Dr. Riley Poole climbed out of the saddle and dropped to the muddy ground. Ignoring her soggy boots and drenched clothing, she sprinted through the sheet of rain and ducked under a shallow rock outcropping. She pulled her raincoat tighter and pressed her back against the stone, hoping it would provide cover from the downpour.
She and her new husband, Coop, had faced nothing but pouring rain and mud from the moment they hit the road three days earlier. It felt more like a month had passed. Was this harebrained trek from her uncle’s ranch in the hills of western Virginia to Colorado just one more in a string of impulsive and disastrous ideas since the Coronal Mass Ejection struck Earth, destroying civilization, and causing millions of deaths in its aftermath?
In the four months since the CME struck, daily life had grown unrecognizable. After the immediate deaths when the global power grid was destroyed and natural gas explosions erupted, the elderly, defenseless, and ill-prepared were wiped out from lack of food, loss of health care and myriad of conveniences humans took for granted. Life had become a matter of surviving from one day to the next. This was the world Riley had thrust them back into by leaving the comfort and safety of the ranch, driven by her obsession to get to her two youngest children in Colorado.
Coop ran up and crouched beside her, wrapping his arms around her to shield her from the deluge. “I’m not loving that look on your face,” he said loud enough for her to hear him over the rain.
“I can’t do this,” Riley cried. “Leaving the ranch, leaving my own daughter, was an insane idea. Why didn’t you stop me?”
Coop shook his head and laughed. “Since when have I been able to stop you from doing anything you set your mind to? And the point of this adventure is for you to find out what happened to your other kids. We can’t lose sight of that because of a little rain. Jared and Emily are waiting for you at the end of this asinine field trip.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I abandoned Julia.”
“You didn’t dump a newborn on someone’s doorstep. She’s your thirteen-year-old Warrior Princess, recovering from a gunshot wound. Bringing her along would have been insane. She’s safe with your aunt and uncle on the ranch, and we’ll be back for her as soon as humanly possible.”
“You’re right, as always. I’m just soaked, missing Julia, and questioning my sanity. Let’s wait for the rain to taper, then find cover for the night.”
“No argument from me. I’m going to check the horses. Biscuit was agitated when I left him.”
“When is Biscuit not agitated?” she called as he ran back to the horses.
Riley shivered as she watched him pat the horses’ necks, speaking comforting words to them. Her horse, Aurora, was an even-tempered chestnut mare who almost seemed able to read her mind. Coop’s horse, Echo, was a proud black stallion, always in a rush to get everywhere, making it a challenge for the other horses to keep pace. He and Coop were made for each other. Biscuit, the pack horse, was a small dapple-gray gelding, slow, timid, and utterly annoyed at being dragged away from his cozy stall. Riley was sure if he could talk, he’d be complaining as much as she was.
Seeing Coop’s patience with the horses made her grateful again that she’d met him in the days before the world was torn apart. Not only had he been vital in helping Julia and her survive their exodus from Washington, DC, but he’d brought love into her life again, something she never expected after the death of her first husband four years earlier.
She marveled that she could love two men who were so drastically different. Zach had been a fearless US Air Force pilot who’d died when his helicopter was shot down on the Afghan border four years earlier. It was a devastating blow that had given her PTSD and had taken years to recover from.
Dr. Neal Xavier Cooper III, who insisted on being called Coop, was a brilliant, but quirky and impulsive cardiologist who could make a joke out of any situation. Zach had been John Wayne. Coop was the friendly and jovial boy-next-door with his sandy brown hair that perpetually stuck out in all directions. Brilliant though he was, Coop never put on airs or looked down on those less gifted intellectually. He was kind, funny, and talented, but no less brave or adventurous than her first husband. She had given Coop her whole heart and looked forward to sharing the rest of her life with him, however long that might be.
The sweet memory of her wedding with Coop three days earlier was the only thing bringing her comfort in the miserable beginning to their journey. She still felt pangs of guilt for sneaking away in the middle of their reception under the guise of going to honeymoon at her Uncle Mitch’s fishing lodge. She’d hated leaving without saying goodbye to Julia, but she wouldn’t have been able to tear herself away otherwise. Only the burning drive to find out what happened to her two other children had given her the strength to go. Julia was undoubtedly furious with her, but Riley could only pray she’d forgive her in time.
She tucked her thoughts away as Coop hurried back towards her.
“The rain is slowing,” he said. “Let’s get on the trail and find shelter while there’s still light. There may be a forest station or camp nearby where we can rest and dry off for a few days. And I wouldn’t mind having an actual honeymoon instead of just a fictional one.”
He held out a hand to help her up, then scooped her into his arms. She gave him a lingering kiss, and said, “Let’s get this marriage started.”
Julia opened her eyes to the dawn light and sighed in contentment at the memory of the wedding reception for her mom and Coop four days earlier. Her mom had made the most beautiful bride, like a little red-haired model in her elegant wedding dress. After all the suffering over the past few months, she was thrilled that Coop was her new dad and her mom had someone to love.
Julia wondered if she’d ever get the chance to be a bride. The only people around were family. She thought of Dane, the boy she’d met during the short stay at a converted senior center, and decided to ask her mom if they could take a trip to Blue Ridge Meadows to visit him when she got back.
The smell of bacon drifted into the room, so she threw back the covers to get up and dress for breakfast. As she was pulling her socks on, she spotted white paper poking out from under the bed. She reached for it and saw it was an envelope with her name scribbled in her mother’s messy handwriting. She smiled, remembering how her dad used to say her terrible penmanship made her the perfect doctor. She tore the envelope open and began to read.
My dearest Julia,
This is the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. For reasons I hope you’ll understand, I’ve had to keep a secret from you. By the time you read this, Coop and I will be many miles away on our journey to Colorado Springs. I’ve had the plan to get home almost since the day of the CME. I need to find out what has happened to Jared and Emily, and let them know we’re alive. After seeing everyone alive and well at the ranch, I believe they are, too.
Leaving you is tearing my heart in two and is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. If you don’t believe me, ask Coop when you see him again. And you will see him again.
We’ve shared so many extraordinary experiences, my sweetheart. I couldn’t have survived many of them without you. You’ve been my spirit guide and warrior princess. Please believe it when I say you are one of the most remarkable young women in the world.
As soon as I get to Colorado, I’ll start making plans to return to you. (Please tell Uncle Mitch I’m sorry for taking his horses and that I promise to bring them back.)
Be brave! Be happy. You are my heart and my life. I love you more than you’ll ever know.
With deepest love and devotion,
Julia’s hands shook as tears dripped onto the paper. Her mom and Coop had betrayed her. They’d abandoned her after everything they’d survived together. How could her mom say she loved her, then ditch her at the ranch without saying goodbye?
She grabbed her robe and stormed down the stairs, calling out to Uncle Mitch and Aunt Beth.
Her aunt stepped out of the kitchen and caught Julia just before she barreled into her. “Calm down, dear. What’s wrong?”
Julia handed her the letter “Read that. Mom and Coop are gone. They tricked us all and took off after the reception.”
Beth’s lip’s tightened into a straight line as she read. She thrust the letter at Mitch and said, “Look at this,” then guided Julia to a kitchen chair. She leaned against the counter and rubbed her temples.
Mitch slammed the letter on the table. “Stubborn girl. I told her this foolhardy idea was suicide.” Beth cocked her head at Julia just as she looked up and stared. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
Julia jumped to her feet. “We have to go after them. Trucks go faster than horses. We can catch then and make them come back.”
Mitch put his hands on her shoulders. “We can’t, Julia. They’ve had a three-day head start. We have no way of knowing which route they took. They could be anywhere in the wilderness. We have to accept it. They’re gone.”
Julia rushed at him and pounded her fists on his chest. “No,” she cried, “you have to find them! Why would they leave me like this? How could she do this to me?”
Beth took Julia’s hand and led her toward the stairs. “Your mother loves you more than her own life. She’ll sacrifice whatever it takes to come for you. Just give her time. We love you and we’ll protect you. You’re like our own granddaughter now.”
Julia broke free of Aunt Beth and tore out of the house. She raced down the quarter-mile of gravel drive as fast as her gimpy leg would carry her, but slowed as she neared the gate. The exertion of running had cooled her anger, but not her feelings of abandonment and worry for her mom and Coop. She limped to the fence and rested her arms on the top rail, wondering where the hell she thought she was going to go. The ranch was in the middle of nowhere.
She turned her gaze toward the road leading the five miles to Wytheville. She’d never make it that far with her bum leg, but was determined to find another way. If Uncle Mitch wouldn’t go after her mom and Coop, she’d have to go alone, but she couldn’t take off half-cocked. Her dad had taught her to always have a solid plan before going on any journey.
She turned toward the house, wondering if she’d ever see her mother’s face again or hear her voice. As she slowly made her way up the drive, she resolved to do whatever it took to find her mom and Coop or die trying.
Riley and Coop rose just before dawn after spending a damp night in a partially collapsed shed. The rotted-out roof offered little cover. It was better than being out in the drizzly air, but hardly the honeymoon night they’d hoped for.
After packing in a rush, they mounted the horses in the dark and got back on the trail. As the clouds cleared and the sun rose behind them, they crested a ridge and dismounted to take in the view. Row upon row of the Appalachian Mountains stretched as far as they could see. Beyond that, she imagined the rolling hills and eventually the western plains that spread to the base of the Rockies.
The sight hammered home to Riley that they faced months of travel on dangerous and lonely roads masked in shadow and mystery. Filled with fear, but determined to carry on at all costs, she reached for Coop’s hand. With one of her children left behind and the other two waiting ahead, she’d do whatever it took to reach them.
“Magnificent view,” she said, “but it makes it painfully obvious how far we have to go. I’ve never even driven across the country. I don’t know what to expect.”
“Too bad we don’t have my Range Rover. I’ve made several cross-country trips. Once we cross the Appalachian Mountains, the terrain becomes much easier, but we’ll have to push hard to reach the base of the Rockies before the end of June or the heat on the plains will become unbearable. Traveling in snow was a challenge, but traveling in scorching heat is worse, especially if water is scarce. If that scientist, Adrian Landry was right about aftereffects of the CME, the weather could turn even more unpredictable than usual.”
Riley turned and lifted her face to the sunlight. “A little heat sounds glorious to me right now.” After absorbing the rays for a moment, she faced west and was disheartened to see a bank of black billowing clouds heading towards them. She groaned and pulled her hood over her knotted mess of red curls. “We’d better get as far as we can before that next storm hits.”
They remounted and coaxed their weary horses forward. Riley struggled to keep her eyes open as they moved along. The oncoming thunderstorm had dampened her mood and hopes of a rain-free day. She clung loosely to the reins and rocked with the movement of the plodding horse. Within an hour, blowing rain was stinging her face. Coop motioned for her to stop, but she shook her head and kept moving. It made no difference to her if she was drenched on horseback or under a rock. If they kept going, they’d at least be closer to their goal.
By the third hour, she hardly noticed the passing landscape. Every mile looked like the one before, with nothing but trees, rocks, and mud. At some point, she started crying but couldn’t distinguish her tears from the raindrops. She became consumed by her sorrows and gave no heed to the trail in front of her.
As she considered dismounting and curling up in a puddle until the rain stopped, Coop gave a loud whistle. She sat up and turned toward him in a daze. He was stopped and pointing to something directly in front of her. She looked forward in time to see that Aurora’s front hooves were resting on the edge of a cliff above a river gorge. The shock jolted her numbed senses, and she reined Aurora away from the ledge. Coop nudged Echo beside her, and they watched in horror as the mud gave way and plunged into the river from the spot where she’d stopped.
Riley gripped his arm. “That could have been me!”
“The weight of the horse must have dislodged the saturated soil.” A flash of lightening shredded the sky seconds later and was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. “That’s it. We’re taking cover until the storm passes. Look for anything that will work as shelter.”
Riley nodded and scanned their surroundings, ready to hide anywhere after her brush with death. All she saw were trees and more trees. When another lightning strike illuminated the sky, she spotted a glint of metal about fifty feet into the forest. She tapped Coop’s shoulder and gestured for him to follow. She wove the horse through the thick stand of trunks until she came to a small structure with an aluminum roof.
“What is that?” she called to Coop over the wind.
He shrugged and dismounted after handing her Echo’s reins. “One way to find out.” Mud sucked at his boots as he trudged the five feet to the shed. He yanked on the latch a few times before it broke free and the door swung open. When he waved for her to join him, she climbed off her horse and slogged over to him. “Looks like a well shed. There’s just enough room for the two of us.”
“It’ll protect us from the lightning. That’s all that matters.”
They grabbed just what they needed and huddled together in the tiny shed. It felt strange to be under a solid roof for the first time in days. Even though they were still cold, it was dry, and the shed would offer protection against the storm.
They removed their drenched rain gear and wrapped themselves in their mylar blankets, then huddled together for warmth. Riley rested her head on Coop’s chest and dosed off to the sound of the raindrops pattering on the aluminum roof. The next thing she knew, Coop was shaking her shoulder to wake her.
He pointed to the roof and said, “Listen.”
Riley sat up and tilted her head. “To what? I don’t hear anything.”
Coop’s lips curved into a smile. She jumped up and threw the door open to see dissipating clouds and sunlight illuminating steam rising from the saturated ground.
Coop came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. “Stunning. Wish I had a camera,” he said, then turned and rummaged through his pack. “We might need to break my rule about avoiding populated areas if these storms keep hitting. I’ll check the map to see how far we are from civilization.”
“Civilization? Does that still exist?”
Coop spread the map on top of the well pump. “Such as it is. We can’t be too far from people. Someone built this well.” He stroked his beard as he studied the map. “If that’s the New River you almost plunged into, we’re off course. My guess is we’re headed toward Peterson, West Virginia.”
Riley crossed her arms and slumped against the wall. “How far off course?”
“About twenty miles. Less than a day’s ride. The bad news is we’re nowhere near a town. We need to turn due west to get back on track toward Charleston.”
“I don’t care which way we go as long as it’s dry and we’re headed toward Colorado.”
Coop folded the map and held it out to her. “Our first job is figuring out a way to cross that river. I’m not a fan of your method.”
“Me either,” Riley said under her breath and shivered as she threw her pack on her shoulder, then followed him out of the shed.
The clear weather didn’t hold, and another storm overtook them within two hours. Riley concentrated on staying clearheaded and focusing on the path in front of her. They came on a raised clearing with good drainage at sunset. The rain had become too heavy for them to continue, so they made camp. While they set up the tent in the middle of a downpour, Riley wondered if they should have stayed in the shed. Once they were settled in the tent and changed into their driest clothes, Riley downed a protein bar and slid into the sleeping bag.
Coop pulled her close and after giving her a halfhearted kiss, said, “Even I’m too exhausted to care that we haven’t officially consummated this marriage.”
“Same. That will have to wait until this rain stops. I promise to make it worth the wait.”
“Can’t wait,” Coop mumbled and was asleep in seconds.
Riley woke eight hours later from her first full night’s sleep since leaving the ranch. She had a fading memory of dreaming she was back in her OR in Colorado Springs, operating on a teenage boy who’d broken his leg snowboarding. Instead of her usual surgical team, Coop was assisting her, which was odd since he was a thoracic surgeon and not an orthopedist, but it felt right to work with him at her side.
The dream stirred up a darker memory of the two of them operating on Julia in the woods after she’d been shot by the thugs who took them hostage. Coop had assisted her again when they operated on Julia in the camp where they were being held. It was a miracle her daughter had survived and been able to walk after a prolonged recovery. The visions made her miss Julia even more. She wondered what she was doing at that moment.
She shook the dark thoughts from her mind and focused on the sunlight streaming in under the tent flap. Coop was snoring away beside her with his hair sticking up as usual. She had to fight the urge to lick her fingers and smooth it down. She gave him a soft peck on the cheek instead, then climbed out of the sleeping bag, careful not to wake him.
She’d slept in her jeans and flannel shirt, so after pulling on her boots, she unzipped the tent and went out to soak up sunlight before it disappeared. Thirty minutes later, she’d constructed a decent firepit and had a smoky but serviceable fire going with the driest kindling she could find.
While collecting the wood, she’d found a stream twenty yards from the tent. She had filled their water containers, then hung a pot on a branch she rigged above the fire. She fed the horses while she waited for the water to boil. They seemed as happy about the clear skies and sunlight as she was.
After fixing herself a comforting mug of chamomile tea, she sat on a log by the fire to enjoy it. If not for the upheaval and trauma she’d endured for the past three months, she could almost convince herself she was on a relaxing camping getaway. But there was no ignoring the trauma they’d experienced. In their new unpredictable world, any situation could become life threatening in an instant.
She finished her tea and ate another power bar before deciding it was time to wake her groom and make their marriage official. After tossing another log on the fire, she went into the tent and removed her jeans and shirt before sliding into the sleeping bag.
She moved her lips close to Coop’s ear and whispered, “Time to wake up, babe. I’m ready for some quality alone time.”
Without opening his eyes, he said, “Fine, but we better hurry before my grouchy wife gets back.”
Riley gave him a playful slap, then hungrily pressed her lips to his. He responded with an urgency to match hers. The days of frustration and irritation gave way to intense release. Their lovemaking was over as quickly as it started, and they lay panting in contentment in each other’s arms.
When Riley caught her breath, she said, “I told you it would be worth the wait.”
Coop kissed the end of her nose. “With some to spare.”
She propped up on her elbow and gazed down at him. “Can we stay here for a few days? The ground has good drainage in case the rains return. I’ve already built a firepit and there’s a stream nearby. I’m in a hurry to get to Colorado, but I don’t think I can face climbing into that saddle today.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to get our strength back before the next disaster smacks us in the face. We could do some hunting, and fishing.”
“Fresh meat would be nice after days of jerky and MREs.”
Coop sat up and rubbed his face. “I think my stomach will close up shop out of protest if I eat another protein bar. Hand me my clothes and we’ll get started.”
Riley pushed him back down and wrapped her arm around his waist. “We don’t have to start this second. I’m not finished with you yet.”
Coop reached up and wove his fingers into her hair. “I surrender. Have your way with me.”
After what Coop called their honeymoon frolic and a refreshing nap, they were ready to work on setting up their temporary home. Coop gathered and chopped wood while Riley inventoried their supplies. Their food stores were running lower than she’d expected, which wasn’t surprising since they hadn’t been able to gather supplies or cook because of the rain. Stopping for a few days to replenish wasn’t just convenient, it was crucial.
Once Coop had enough wood to last three days, he took the air rifle and went off in search of small game. Riley took the fishing tackle and headed for the stream. She’d loved the outdoors since she was a child, but never learned to fish until Zach taught her early in their marriage. She was hooked from the start. She loved the periods of peaceful contemplation interspersed with the excitement of reeling in a catch. She couldn’t have known then that one day, her survival would depend on her fishing skills.
She found a flat boulder near an eddy and set her supplies down to get ready. The quick flowing stream was so clear she could see the fish darting in the shadows. She knew little about freshwater species populating Virginia waterways, but she recognized the trout and small-mouthed bass. She took one of the Nightcrawlers she’d dug up on her way to the stream and wove it onto her hook. She knew trout preferred smaller worms but found none in the dark moist soil. Bass usually snapped up Nightcrawlers, so Riley hoped she’d have luck with them.
She cast her hook, and it wasn’t long before she had her first bite. It was a small bass. She re-baited the hook and cast her line again, figuring it would take longer the second time. She leaned against the boulder and was just taking in her surroundings when there was another tug on her line. It was a rainbow trout.
She dropped her line in again and immediately had another trout. A bass followed next, then a rainbow trout. She was looking forward to the fresh fish for dinner, but catching them so fast wasn’t allowing much time for peaceful contemplation. She pulled the stringer out of the tackle bag and hooked the fish to it to keep fresh in the stream.
When all the loops on the stringer were occupied with unhappy fish, she decided it was time to quit. If Coop didn’t know how to preserve what they didn’t eat that night, they’d have to toss out the leftovers and didn’t want to be wasteful. She could fish again in the morning.
Riley put her rod away and stretched out on a grassy patch in the sun. With all the rain and constant moving, she hadn’t given attention to the environment they’d traveled through. Ignoring the dampness seeping through her clothes, she looked over the idyllic scene and was surprised to find thick greenery surrounding her on all sides and wondered how she could have missed it.
All she’d known of Virginia since the CME was cold, barrenness, and death. Though the world had started to bloom before they left the ranch, what she witnessed that day was an explosion of life. Leaves were so thick on the trees that sunlight couldn’t penetrate the foliage in some areas. The grass was lush and aromatic, and ferns waved in the gentle breeze near the stream. Mother Nature was going on in her normal rhythm as if the CME had never happened.
If Riley hadn’t been on a journey to reunite with her children, she could imagine stopping there with Coop and starting a life with him. She wondered if that was how the first inhabitants had felt when they arrived on that land. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees, contemplating the fact that in some ways, they weren’t so different from those early settlers. Modern humans had significant advantages, like medical knowledge and more efficient tools, but in one way they were equal. They didn’t have the benefit of electricity or electronic technology
Despite the challenges they faced, Riley was encouraged to see nature springing to life and hoped it also signaled a renewal for humanity. There had been enough of darkness and death. It was time to stop looking back at what they’d lost and build a new life.
Riley got to her feet and gathered the gear and fish to walk back to camp. For the first time since the world turned upside down, she had hoped that with time, they would not only survive but thrive.