Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Peter locked eyes with the girl, evaluating her. Her almost orange-brown eyes remained calm and unflinching. “Were you two kissing?” he asked, trying to throw her off balance.
“Dad!” Jakob protested.
Alia just grinned and countered with, “Have you kissed your lady friend out there yet?”
“Can you fire those weapons out there?” Peter asked. He knew this was the strangest parent-to-potential-girlfriend interview, but times and priorities had changed.
“I’ve only fired a gun once. I don’t know what it was, but it was big. And loud. But it got the job done.” Her eyes remained locked on Peter’s, like she was the one interrogating him. “I’m not like my parents. Not like my father.”
Peter read between the lines. It wasn’t Brant who’d shot and killed the ExoGen creature outside. It was Alia. Kids in the new world were having to do horrible things to survive. Granted, even in the old world, kids in developing countries often had to kill to survive, but not so much in the heartland of the United States. Still, she was a survivor, and right now, that was the best anyone could ask for.
Peter smiled, turned and hitched his thumb at her for Jakob to see. “She’s a keeper, son. Don’t screw it up.”
” Jakob said again, horror reducing his vocabulary to a single word.
Peter turned back to Alia, intent on getting as much information about their current situation as he could. Their lives might depend on what the girl knew. “So, Alia...” His voice trailed off. Had he heard something?
“What was that?” Jakob asked, confirming Peter hadn’t imagined the sound.
They fell silent, listening. The dull thud repeated three times.
Alia reacted first, just as Peter identified the sound as Brant’s foot, banging on the floor of the home’s second floor. “That’s Dad!” she said, rushing for the door. “Something’s here!”
Jakob followed close behind Alia, who ran up the stairs to the second floor. His father had headed through the kitchen without a word. They stopped at the metal door at the top of the stairs, surrounded by a collection of framed family photos hanging on horribly ugly patterned wallpaper—ducks and stripes.
“Dad gets...tense when he sees anything,” Alia warned. “Best if you stay quiet, ’kay?”
“No problem,” Jakob said, and he started to rethink the wisdom of following Alia rather than his father.
Alia knocked gently, three raps followed by a pause, then two.
Some kind of secret knock
, Jakob thought. Then with the gentlest of clicks, the door unlocked.
Alia crouched, hand on the door knob. “Stay down, and we won’t be seen.”
Jakob squatted down and waited. The door inched open so slowly that anyone watching wouldn’t see the movement unless their attention was focused on it. With just enough room to slide through, Alia stopped pushing the door and slid in the upstairs hall, which appeared to be blocked by another metal table. She crawled behind the table and waved for Jakob to follow.
What he found on the other side of the door was a maze of tables, dressers, nightstands and other large objects, all positioned in a maze so that someone could navigate the entire upstairs without being seen. Though he knew Brant had unlocked the door, the man was nowhere to be seen. He could apparently navigate the second floor like a mole in a tunnel.
Feeling like a World War I soldier crawling through a trench, Jakob followed Alia past several stations where weapons had been positioned. He wondered if they should stop and grab something, but Alia crawled right on past everything without pausing, so he followed, knowing he’d make a racket trying to move while holding one of the rifles.
They found Brant in what looked like Alia’s bedroom. The walls were pink and hosted more than a few posters of teen heartthrobs, all better looking and more chiseled than Jakob. He felt a pang of jealousy, but it was quickly squelched by the knowledge that all the airbrushed faces smiling down at them were either dead or monsters.
“What is it?” Alia whispered to her father.
He was crouching by the front window, which had been mostly boarded up with planks of wood painted black. He lowered a pair of binoculars and turned to his daughter. He saw Jakob and looked surprised for a moment, then disappointed, then resigned. “I don’t know. Something in the woods.”
“Did you see them?” Alia asked. There was a trace of doubt in her voice, like maybe her father sometimes saw things that weren’t there. Maybe this kind of alarm was a daily occurrence? Shifting winds moving shadows in the woods could be convincing illusions.
Brant’s response was to hand her the binoculars. He moved aside to let her peek through the opening. As she did, Jakob thought about the sun’s position in the sky. They were facing west and it was still morning, so the sun was still behind them. But in an hour or two, they wouldn’t be able to use the binoculars without risking a reflection.
“Yeah,” Alia said, binoculars raised, voice tense, “something’s out there.”
She silently offered the binoculars to Jakob and moved aside. Brant didn’t look happy about it, like Jakob’s presence was disrupting the normal flow of things, but he didn’t say anything. The brightness of the outside world, amplified through the lens, made Jakob squint. When his pupils adjusted to the light, he found himself looking at a blurry close-up of carrot stalks. He moved the binoculars up, watching the view become more distant, and more in focus. He stopped at the treeline, which was at least two miles off.
The only motion he saw was the gentle sway of the branches. Shadows moved in time with the branches, painting the wheat below with streaks of light and dark. Then, in one of the momentary beams of light, he saw something. It was pale, almost luminous in the flickering sunbeam. And then, it was gone.
He focused on the gap between the top of the four-foot-tall wheat stalks and the lowest tree branches, a good six feet of open space. In that emptiness, the shadows resolved, separating into subtly different hues and shapes.
Shapes that he recognized.
“Woolies,” he whispered.
“Excuse me?” Brant said, his voice a little too loud.
Jakob looked back at the man.
Brant’s face was screwed up in something between shock and revulsion. “You have a
“We name everything we come across,” Jakob said. “Well, mostly Anne does, but I—”
“You brought them here,” he said.
“Not on purpose.” Jakob could see the man’s line of reasoning. If the Woolies followed them here, then they were responsible for whatever happened next. Jakob didn’t necessarily disagree, but the look in Brant’s eyes said the man wanted to dole out punishment. The rifle in his hands began to shift toward Jakob.
“We don’t know if they’ve spotted us yet,” Jakob said, making a case for why Brant shouldn’t shoot him without coming right out and saying it. Alia looked oblivious to her father’s intentions, and Jakob wasn’t sure how she’d react. At the same time, Jakob shifted his left hand toward a handgun leaning against the metal table beneath the window. He wasn’t sure if he could shoot lefty, or raise the weapon up in time to defend himself, or even if he could pull the trigger on another human being. But he didn’t want to die.
So he reached.
And never made it.
“They know we’re here,” Peter said, causing everyone to flinch.
Jakob turned around, a pleading look in his eyes, hoping his father would understand the situation.
Peter gave Brant a nod. “We’ll stand with you.” He handed Jakob a Kevlar vest, its pockets loaded with weapon magazines, shotgun shells, a knife, a handgun and other gear, some of which Jakob recognized, some he didn’t. As Jakob took the vest, he noticed his father was wearing identical gear, similarly laden with supplies. He also had several heavy hitting weapons slung over his shoulder. After Jakob slid into the vest, Peter motioned to an automatic rifle leaning nearby. “The magazines I gave you are for the M16. You remember how to switch them out?”
“Yes, sir,” Jakob said, feeling very serious, mentally running through the steps his father had taught him.
Magazine out, magazine in, chamber the first round and shoot. And switch from the safe setting to fire, or auto if things get crazy.
Peter turned to Brant. “Don’t suppose you have a sniper rifle? We could stop this before it starts.”
Brant just shook his head.
“You comfortable with holding the second floor?” Peter asked.
“Here for a reason, aren’t I?” Brant’s tone had lost all of its friendliness. Even Alia seemed surprised by it. Then he added, “Can’t leave Misha up here alone.”
“Jakob,” Peter said, placing a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Hold the living room with Anne. Listen for my—”
“Something’s coming out,” Alia said, looking through a crack in the boards.
Still next to the window, holding the binoculars, Jakob looked across the field. Rows of wheat parted as something walked through them, carving a path.
Too small to be a Woolie
, he thought,
, “It’s a Rider.”
And then he saw the Rider’s face.
It was her.
The hair was wrong, flowing like a mane from her head and down her back. The teeth were hideous, rising up like a fence to pierce the cheeks. But the eyes, even from this distance, looked familiar. As did the shape of her face.
His mother had followed them.
But it couldn’t really be her.
He turned slowly back toward his father. “You killed her, didn’t you?”
” Peter asked.
“You killed your wife?” Brant said, his voice far too loud and filled with revulsion. His weapon shifted toward Peter.
“She ate the ExoGen crops,” Peter said quickly, making no move for his own weapon. “She
“But you killed her?” Brant said. “Killed your own wife?”
Peter looked torn, but then said. “No.”
“What?” Jakob asked. His father had let him live with the idea that his monster-mother was dead and buried. “You shot her. I heard it.”
“I let her go,” Peter said. “She was still intelligent enough to know I could kill her if I had to. The shot you heard got her moving.”
Jakob deflated. “Then she’s alive.”
Jakob handed the binoculars to Peter and moved away from the windows. Peter took the lens and looked out the window. After just a moment, he frowned and said, “Yes.” He turned to Jakob. “I didn’t want you to be afraid of her.”
Jakob said nothing. The idea that his mother, the monster, still existed and had all this time, filled him with nausea. Not because he loved her and wanted her back, or held out some kind of hope that their family could be reunited, though. She’d tried to
him. And worse, when she’d pinned him to the gas station parking lot, she had
She was here for him. He knew it.
“You should have shot her,” Jakob said.
Peter just stared at his son for a moment, and then gave a carefully considered nod.
“She’s coming,” Alia said, looking out the window. “By herself.”
Peter took a quick look and then gave Jakob’s shoulder a tap. “To the living room. Same as before. Stay with Anne. Guard Ella.” He turned to Brant and Alia. “You comfortable being overwatch from here?”
“It’s why I’m here,” Brant said again. He moved Alia behind him. “She’ll stay with me.”
“What are you going to do?” Jakob asked.
Peter turned and looked out the window again. After a moment, he said, “I’m going to go talk to your mom.”