A scream broke through my dream. I groggily rolled over and burrowed into Sawyer’s chest. He mumbled something against the top of my head. Sleep lapped at my mind, holding me down. I dreamed of pleasant emptiness; I was in a void, where my brain could shut down. Warmth surrounded me, lulling me into a deeper slumber.
Another scream, louder. I opened my eyes, staring at Sawyer’s chest. Why was there screaming? Something was wrong. Something was horribly wrong.
“Jesse!” Chloe banged on the bifold bedroom door. “Get out here!”
Jesse jolted out of bed. He grabbed his pants and hastily pulled them on. As he jammed his feet into his boots, he ordered, “Get dressed.”
“What’s going on?” Sawyer asked. He climbed over the bed and found his own clothes.
I knuckled the sleep from my eyes and hurriedly dressed. Jesse was out the door by the time I pulled my shirt on. I followed him into the main compartment, Sawyer behind me. Rio sat on the couch next to Jaden, who was curled up with his blanket. On the table was a camping lamp, which filled the RV with yellow light.
“What’s going on?” I asked, straightening my shirt.
“Something is going down with Jane,” Rio said. “I heard it out in the truck.”
Nash pulled Chloe into his arms and drew her away from the window. Jesse walked over to the dinette table and looked outside, then let out a string of curses. I nudged him over and looked out myself.
“Sweet Jesus,” I whispered. The blood chilled in my veins, turning into ice fractals that splintered through my mind. I gripped the table as I watched the genocide going on outside.
People were being dragged from their tents and herded together like sheep for slaughter. It was hard to see how many people had been gathered. Clouds shrouded the moon, and the fires had smoldered out, leaving the camp a battlefield of shadows.
“And you will burn in a lake of fire, unless you repent and purge the sinners from your life. We must show God that we are believers and his servants. It’s the only way to find the path to salvation.”
“That crazy bitch!” I pushed away from the table. “Penance to save their wretched souls.
They call that
the answer to salvation?”
The screams got louder. They pierced every part of my soul like rusted knives that slipped between the bones and twisted. My throat closed up. Sawyer grabbed my arm, and I realized I had begun to sway.
“What do we do?” Sawyer asked.
That was the million-dollar question. What did we do? Did we rush in to save the innocent? Or did we run and save ourselves?
Gunshots went off, and a woman wailed. I shut my eyes. Sawyer slid his hand down my arm and tangled his fingers with mine. I looked at him. His green eyes seemed to glow in the dim light.
“Going out there is suicide. With the amount of noise Jane is making, Infected won’t be far off,” Rio said.
She was right. The Infected would be drawn in by the screams and gunfire. The nightmare had only begun, and now was our chance to escape. But could we turn our backs on this kind of holocaust? Didn’t that make us as bad as Jane? We could try to save some of the victims. We had the weapons; we had the men.
“Rio is right,” Jesse said. “The risk is too high.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. Jesse turned to me, and I could see it in his eyes; he had switched on the part of him that could shut out the world. The monster that slumbered inside him had woken and risen to the fight at hand. Jesse would walk away without any hesitation.
“There’s nothing we can do?” I asked.
“Not without risking one of us,” Jesse said. This was our life now. “Rio, can you make it to the truck?”
“Yeah,” she said and stood.
The motor home door banged. I instinctively pulled Sawyer behind me. Jesse turned to the door, and a shadow passed over his face. He held out a hand, and Rio handed him the pistol she’d grabbed from the stock we kept in the RV. Jesse checked the cartridge, then clicked the safety off and leveled the gun at the door. He edged forward, not opening the door yet.
Rio handed pistols to both me and Nash, then selected a shotgun for herself. Chloe moved behind me with Jaden, and they hunkered down with Sawyer. The door banged again.
“Open up!” Jane shouted.
Jesse nodded to us. My heart pounded. Sweat slicked my palms. I clicked the safety off and rested my finger against the trigger. A tremble ran down my arm. I sucked in a breath, steadying my grip. Jesse opened the door and stepped back. Jane stood on the other side, two armed men with her. One carried a hunting rifle, but the other had an AK-47 at his hip. The man with the AK-47 was named Stu. We had met him the first night we arrived; he had brought us medical supplies to bandage our wounds. Now he was here to play our executioner.
The screams got louder. Gunfire exploded, deafening the cries for help. The night amplified each plea, and all I could do was grit my teeth.
“I suggest you back up now, and let us go on our way,” Jesse warned. “No one has to get hurt.”
“You can’t run from the Lord,” Jane said.
A breeze swept her hair around her face. She held a Bible in one hand and a pistol in the other. I doubted that was what God wanted in one of his disciples.
“The time to purge has come.”
“Fuck your purge,” Rio said and leveled her gun at Jane’s head.
“I’m not warning you again,” Jesse said.
Jane looked at them as if they didn’t have two guns aimed at her. There wasn’t an ounce of sanity left in her eyes. She smirked and bowed her head, taking a step back. “I knew the moment I saw you that you were sinners. I prayed for you. Hoped you would see the error of your ways. But you renounce the Lord. You defile his name with your perverted ways.”
Her head snapped up, and she looked past me. “Now I’ll wash this world of your filth and show the Lord who is truly devout.”
“You’re a lunatic,” Nash snapped.
Stu raised his AK-47. Even with four guns pointed at them, we had nothing compared to the automatic. The bullets would tear through us before Jesse could fire off his first round.
“Lower your weapons,” Jane ordered.
I lowered mine. Nash followed. Rio’s grip trembled, her finger twitching against the trigger. She kept her shotgun pointed at Jane’s head.
“Lower them!” Jane shouted.
Rio aimed her shotgun at the floor, cursing. Jesse didn’t let up. He glared at Jane, death looming over his face. Jane raised her pistol, aiming at me.
“Lower your gun, or I’ll shoot him,” Jane warned.
A tremor ran through Jesse’s hand for a split second before he set his gun down. Jane continued to point the gun at me, a standing threat in case Jesse tried anything.
I drew in a shaky breath and looked up at her. My world narrowed to the single point in front of me, a small black hole that seemed infinitely large and narrow all at once.
“Do you think this is what your God wants?” I asked. “For you to massacre his children?”
“You are not his children. You are the harbingers of hell, the reason we’re forsaken to this world.” Jane spat each word venomously. The camping lamp cast a sickly light over her face; her pupils were wide and seemed to swallow up her pale irises.
“You can kill everyone here,” I said, fighting to keep my tone level. A heady mix of raw terror and blinding rage swirled inside me, fighting for dominance. I needed to keep my head cool and focused. “But you will never get into heaven.”
“Out of the motor home, now
.” Jane backed away from the door with her two guards, their guns never lowering.
Jesse drew in a deep breath through his nose and slowly let it out. He stomped out of the RV. We followed. Jane pointed to the ground.
“Throw your guns down.”
Rio clutched her shotgun close, and for a second, I didn’t think she’d hand it over. With a frustrated growl, she tossed the gun down. Nash and Jesse mimicked Rio’s action.
“Now what?” I asked. I had to focus on something other than my rising fear. I never knew fear could have a flavor, but it did—it tasted of steel and copper, of bullets and blood. “Herd us over to the others, where you wipe us out all at once?”
“No. I will give you a chance to repent. Renounce your ways, pledge allegiance to the Lord, and I’ll spare you.”
“Don’t you get tired of the taste of crap?” Nash asked.
Moonlight broke through the clouds, briefly casting the world in silver. Jane stared at us, her eyes lost and filled with so much desperation. When I had been kidnapped by the family of cannibals, they had shared the same look: the inability to cope with the downfall of man. They’d wanted so badly to explain the unexplainable that they’d clung on by the smallest of threads.
Starvation means killing.
Salvation means killing.
Living means killing.
There’s no other way around it—not for the cannibals who had killed General Faust, and not for Jane, who massacred her flock.
“Richey, get the boy,” Jane ordered. “He’s innocent.”
Richey went for Jaden. Chloe dragged her brother behind her and flew at Richey. He raised his gun at her, but Chloe ducked and slammed into him at the waist, knocking him to the ground. The gun flew into the darkness. Over her shoulder she screamed, “Run, Jaden!”
“You stupid bitch!” Richey shouted. Chloe was hitting him, throwing everything she had into her punches and slaps. Richey punched her in the face, and Chloe fell limply to the side.
Reality snapped back.
Nash scrambled for the fallen gun. I dived for another. I grabbed the shotgun and fired a shot at Stu, hitting him in the stomach. He dropped the AK-47 with a scream.
Jane’s gun went off. I craned to look. Jesse had her hand raised in the air, twisting her wrist so that she dropped the pistol. He slammed his knee into her gut. She collapsed to her knees with a groan.
I climbed to my feet and grabbed the AK-47 from Stu, keeping my shotgun aimed at his head. He lay on the ground, clutching his stomach. There was a dampness that seeped through his fingers. Stu stared up at me, but it was too dark to read his expression.
“Help over here!” Nash shouted.
I jerked my head up. Nash was on the ground, struggling with Richey. There was a flash of silver mixed in the tussle, and then a succession of gunshots. Nash and Richey froze, and my heart leaped into my throat. Nash shoved Richey, who fell back lifelessly.
“Bastard,” Nash spat. He stood, holding the gun.
A hand locked on my ankle and pulled my foot out from under me. The world tipped sideways; all the stars spilled out of the galaxy. My head slammed into the ground. I dropped the guns. The grass smelled damp and musky. I groaned and dug my fingers into the dirt. When I looked up, Stu had a gun pointed at my head. Blood poured from his mouth. He didn’t have long. A few minutes, maybe only seconds.
I tipped my head back and looked over at Jesse. At some point, the tables had flipped again. More of Jane’s guards had come, corralling Jesse, Sawyer, and Rio over with Chloe, who lay motionless on the ground. Jaden clung to her. His tiny whimpers punctuated the night.
Nash stood off to the side, his newly proffered gun pointed down. He glared mutinously at Jane.
“Enough games,” Jane said viciously.
I inched my fingers toward the AK-47. Stu kicked the gun out of my reach. “Don’t move,” he wheezed and then coughed wetly.
“You’re going to die,” I whispered. “Do you want these to be your last moments of humanity? Killing innocent people?”
“Shut up!” Stu roared. He towered over me, all muscle and rage.
I closed my eyes. A cool breeze stirred through the grass and kissed my face. I opened my eyes and looked back at Jane.
“Abominations must be destroyed,” Jane said, as if it were a mantra. If she said it enough times, would it make everything that happened here okay?
“Do it,” Jesse challenged. “Kill us. It won’t make a difference.”
Jane took a gun from one of the guards and aimed it straight at Jesse.
My eyes widened. I clawed at the grass, trying to compel my body to move. Jane’s arm trembled. Her convictions shook.
“Please,” I croaked. Her head snapped in my direction. “Don’t. This isn’t the answer. This isn’t the way to save the world. You do this, and you destroy all hope of ever stopping the infection.”
“What do you know?” she sneered, her teeth dark with blood.
“I know that if we kill one another, we’re no better than the Infected.” I pushed up on unsteady arms. “Life isn’t over. It’s only evolving—”
Jane scoffed. “Blasphemy.”
“No, reality. The ability to adapt, to expand, it exists inside us. We can overcome this, but we have to stop killing one another first.”
Her gun turned on me.
“You think we can overcome this? This hell on earth?”
“Do you think this is the first time we’ve faced extinction?” I rose to my knees. Icy fingers of fear inched down my spine. My blood pounded between my ears. I had to force myself not to look away. Somewhere, deep inside Jane, was a little girl scared of the monsters. I had to find her and show her that we had hope. “I know how to save us, but if you kill us, then you destroy any chance of stopping this.”
“Liar,” Jane said. “How could you know?”
“Just kill them!” Stu shouted.
“Jane, please,” I whispered.
Beyond her, a crowd huddled together. A few guards had been left to keep watch. Past them was the tree line, which was nothing more than a formless shadow stretched across the horizon. The world continued on, beyond this camp, beyond any other camp that struggled to get by.
From the trees, shapes emerged, black figures that staggered and stumbled toward our camp. They pressed into the perimeter, a deluge of undead that would soon wash over us.
A gunshot cracked open the night with a thundering clap. I caught the glimmer of blood spray before Jane fell forward and face-planted the ground. Bruce stood behind her, a revolver aimed at where she’d stood.
It was like a bomb went off. The three guards who stood by Jane began to fire. I lunged for the shotgun and turned around, shooting Stu before he could get off a round. His head exploded into a congealed mess of blood. I scrambled to my feet.
Three guards lay on the ground with head wounds. The wall collapsed, toppling over as easily as a house of cards, and the Infected flooded in.
Bruce stood over Jane, chest heaving. “I… She… This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. I…”
“We don’t have time—” I was cut off by the foghorn bellow of an Infected.
They were right on us. Their rotting shapes grew solid. I pumped the shotgun and fired off a shot at the barreling Infected, hitting him in the shoulder. The Infected’s body twisted, and he staggered, but he didn’t stop. He came, ravenous and wild.
Bruce craned his head around. He started to scream, but it was knocked out of him as the Infected tackled him. I lunged for Bruce, but someone caught me around the waist.
“Let him go,” Jesse shouted. “Grab the guns, and let’s go!”
“You can’t— He’s—” What? Dead. Bruce’s screams grew wet and gurgled, like so many others we heard all around us. I pushed off Jesse and collected Stu’s weapon.
Everyone grabbed what guns they could. Screams erupted in the distance. The purging was over, and all that was left was another broken camp. Nash carried Chloe into the RV with Jaden following behind. I shoved some guns into the front of the truck. Rio climbed into the driver’s seat of the pickup and started it up.
I glanced toward the Infected. They were running for us, closing in fast. I spared Bruce one final look and then rushed into the RV. Sawyer started her up, and we peeled around the church, barreling through the rest of the flimsy perimeter.
I shoved past Jesse and ran into the bedroom, where I raised the blinds on the single window. I watched as people scrambled to pull themselves together and escape. Now, with death pressing in, it didn’t matter who was a sinner and who was a saint. We were all food.
Time and time again, we watched civilization fall, and it always felt like a bitch slap. I bit back the misery, told myself to move on, but how long would we keep going? I pressed a hand against the window. The Infected came down on the fence, the numbers too great for the plywood and sheet metal to hold. They slammed into the barricade, and like the rest of the world, it fell.
I swore Bruce looked up and watched us as we drove away. Impossible, I knew. He was lost to the infection and to the inevitable fate of mankind. But in the thickness of the night, I saw a faint glimmer. Most likely it was my mind playing tricks on me, but there was a small part of me that saw moonlight reflecting off his eyes.
A hand slid over my shoulder. I turned to Jesse and pressed my face into his shoulder with a shudder.
“I…” What? I hated this? So did he. I didn’t finish the sentence. I wrapped my arms around his neck and savored the feel of him against me.
“We can’t save them all,” he whispered into my ear.
I nodded, because really, that was all I could do.