Authors: Marianne Mancusi
“You know, I meant everything I said,” Chase remarked, suddenly earnest. “And you’re still a diamond, no matter what anyone else thinks. If anyone’s dumb enough to not realize the truth beneath your implants.”
She could feel his breath on her face, once again doing crazy things to her insides. She knew she should resist, get up and walk away while she still could. After all, there was no use in starting a relationship. It would distract her, and she had a mission. Maybe when and if everything was over and fixed, when she’d done what she needed…
Against her will, she was trapped by his kryptonite-colored eyes. They were so brilliant in the firelight, they glowed. Molly’s traitorous body moved forward instead of away. Her traitorous heart pounded in her chest and her traitorous lungs struggled to take in air almost too thick to breathe.
Chase drew her hand to his lips, kissed Molly’s palm with an unbearable softness. She squirmed as impossible sensations coursed through her, too hard and fast to catalog. Six years without being touched by a man. Six years when her body’s drive for that was strongest.
He smelled like the earth: rich, dark, delicious. She wanted nothing more than the opportunity to taste him.
“Kiss me,” she whispered.
A Rough-Cut Gem
Also by Marianne Mancusi
She turned suddenly, bloodshot eyes zeroing in on where Chase stood
in the shadows. Forcing himself to keep his breaths slow and regular,
he lifted his rifle, trying not to make any sudden moves that would
set her off. His hands shook, making it difficult to line up the female
creature’s head. The money shot. The shot he’d need to take her
down for good and protect his family with the least risk to himself.
How had she gotten so close without him realizing?
The woman let out a muffled moan, her hairless, bony arms outstretched
like something from an old George Romero movie. But this
was no film set. The world in 2036 had become a true horror flick,
and Chase was one of its stars. He was the one who’d done the drugs,
had sex with the girl and uttered the words, “I’ll be right back.” In
other words, he was the one who was about to wind up dead.
It was more than a bit tempting to run. To get as far away as possible
from this pus-
dripping creature formerly known as a human.
But she was too close to the campsite where Molly and the children
were sleeping. And while Chase had failed before—failed whenever
it counted, in fact—things were different now. For the first time
since the plague erupted, there was hope. And no dumb, oozing, post-
apocalyptic monster was going to take that away. Not on his watch
He blew out a breath and steadied his gun, eyes narrowing to slits.
Steady as she goes, he told himself. This was a matter of protecting
his family: both what was left of it and what he’d rebuilt. It was a
matter of doing good, and not the simple rehash of senseless violence
that once had been so popular on the silver screen. Shoot-’em-
slasher films…It was so different in reality—tougher to summon
the courage to fire, to engage, to set in play the sequence of events
that he knew had to follow
In an instant it happened. The creature lurched forward and
Chase fell back a step, squeezing the trigger of his rifle. Its recoil
bruised his shoulder. A gout of blood spurted from the woman’s
chest—he’d missed. Only a flesh wound. And she was still coming.
And two other shadows had appeared behind her. Three…no,
four? How much ammunition was left in his gun?
He fired again at the Other, twice more, and her head exploded in
a mass of red and grey pulp. At the same time he reached around his
neck and pulled free a whistle. Sometimes this worked, as the creatures
were sensitive to high-
pitched noises. He blew as hard as he
could. Sure enough, the shadows that had risen behind the first
Other stopped moving. There came a cacophony of inhuman screeches
and then the shadows dissipated. The creatures had turned and fled,
hands over their ears
Chase watched them go, breathing heavily. The whistle fell from
his bloodless lips. “Yeah, I thought so,” he said, shaking out his arms
and trying to regain some composure. “I thought so! Run, cowards!”
He nodded to himself and stepped out from the shadows.
Only to find himself thrown backwards
He crashed hard onto the asphalt of the street, the impact knocking
the breath from his lungs. His vision blurred and, for a moment,
nothing made any sense. Then he looked up and saw what
had struck him. An Other towered above, clearly not scared away by
his whistle. It was growling and spitting
It was a huge male, and it lunged forward, hands finding Chase’s
neck, encircling and squeezing tight, cutting off his breath. Desperate,
Chase kicked out and slammed his foot into the creature’s groin.
The monster bellowed but didn’t let go. Chase struggled harder, panic
slamming through him as he used one arm to brace himself, fighting
to keep away from the monster’s mouth. He reached for his boot with
his free hand, feeling for the knife he always kept there. It took what
seemed like forever to wrap his fingers around the hilt. The creature’s
grip tightened, and Chase saw blackness swimming toward him
Pain seared through his shoulder. Then, in his final moment of consciousness,
he managed to yank the knife free and drive it into the
The zombie recoiled then fell on top of him, crushing Chase with
his weight. But the fingers loosened and Chase was able to breathe.
He sucked in a huge breath and pushed the creature off. It rolled
back onto the pavement, staring up at the sky and whimpering. The
heart was always a weak spot
Chase surged to his feet and stared down at the monster. It looked
a lot more human lying there now, vulnerable and bleeding. This
was something he always hated. He wondered who it had been before
the change. A doctor? A lawyer? Maybe a humanitarian who built
houses for poor people
It didn’t matter. It was none of those things now, he reminded
himself. Just a monster. A monster that needed to be put out of its
He grabbed his rifle and pressed the barrel to the zombie’s head.
Closing his eyes, he pulled the trigger. The shot shook his arm and
echoed in his ears. He let the sound fade away before looking. The
body was twitching, the head disintegrated
He forced himself to look away, but as he did, a piercing pain
found his right shoulder. Startled, he glanced down, his mouth falling
open as he saw where his leather jacket had come open, where the shirt
below was ripped and bloody. Teeth marks. He’d been bitten. He’d
“Chase! Chase, are you okay?”
He looked up.
She was running toward him, her face
“I’m okay,” he said, turning at an angle so she couldn’t see his
wound. “I got him.”
She stopped a few feet away, looking down at the remains of the
two dead zombies. “God, what happened?” she asked
“One got the jump on me. No big deal. It’s all fine,” he lied. The
pain gripped his shoulder like a vise and it was all he could do not to
fall to his knees. But if he fell, she’d know. He couldn’t let her know
She took a step forward but he held out a hand. “I’m all slimy,”
he said. “Zombie gook. You know. I’m going to go find a fountain or
something to wash off.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked, peering at him, confusion
and worry warring on her face.
He felt sick to his stomach but nodded. The last thing he wanted
was to lie to her. But what choice did he have? He had to think of
Molly and the kids. She was too weak to get where she needed to go
on her own now. Wonderful Molly. Tough Molly. His beloved. She
needed his help to find her father. To complete her pilgrimage. To
save the world. And who knew how her priorities would change once
she learned the truth?
Well, he had two weeks. Two weeks before the virus could work its
way fully through his system, mutating his cells, destroying his
brain and turning him into one of them: a diseased, merciless monster
with an appetite for human flesh. An Other. He had two weeks
to get Molly where she had to go. Then he’d use his rifle one last
time—to put a bullet in his own head
Several weeks earlier
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Molly Anderson murmured as she laid the rose on her mother’s unmoving chest. The silk petals had faded over the last six years from their original crimson to a dull, orangey pink hue, and they were curled and frayed. Over the years the flower had been a decorative mainstay—a centerpiece for Molly and her mother’s dried food dinners, a beautiful hair ornament to complement one of their gowns at imaginary parties they’d throw. Now it would serve its final purpose: an undersized funeral bouquet. It seemed wrong, somehow, that an object that had once brought such happiness was now reduced to a symbol of Molly’s loss, but that didn’t change anything.
She fanned herself as sweat dripped between her breasts. Walking to the far end of the fallout shelter-cum-underground apartment complex, she checked several gauges. The ventilation system hadn’t been working properly for months now, and she wondered how long it would be before it conked out altogether. Not that it mattered. And lately everything down here seemed past life expectancy.
Except her mother. Ashley Anderson should have lived longer.
have lived longer, had she maintained the will to do so. Though, truth be told, she had held out longer than Molly imagined she would. Long enough to see July 1st, 2036,
the day the time-locked titanium shelter door finally clicked open and allowed access to the outside world for the first time in six years. It was as if she’d been waiting for just that moment, not wanting to leave her daughter stuck alone in the shelter, going crazy with solitude. And yesterday, as soon as freedom greeted them with that cheery computerized hello, her mother had taken more pills than Molly had ever seen her take, said a half-hearted good-bye and checked out.
So now Molly was alone. But she was also free. Sort of. She still had to accomplish her mission. She still had to find her dad. Oh, and of course she still had to save the world.
She glanced over at the door. When it unlocked itself yesterday, she’d been too wrapped up in caring for her mother to push it open and see what was outside. Who had survived? Who had died? What had happened to her friends? And most importantly, what had happened to Chris? Had he and his brother found a way to stay alive? Were they out there somewhere? Did he remember her?
She shook her head. In all honesty, what ever remained out there, it was likely she’d never find out what had happened to the Griffins. With the entire world as she’d known it ended, it wasn’t like she could just Google them. And perhaps it was better this way. At least she could imagine he and his brother were alive somewhere, living a happy, safe life in a brand-new world. Whatever was out there, she could avoid the most likely scenario: that they, like almost everyone else, had died.
Molly twisted the air-conditioning temperature gauge to its coldest setting, then headed back to her mother’s bed, swallowing the lump in her throat as she looked down at Ashley Anderson’s fragile frame. The woman looked so peaceful now, lying there as if she didn’t have a care in the world. And maybe she didn’t anymore. Maybe she was dancing, right this very second, waltzing with the angels. Socializing with all her old friends and family who had preceded her into the afterlife. Wasn’t that what she’d always said would happen?
Come to think about it, heaven was likely bursting at the
seams these days. Her mother would have a lot of people to socialize with.
Feeling tears threaten, Molly leaned over to kiss her mother’s forehead, then went to the makeshift gym and pulled on her boxing gloves. She raised her fists and smacked the punching bags as hard as she could, trying to exorcise the pain and anger welling up inside her. To get it out of her system so she could move on. Because that’s how her father had trained her. He didn’t have time for weaklings who focused on emotion when there were things to be done, people to save. To focus on emotion was to be self-involved and short-sighted. And Molly was, at the end of the day, her father’s girl. He’d made sure of that. Even before the apocalypse.
After a few rounds versus the heavy bag, Molly realized she was only prolonging the inevitable. Putting her gloves away, she reconciled herself to going. There was nothing to hold her back now, nothing to keep her in this sterile place, this sanctuary, this prison. She had her mission, after all. She didn’t have any time to waste.
“Good-bye, Mom,” she said, leaning over to kiss her mother’s cold forehead a final time. “I’ll see you in heaven or phone you from hell.”
God knows how’d she’d gotten here, but she had somewhere else to go.