Authors: C. C. Marks
Tags: #Young Adult, #Dystopian, #Paranormal, #Romance, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Apocalypse
Charlie hides her true identity, but her very presence places everyone around her in danger. With no other choice but to remain where she is, she stays with a community that might not be as benevolent as it appears. In this new and dangerous version of the world, where a friend might be an enemy and an enemy might be a friend, seventeen-year-old Charlie protects her baby sister and herself from grotesque monsters outside the community as well as human ones inside. Will the truth she discovers about her protectors save her or ultimately doom her to a fate worse than death?
Edge of Mercy
C. C. Marks
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Edge of Mercy
COPYRIGHT© 2012 by C. C. Marks
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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Published in the United States of America by C. C. Marks
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Edge of Mercy
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For my husband whose endless optimism and drive pushes me to achieve more than I ever dreamed possible. I love you always.
So many people generously devoted their time and energy to helping me make this possible. A big thanks to my mother, whose devotion to her children never ceases to amaze me. Thank you to my sister Becky and my daughter Cammie for being my sounding boards and for not getting too frustrated with my gentle (and not so gentle) urgings to
please read this.
Thank you to Granny for just-jelly sandwiches and back rubs, which meant way more than a delay in bedtime. And thank you, Dad, for being a great father. It’s made all the difference.
My life wasn’t a freaking animated fairy tale like the ones in movies or on television long ago. I knew that very well,
thank you very much
. Movies and television were gone now. No more radio, no more Internet, no more tests of the emergency broadcast system. All gone, and we were back to basics, back to primal earth in a never-ending game of predator versus prey, and we were no longer the predators. Trust me, it was no fun being the prey.
In the community, I’d had bad days. I’d had days where I questioned if I really had an advantage inside the protected walls. But tonight took it to an extreme level. Night in the compound terrified me, what with undeniable death constantly clawing to get inside. Yet, this night eclipsed them all.
I covered my ears, gritted my teeth, a bubbled scream trapped in my chest. A tight hold on my emotions kept my fear from popping free in a loud, long wail. But just barely.
Others around me didn’t possess my level of control, especially Zeke, who sat beside me. His breaths came labored and loud to my ears. Part of me itched to reach a hand out, to reassure him that this night would pass like the ones before with all still safe inside, the sun rising on a new day. But I didn’t currently do girly, and I was no longer Charlotte Baker. Here, I was Charlie Little, the boy the community took in, along with a baby sister and a dying mother, a little over eight months ago. If they ever thought differently, I wouldn’t last the night.
Screeches and clangs bombarded the combination wood and chain link metal fence surrounding the brick structure. We cowered in windowless cells inside. My hands firmly planted over the sides of my head, I couldn’t make myself pull them free. Sure, our security protected us well. The fence was electric and the building reinforced from the inside, but tonight, something was different. The creatures never attacked with this much intensity, and a wish to crawl into the deepest, darkest hole and hide there until it all ended crept over me.
It would end. It always ended.
Zeke’s muffled voice penetrated my flimsy hand armor, and I shifted my gaze to meet his. His dark-brown eyes were wide and expectant.
I hadn’t heard a question, wasn’t sure I could focus on anything he wanted to know now. My response—a shake of my head.
He pulled one of my hands free from my ear and asked, “It’s worse than before, right?”
Before what? Before tonight? Before I stumbled through the community gate? Before the world turned to blood, survival, and hiding at night, always hiding at night?
“I don’t know, Zeke. Is it?” The panic in my voice was buried by the jarring crashes outside.
“Yeah. It’s worse. Something’s changed.”
I looked at my lap. The truth would show in my eyes, so I didn’t dare look at Zeke. “They’re becoming more aggressive.”
Like last winter.
Last winter, I came face-to-face with a Draghoul. Then I fought through a horde of them to get here. My fear wasn’t from ignorance. I’d seen them up close, and they were beyond frightening. Their exteriors weren’t that much different from when they were once human. And they were once human, as unbelievable as it was. But the transformation into a monster was permanent and dreadful. The pale sallow skin, the glazed, souless eyes, the malicious teeth were a vision I would never forget. The fact they used to be people we knew, some we loved, made the sight of them all the more devastating.
He continued, “But why? They’ve always lurked just outside. They’ve never tried to get inside before. It’s like…they’d claw through the metal and concrete to get inside, I mean, more than ever before.”
An explosive bang vibrated the walls and I jumped. God, I hated the night. It was too real, a reminder that humans no longer ruled the planet, a reminder that we were no longer the dominant species. My hands shook, and I lowered and squeezed them between my thighs to keep them out of sight.
Zeke’s whispered words carried across the room to his cousin sitting on the opposite wall. “What do you think, Thomas? You’re the smart one. Is it worse?”
I chanced a look in Thomas’s direction and felt more than saw his intense dark-eyed gaze burn into me. So often, he just stared, and questions lingered behind his intelligent eyes. Sometimes I wondered if he knew or at least suspected the truth. Life could always get worse for Star and me if he worked out my real identity. We wouldn’t survive in the forest again, and we had nowhere else to go.
His gaze turned to Zeke’s. “No doubt, it’s worse. It was only this bad once before, last year, in September and October.”
Zeke pressed, “What’s bringing them so close?”
“I don’t know, but the Council will figure it out and fix it.”
“You’re right. The Council will fix it.”
My mouth tightened to a thin line as they mentioned the Council. A bunch of old men who liked to argue. That described the Council. The only thing they fixed was a schedule that included an afternoon nap while the rest of the community worked in the fields. They fixed it so their meals included what little canned meat was left and were delivered to them in the most protected room inside the lowest levels of the compound while the rest of us hunkered side-by-side in small beds, stacked one-two-three, right on top of each other in several above-ground cells. True, all the rooms had metal bars on the interior of the windows and boards tacked over the exterior. But in reality, if any were breached, the Council would remain protected in their inner sanctuary far below the rest of us. I was thankful for one thing though. Star, my almost seven-month-old sister, also stayed in the inner sanctuary and would be secure through any attack.
The silence was broken again by several thumps over my head. Had one of the monsters breached the fence? Were they in the building? With knees raised to my chest, I sunk into myself, lifting my hands to my ears again. Fear pooled in my abdomen, but I couldn’t give in. When I was younger, my mother held me tightly when I was afraid, but my father pushed me to face those same fears. Now I was alone and understood my father’s lessons. Except for Star, I was completely alone.
A picture of my father materialized in my head, and my mind drifted to happier times. He never smiled toward the end, but early on, his laughter boomed deep in his round belly, and his face split under his dark beard into wide, wide grins. He hugged me close and told me of places he’d been, and I vaguely remembered visiting some of them. Three years ago when I was fourteen, before we climbed into our fortified ground bunker, we’d visited family in a few places close by. Of course, we hadn’t traveled anywhere like the places he described.
He painted pictures of cities so large that buildings stretched into the sky and became necessary in order to house all the people. Just the sound of a building that huge amazed me. Sometimes, I wished the opportunity to see a city like that still existed, but traveling outside a safe structure at night bordered on insane.
My father spoke on and on about cars too. If you wanted to go anywhere, you drove a car, and my dad loved his truck.
A GMC Sierra.
“A man’s vehicle,” he’d say, whatever that meant. I’d give just about anything for a car right now. Cars traveled along hardened pavement that still existed, but I knew from personal experience cars could drive off a road, too. They required a strong-smelling liquid to power them. Lost power without it. It hadn’t been that long ago we stopped at stations to fill up with the strong chemical smell. I remembered my dad calling it gas or fuel, like what we used now to burn our lanterns. It was weird to me at times what stuck in my memory and what didn’t.
My dad told me, if the infection had never happened, when I turned sixteen, he would’ve taught me to drive a car for myself, but I was a year past that momentous birthday and none of that mattered now. It was all just memory—his and mine.
As the chaos continued around me, I imagined climbing into an impossibly big
and floating away high above the danger on the ground. My father never said the cars flew, but I remembered the droning sound of airplanes behind clouds, at such high elevations, even though I’d never actually flown in one. In my mind, I combined the known with the unknown and escaped, away from the community and away from the Draghoul forever. If only it were that simple.
As far as I knew, the whole world struggled to survive just like we did, but there were rumors…well…one rumor, by someone who’d been there and come back…a rumor of a city that was safe. The city stood free of the Draghoul plague and offered its citizens food and shelter and a place where going out at night wasn’t a death sentence. Even the name of the city filled me with longing—
Just one problem. The distance from the community was impossible to reach in a day. Last year’s Chosen had shouted that fact during his mostly incoherent rants. He’d returned, but not with a whole mind. In a lucid moment though, he’d explained, in order to make it to Mercy, at dawn a fast runner would have to sprint at full speed the entire day and would still barely make it to the city’s gates before sundown. It was unmanageable for the most athletic members of the community. With Star, my chances were nil. For me, a more suckish thought never existed. Essentially, I was stuck between the danger of probable death in the community and almost certain death on the way to Mercy. Not a good place to be.
Even with the cacophony of noise, I drifted to sleep eventually, with my head resting on Zeke’s shoulder. When I woke, silence filled the air, and I was curled up on the ground with only a few men lying similarly around me. The beds were occupied by some of the older men and family members of the council. Pushing myself upright, I stretched my tense muscles and glanced around. A few feet down the corridor, Thomas stood, legs braced apart, light behind him, casting him in silhouette. I knew it was him by the intense gaze I felt more than saw. How long had he been watching me?