Strain of Resistance (Book 1) (4 page)

BOOK: Strain of Resistance (Book 1)
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"You didn't come see me when you got back. You promised you would come see me as soon as you got back. Remember what we say about breaking promises?"

I sigh inwardly at her anger, even though I know I deserve it. You
never
break a promise to Amy.

"I know, and I'm sorry, Ames. Just, the debriefing with Cooper took forever, and then we had to write up the report, and I was so tired and dirty..."

"You missed Sammy's birthday," she says solemnly. I falter at her words. I know I did. But how do I tell the childlike woman standing across from me that I’d done it on purpose? That I didn't have the strength or the guts to face a whole day of hashing over memories of the love I’d lost. That I’d chosen instead, to spend the day avoiding all thoughts of Sam by being in the arms of another man. So I do what I usually do. I chicken out and don't say anything. The slanted eyes associated with her Down syndrome hold no accusation though; only sadness as we share the painful memory. Then, unexpectedly, the smile returns to her small mouth and her stubby finger points my way.

"It's okay-remember how he hated birthdays? He wouldn't have wanted us to do anything anyways. Remember, the only thing he said he liked about birthdays was cake."

She starts laughing at her recollection. Liv and I join in.

"Yeah, I remember," I say quietly. "He would eat the whole damn thing himself and practically bite our fingers off if we came anywhere near it. And he didn't even care that the cakes Cookie made him were like bricks. Didn't even want gifts; it was all about the cake."

I choke slightly on my words, the pain back in my heart.
I can't do this now
, I think as I swallow the grief and cough slightly.

"Speaking of gifts," I say overly bright, changing the subject. I pick up my backpack, ignoring Liv's all-knowing look of sympathy and rummage through the bag. Amy's squeal almost busts an eardrum as she starts jumping up and down clapping her hands excitedly.

"You
found
one? You found one!" Her voice reaches an octave that I'm sure only a dog can possibly hear, as I pull the object out of my bag.

"Oh great," Liv moans. "Just what this place needs...more junk."

Amy doesn't pay her any mind though. She is way too excited by the object she yanks out of my hands. To me, the crystal dragon looks no different from any of the dozens of others Sam and I had found over the years, but Amy is enthralled by it.

"Look it has pink scales. And you can see its pink heart through its chest. It's a girl dragon for sure. Look, Liv-isn't it beautiful?"

"It sure is, baby girl." She smiles indulgently. "Almost as beautiful as you. Are you going to add it to your shelf?"

She nods without looking up, still twisting the figurine in her hands. "But after movie night I think. I wanna show it to Mrs. D and Cookie first. Hey, you think if I showed it to Jonesy he would play DragonHeart for movie night? I just love that movie."

Liv reaches out and affectionately strokes the black curls; so much like Sam's that it brings a lump to my throat. I look away, blinking furiously against the tears. What the hell is wrong with me today?

"I told you before, honey, Jonesy doesn't have that movie."

"Well maybe Bix can get it for me. She always finds me dragons. Can you find DragonHeart for me, Bixby? Please?"

Her gray eyes stare up at me with such pleading. She has her brother’s eyes. I never could say no to his beautiful eyes either.

"I'm not making any promises, you hear. God forbid I break a promise to you. I'd never hear the end of it. But I'll keep my eyes peeled for it the next time we're out."

"Thank you!" She says and wraps her stubby arms around my waist, laying her curly head on my chest. I can't help but hug her back. Amy always did get me right in the feels. "I know you'll find it. Sammy always said you were the best hunter and you could find anything."

Except for him
, I think dully, withdrawing from her embrace as my old enemy guilt comes to visit once again. Amy doesn't seem to notice my mood change however, as the clock on the fake mantel chimes annoyingly loud and causes her to jump.

"Geez, Liv, we better go. I don't wanna be late for movie night. All the best seats will be gone. You know I only..."

"Only like to sit in the front row. I know, I know. We don't want all
those
seats to be gone," Liv rolls her eyes at me over Amy's head and I confine my laughter to a slight snort. If anybody can make me feel better, it's these two.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Go get your sweater so we can go. You know it's always cold down in the basement."

"Oh...right. I'll be right back," she announces to no one in particular.

Olivia watches her leave, and then whirls on me with that irritating raised brow. I know that look, and I start shaking my head even before she opens her mouth.

"Don't start Liv. Nothing’s wrong. I'm just tired is all."

Those sharp eyes of hers peruse me like they can see straight through into my soul.

"Mmm hmm. Tired. Another word for fucked silly? I know you and Luke haven't come up for air since you two got back yesterday."

"Jesus Liv, can you be any more vulgar?" I snap, but she just shrugs in response.

"I can...but I won't. And I'm not condemning you for your choice of fuck buddy. Luke is a fine specimen of a man. If I were ten years younger I'd give you a run for your money. But something is bothering you and don't try to lie, because you tend to forget I know you better than you know yourself, Emma Bixby."

I did think about lying to her, but she’s right. I never could keep anything hidden from Liv. And well, just the use of my full name tells me she means business. She won't give up until I spill everything.

Sighing, I run a hand over the cropped side of my head.

"He said
it
again. Why does he do that? When everything seems to be going smooth he's gotta mess it up by saying those damn words. I told him, right from the start that this was just straight sex-no strings attached."

Liv's muttered, "How romantic," increases my irritation.

"That's just it. I don't want it to be a romance—or a relationship—or any of that shit. There's no place for that." I sigh again. "I don't know. Maybe I should just break it off. I don't want to encourage him into thinking things can be more between us, when it can't."

"And why can't it?" she asks, in true blunt Liv fashion. "You're already sleeping with the guy. Newsflash—that's called a relationship. And as I said, Luke is a fine man. You could do a hell of a lot worse. And oh, the horrors of him telling you he loves you. How terrible! Do yourself a favor, Bix and leave Sam in the past where he belongs. Luke is your future, and if you don't lay claim to him, someone else will. I've seen the way some of the girls stare at him. He won't be short of lovers if you kick him to the curb, trust me on that. Life’s a hell of a lot shorter now than it used to be, and for the life of me I can't understand why you're turning down a chance at happiness. Sam’s not coming back, Bix so it's time you stop being a maudlin idiot and move on."

I don't get a chance to voice the angry rebuttal sitting on the tip of my tongue. Amy chooses that moment to saunter back into the room and Liv suddenly goes all fucking Mother Theresa again.

"All set, baby girl?"

Amy nods happily in response.

"You going to movie night too, Bix?" she asks. I force a smile her way, even though smiling is the last thing I feel like doing right now. Liv's words have left me raw...not to mention pissed.

"Not tonight. I really need to shower and sleep. Next time okay?"

She narrows her eyes at me. "You promise?"

"Cross my heart," and I do just that. It seems to appease her.

"Think about what I said, Bixby." Liv throws my way as she ushers us both out into the hall, closing the door behind us.

I nod my head in agreement, but it's mainly just to shut her up. I can think about it all I want, doesn't mean I will ever accept what she's saying. A chance at happiness? That's a crock of buttered shit. Happiness doesn't exist anymore. Love, marriage, family—none of that fairy tale, happily ever after crap has a place in this new world. It barely existed in the old world—my mother and father were a testament to that. Now it’s damn well impossible to achieve. I had foolishly believed it possible once—never again. Giving your heart to someone. Loving them with all your soul when at any moment they could become leech food? Why even bother. It's much too painful. Nope, love isn't written in any stars for Emma Bixby ever again, and the sooner Luke got that crazy idea out of his head, the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

The
shower does wonders for my temperament. Even though the showers are timed, and shift back to an icy spray after barely two minutes, it lifts my spirits immensely. It feels good to wash off the dirt and grime that goes hand in hand with an outing. And nothing like being doused in ice cold water to help clear the mind.

I stand in front of the fogged mirror, clearing a circle in the condensation with the palm of my hand. A solemn, tanned face stares back at me. I study the weary face. Where Liv sees a maudlin fool, I see the face of a realist. I’m no longer that innocent, naive girl who’d come to the Grand eight years ago. The dorky little twit who’d felt totally alone in the world, until she’d met the handsome, fourteen-year-old Sam McKinley and his big-hearted sister, Amy. The silly child who believed after meeting them, that everything would be alright with the world.

I never knew what Sam had seen in me. To this day, I still don't get it. He’d been funny and lovable and so handsome with his black curls and those long lashed smoky gray eyes that could turn my knees to jelly. And then there was me. Sullen-sarcastic-plain Jane, me. I mean, I guess the face in the mirror’s all right. I'm no Quasimodo, but I sure as hell won't win any beauty pageants anytime soon either.

Mossy green eyes stare back at me from a thin face with high cheekbones. Too long of a nose and too pointy of a chin, I’ve always felt. Auburn red hair, the bane of my existence when I was young, shaved completely above an ear on one side, but hanging straight below my shoulder on the other. Oddly enough, the shaved part is on the side of my face with the scar. That ugly blemish that runs from my jaw, all the way up to my hairline.

I used to hate the grotesque reminder of that horrible day when everything went to shit. But Sam had always been fascinated by it. He’d called it my 'strength mark'. I always laughed when he said that. As much as it didn't bother him, he knew it bothered me fiercely. So much so, that I’d finally talked him into agreeing with Jonsey to tattoo me. I wasn't without my reservations on the matter. I mean Jonsey's tattoo experience was rumored to have been learned from his time spent in prison, contrary to his insistence that he previously worked in a tattoo parlor. But I figured what did I have to lose? Other than risking infection, he couldn't really mess up a scar. So I’d let him at my face.

The result had been amazing. Instead of sporting a five inch scar down the side of my face, I now had a galaxy of tiny black and white stars that ran all the way down my neck to my shoulder blade. Sam had chosen the stars. He said that although stars did eventually burn out, their lifespan was roughly 10 billion years. About as long as our love would last. He was always spouting the cheesiest, corniest lines like that. And the tattoo he had gotten after seeing mine was the cheesiest of all. Intertwined rings with our names, Sam and Bix, right above his heart. As much as I razzed him about it, I secretly loved it. And I loved him. Truly and unconditionally. He had wormed his way completely into my heart. And being the fool that I was, I thought we
would
be together forever. Little did I realize at the time that nothing lasts forever. Except maybe a shattered heart.

Sticking my tongue out at my reflection, I give myself a mental shake. Maybe I am being a hokey fool. Must be Sam's birthday that has me dredging up all those old memories. Luke and Liv are right; I really need to let it go. Sam is gone. And I know I’ll probably never find out what happened to him and his group of hunters that day when they’d simply vanished, but one thing is for sure. If it were humanly possible; if Sam were still alive, he would’ve found a way to get back to me—and his sister. Seeing as it's been eighteen months and that hasn't happened, there’s only one other alternative. I don't have closure, but I do need to have acceptance.

Leaving the bathroom, I make my way towards the bed. The floor of my tiny room is warm under my bare feet, heated by the last rays of the setting sun filtering through the dirt encrusted window. The bed calls to my fatigued body with the lure of a sirens song, but I ignore it for a bit, drawn to the beauty of the red sunset below me.

It's been only eight years since the world had been overrun with the leeches, but already the once thriving city has turned to ruin. Abandoned buildings line the street on the other side of the crudely erected steel and barbed wire wall beneath my window. Butterfly bushes grow out of the once solid brick and mortar walls and busted out windows, a testament to the absence of people. Dandelions and weeds pepper the tarmac below me, creating the illusion of a field instead of a paved road. Where the weeds had encountered vehicles in their way they had simply grown around them, decorations in this newly forming garden.

On the surface, it looks calm and serene. Mother Nature simply reclaiming what was once hers. But underneath, the city is fraught with dangers. Gangs of violent ravagers, banded together by their desperation, troll our walls nightly waiting for their chance to get in. Leeches lurk in dark alleys, preying on the unsuspecting humans or animals that might stumble their way. Packs of wild dogs, no longer man's best friend, hunt just as ferociously as the invaders themselves. The city is a cesspool of perils. I wonder which one had taken down Sam and his group?

Bang! Bang! Bang!

The pounding on my door startles the crap out of me. I bolt away from the window, slamming my bare toes into the bedside table. The pain is excruciating, and I don't even try to hold back on the profanities falling from my lips.

"I'm coming. Hold your horses," I yell at the door, but the banging continues. Limping across the room, I glance down to ensure the towel is tied tight around my body. Checking that nothing is hanging out that shouldn't be before I open the door.

I find Luke leaning against my doorframe, arms crossed. He appears cool and collected, a complete turn-around from the state I’d left him in earlier. I notice he’s shaved and showered since I left him, but I figure the cold shower had only done him a favor.

His eyes move over me slowly, taking in my state of undress-scorching my skin. As much as I hate myself for it, that familiar throbbing stirs in my lower regions under his gaze. It makes my words come out a lot harsher than intended.

"Why don't you take a fucking picture, it would last longer."

To my surprise he grins. "Classy-as always. And a picture won't keep me warm at night when you decide to give me the cold shoulder, like you're doing right now."

Rolling my eyes, I attempt to slam the door in his face. I'm in no mood for kiss and make-up time. I'm still pissed at him, but he sticks his foot in the door and it bounces back open.

"As much as I would like it to be, this isn’t a social visit. Get dressed. Cooper wants us downstairs in five."

I wasn't expecting that.

"What? Why? We’re supposed to be off duty for four more days yet."

"Wasn't told why. All I know is he wants us downstairs, ASAP."

"Dammit," I mutter as I manage to slam the door on him this time without even so much as a goodbye. There went the sleep I was so looking forward to. Still limping, I make my way to my sad excuse of a dresser and struggle to tug on clean denims and a tee over my damp body. Pulling wool socks over my feet (courtesy of Mrs. D), I shove them into my badly worn boots. I make a mental note to find myself another pair, and soon. These were falling apart, even if they are comfy as hell. Attaching both knife sheaths to my belt I get ready to go, but on second thought I go back to the cupboard. Rummaging through, I find Sam's old green army coat. Throwing on the over-sized jacket, I roll up the long sleeves and can't help myself as I bury my nose in the collar. Even though my mind says it's impossible, my heart fools me into thinking his scent is still in the old piece of cotton and I breathe it in deeply. It calms me in some way.

Running my hands through my still damp hair and slicking it back from my face, I’m ready to move. One of the few advantages about being a young woman in a world that’s gone to hell? No one gave a shit as to how you look.

To my surprise, Luke is still waiting calmly outside my door. The man did not take offense easily, I give him that. He eyes me up and down but says nothing as he falls in step with me. We match stride down the long hall.

"So you really don't know what this is about?" I ask, and he answers with a shake of his head. I can't help but worry a bit. Cooper is a real stickler when it comes to us having our off duty days. He says we need the time to unwind so as not to burn out. Something serious must be up for him to call us back early.

"Did Kelly's group come back unexpected? Maybe they found something in area 19?"

"Could be," he says. "Though, I would have heard if they were back."

We walk a bit more, without saying a word. Finally, I glance at him sideways, his silence surprising me a little. We hadn't parted on the best of terms earlier, and Luke is all about getting your feelings out in the open and all that shit. It annoys me to no end.

"You don't wanna talk about what happened earlier?"

He keeps staring straight ahead as he answers woodenly.

"No point. I can always tell when you need me to back off for a bit. Soon as you start wearing that damned jacket I know I'm pushed to the side...again."

I pull up short in the middle of the hall and stare at his shadowed profile in the flickering light.

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Exactly what I said. As soon as I start getting too close, you bring Sam's ghost between us. Lucky for you I'm a patient guy, Bix."

"Bullshit! It's just a jacket for Pete's sake. Sam's ghost-what a crock of buttered shit."

"Mm-hmm." He throws over his shoulder as he keeps walking. I hurry to catch up, not done with this conversation.

"Mm-hmm? What's
that
supposed to mean?"

"Usually it's meant as a form of agreement..."

"I know what 'mm-hmm' means, dickwad," I growl at him and he finally stops to look at me.

"Then why you ask?"

"I meant, why you agreeing with me? Because I know you
don't
agree with me! You're just agreeing to agree, cause you don't want me to be mad about you disagreeing!"

His bark of laughter resonates from deep in his gut.

"What? That doesn't even make sense!"

"Oh, it makes perfect sense. I know you're just playing the dumb blonde again."

"Likeeee totally, fer sure," he says in his best Valley girl impersonation and I can't help it. I start laughing. Hearing
that
voice come from the 275 plus pound gorilla in front of me, it kills me. I never could stay mad at Luke for long...and dammit, he knew it.

"I love the sound of your laugh," he says quietly. I stop chuckling and glare at him sideways.

"What? I can't even say it about your laugh now?"

Fortunately, Gordon flies up the stairs towards us at that moment nearly tripping over his own damn feet, and interrupts my biting retort.

"Guys, come on." he yells, his red face almost matching his hair with his exertion. "Cooper is asking for the two of you."

We hurry our pace at the boy's words. Cooper is not someone you want to keep waiting. And to be quite honest, I welcome the interruption. I don't want to hash this over again.

"What’s going on Gordo? You know anything?"

"Only that something happened with Kelly's group. Not sure, but if it's enough to have Cooper worried..."

I get the gist. Cooper doesn't get hot under the collar about much; he’s the proverbial cool cucumber. My worry increases, and I take the stairs two at a time, eager to get to command.

***

We
’re the last to arrive. I feel Cooper's bright eyes on us as soon as we enter what had once been one of the many conference rooms in the hotel. It still had the little gold 'B' sign on the door. Someone had written in black marker after the B 'ase command.' Not very elegant, but official enough. Every decision, every move we make, is talked through and planned here in this room. Sam used to say the B stood for Bullshit. He never was one to stand for authority much.

"About time," Cooper growls from behind the metal desk where he normally sat, his arms folded across his chest in impatience. We don't bother to give him an excuse; he doesn't expect one. The unspoken words say it all, "When I say five, I mean five...not fifteen." I look away guiltily from his piercing stare. John Cooper is the reason I’m still alive, and I hated displeasing him; even if it is for something as trivial as being late to a meeting.

The rest of the crew are already here; Badger, Cal and Dom, plus the regular five council members who demand to be privy to everything, including Cookie. Her beady dark eyes stare at us disapprovingly, and I feel myself shrink a little bit more. Damn, I swear that woman could shrivel a grape to a raisin with that look.

I avert my eyes, surprised to see who else is in the room. Kingsley, head of the gate guards and a couple of his people, plus the two responsible for manning the shortwave radios. What are their names again? Lois and Roy I believe. What are they doing here? They’re never usually at any of our meetings. Their jobs are to man and maintain the radios, not be involved in any sort of decision making. What’s going on? I don't have to wait long to find out.

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