger of what they were writing, even then.
“What are you looking at?” Rebecca asked.
I fought the sudden urge to keep it for myself and take it with me. The memories were too sharp: going home after the arrest, learning that all my things had been taken by the MM. My best friend Beth had managed to snag only a few items— one of my mother’s magazines that we’d later lost in the tunnels in Chicago among them. It seemed wrong to take this now, when it could mean so much to someone who might one day come back.
Still, it hurt to hand it over to Rebecca.
I winced at the tracks my boots left over the carpet and wandered down the hallway toward the back rooms, bypassing the kitchen.
The bedroom door squeaked as I pushed it open. Just inside was an antique wooden dresser, covered with a doily and a small silver comb. I cringed at my reflection in the round mirror atop it—my cropped hair flat and fading back from black to brown, my skin too pink from the sun.
And then, beside me in that reflection, I saw the two bodies lying on the bed, and screamed.
Three © Kristen Simmons, 2014