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First pages

Chapter 1

Fog hung like a shroud over the empty Brooklyn street. David crept between abandoned cars, careful to stay silent. A cold breeze cut through his tattered windbreaker, and he shivered.

Leaving their apartment had been a big risk. The infected roamed the neighborhood, victims of the paleovirus, driven by two impulses. Kill the strong, infect the defenseless. But he and his wife Sandy were out of food. The fortified brownstone where the government issued quarantine rations beckoned only five blocks away. His plan had been to stick to the shadows, leave behind weapons and his bulky makeshift body armor, travel light and stealthy. With an empty stomach and a starving wife, covering five blocks hadn’t seemed unreasonable.

Now, it seemed impossible. He imagined death lurking in every shadow he passed. Despite the cold, sweat soaked his armpits. He paused at an intersection two blocks from the apartment.

A paleo stepped out of a destroyed coffee shop. Its eyes zeroed in on David. David’s heart stopped.

Once the creature had been a man about David’s age, but now… Dark black veins, ghostly pale skin, and worst of all, the red eyes, burning with a superhuman fury that matched its preternatural strength and speed. David had seen hundreds in the past year, and even from the safety of his reinforced apartment, the sight of one ignited some primordial fear. Now, facing one in the open, he froze in panic.

Adrenaline surged to his rescue. He bolted for home. The creature charged after him.

Each pounding stride on the concrete sent shockwaves up through the flayed soles of David’s running shoes. Bouncing backpack straps dug into his shoulders. David’s lungs screamed for air. His heart slammed in his chest, each beat threatening to split his ribcage.

He passed building after building. No one within offered help. No faces peered from windows, no rooftop snipers sat ready to kill the closing paleo. In the year since Long Island’s isolation, the uninfected population had adopted a Darwinian attitude, and few stuck their neck out for anyone but family, if even for them.

David’s apartment came into view. He pushed himself harder, the end in sight, salvation at hand.

The paleo leapt. It covered twenty feet in one bound and landed on David’s back. Sharp teeth pierced David’s shirt and sank into his shoulder.

Hot blood gushed and a circle of searing pain caught fire over his shoulder blade. He screamed and twisted right. The paleo’s momentum tore it and the pack from David’s back. The creature skidded down the sidewalk, the backpack clutched like prey.

David scrambled up his apartment steps. Sandy’s terrified face looked out a front window and then disappeared. He yanked at the locked storm door. It rattled in the frame.

“Open the door! It’s me!” he screamed.

The paleo sprang up. It tossed aside the mangled backpack and charged. David dropped to his knees and covered his head with his arms.

The paleo landed on the top step. It reared back for another attack, and stopped.

It cocked its head, as if listening to something, though only David’s whimper broke the street’s silence. Its eyes narrowed. The bloodlust seemed to drain away. It backed down the steps, and then began a slow walk east.

David yipped with joy and could not believe his luck. He leaned back against the storm door in relief. A deadbolt clicked in the front door. It opened and Sandy peered out.

“David?”

He pulled himself to his feet. “Oh my God. Sandy, did you see that? It was like something called it away. I survived a paleo attack.”

Sandy pointed to his shoulder. “No you didn’t.”

He touched his shoulder. Sticky blood warmed his fingertips. One bite, one opportunity for mingled fluids transmitted the virus from the infected to the healthy, and always turned the victim paleo.

“No, honey. That’s not a bite. It happened on the way…I fell…”

He looked into her eyes in search of mercy, in search of the triumph of love and faith over science and experience.

Sandy raised their snub nose .38 pistol and pressed the barrel against the glass beside David’s head. She cocked the hammer.

“I love you,” she apologized.

Tears welled in his eyes. He nodded his assent.

The bullet blasted through the glass and tore through David’s brain. His corpse tumbled down the apartment building’s steps.

Three seconds later, a second shot rang out from the apartment hallway.

♦♦♦

A block away, the paleo didn’t react. Though such noises always drew the infected, this creature walked eastward, as something irresistible reeled it in.

Chapter 2

Lynnwood, Eastern Long Island

 

Screw the medical advice. Kim Mitchell couldn’t fight the cravings. Not anymore. A former recreational drug connoisseur, she’d been involuntarily clean for far too long.

For a year, the paleovirus had put the island under quarantine, a year where every day devolved into a level of misery worse than the day before. The cumulative stress was all too much, and it was time for a little release. She stepped off her uncle’s porch and began the long, dangerous walk into town.

Long Island, or Q Island as all now called it, stretched east from New York City for over one hundred miles. On the Exclusionary Zone maps, it looked like a big fish nibbling at Manhattan. Connecticut and Rhode Island were about twenty miles away to the north across Long Island Sound. At the outbreak, the government had blown the bridges, sunk the ferries, and dropped quarantine. The isolation had trapped eight million people. How many still survived was anyone’s guess.

Loud as Kim’s cravings screamed, they didn’t drown out the call to be wary. Lynnwood proper had a manned defensive perimeter, but this far from town, all that kept the infected from her neighborhood were some weak barricades, regularly scaled by paleos or driven around by uninfected Rovers. She slunk through the shadows of the subdivision’s mostly abandoned houses, and kept a keen eye out for paleos.

Fast and strong, the insane victims of the paleovirus attacked anyone on sight. Even after death, the corpses weren’t safe. They soon bloated and exploded, sending a toxic cloud of airborne spores to infect anyone who inhaled them.

Kim left the yard of the last house and made a beeline through some scrubby woods for town. She came across the perimeter. She didn’t think much of it. This side of town, off the main road, it was more a collection of junk than a proper defensive wall. The barrier was lightly manned and half the town’s defenders used to get high with her. But the idea of a barricade made residents feel safer, so at least it served that purpose.

She moved a section of sheet metal and climbed through a hole in the wall. She slid the metal back in place, and headed for her old friend Gerry’s house.

Inside the perimeter, Lynnwood still stood, but as a teetering, punch-drunk fighter, a shadow of what it had been before the outbreak. The wind swirled leaves and litter between shuttered and shattered businesses. Dying weeds exploited cracks in the street’s asphalt. Strangled by the quarantine, assaulted by the infected, abandoned by the affluent, Lynnwood wasn’t much different than any other town on eastern Q Island.

Kim wore a long leather coat against the fall chill, and now she wished she hadn’t torn away the damaged sleeves last spring. Goose bumps ran up her bare arms and gave her tattoo sleeves a bizarre texture. Kim’s mother Nicole had cut, or more accurately, chopped Kim’s blonde hair to just below her ears as a concession to the scarcity of hot water and shampoo. The last time Kim had let her mother cut her hair was as a teen over ten years ago. She wasn’t happy returning to that practice, and was especially unhappy sharing a house with Nicole again.

A red hatchet hung at one hip from what was once a fashionable leather belt. The weapon could turn out to be more placebo than practical. With their inhuman strength, there was almost no stopping an attacking paleo. At least the dangling hatchet deterred the uninfected, and they could be almost as bad.

By now, Q Island was one big roadside warzone. In the first weeks, prime targets, like pharmacies, liquor stores, and jewelers, fell victim to looting for profit. Now after a year in, theft was a matter of survival. Anywhere undefended was fair game, whatever inside stolen and recycled to more practical uses. Furniture became fire wood. Bookstores provided kindling. A Mercedes dealership two towns over still boasted a lot full of cars, though all rested on the ground, their tires reassigned to vehicles of lesser pedigrees. Only the heavily fortified buildings tasked to distribute government handouts stood relatively unscathed.

Brick two-stories made up most of downtown Lynnwood, relics of a building boom now decades past. Two blocks off the main street, Gerry had appropriated an abandoned one-bay oil change shop as his new office. The town’s low level of law enforcement had allowed his business to outgrow the back room in his apartment. His pot was pure homegrown, but Kim wondered where he got the harder stuff. Nothing got through the quarantine. The waters around the island teemed with Navy warships, Coast Guard cutters, and a shifting fleet of paranoid mainland volunteers ready to sink first and ask questions later.

Kim approached the front door. Thick plywood had replaced the glass. Two peepholes stared out at eye level. Gerry claimed it let him see people outside in 3-D. She banged on the door.

Someone shuffled on the other side. Locks clicked and snapped. The door cracked open.

Gerry stuck his head out. Oily black hair hung down to his shoulders. A patchy beard fought for skin space with irritated, pink rosacea. His nose had a hook to it that ensured he’d never be a ladies’ man, but that was just one item on a long list. He flashed a yellow-toothed smile.

“Kimmy, long time no, huh?”

He glanced around to make sure she was alone, and then opened the door to let her in.

She stepped inside and recoiled. The place reeked of stale pot and cigarettes. The broken, boarded-up windows left it to the one remaining neon fixture to illuminate the former waiting area. A collection of varied refuse dotted the reception counter. Stuffing peeked through splits in overstuffed vinyl chairs.

“You’re looking smoking, babe.”

“Thanks.” She’d taken Gerry’s lecherous advances in stride for years, sometimes trading quick sex for stash in lean times.

“No, seriously. Something’s different.”

“Yeah, well, back to business, huh?”

“Absolutely. What can I do you for?”

“Start with some weed and see what you have up from that.”

He reached over the counter, pulled out a baggie stuffed with marijuana and dropped it on top of a faded ad for Castrol oil. “Still stocking it all. I’m the fucking Wal-Mart of dope, babe. Anything for the finer women.”

He reached down and touched his hands to her hips. His face screwed up in concern. He pulled away and then flipped open her jacket. The bulge of her pregnancy made him step back.

“Whoa, what have we here?”

“A baby, all right? Can we do business here?”

“And who might the lucky father be?”

This was exactly the kind of twenty questions thing Kim had hoped to avoid. “Ryan Banks, like it matters now.”

“Ryan? Shit, he went paleo. Sorry.”

“Yeah, well that was after, obviously. And it was one drunken night, no big deal.”

“Never saw you as the mother type.”

“Yeah, I’m still not.” There were barely enough qualified medical providers on Q Island to save lives, and none available to end them. If the back room abortion providers still practicing in the area hadn’t been terrifying, she’d have ended the whole thing months ago.

“And you have cash to pay for all these good times I’m dealing?”

She tried to assume an alluring face. She ran her hand over the crotch of his greasy jeans. “No cash, but we’ve used different payment before.”

Gerry stepped back fast. “Are you kidding me? You all swelled up like that. That ain’t my turn on. Besides, I shouldn’t sell shit to a pregnant woman.”

She dropped her forced temptress demeanor for one of true anger. “Shit, Gerry, nothing I’d do now is going to screw it up. The thing’s due any day.”

“After that day, c’mon back with cash. Until then, out you go. Pregnant chicks drive down business.”

He pushed her out the door and slammed it shut. She kicked the door and cursed. That jackass.

And now this was a wasted trip. A dangerous wasted trip. And she was about to make another one to get back to her uncle’s house and her oh-so-fun mother. Goddamn Gerry.

Suddenly, pain ripped through her lower abdomen. A menstrual cramp turned up to eleven. She doubled over and the agony raced down her legs.

Her heart went into panicked overdrive. No, not now. Wait. False labor. That’s all. Just false labor. I’ll get back to the house and...

Something popped. Warm fluid gushed from between her legs and soaked her sweat pants.

“Goddamn it,” she winced.

She couldn’t make it home. She sure as hell wasn’t giving birth in Gerry’s shithole. A few blocks over, there was a makeshift clinic. A walk that far seemed impossible.

But not as impossible as getting home.

She staggered for the clinic.

Chapter 3

From the clinic’s far corner, a man screamed.

Kim Mitchell overdubbed it with her own furious wail. Her contraction’s shearing pain turned the world white, and overloaded all her senses. She didn’t feel the cold, filthy floor, didn’t taste the blood where she’d bit her lip, didn’t smell the death that hung in the air like a rancid fog. Her only clear thought was that something inside her wanted her dead.

The pain subsided. Her shriek tapered off to a whimper. She inhaled and leaned her head back against the scarred linoleum. Sweat pooled under her bare buttocks. A thin sheet covered her bent legs like a tent.

The makeshift medical center occupied an abandoned pet store in the shambles of downtown Lynnwood. Office dividers broke the emptied shop into stalls that had to pass for rooms. Moans drifted in from everywhere. Metal clattered against metal. Blood-spattered curtains shielded the former dog grooming room from view, so that emergency surgery might be performed without spectators. Most patients had some sort of bed, but when Kim limped in with the help of the clinic’s volunteer civilian guard, the overworked aide at the door parked her in the first available space, and this one had nothing. She’d tossed Kim the sheet and told her to take off her sweat pants.

From her vantage point on the floor, the view under the dividers was a flurry of rolling IV stands and shuffling feet. The front door guard shouted for help. A man in jeans and a torn leather jacket ran past towards the front door, carrying a hunting rifle.

A haggard woman in green scrubs stepped into her cubicle. Something gray and gelatinous streaked one leg of her scrubs. Stray silver strands had escaped her short ponytail, and hung limp and exhausted against her cheeks.

“I’m Tara,” she said.

She knelt and inspected Kim’s arms. She frowned at the full-sleeve tattoos. The nurse twisted Kim’s head right and left as she inspected her neck. A year into quarantine, the days of insurance cards and family histories were long gone. Only one question mattered anymore.

“Are you infected?” the nurse said.

“Shit!” Kim pulled up her shirt and exposed her bulging stomach. It glowed pasty white, with no trace of the paleovirus’s black-hued veins. “Look! I’m clean.”

The nurse inspected the inside of Kim’s arms more closely. She ran a finger along the track mark scars and grimaced.

“Clean of everything,” Kim snapped. “Since before the baby.”

The nurse pulled a laser thermometer from her pocket and lit up Kim’s forehead. The reading glowed green. She shoved the thermometer back in her pocket. She eyed Kim’s distended stomach. “How far along?”

“Pushing nine months.”

“Contractions?”

“No, I just dropped by to chat. Hell yes, I’m having contractions!”

“No shit. I meant how often.”

“I don’t know! Maybe—”

Every muscle from Kim’s ribcage down screamed as the most powerful contraction yet ripped through her body. She wailed in an octave she didn’t know she possessed.

The nurse dropped to her knees and whipped the sheet up and over Kim’s knees. Her eyes went wide. A look of grim determination swept aside her look of exhaustion. Her voice went hard as steel.

“You arrived here under the wire. You’re about to be a mother.”

The sentence filled Kim with dread.

The nurse looked over her shoulder. “Alicia! Warm water, towels! Now!”

Panic roared through Kim like a stampede. Since the outbreak, rumors had run wild about what happened to the newborns. Some said they all died, some said they were born infected and psychotic, killers straight from the womb, murdering their mothers as soon as they had the strength. For nine months, she’d dreaded discovering if some sort of beast grew within her. She was about to find out.

“You got someone coming in to help you?” the nurse said.

She ran through a grim mental checklist. The biological father infected. Her mother probably drunk. Her brother Patrick trapped on the wrong side of Long Island Sound. “Just you and me.”

Tara shook her head. “A year ago natural childbirth was some wholesome choice. Now it’s mandatory.”

A young girl carrying a shallow plastic container of water and two threadbare pastel bath towels came up behind Tara. Alicia placed everything on the floor and then stared down between Kim’s legs.

“I don’t need an audience, kid,” Kim said.

The girl’s cheeks flushed. She ducked her head and scurried off. Tara pulled two rubber gloves from her pocket and snapped them on. She nudged Kim’s legs further apart.

“You’re already fully dilated, girl. The baby’s coming very fast, head first, just right. Take deep breaths. The next contraction, you bear down and push. Scream and yell all you want.”

“I was going to do that without your per—”

The contraction hit. Kim bellowed. Her face flushed beet red. Everything between her legs exploded into burning, shredding torment.

“Push, push, push! Keep it up!”

Kim pushed. With all her strength. To stop the pain. To end the dread. To expel the thing inside her, a thing likely damaged and deformed by the hellish world of its conception. Her pelvis stretched beyond belief. She screamed and then felt immense relief.

She collapsed back on the floor in utter exhaustion and closed her eyes, relieved to be rid of the parasite.

From below her waist came a tiny, plaintive cry. At the sound, a switch flipped inside Kim. Her revulsion and dread receded. Longing flowed in. The little, wailing person obscured beyond the mound of sheet at her waist needed comfort. Kim stared up at the ceiling’s cracked and dirty acoustic ceiling tiles.

“Is it…normal?” Kim whispered.

She’s perfect,” Tara said. Water sloshed in the plastic pan. A wet towel hit the floor with a splat. “See for yourself.”

The nurse handed the newborn up to Kim. Eyes closed, glistening skin turning pinker each second, tiny mouth gulping her first breaths of air, her first moments of life. The umbilical cord lay across Kim’s body.

Kim swelled with elation, with a sense of profound completeness she’d never even imagined being possible. She gathered her child in her arms, so tiny, so defenseless.

Several people yelled from the clinic’s far corner. Something crashed against the floor and glass shattered. Alicia returned and stuck her panicked face around the corner of the divider.

“Tara, we need you now!” She disappeared.

“Don’t move,” Tara said. “I’ll be right back for the two of you.”

Kim closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation of shared life. She caressed her daughter’s head.

“Healthy,” she whispered. “Normal.”

♦♦♦

Kim did not witness the newborn’s skin turn ashy. Her capillaries flushed red, then turned the dark gray that struck terror in the hearts of all who saw it. A dark spider web bloomed all across her body. Then simultaneously, from her head and her toes, the darkness retreated, leaving only fresh, pink skin behind.

The polluted veins contracted until the remains encircled the umbilical cord. The cord turned a shade of gray, then black, then shriveled and pinched like a raisin’s skin, as if this newborn knew the blood that pumped through its mother’s veins was now unfit to mix with her own. The cord parted. Everywhere, the child’s skin returned to a rosy glow.

The baby sighed and tucked its head into Kim’s arm.

Chapter 4

Hours later, Kim was ready to go home, or as ready as she would ever get. The parade of the sick entering the incited a paranoid that her daughter would catch a disease. Tara had commented that Kim’s blood loss was uncharacteristically light, her birth easy, especially for a first timer. Kim didn’t think so. She was exhausted and the lower half of her body felt like it had been through a blender. The idea of walking seemed unbearable.

Alicia rolled in a wheelchair. She looked at the baby and smiled, a reaction so rare from someone under quarantine that it seemed strange. “What’s her name?”

Kim’s jaw dropped. She hadn’t selected one. In the nine months of denial about the reality of becoming a mother, she hadn’t even considered any names. How could she have felt that way about this beautiful girl she held? “Uh, still not sure.”

“Oh, well, it’ll come to you. You got someone to take you home?”

Of course there wasn’t anyone. The story of Kim’s life was having to fend for herself. A missing father, an indifferent mother, a long roster of Mr. Rights who were all Mr. Wrongs.

“No,” was all Kim said.

“Kevin can get you home.”

“Splendid.”

Alicia wrapped Kim’s daughter in a threadbare, lime green towel. The seconds of separation seemed eternal. Alicia handed the baby back and helped Kim into the wheelchair. Alicia pushed them to the street outside the clinic.

At the curb waited a battered, red Ford pickup with a bed cap. This was what passed for an ambulance on Q Island. A flaking coat of flat, white spray paint, covered the doors, hood, and tailgate, each topped with an uneven red cross. A man in faded desert camouflage pants stood guard at the rear with a shotgun. Another by the hood carried a rifle. They both had the weary, wasted look of men who had seen too much, too often, and were resigned to see more of it. Kim recognized neither guard. So many outsiders had sought refuge in Lynnwood when the world collapsed. The man at the hood took the passenger seat in the cab and pointed the rifle out the open window.

“Hurry it up!” yelled a scrawny man from the driver’s seat. He had a three-day beard, a mat of greasy brown hair, and droopy, bloodshot eyes. “I’m one big target sitting still.”

“Cool it, Kevin!” Alicia shouted. She bent down to Kim’s ear. “He gets a little overheated. But he’ll get you home. No worries.”

Kim wasn’t reassured.

Alicia wheeled her to the rear of the truck. At closer range, it was clear that the tires didn’t match. Daylight streamed through several bullet holes in the cap. Pushing herself home in the wheelchair suddenly seemed like a pretty good idea.

Alicia scooped the baby from Kim’s arms. Kim lifted herself into the truck bed. Alicia handed her the child. Kim cradled her close and slid all the way back against the cab, next to the natural gas tank that now fueled the truck. The guard with the shotgun climbed in and sat in the rear, back against the aluminum cap. Alicia raised the tailgate, and it clanked into place like a prison cell door. She peered in over the lip.

“I’ll give Kevin your address. Good luck.”

And that was quarantine medical care. No follow-up visits, no sheaf of prescriptions. Just a wish for success that sounded more resigned than encouraging. And Kim wasn’t sure if the girl just meant good luck getting home, or in raising a newborn girl in Q Island’s circle of Hell.

The truck rumbled to life and pulled away. The clinic retreated into the distance through the frame of the truck’s cap and tailgate. The guard looked over at the child in Kim’s arms.

“Congrats.” The perfunctory statement was devoid of emotion. He turned to scan the passing ruins. His finger massaged the shotgun’s trigger guard. Sunlight through a side window highlighted a fresh purple scar that ran along his jawline.

A guard passed them through the western gate of Lynnwood’s defenses. Kevin took the road to Kim’s subdivision. Abandoned cars dotted the roadway, some left there when they ran out of gas, others ambushed, burned-out hulks, still others deserted by infected drivers as their burgeoning urge to kill overcame all reason. The truck wove through the maze with an occasional venture onto the shoulder and back.

The truck slowed to a stop. Kim peered through the cab’s back glass and out ahead through the windshield. Cars rolled on their sides blocked the highway, save one narrow opening straight ahead.

The hairs on the back of her neck went rigid. Kim had been here often, and this arrangement was new. No one abandoned a car on its side. People rolled a car on its side.

Kevin’s scared, muffled voice sounded from the other side of the glass as he spoke to the guard in the passenger seat. “Shit, dude. This don’t look good.”

Before the guard could answer, gunshots sounded around the truck. The passenger side view mirror exploded and sent shards into the guard’s face. Two rounds pierced the truck’s aluminum cap and whizzed by Kim. She screamed, ducked, and wrapped both arms around her daughter.

“Sit tight,” the guard at her feet ordered. He racked a shell into his shotgun and vaulted out the back gate.

The front seat guard let fly a slew of curses and returned fire. Deafening rifle reports echoed inside the truck. The shotgun blasted from behind. More gunfire sounded all around them. The guard at the rear of the truck screamed.

Rounds pierced the cab with metallic pings. The front seat guard jerked, and then slumped forward.

“Stop shooting, stop shooting!” Kevin screamed in a feminine screech.

Kim’s heart raced. She reached to her side and realized that she’d left her hatchet in the clinic. She held her daughter close. She slid half way toward the tailgate and stopped. Where could she go? Try to outrun a hail of bullets in her condition?

“Driver, step outta the truck,” a voice shouted from off the truck’s hood. “Hands up where we can see ’em.”

Kim rose and peered out of the cap’s side window. Two armed men worked their way between abandoned cars. Her truck’s door creaked open, and Kevin stepped out, hands raised.

“See the crosses?” Kevin said. “This is an ambulance.”

The men stopped a few feet from Kevin. Both had the disheveled, dirty appearance of Q Island Rovers. One of the men had a red bandana tied over his head and a full, nappy beard. He brandished a pistol and had a rifle slung over his shoulder. The other Rover wore a battered, greasy Texaco ball cap. He raised his rifle to the sky and smiled. His teeth were nearly black.

“Was an ambulance,” he said. “Now it ain’t. Maybe you got some medications back there me and the boys can put to good use.”

“No, the truck is empty.”

“Like I’m gonna take your word for it.” Mr. Texaco turned and shouted across the hood to the man in the bandana. “Benny, check the bed.”

Kim shuffled back as far as she could. She wrapped both arms around the bundle at her chest.

Heavy footsteps approached the rear of the truck. Benny peered in. Wild, frizzy brown hair framed his fat, oily face. A pair of close-set eyes leered at Kim from beneath a protruding brow. He pointed his pistol at her head.

“I’m not infected!” Kim cried. “I have a baby!”

He lowered the pistol and shouted around the corner of the truck. “Got a bitch back here with a baby!” He addressed Kim. “How old?”

“Hours.”

The man dropped the tailgate and holstered his pistol. He grinned. “That’ll screw up your pussy for a while. Gonna have to bend you over the tailgate for a good time.”

An inhuman cry rose up from the trees along the road. Benny swiveled to look in that direction. Kim stared through the window.

A swarm of the infected came at a run. Blackened veins pulsed under ash-gray skin. Their eyes burned with a fury powered by the paleovirus’ psychotic rage. The gunfire had likely lured them with the promise of the violence their twisted minds craved, and the compulsion to spread the virus.

Benny swung his rifle off his shoulder. Before he could bring it to bear, one of the infected tackled him from behind. In a panicked struggle, Benny slithered free. He rose to run.

The paleo moved faster. It leapt and grabbed Benny’s arm. One yank with its unreal strength and the arm tore from its socket. Benny screamed as blood sprayed them both. He managed two steps before he dropped to the ground dead.

The truck lurched as Kevin jumped into the cab. Mr. Texaco managed two wild shots before the infected pounced on him. Kim shielded her daughter. The infected slammed Mr. Texaco into the truck. It rocked hard right. The sound of the man’s screams and the wet tearing of flesh painted Kim a horrific enough picture of what she couldn’t see. She looked into the cab through the rear window.

In the front seat, Kevin fumbled with the ignition keys. The window beside him exploded. Paleo hands clamped on the door and ripped it free. Kevin scrambled for the passenger side. An arm black with infected veins reached in and grabbed his belt. Kevin flew backwards out the driver’s side like a hooked fish and disappeared, shrieking. Then all fell silent.

Kim’s eyes darted around the empty truck bed. She could get a gun from one of the bodies outside. But she was outnumbered. And a shootout would just delay the inevitable. She couldn’t run. And now she had Charlotte to protect.

She realized that her little girl had a name.

She held Charlotte close, tucked herself into a fetal position and faced the cab of the truck. She prayed her daughter would be quiet. She prayed no infected would search the truck. She prayed she could play dead if they did. She stared at the scratches in the bed’s paint.

Feet shuffled outside the truck. Something banged against the tailgate. Kim’s heart skipped a beat.

The bed sagged down as a paleo climbed into the truck. Kim gripped Charlotte. Boots thunked against the metal bed, closer, closer. Kim clamped her eyes shut and held her breath.

A fetid stench of filth and perspiration blanketed her. She fought back choking. The infected’s presence loomed over her, palpable, terrifying. Her pounding heart beat against the cold truck bed. Hot, short breaths touched her ear.

The breathing stopped, followed by the sound of a shuffling retreat. The truck lurched up and down as the infected jumped off the tailgate and hit the ground with a crunch.

Kim exhaled. She opened her eyes and counted to a thousand through the silence outside the truck. She rolled over and looked back through the open tailgate. No one outside.

She sat up and checked through the side cab window. The corpse of the Rover lay there, a bloody, mangled pile of flesh and organs. Kevin, still in one piece, lay between him and the truck. The infected had disappeared.

She looked down and unwound some of the towel around her daughter. Charlotte was asleep, blessedly asleep, breathing tiny sweet breaths through her tiny sweet lips. The baby wrinkled her nose and sighed.

Kim was in no condition to do it, but the imperative that consumed her was to get Charlotte home safe.

She tucked her daughter into the crook of her arm and slid to the tailgate. She swung her feet out and onto the ground. She winced. Everything hurt as she stood up.

The round-faced would-be rapist lay a few feet from the truck, short one arm with a look of horror forever plastered on his face. The barrel of his rifle stuck out of the ground, snapped free of the rest of the gun. Her guard lay along the far side of the road where Rover bullets had cut him down.

Leaning against the truck, Kim staggered around to the cab, past Kevin’s still body. She crawled in through the empty doorframe.

Kevin’s eyes opened. “You…you’re alive. How…?” He raised one hand a few inches. “Hey, you gotta help me.”

Blood soaked his shirt. He had bite marks along his neck, and a crescent-shaped flap hung from one cheek. He tried to raise himself on one arm. His other one hung limp, broken.

A twinge of compassion came and went through Kim. He was doomed. The infected had killed the threatening people and infected the rest. That’s how they had been working lately. Scientists believed that the virus was exerting enough control to make sure the host gave it the chance to propagate in others. Some lovely circle-of-life shit there. Kim slid behind the wheel.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Russell James grew up on Long Island, New York and spent too much time watching late night horror. He graduated from Cornell University and the University of Central Florida. After flying helicopters with the U.S. Army, he now spins twisted tales, including paranormal thrillers Dark Inspiration, Sacrifice, Black Magic, Dark Vengeance, Dreamwalker, Q Island and The Portal. He has two horror short story collections, Tales from Beyond and Deeper into Darkness.

Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
This book is set in the same world as my novel Q Island. The paleovirus has swept Long Island, NY and turned people into crazed killers. Quarantine was dropped and Long Islanders are on their own. But this novel stands alone with completely new characters and situations.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
The Q Island world is very bleak, nearly hopeless. Writing is an intense, emotional process, where I have to imagine myself into the situations the characters experience. Mentally spending a year in that fictional place and envisioning man’s darkest side tends to be depressing.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
In my novel Q Island, a woman and her son escape a viral outbreak. Afterwards, I thought about the thousands trapped on the other side. Nothing but the clothes on your back and the cash in your pocket, missing the family left behind. What would make you return? That inspired Return to Q Island.

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