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First pages

Chapter One

My knife sliced cleanly through the alien’s abdomen, spilling liquidy blue guts into the mud and across my shirt. I jumped back to avoid the postmortem spasms these creatures always seemed to have.

Not fast enough, though. The creature’s front appendage convulsed forward, and the razor-sharp claws tore through my bicep like icing on a cake.

“Arrgh!” I grunted.

The alien landed with a slosh in the mud and even though the creature was dead, I took an irritable swipe at its back. Gloppy blue alien blood splattered up, mixing with the red blood that was now flowing freely down my arm and dripping from my fingertips.

Meg’s not going to be happy I ruined another shirt.

Grunting, I pulled the alien’s massive shoulder back and wrenched out the dart I’d shot into it. Being careful not to touch the poisonous tip, I replaced it, as well as my combat knife, into the thick leather pouch I had strapped across my torso. I’d have to clean them later; it would be pointless to try to wipe them on my blood-and-mud-splattered garb.

Wrinkling my nose in distaste at my own loathsome appearance (not to mention body odor), I began the short trek back through the woods to the cave.

 

 

Vanessa took one look at me and scowled.

“Can’t you at least try not to lose a pint of blood every time you go out? I’m running out of thread to stitch you up with.”

“Who’d you learn bedside manner from—Annie Wilkes?” I spat back.

I was used to her disapproval, but it wasn’t as though this was as bad as the stab wound I’d taken to the leg last fall. I still had a hint of a limp from that episode. And the scar… Well, it was a good thing I wouldn’t be wearing swimsuits anymore.

Vanessa was about to respond—fiercely, judging by the look on her face—when Meg intervened.

“Rhyan, come over here and let me clean you up.” At least she was sympathetic.

Giving her a wide berth, I passed by Vanessa to the back of the cave, where Meg was using a scrub board to wash the never-ending laundry. I looked guiltily at the neatly folded towels that she had probably spent her morning on. She plucked the top one, dipped it into a bin of water and began wiping blood from my hands.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I don’t know why John can’t go out,” she murmured as she worked. “He’s much more suited to the disposing of those creatures than a teenage girl.”

“It’s fine,” I said. And really, it was. I liked heading out each day, weapons in hand. It gave me something to focus on. Somewhere to channel my vengeance.

It had to at least be better than sitting around the cave, which was all Vanessa seemed to do these days. She claimed to be “scouting for enemies”, but really she was just moping over Shawn.

“Ow!” I yelped when Meg’s towel got too close to the cuts.

John, a burly man whose face was mostly hidden in beard, turned from the ham radio he was messing with.

“You okay, kid?” he asked gruffly.

Looking sideways at him, I nodded. Truth was, John scared the daylights out of me. His job was to “take care of” anybody who might come around with an eye for our stuff. He hadn’t had to do much of that lately. There seemed to be fewer and fewer people every week. We hadn’t run into anyone outside our group in a month.

“You should take a pistol with you,” he said, for at least the third time. “Won’t have to get so close.”

I gave a small nod in response, but there was no way I would trade my darts for bullets. True, the darts couldn’t go as far, but they did make the aliens groggy, no matter where they hit. A misplaced bullet would only enrage the beasts. And so far, my only advantage had been fighting a dazed alien as opposed to one that was riled up.

Vanessa pulled her first aid kit from a tattered bag.

“All right, come here then,” she barked.

Meg had finished cleaning most of the blood, leaving two distinct slashes that could only have come from one source. I had two other sets—one on my back and one on my side—scars I would bear for life. I was beginning to feel like a human patchwork quilt.

Reluctantly I sat next to Vanessa who was threading a needle. Not for the first time I wished there was still some lidocaine left in her medical bag. This wasn’t going to be fun.

“Just get it over with,” I sighed.

“You know,” she said, pressing the alcohol swab onto the cuts a little too firmly, “you really should consider how lucky you are that I’m here. Without me you’d be as good as dead.”

“Yeah, we should probably make you our chief or something.”

She stabbed the needle in and I winced.

“Don’t you know it’s not wise to insult someone who’s holding a needle?”

I didn’t reply—I was too busy focusing on not screaming.

Before the invasion, Vanessa had gone to medical school, though she’d never had the chance to finish. We were lucky to have her—I’d seen what happened to the injured who didn’t get treatment—though I’d never tell her that.

“Hey, hey!” a male voice called into the cave. Tristen’s voice.

“We’re here,” Meg called back.

A tan-faced sandy-haired boy appeared in the cave entrance, shadowed by a scrawny girl with big eyes.

“Tanya,” I said, smiling through the pain. “How are you?”

She set down the cardboard box she was carrying and took a seat beside me.

“What happened to you this time?” she asked, genuinely curious.

“Oh, you know,” I waved my free hand, “just a little mishap.”

“Your ‘little mishaps’ sure cause a lot of problems for people,” Vanessa muttered, finishing the last stitch.

Ignoring her, I turned to Tanya.

“So what’d you find today?”

“A big can of fruit cocktail! And a box of graham crackers that only expired last month, and,” she added, deflating a little, “more canned beans.”

“We also grabbed a few t-shirts off the K-Mart shelf,” Tristen added as he passed by. Bulging sacks dripped from his arms and his hands toted a big cardboard box filled to the brim. “Looks like you’re going to need them.”

I glanced down at the gruesome shirt I was wearing and blushed. It hadn’t escaped my notice that Tristen was the only guy my age around.

Somehow, though, it seemed to have escaped his.

“We’ll have those beans for dinner tonight,” Meg said, digging through the sacks.

“What about the fruit cocktail?” Tanya asked.

“I’m going to save that for a special occasion,” Meg replied. “Maybe your birthday.”

Instead of looking pleased, Tanya scowled.

Tristen helped Meg unload the rest of the supplies he and Tanya had found, then came and sat next to us. Vanessa had disappeared into a tattered Grisham novel and John was still playing with the radio.

“Look Tanya,” Tristen said. “I found this for you.”

He held out a box of colored pencils and a notebook.

“Thanks,” she replied. Her scowl lessened.

“Why don’t you go over by the light and draw a picture?”

Tanya nodded and followed his suggestion. Tristen turned to me.

“I need to ask a favor,” he said quietly.

I raised an eyebrow.

“I want you to tell Tanya how much help she could be, spending her time here with Meg. She listens to you the best.”

“She’s thirteen, Tristen. I think she knows what she wants.”

“I’ve told her a thousand times that it’s safer in the cave. She won’t listen. She—“ he took a sharp breath, then continued in a whisper.

“She had a close call today. She didn’t even know. I got lucky—I was able to distract it and get her out of trouble, but it was close. Way too close. I don’t want her out there anymore.”

“She won’t leave you,” I whispered back. “You’re her brother. Her last family. If I had any family left, I wouldn’t leave them either.”

Tristen’s handsome face twisted into a scowl.

“So you won’t help me.”

I sighed.

“I’m not saying that. I’ll do it. It’s just that it won’t work.”

“Just try,” he said tightly.

 

A little while later Meg announced that dinner was ready. Outside the cave, the forest trees cut long shadows through the orange sunlight. Tristen and I pushed the heavy boulder over the cave entrance while everyone else clicked on their flashlights.

An echo resounded throughout the cave as the rock banged into place. For a moment, all was silent as the six of us looked at each other’s shadowed faces through thin flashlight beams.

“Well, we don’t want it getting cold,” Meg joked. No one laughed.

We each took a paper plate of cold baked beans and sat on our sleeping bags, eating halfheartedly with jagged spoons. The scent of cave mildew permeated everything—even the beans.

John finished first and climbed into his sleeping bag without saying a word. The others soon followed suit, except that Tristen and Tanya exchanged “goodnights”. I turned my light off, but continued to gaze into the black.

During the daylight hours, I was able to summon some purpose, some sense of direction in this life. But when things got dark, finding that was much harder. That’s when the thoughts of what should be crept into my mind.

I should be sitting down at the dinner table with Zach right now—maybe having tacos. Dad would just be walking in the door, a little grumpy from a long day at work. He’d be telling me to get my homework done, and I’d be asking him if I could go to the football game on Friday.

Somewhere in the back of the cave, a dripping sound. Tanya coughed and Vanessa twisted in her sleeping bag.

Chapter Two

Sleeping in a sealed cave meant never knowing when morning arrives. I wasn’t sure how much sleep I was clocking these days, but I knew it wasn’t much.

“You awake?” Tanya whispered when she heard me sit up.

“Yeah,” I whispered back.

“I’m hungry,” she said.

“Me too.”

“Are there any granola bars left?”

“We can check.”

I tried to be silent, but the acoustics inside a rock make every sound deafening. The sleeping bag zipper alone woke Tristen and Vanessa.

The latter moaned. “It’s too early.”

“Sorry. Tanya’s hungry.”

In response, she pulled her pillow over her head.

Tristen lit his flashlight and got up. Together we sifted through the food stash. Tristen and Tanya brought things back every day to keep us stocked, but three adults and three teenagers can go through a lot of food. Especially when burning energy every day just to have water and clean clothes, not to mention hunting ungodly predators.

There were no granola bars, so we settled for a half-full bag of pretzels.

It was no sizzling bacon and eggs, but it was enough to rouse the adults from their beds and join in the breakfast.

After washing the pretzels down with some water, Tristen and I pushed the boulder to reveal the outside world. The sun was up after all. Birds chirped without a care in the world. Easy for them; the aliens had left the animals alone.

“I’m going out,” I told Tristen. “I’ll talk to Tanya this afternoon.”

“No, now,” he said.

“One more day isn’t going to hurt her,” I said. “You’ll be fine.”

“Rhyan. You said you’d help.”

“I said I’d try. And it wouldn’t matter anyway. Tanya’s not going to listen to me any better than she does you.”

Glowering, he turned away to start his preparations for the day. I did the same, gathering my knives, blow darts, trail mix, and water bottle.

Meg watched us, a guilty look on her face. I knew she hated sitting in the cave all day, letting other people do most of the grunt work. But, thanks to a particularly vicious alien, she could barely walk anymore, let alone run through the tangled woods.

John was different. He never seemed to care that Tristen, Tanya, and I took on the most risk every time we left the safety of the cave. But I didn’t mind. To my way of thinking, he carried his weight every time he’d kept desperate, hostile people away from our supplies. I had no qualms about taking down aliens. Taking out people, though….

I slipped out of the cave without a word to anyone.

 

Every morning for the past six months, I hiked to the top of the hill in which our cave was cradled. From that vantage point I watched Tristen and Tanya head down the trail toward the suburbs, two dots of color amidst a sea of green and brown.

My eyes scanned the surrounding forest for unsettled birds. I learned long ago that birds—all birds—will flee any area the aliens infested. I didn’t have to wait long before an entire flock of starlings shot up abruptly from the canopy. They flapped overhead, going south, but I kept my gaze on the spot they’d abandoned.

Really? There?

I pursed my lips and, with a rock in the pit of my stomach, began to trek down the hill.

You can do this, I told myself. You have no choice.

Away from the cities, the aliens never came in large numbers. Which was why I continued to hunt them daily. One, sometimes even two, at a time usually wasn’t a problem. It was helpful that I actively sought them out before they lumbered across our cave. At least that’s what I told myself.

The cities though, were swollen with millions of hostile, murderous aliens. Creatures that had slaughtered nearly all of humanity in a single month.

My foot stumbled uncharacteristically over a rock, as though picking up the reluctance in my mind.

Just go kill the stupid thing, like you’ve done a hundred times.

My ankle caught on a branch, sending me sprawling. I bit back tears.

It’s not your fault. My mind summoned up the familiar mantra. Not your fault, not your fault.

But no matter how many times I repeated it to myself, I still had a hard time believing it.

Shawn was dead—had died only yards from where I now knelt—and Vanessa blamed me.

I could see her logic—Shawn and I had set out on a hunt together, and one of us returned. It was only natural she’d be bitter toward me.

But she hadn’t been there. Hadn’t seen the alien appear as if from nowhere. Hadn’t seen me slay the huge creature with only a pocketknife, because my combat knives had fallen in the mud during the tussle. Hadn’t seen the tear-ridden trek, dragging what was left of Shawn’s body, back up through rain and mud.

She hated me. And I resented her for her hate.

It’s not your fault.

A red-tailed hawk took flight from a branch just above my head. My pity party cut short, I quickly climbed the tree the hawk had vacated.

I waited. But nothing happened. No ungodly beast came plodding through the trees.

False alarm.

Heart pounding, I descended from the roost, and began to hunt. Stepping lightly with a knife in my right hand and a blow dart in my left, I prowled through the trees. Fortunately, there were plenty of larkspur plants around to keep the darts’ tips freshly poisoned.

I’d come up with the idea a while back, when I saw an alien rolling on the ground, clearly agitated. It didn’t take long for me to realize it had come across a field of larkspur. Rubbing a little of the flower’s petals onto my darts had proven quite effective in doping the monsters.

I looked away as I approached the spot where Shawn had died,. I didn’t want to see the dried blood that was smeared over the rocks and bushes. This was the first time I’d come back, and my unease was practically audible.

The forest was still. No breeze disturbed the trees, no squirrels darted to and fro, no birds chirped to each other. Something was wrong.

All my senses on high, I climbed another tree—the tallest I could find.

Then it appeared. An alien came slogging through the trees. It looked the same as them all—four long legs, bent into a ‘z’, supported the plump abdomen. Rising above that was a middle section from which taut appendages shot forth long serrated claws. The swiveling head, with its unblinking black eyes, was perched on top. I readied my blow dart and took aim.

But stopped.

The alien wasn’t alone. Dozens appeared, all trudging in the same direction as the first. It was the largest group I had seen since leaving the city. They weren’t heading straight toward the cave, but they would surely pass close by, if they kept in the same direction.

My hand covered my mouth, as if reminding it not to shriek.

Eventually they disappeared from sight, and it was only then I realized I should have been counting them. There had to have been at least two dozen. Which was at least twenty-two more than I’d ever seen together in the forest. Why they amassed together in the cities but only straggled into the woods, I’d no idea. They didn’t exactly spell out their plans in English.

When I was sure they were long gone, I climbed down from the tree and made a beeline for the cave. The aliens tended to meander slowly, but could be quick when they needed to be, sort of like a bear. And like a bear, they usually had no problem dealing with soft, clawless humans.

 

 

“Quick!” I yelled at Vanessa. “Help me move the boulder!”

“What?”

“The boulder! They’re coming!”

Vanessa jumped from her sleeping bag where she’d been reading and together we moved the boulder in record time.

“What’s going on?” she asked, panting a little.

“A whole herd—they passed right by me! At least twenty of them!”

“But—why?”

I don’t know! We didn’t exactly sit down for a chat!”

“You should lower your voice,” John said from his corner.

I scowled at him, but didn’t reply. Easy for him to be calm, sitting around the safety of the cave, playing with his stupid radio.

The radio. Tristen and Tanya had brought it back with them a few days before, in hopes it might help us learn if there were any cities or anything that hadn’t been overrun. John had been messing with it ever since. Maybe they picked up the frequency or something and realized we were here.

“What about Tristen and Tanya?” Meg asked quietly. She was pouring the river water we’d gathered through the purifier.

“What about them?”

“Did you see them out there?”

“No.”

“It’s getting late.”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” I said. But my voice wavered.

“They’re usually back by now,” Vanessa said.

I scowled at her. “Well, what do you want me to do about it? It’s not my fault!”

Grabbing my sleeping bag, I stomped to the back corner of the cave no one ever went to. I threw it down and lay on top of it with my back to the group.

“No one’s blaming you,” Meg said.

I ignored her. Already I could feel dampness seeping up into the fibers of the sleeping bag. No wonder no one came back here.

Meg and Vanessa had a whispered conversation that I was sure was about me. Then Meg tried to coax me out of the corner with an offering of canned oranges. Which worked. But I ate them quickly and went right back to ignoring them.

Eventually everyone clicked their lights off. For the first time, I lay awake not thinking of my family, but of Tristen and Tanya. They were still out there, in the dark, in the forest. Being hunted. At least if they were lucky, they were.

Chapter 3

I couldn’t sleep. The typical clinks, thuds, and drips I’d grown accustomed to had become Tanya’s desperate attempts to alert us that she and Tristen were being torn apart just outside the boulder.

Of course, my rational side knew better: the two of them were more than capable of removing the blockade and entering the cave.

So why hadn’t they?

Surely they would have if they could have. Which meant they couldn’t. Which meant….

I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up from my spongy sleeping bag and gathered my things.

“Vanessa,” I hissed.

She didn’t move.

“Vanessa!”

“Go away.”

“Help me move the boulder. I need to go out.”

Now?”

“I’m going to look for Tristen and Tanya.”

Meg stirred. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Rhyan. They know their way. They’ll get here when they can.”

“I don’t care. I’m going crazy just sitting in here.”

“Then sleep,” Vanessa grumbled.

“Just get up and help me out. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”

“… Fine.”

John, who I’d thought was asleep, suddenly spoke.

“You won’t do any good out there. You may as well stay here so we don’t lose another person.”

“Oh, that’s great,” I said. “Already gave up on them, huh?”

He didn’t reply.

Vanessa got up with a huff and together we moved the boulder just enough so I could slip out before it rolled back into place.

Outside, I could just make out the silhouette of the east horizon, a faint paleness gracing the eastern horizon. The air was brisk and a light breeze rustled the leaves.

Now what?

I really hadn’t thought about that. I’d just been so troubled inside, all I could think about was doing something. I settled for climbing the hill over the cave again. If nothing else, it was a good vantage point. One from which I’d spent dozens of late afternoons watching for Tristen and Tanya.

The first time I’d met Tanya was weeks after civilization had collapsed. Dad and Zach had been dead for a while. I’d been hiding out in a mall, sleeping in the perfume section since the aliens had an apparent dislike of the manufactured odors.

Tanya had come walking stealthily down the broken escalator, saw my nest (a sleeping bag, Oreos, and a flashlight), inside a kiosk and began to search for me. I watched her, crouched in the middle of a nearby clothes rack.

“Tanya!” Tristen had whisper-yelled. “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be finding binoculars.”

“I think someone’s here!” she’d replied.

Tristen was by her side instantly, gun unholstered.

“Let’s go. We don’t need any trouble.”

“Maybe they need help.”

“We have a hard enough time helping ourselves. Let’s go.” He attempted to pull her by her arm. She jerked away and in that instant, locked eyes with me.

“She’s over there,” Tanya tattled. Tristen raised his gun.

Unarmed and terrified, I emerged from my hiding spot before Tristen could catch me cowering like an abandoned puppy.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Who are you?” I echoed.

We glared at each other until Tanya stepped in.

“I’m Tanya. This is my brother Tristen. Do you need help?”

I could imagine what I’d looked like to them: hair a greasy mess, eyes wild from being constantly alert, dirty clothing hanging loosely from my gaunt figure. I don’t know how Tanya found it in her to be empathetic instead of disgusted.

But she had. She’d made Tristen lower his gun and had talked me into coming back with them to the cave, where I’d been introduced to John and Meg. (Shawn and Vanessa had come later.) With untactful reluctance, they’d allowed me to join them.

Life in the cave had been surprisingly more comfortable than life in the mall. More people meant less work, and my mind had gradually relaxed into allowing itself more sleep, since the need for never-ending lookout had eased.

I’d be forever grateful to Tanya. Without her, Tristen would probably have shot me then and there. Not that I would have blamed him. That was the way things were.

I summited the hill just as the sky turned pink. After fishing a pair of binoculars from the leather pouch, I began scanning the trees. The most frequented trails were mostly blocked from view, though, so it wasn’t surprising I didn’t see anyone. I’d have to search for them on foot.

Moments later I was traipsing down the one of the main trails, unsure whether or not it was worth the risk of calling out Tristen and Tanya’s names.

The sunrise was dazzling, bathing the forest in a creamsicle orange. For someone who hadn’t spent much outside the city as a kid, my new home had me in a constant state of awe. As if reflecting my thoughts, a large doe suddenly dashed across the trail only ten feet away, immediately followed by two fawns. None of them even glanced at me. They were bounding along at full speed, heedless of anything but their flight.

Wondering what could have worked them into such frenzy, I decided to climb a tree and get a better look around. The tree’s roots clung into the slant of a small hill, and as I ascended, I could see the other side.

My heart stuttered. There, a mere fifty feet away, was a small multitude of aliens. They were burbling at each other, bustling around. But most importantly, they were prodding a small group of people—two women, one man, and a boy about my age—into a large steel sphere.

I’d seen those spheres before—they used them everywhere in the city for transportation. (Our cars didn’t exactly fit their awkward proportions.)

But why were they taking these people? All I had ever seen the aliens do—all anyone had seen them do, was kill. They had never bothered with hostages. Not even the President, whose grisly death had been broadcast on live TV.

Wishing I had a camera, I tried to fix the scene into my mind. I counted the creatures—twenty-six. They didn’t stay long. As soon as the people and all but two of the creatures were secured inside the sphere, it rolled away down the path. The two aliens left behind strolled away and it was only then I allowed myself to breathe.

I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. Was there something special about those people? Did they somehow negotiate with the beasts?

Concerns of Tristen and Tanya flew from my mind as I ran back to the cave. I banged on the boulder with a rock three times, the signal to open up, and slipped inside as Vanessa, John, and Meg greeted me with worried expressions.

“You didn’t find them?” Meg asked.

“No,” I replied breathlessly, “but I saw a whole troop! A bunch of them all together. They were taking people—putting them into those big silver balls they use.”

Taking them?” Vanessa asked, voice full of skepticism.

“Yes! Four of them. They didn’t hurt them—just pushed them into the sphere and rolled away.”

Vanessa and Meg looked at me blankly, like they couldn’t make sense of my words.

“Are you sure?” John asked.

“Yes. Why would I make this up?”

“Did you see which direction they went?”

“Just down the path.” All the paths went back to the city.

Which path?” John demanded.

I’d never seen him so interested in anything from outside the cave.

“Why does it matter?” I asked. “They took some people and left.”

“If they took those people then maybe they have others. Others they didn’t kill.”

Vanessa, Meg, and I exchanged glances, and a breath of silence filled the cave.

Meg broke it.

“Well,” she said, her voice croaky, “I know my family’s gone. Happened right in front of me.”

Vanessa continued. “The last person I had was Shawn. Obviously, he wasn’t taken.”

“Maybe…” I said. “Maybe they did take Tristen and Tanya. But there’s no way we could know that.”

“I don’t care about them,” John snarled, making us jump.

“You… had a family?” Meg asked.

“Yes,” he said gruffly, then gestured toward me. “But if what she says is true, maybe some survived. We have to look.”

“You want to go into the city?” Vanessa said. “Are you crazy?”

“I’m done sitting around here,” he said. Then suddenly he turned and began gathering his things into a pack. There wasn’t much.

“You’ll die if you go down there,” Vanessa warned.

“Dying is easier than living.”

He scooped up his pack, carefully enclosed the pistols, and hoisted it onto his back.

“You can’t take the guns!” Vanessa said.

He began filling his canteens from the water stores, ignoring her.

“You’re going to leave us here, completely unarmed?” she persisted.

Looping the canteens over his shoulder, he tried to walk past her, but she grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere with those guns.”

“Get away from me,” he snarled, jerking his arm back.

“There’s no point in leaving. The odds of your wife being alive—“

“She’s not alive!” he yelled. “After I saw what they were doing to people—how they were slaughtering them…”

Abruptly he covered his face with a hand. I tried not to let my curiosity show. John never showed emotion.

“Well, I couldn’t let them do that to her. She was sick. She couldn’t walk. I couldn’t let them find her. I made sure they would never hurt her.”

His hand dropped and he glared at us with hard eyes. I shifted uncomfortably.

“After doing that, well, getting rid of other people didn’t seem so hard.”

I averted my gaze. I’d been right to fear him.

“But my brother—he might still be… if they didn’t kill everyone….”

He pushed the boulder aside, unaided. Then he went out, just like that. Didn’t even say goodbye.

After a pause, Vanessa asked, ““Think he’ll be back?”

“No,” Meg and I harmonized. I knew we’d never see him again.

Not that I’d miss him—he wasn’t exactly pleasant company. But as the three of us exchanged glances, I knew we were all thinking the same thing: our group had been halved in just twelve hours.

Chapter 4

 

“Here,” Meg said, setting a cup of lukewarm cocoa next to me. We didn’t use the propane much because it was scarce, but she probably thought we needed a pick-me up.

Following John’s departure, Meg had begun rustling through the pile of supplies, but her intent seemed uncertain. Vanessa had laid stomach-down onto her sleeping bag with a book in her face, but her eyes weren’t moving.

I sat hunched facing the entrance, my chin resting on one knee. The pitiful cup of expired cocoa sat beside me, the last bit of its warmth seeping away as the minutes dragged on.

Meg broke the morose silence. “We should have a girls’ night.”

Vanessa didn’t even blink in response.

“Girls’ night?” I asked. I didn’t want to be rude too.

“You know, brush our hair and talk or something.”

“I’ve never really had a girls’ night.” Mom had run off when I was a kid. It had just been my brother Zach and Dad.

“All the more reason to have one now,” Meg replied. “Vanessa?”

“If you touch my hair I will skin you alive with the cheese grater.”

“See?” Meg said, undeterred. “It’s nice, having a chat.”

“What do you want, Meg?” Vanessa snapped. “You want us all to sit around painting our nails, and pretend that the whole world didn’t collapse before our eyes? To just forget that everyone who ever mattered is dead?! Wake up!”

I glanced at Meg, expecting her to be offended, but she wasn’t at all.

“And the alternative is what? Lay around and mope?”

“You’re a fool,” Vanessa muttered. Snapping off her flashlight, she slid into her sleeping bag and pointedly faced the wall.

Meg turned to me.

“Well, Rhyan? What do you want?”

“I don’t know,” I answered quietly. “Do you think Tristen and Tanya are okay? Honestly?”

“Honestly? No.”

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Xela is a working mother of three, living in the Utah. Currently in her ninth year of teaching secondary education, she decided that after talking to students about achieving their dreams, she would take her own advice and complete a lifelong goal of writing a novel. When not playing Legos with her sons, or sorting through the endless laundry, you’ll find her watching The Walking Dead, horseback riding, or working on her next book.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
This story was inspired partly by The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead does a superb job of portraying a post-apocalyptic world, a setting that is great for character development.
Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
As a writer, it seems to follow quite naturally that I am a reader as well. My favorites are Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson, and of course Harry Potter.

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