Authors: Joshua Guess
An important note for the reader:
This eBook is the first part of a serialized novel. It is not itself a complete book, though I did my absolute best to make it a complete story. I’m putting this warning here because this is my first attempt at releasing a serialized novel in this way, and inevitably someone will purchase it thinking it’s full-length and get upset when they see it isn’t. I’m not casting blame, as I have done that exact thing myself more than once. Just wanted to give everyone who picks up
Also by Joshua Guess
Living With the Dead
With Spring Comes The Fall
The Bitter Seasons
Year One (With Spring Comes The Fall, The Bitter Seasons, bonus material)
The Hungry Land
The Wild Country
This New Disease
Dead Will Rise
War of the Living
The Next Chronicle
Apocalyptica (Serialized into multiple parts)
Beautiful (An Urban Fantasy)(Novel)
Soldier Lost (Short Story)
Dog Dreams In Color (Short Story)
With James Cook
The Passenger (Surviving The Dead)
Everyone let me sleep in. I gave even odds to this being because Jem and his friends were good people, or that no one wanted to wake up the crazy chick with a bunker full of weapons. I was fine either way.
Breakfast—well, late lunch—was composed of a mountain of food that would be first to spoil when the power went out. That the electricity was still on was lucky, as our chunk of the state got its juice from a nuclear plant. I imagined a good number of people probably hunkered down in that plant, which might mean flowing power for a while yet.
I stumbled into the kitchen by following the scent of eggs and bacon like a cartoon character. I was so hungry it would have surprised me not at all to discover I was actually floating through the air. Jem stood at the stove wearing an apron—I owned an apron, apparently—flipping pancakes. Carla and Tony sat at my tiny kitchen table eating.
I flopped into a chair and began to eat voraciously, piling everything I could reach and attacking it with a vengeance. I slurped orange juice noisily, and at first I thought that was why Tony was looking at me in furtive, scattered glances.
“Sorry,” I said. “Starving.”
It was a testament to Tony’s blush that it showed up so well on his dark skin. “Ah, no. I mean, your house. Eat how you want. And you saved my life and all, so I’m not judging. It’s just, uh…”
Carla snorted. “He means you’re not wearing a shirt and he’s too immature to say something.”
I paused, then looked down. Huh.
I mean, I wasn’t naked or anything. Jem helped me out of my gear before tucking me in, gentleman that he was. I was wearing a sports bra, and a wide one at that, which highlighted bruising all along my right side with the coloration and style of really good or really bad modern art.
“Fair enough,” I said, and continued stuffing my face.
Carla reached over and put a hand on my forearm. “Thanks for taking us in, by the way. Jem mentioned after we came back here yesterday that he thought you might be uncomfortable having other people in your home.”
I raised an eyebrow at Jem, who was settling in at the table with a stack of pancakes. He shrugged. “You’re antisocial. Nothing wrong with it. Just wanted them to know this wasn’t your comfort zone.”
“We don’t have to stay long,” Tony said. “There are other places we can hole up. I’ve worked on a lot of construction projects around here.”
“Nope,” I said, putting down my fork. “My discomfort doesn’t outweigh your safety. I’ve got a fucking bunker under this house. I don’t think you’re going to find anywhere safer than that. After what happened to me yesterday, we’re going to need a fortress to retreat to if things go south.”
They’d know by now, of course. I explained the broad strokes to Jem before passing out. It would explain the nervous energy in the room. They tried not to show it, but Carla and Tony seemed to be cautious, as if I were a fragile thing on the edge of breaking.
“You don’t seem bothered,” Jem said, staring at me appraisingly. “Shot at, kidnapped, and escaped. Most people would be shaking right now.”
I sighed and raised my hands. “What do you want? I’ve been through some shit. And yeah, I was scared out of my mind while it was happening, but it’s over now. Isn’t that enough?”
“Of course,” Carla said.
“Sure,” Tony agreed.
Jem just kept staring.
I rolled my eyes. “Ugh. Fine. Any of you news junkies about ten, twelve years ago? Watch a lot of CNN?”
“Not religiously,” Carla said. “But I was in college. I kept up with the news.”
“Okay,” I said, taking a sip of juice. “Do you remember the story about the religious group called the Church of Transcendence?”
Carla nodded. “Yeah, I think so. There was a big FBI bust at their compound, right?”
Tony squinted as if dredging up the details. “They kept children who didn’t behave in a prison under the house there? Right?”
“Yep,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “And one of the kids, a girl who never could wrap her head around the rules, managed to get a message to an outsider. Which was what brought the FBI down on them.”
Jem whistled. “Yeah, I remember that. Big news came a couple years later. She sued the church for their remaining assets…holy shit.”
I smiled thinly. “I always hated my first name. Putting the name Randie on a girl’s birth certificate should constitute child abuse. So back then I went by my middle name, which is Jennifer.”
Carla gaped. “That was you.”
“That was me. Yeah.”
I turned my wrist over, the scar old and faded but still a darker line of brown against my skin. “That’s where I cut my wrist so they’d send me to the hospital. I managed to get a few minutes with the doctor while he was doing my psych evaluation. Turns out they can make the parents leave for a suicide attempt. I told him why I did it, what that hellhole was doing to the kids, everything.”
I stood up and clicked my tongue for Nikola. The big guy stopped being a mound of fur on the couch, unfurling into a dog, and padded over to me. “I’m going for a walk. Nik probably has to go to the bathroom.”
The tears didn’t start until the door closed behind me.
As a general rule, I’m not weepy. I don’t take things personally. I have enough self-confidence to assume that, when things go bad, I’m not somehow the root cause. I took out an abusive cult before I could legally vote. I’m proud of that.
But the hard truth stuck with me through the years, which is why I never talked about it. I knew what I did was right, but that didn’t make it easy. My parents became twisted, evil people, but they had been sweet and loving before. I treasured those memories, both for what they were and for the reminder that even the best of people can warp with enough pressure and time. Under those conditions, some people emerge as diamonds, while others are simply crushed to fit whatever squeezes them.
I like to think of myself as a diamond.
Nik didn’t need to do his business, but he seemed to sense I needed him. We walked around the yard together, his heavy shoulder bumping my leg every time he paused to sniff a patch of grass. He didn’t run off or even move away, but kept close. I repaid him by scratching behind his ears and telling him what a good boy he was.
I wondered if the prison my parents were in had been overrun during the outbreak. The news had been rife with stories of nursing homes, facilities for the mentally ill, group homes for developmentally challenged adults, and even jails being protected by good-hearted people who recognized how terribly the sudden and violent shift in the world would be for those people. Part of me hoped someone recognized the basic humanity of the prisoners where my parents were housed, and let them out.
Another, much more cynical part of me suspected that my parents hadn’t changed. My mom especially. And that maybe literally rotting in a cell after years of figuratively doing so would be a net benefit for the world. At least death would keep them from hurting any more children.
Family holds the greatest potential for being fucked up of any ties that bind in the world. The cognitive dissonance of loving and utterly despising my parents at the same time is proof of it.
Jem was both right and wrong. Emotional trauma and harsh experience do have a way of hardening you, preparing you for the unexpected, but mostly in coping with the fallout. No amount of bad shit can stop you from feeling terrified or frightened when you’re in the middle of it. Hell, I had years of fight training under my belt so I could protect myself from ever being helpless again, and I still wanted to puke my heart out in that basement.
It’s like weather and climate. Dealing with the things I’d lived through made it much harder to harm my overall well-being, but damned if I still didn’t feel the storms while they beat down on me.
I walked Nikola back inside after a long few minutes and found everyone sitting in the living room. Jem looked guilty, and I let him. He hadn’t pushed all that much, but I felt zero compulsion to sooth him. If I had to live with my problems, he had to live with his.
“What’s the plan?” Carla said as I closed the door behind me. “Can we risk going back out there with those things running around?”
I felt my eyebrows scrunch together. “Did we hold a vote making me leader?” I put a hand to my chest dramatically. “After all these years, am I finally team captain? Oh, please say it’s true!”
Tony snickered, and it was Carla’s turn to blush.
“Well, it’s your house,” Carla said, soldiering through her embarrassment. “If we’re going to make any runs, we’d have to use your stuff. I didn’t want to make any assumptions.”
have a basement full of weapons,” Tony pointed out. “Best not to piss off people with guns.”
I frowned. “Which reminds me, those assholes still have the ones I had on me yesterday. And my gloves. I’m gonna want those back.”
I didn’t put any particular emphasis on the words, but they hung in the air anyway. After a few seconds I realized how angry I sounded. How much it came across as a threat.
Jem cleared his throat. “If we’re going to stay here long-term, we need to start thinking that way. We’ll need supplies, maybe set up some barriers or something. This place could use some reinforcement, too.”
Carla nodded with mild enthusiasm. “I say we let Ran decide what the priorities are. Tony is in construction, so he’ll know what we need and where to get it.” She glanced at Tony as if looking for agreement, and he nodded. Carla flushed. “I don’t know what I can do. I’m a lawyer.”
Jem scoffed. “Which means you’re used to managing complicated situations. I’ve seen you juggle half a dozen cases without blinking. You’re right. We let Ran decide what we’re going to do, since it’s her place and also because she’s obviously competent, and we let you deal with the details.”
“What about you?” I asked Jem. “Since we’re handing out jobs and all.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I was a great cop, but you don’t need a detective. You know your business when it comes to security.”
I smiled. “You’re wrong. We do need a detective. There have to be people around town who managed to hide or get away. You and I are going to look for them.”
“After what happened yesterday?” Tony said, shocked. “Are you seriously planning to go back out there?”
“Have to,” I said. “We’ll need supplies, and if we’re planning to plant our flag here, we’ll need constant runs to gather them. I mean, we’ll have to farm, right? Set up some kind of water capture system? Not to mention building supplies, sleeping bags at the least, unless everyone is just going to pile on my couch. If we’re going to do the long-term thing, we can’t just sit on our asses.”
Jem returned my smile. “And while we’re doing it, we keep an eye out for survivors.”
keep an eye out for them,” I clarified. “You’re trained to catch details. I’m more of a ‘shoot the problem and sort it out later’ kind of girl. We have a better idea what’s out there, now. If we’re careful, I think we can make a go of it.”
I sounded pretty confident, even to myself. I should have been an actress. The Oscar would definitely have ended up on my mantle.