Melissa walked through the ashes of what had been central Birchfield, picking her way through the rubble. She was near the edge of the fire’s damage, where the rain had extinguished the flames before they could spread farther, and directly ahead of her lay a large hospital complex, which seemed mostly intact. The large central building had been only partially burned, so hopefully she could find some undamaged medication inside.
As she walked up the short drive toward the broken windows and glass doors that led into the lobby, she saw three men sitting around the waiting area and she paused, her feet crunching in the glass. The largest of the three turned toward the sound, stood from his chair, and smiled.
“Well, hello there, little lady,” he said as he stepped through the broken window. “How can we help you?”
Melissa pulled her father’s knife from its sheath and continued forward. The short-bladed hunting knife was the only weapon she had brought, favoring speed over armament. While she did not regret that decision, she was glad she had, at least, brought some weapon. She had already been attacked twice since entering Birchfield before sunrise, and judging by the look on this man’s face, the third attack was coming.
He stepped in front of her as she tried to walk into the lobby and said, “I asked you a question, sweetheart.”
“Move,” she said.
“You’d like to see the way I move, wouldn’t you?” he asked and licked his lips as his eyes searched her over.
Melissa stood unmoved and unafraid. She had faced too much for this man to frighten her.
“You’re a shy one, huh?” he asked and reached his hand out toward her face.
She brought her blade up and sliced open his wrist.
He jerked his hand back with a hiss and said, “You little bitch!”
As he spoke, Melissa took a step back out of his range and watched him carefully. He was holding his wrist with his other hand, but the blood had begun to seep through his fingers and drip onto the paving stones. He looked up at her, hatred in his eyes, and she braced a foot behind her.
He lunged for her, both arms outstretched. Melissa darted into his range and buried her father’s knife into his throat. His arms wrapped tightly around her for just a moment before he realized what had happened and his eyes went wide. As he released his grip on her and stumbled back, Melissa pulled her knife free.
He fell to his knees and began gasping for air. She took a few steps back to clean her blade on a strip of cloth she had tucked into her belt after her first encounter that morning. As her attacker fell to his back, grasping his throat and sucking at the air in panic, she sheathed her knife and walked into the hospital.
The two smaller men—boys really—who had stood and watched the entire thing unfold, backed against the reception desk as she entered.
“W-we don’t want any trouble!” one of them said.
Melissa ignored them and walked farther into the building, searching for the pharmacy. She was far from familiar with hospitals, but she knew enough to know that their medication came from somewhere within the building.
It took her the better part of an hour, by her estimation, to find the room she sought. She had checked every room, down dozens of halls until she had finally come to a large pharmacy window that let out into the hallway. As she inspected the thick glass of the window, she noticed the two boys from the front lobby peering around the corner. They had followed her the entire time she had worked her way through the hospital, but she felt no real threat from them. They were clearly scavengers, not predators.
Around the corner from the large window, she found a door—which had long since been pried open—leading into the pharmacy. When she stepped inside, she found several of the shelves empty, but by some miracle, over half were still mostly full. She looked across hundreds of small white bottles, boxes of varying colors, and liquid-filled bags. Unfortunately, there was no shelf labeled antibiotics so Melissa filled her empty backpack with everything that looked remotely useful, focusing on emptying the shelves of any bottles or liquid-filled bags with names ending in -cillin.
She took another moment to locate the needles and tubing she assumed would be necessary to use the bags, then stuffed them into her pack, zipped it up, and slung it over her shoulders. When she left the room, she noticed the two boys waiting nearby outside the door. She spared them no more than a sidelong glance as she passed by. As soon as she had moved away from the room, they bolted inside and closed the door.
Melissa tightened the straps on her backpack and set off down the hallway at a jog. She would leave the hospital through a side entrance she had found while searching, as she did not want to go back the way she came, in case the dying man’s grunts or wheezing had attracted any other unwanted company. She would have killed any others she needed to, but she just didn’t have time to fool with that.
Charlotte needed her now.
Greg walked across the deck of the houseboat, carefully escorting Lindsey out ahead of him. She continually cast frightened glances at him over her shoulder, but what was he supposed to do? He was backed into a corner. He would do what he could for her—and for the rest of the women—but he couldn’t put his wife and daughters in danger in order to do so. Lacy was down below, in the hold, where the other women were being kept. His wife kept a close eye, and an even closer grip, on Joanna and Samantha, but she did what she could for the other women as well. Greg would have been keeping a close eye on them as well, had he not been kept so busy by Bert and his men.
Bert was a cruel, evil man. Greg often fantasized about ways he could kill him while he was sleeping, but so far none of his fantasies had any chance of becoming reality. There was too much danger in the plans. If he failed, Lacy would… And he didn’t even want to consider Jo and Sam…
He picked up his pace a little, pushing Lindsey along ahead of him. She was strong, she really was, but she was showing signs of a broken spirit after her few short days on this boat. She had been…used by several of the Collectors so far, but the true horror still lay ahead.
As he pushed Lindsey along, he passed by Danny—the young boy who had traveled with Greg, Tommy, and Clark from Langford. Danny looked away from him with shame clear on his face. The boy had been inducted into Bert’s “Collectors” a little differently than Greg. He was only twelve, but Bert had forced him to take a woman from the hold belowdecks and use her while several of the other Collectors watched. It had still sickened Greg to the point that he had left Bert’s cabin and retched over the side of the boat. He was thankful only that Danny had not been forced to take Lindsey, Sara, or Rebecca.
Two days later, as Bert found another group on the riverbank, he had taken all his men to the shore and had forced Danny to shoot the unofficial leader of that group in the head while his wife and children watched. Bert had then gifted Danny with that man’s wife as his prize. He had also given Danny the rifle that he had used to do the deed. The boy now carried the carbine around his shoulder at all times. He seemed afraid of the weapon, but far more afraid to take it off.
Greg was pulled from his thoughts as he and Lindsey reached the main cabin.
She turned to Greg, grasped at his lapel, and whispered frantically, “Greg, we can get out of here. Don’t make me go in there. Please. I know you know what will happen.”
“Lindsey…” he whispered, then hesitated, lost for words. “We have to do what we can to stay alive; just focus on that. Do as Bert says and stay alive.”
Lindsey shook her head frantically. “Please, just get Lacy and the girls and let’s swim for it.”
“They will kill us,” he said angrily. “Did you not see what happened to the last ones who tried to run?”
“Good. I’d rather die,” she said, and tears began forming in her eyes. “I’d rather you kill me right now than give that son of a bitch the satisfaction.”
Greg eyed her for a few moments, glad only for the fact that Lindsey’s intense ferocity seemed to have died down in the face of her fear. That was for the better. Rebecca—Tommy’s wife—had shown anger and strong will on her first night on the boat, clawing a Collector’s eye out as the man had been abusing her. She had died screaming, a sound that still reverberated through Greg’s mind late at night when he lay his head down.
“Please, Greg,” Lindsey said, tears forming in her eyes.
Greg swallowed hard, but remained silent. Lacy, Jo, and Sam.
“All right, get in here,” he heard Bert call from inside. Greg avoided looking at Lindsey and opened the door. Lacy, Jo, and Sam. Lacy, Jo, and Sam.
“Yeaaaah, that’s the redhead,” Bert said, taking a long swig of rum and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “Good work, Greggy-boy.”
Greg averted his eyes from Bert, who was naked from the waist down, his white shirt unbuttoned and dangling loose, covered in stains from blood, sweat, and God knew what else.
As Greg was turning to leave, he caught a glimpse of Sara lying still in the corner, and froze, feeling his heart rip in two. Sara had been Greg’s neighbor for years. She was a good woman and had lost her husband in the explosions. She hadn’t deserved this. She had only been twenty-four years old. She had barely begun living, and now she lay still on the floor of Bert’s cabin, yellowed bruises clear on her face around her open, lifeless eyes.
“Ah yeah,” Bert said drunkenly, “She tapped out. Do me a favor, Greg, and toss her over the side.”
Lacy, Jo, and Sam.
“Yes, sir,” Greg said, trying to keep the tears from forming in his eyes. Bert would surely see them as a sign of weakness. Then what would become of Greg’s family? Bert seemed to abhor weakness in his men.
Greg was struggling to lift Sara’s body from the floor when Bert rose to his feet, saying, “Oh, Miss Redhead. You’re another one of those crying bitches, huh? I hate the ones that cry.”
Greg wasn’t watching, but he heard the meaty smack of Bert’s fist hitting Lindsey, followed by her crying out in pain.
“Please,” Lindsey whispered, whether a plea to Bert, or to Greg, he did not know. He hefted Sara’s body into his arms and made his way out of the cabin with as much haste as he could muster.
When he reached the bow, he tossed Sara overboard and heard her splash into the river unceremoniously—just as he had done with Rebecca a few nights before. It was then that the tears began falling from his eyes and, soon after, the vomit left his stomach. He retched for several minutes, until it felt like there was nothing left within him.
As he was dry heaving over the rail, a small rivercraft pulled up toward them. That was likely Larry and his men returning from scouting the riverbanks for survivors.
Lacy, Jo, and Sam.
Greg stood straight and wiped his mouth and eyes.
The boat pulled closer and Larry squinted up, trying to make Greg out through the late afternoon darkness. Kevin walked up next to him and Greg glanced over. He was unsure what to think of this wiry little vulture, with his stringy blond hair and jutting chin, but he was careful around him, as he was closer to Bert than anybody on the boat.
“You gonna toss me a rope?” Larry called up angrily.
“Yeah,” Greg yelled down, then found the rope used to lash Larry’s boat to Bert’s and tossed it to him.
“Greg, you’re a useless piece of shit, aren’t you?” Andre called down the deck and Greg looked up to see the man laughing at him.
Greg remained silent and helped pull Larry’s boat in closer.
“The new ones are always worthless, ain’t that right, Kev?” Andre asked as he walked closer and pulled the rope from Greg’s hand.
Kevin sneered at Greg and said, “That’s right. I don’t like new people.”
Behind them, the door burst open and Bert came out of his cabin, still wearing only the white button-down shirt. “Larry, my boy, welcome back.”
“God’s sakes, Bert, put some pants on. Nobody wants to see your dick,” Kevin said, and Bert laughed.
“Greggy-boy,” Bert said, and Greg looked over at him, “Take that cunt back to the hold. I have more important business right now. I’ll want her again later.” He turned to Larry. “Report.”
Greg nodded and entered Bert’s cabin as Larry was telling of yet another camp he had found. Lindsey looked up at him as he entered, her cheeks wet with tears and the right side of her face red where Bert had hit her. Her breasts spilled out of her shirt, which had been ripped down the middle.
Greg averted his eyes, walked over, and helped her gather her shirt over herself once again. “Be still,” he whispered, “It’s going to be okay.”
“No, Greg,” she said through tears and gritted teeth, “it’s not.”
He sighed and gently lifted her to her feet. She stood and walked along with him in some semblance of acquiescence, sparing a glare for Bert’s back as they walked past.
When they had reached the hold—a narrow, damp, and dark place barely big enough for the twelve women already crammed in there—he set Lindsey down gently by his wife and children.
“Listen,” he said, “I know this isn’t easy, but you have to stay strong.”
Lindsey looked at him with a fierce heat in her gaze, but stayed silent as Lacy began fixing her T-shirt, stitching it together with other pieces of cloth she had pulled from a moldy suitcase in the hold.
“When you go see him next, just remember to do as he says,” Greg continued. “Don’t fight back or it will be worse for you. I know that will be hard, but you can do this. You can make it.”
He placed a hand on her shoulder reassuringly and she looked away from him, her expression growing blank and her eyes glossing over in the dimly lit space.
Greg sighed, nodded to his wife, and returned to the deck.
As he reached his position by Bert’s door, he could see nothing but Sara’s dead body and Lindsey’s heated glare. He dispelled those images and began daydreaming again about every feasible way to kill Bert Cook.
Sandra was going to kill Melissa. Or maybe James? Both of them. She would take James’s sword and gut them both for leaving her alone with this mess.
“Good morning, Dale!” Sandra called sweetly, asking after the man to be sure he was getting enough food.
She had made her rounds two or three times a day since the storms, trying to emulate the way she had seen Charlotte talk to the people—trying to keep their spirits up. Luckily, everyone seemed to be so worried over Charlotte that nobody seemed to care that Sandra was absolutely terrible at this.
She wanted to scream. Charlotte lay unconscious in her hut and it was Sandra’s fault. She had spent almost every day around her. How did she not notice sooner that Charlotte was feeling ill. She could have gotten Melissa to chew up some flowers and rub them in her wound or whatever the hell Melissa did with cuts, then all would have been well. But no, she had been blind and hadn’t realized the woman’s danger until it was too late. She knew she was being too hard on herself and that anybody would have missed the nearly microscopic cut on the woman’s ankle. In fact, literally everybody else did miss it, including Melissa. Sandra just didn’t know where to place the blame, so she blamed herself. It was easier that way.
She growled and kicked a nearby rock down the village’s high hill.
Luckily Tyler had gotten decent at hunting and trapping before Melissa had gone, or they would have been munching on river reeds and sorrel until she came back. If she came back. Sandra nearly growled.
Not for the first time, she considered that James and Melissa were probably dead. Freaking idiots ran off into the cities where everything was on fire and people like the ones who had attacked at the river were probably everywhere. Hopefully tomorrow Dale, Tyler, and anybody else useful would take off too. Oh, how adventurous it would be.
“Good morning, Cara!” she said in her sweetest voice.
Cara looked at her like she had three heads. Okay, maybe that had not exactly been her sweetest voice. The people would just have to deal with it, though. An unconscious woman—not to mention the pregnant one!—was depending on them all to keep their heads up and keep going.
Laura woke to the sound of someone brushing past the door flap of Charlotte’s hut and lifted her head to see Darren stepping through with a pot of boiling water in his hand. He met her eyes, then stepped forward and set the pot down next to her. She sat up from where she had dozed off on the dirt floor beside Charlotte’s bed.
“Did you find any?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t even know what to look for.”
“Isn’t it a purple flower?”
“There are about seven different purple flowers in that valley,” Darren said, then flexed his fist in frustration. “Damn girl just ran off. She was the one who knew about this kind of thing.”
“She is doing what she thinks best for Charlotte,” Laura said calmly.
He sighed. “I know. What are we going to do?”
Laura dipped a clean section of cloth into the hot water and waited a moment for it to cool in the brisk morning air, watching Charlotte’s face contorting as she dreamed. When the rag had cooled sufficiently, she tenderly wiped the pus away from the cut, cleaning it as best she could. Darren had suggested burning it with a coal, searing away the infection, but nobody in the village truly knew whether that would kill an existing infection, or if it was only effective in prevention.
“I’ll go look some more,” Darren said tiredly. “Tyler thinks he would recognize one of the antiseptic plants she showed him.”
“You should get some rest,” she said.
“You’re not resting,” he said, his voice a little heated. “Tyler is constantly getting food for us. Quentin, Cara, and Dale have been rebuilding and fortifying these huts for days. Why should I rest?”
When Laura did not reply, he turned and stomped outside. She sighed. She knew his anger was not aimed toward her. Like the rest of the village, he felt helpless to save Charlotte and that fact was eating him up inside. Laura could not have said exactly when Darren had grown so fond of Charlotte, but she was glad to see that it had happened. No more whisperings in the night about how she was too young to lead, or questioning her every decision. From the way he was reacting to her having fallen sick, Laura suspected that Darren was now Charlotte’s staunchest supporter.
That position had once belonged to James, but if he had even survived his trip into the city, she wasn’t sure if the wounds he and Charlotte had inflicted on one another would ever heal. She could hope for the best in both cases, but hope was all she had.