Cost of Survival – Book 1 – Chapters 1 – 3

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Cost of Survival

World War III took my family – would the destruction claim my heart?

Mom’s bleeding in my arms. She could die any moment, but not before she’s made me promise three things:

Pray.

Don’t trust anyone.

Stay alive.

I promise, but I don’t know if I can keep them. Not surviving World War III doesn’t scare me, it’s surviving it that does.

And without the excitement of seeing Bodey every day, did I even want to try?

Chapter 1

Huge earthquakes didn’t happen in the northwest. The ground shook anyway and I grabbed the sink to avoid falling over.

My image wavered in the mirror and I focused on my white knuckles as I braced myself for stability.

I squeezed my eyes shut, fear shooting through me. My breathing hitched. Warned that hysteria comes on quickly, I lifted my gaze and pierced my image with a glare. “Get your crap together, Kelly. This isn’t a surprise.” I narrowed my eyes for good measure, in case I wasn’t taking myself seriously.

Slowing my breathing, I ignored my racing pulse. Nothing I could do about that.

Great, every fear my mother ever warned me about was coming to fruition. There’d be no living with her now. My fingers slipped over the cool ceramic as the shaking slowed, but didn’t stop.

From outside the small high-up windows, screams of other people started low and sporadic but increased in frequency and volume.

Protected by thick tiled walls in the girls’ bathroom, I turned off the water and wiped my damp hands down the front of my green shirt, leaving dark wet prints on the cotton.

Class had been in session when I’d taken the hall pass to get some air, leaving the rest of the bathroom empty. With all the muffled noise outside the room, I didn’t remember a time I felt so alone.

And I didn’t want to leave.

Another rumble sent the building into a spasm. A large crack spread across the ceiling, sprinkling dust into my pseudo-safe space. I sneezed, rubbing at the gritty particles powdering my skin.

Yanking open the door, I stopped and gasped. I should’ve stayed in the bathroom.

Kids ran, screaming and crying, toward the front doors or rather where the front doors used to be. The whole wall had disappeared.

Where the double-glass doors had manned the entrance of my high school, a large gaping hole let the late spring sunlight in mixed with dust and smoke. Twisted metal and mauled concrete gaped with angry jagged edges. The scent of burning wood and singed skin drifted on the rounded smoke clouds.

Breathe, Kelly, just breathe. But I didn’t want to. Breathing hurt. The smoke and ash in the air had a taste and scent I instinctively did not want in my body. I lifted my t-shirt collar and held the cotton over my nose.

No matter what, I couldn’t force my other hand to let go of the door frame. My fingers tightened and I stared. My eyes watered under the onslaught of smoke. The breeze outside might as well be nonexistent. The smoke and dust refused to clear.

Come on. I blinked, scanning the interior of the school hallway.

Bodey. Where was Bodey? He was supposed to be at the school for a track meeting. He had graduated the year and came in to help out with coaching and to train for track at the college. Had he made it to the gym? Or anywhere?

A girl dashed into my line of sight. Cyndi. Someone I recognized – focus on her.

I reluctantly released the frame and waved my hand at a girl I usually ate at the same table with. We weren’t friends – exactly – but in the immediate chaos, even lunch acquaintances were better than nothing.

“Cyndi! Over here!” Not that being with me was safer by any means, but at least I wouldn’t be alone and, with a shaky movement to her hands, she probably could use someone to stand with for a minute too.

Wild-eyed, she paused in her jagged scrambling through people toward the missing front door and her gaze fell on me. Recognition smoothed her jitters and she bee-lined for my spot, ducking and swerving around other screaming students.

As she approached, her screams died down, replaced by some kind of a whimpering moan. She looked left and right, behind her, back at me, like I was an anchor to help her get to one spot for security.

Finally a part in the smoke revealed a glimpse of the blue sky dotted with black items. A shrill whistle announced another explosion across the street in the new subdivision. I ducked.

The ground moved, but not as distinctly as when I was in the restroom. A hole in the cloud got bigger, framing clear sky filled with big and small black shapes moving over the land.

I squinted. With eyes watering, I couldn’t trust my vision – or any of my senses. Everything was off. Just like Mom had said this would play out.

She’d warned me. Continually. No matter how well she and her friends had prepared, nothing stopped the events from happening.

Not the pandemic and the eradication of more than two-thirds of the world’s population – we were learning about the ‘end of conservative man’ in Senior History. Did two years in the past count as history?

My mom’s co-op couldn’t prevent any of the loss. The number of the group went from over fifty to nineteen. For all their preparations and praying, more than half disappeared because of the disease.

Even Mom’s preparations didn’t keep us from losing my dad and brother. To the same horrible disease. Or the rest of our family on the east coast. Everyone was gone. So many bodies, towns gave up trying to have official burials. Most of the dead went into mass graves or were burned.

I can’t imagine what the less developed countries went through.

The bigger, more developed countries didn’t even get hit as bad as those other worlds.

Another black torpedo-shaped body fell closer to a building on the other side of the street. The explosion rocked the ground.

Cyndi squeaked and the students around us ducked into a spastic type of bear crawl with their hands on the ground and butts at half-crouch.

I’m not sure what annoyed me more, the fact I hadn’t dodged anything or that I hadn’t started running home, like Mom had drummed into me with my training.

Why was I so afraid to call the black things what they were?

Bombs.

Bombs. Say it out loud, Kelly. “Bombs.” Did my effort count in a whisper?

“I can’t believe they’re bombing us!” Of course Cyndi could say the word. She ran before I did, too.

She reached for my arm, panting and desperate. “Kelly, I need to get to the elementary school. Bobby’s over there and he’s probably so scared.” Her younger brother had the entire third grade wrapped around his finger. With his charm, he could run the world one day.

Nothing made more sense than searching for your loved ones, but with bombs detonating left and right, the last thing I needed involved watching a partial-friend blow to pieces. I motioned toward the teachers and students whizzing past us with no real direction. “Wait a minute and then head over. I’m sure he’s fi—”

A bomb caught my attention. The direction and speed as it fell from the sky sent a chill along my hair line.

I grabbed Cyndi and shoved her into the bathroom, against the wall. “Get down!” My scream sliced through the air and she dropped to the ground, copying my movement of arms over my head and face tucked to my knees.

Closer than the house explosions, that one thundered underground until queasiness roiled in my stomach. Solid, consuming fear finally found me. I don’t know where it went hiding, but holy cow, vomit wanted to be found, too.

I didn’t want to see what had happened.

Cyndi raised her head. “What was that?” Her screech ended on a sob.

I could look. I didn’t want to, but I made myself. Knowledge is power, or so Mom always said.

Glancing out the door and through the hole where the entrance had been, I tried shutting out the horror before me. I gathered as many details as I could to help Cyndi in some way.

The door didn’t close easily. I turned back to the girl who desperately needed a friend.  How did I soften my words without crying? “The elementary school.”

Her eyes widened. She jumped to pull open the door. Stepping out into the hallway, she stared at the black, smoking and burning mess that had – moments before – housed her little brother and hundreds of other children.

Shock froze her mouth open. She didn’t even acknowledge the other witnesses jostling around her, trying to find their own chaos controller.

Cyndi didn’t respond. She didn’t make a sound. I’m not even sure she breathed.

As if on autopilot, Cyndi stepped forward until she ran into the pile of rubble marking the school explosion site. She didn’t let anything get in her way. Bending down on all fours, she climbed over the debris in a straight line toward the elementary.

To my horror, I didn’t stop her.

Why would I? What would I do? Tell her not to go? Tell her she would be safer in the high school? Psh. I couldn’t guarantee anything for her – for anyone. Nothing about World War III was predictable. Most importantly, though, I could understand nothing would keep me away from my brother, if he’d been in that school.

I scanned the scene being slowly revealed by the departing smoke. How far would I be able to see once the debris had completely cleared?

Four blocks from the elementary school, my home should be easy to get to. Had the houses between the schools and my backyard been wiped out by bombs? Fire?

The real question I didn’t want to ask – didn’t want the answer to – had my house been hit?

I swallowed, searching further. Could Bodey be out there?

Screams sound-tracked the drifting papers burning as they fell. Running boys and girls and the dazed teachers hanging onto the jagged edges of the building as they stumbled out to the grounds completed the scene.

My mom wouldn’t scream. She prayed too hard to feel real fear. No, she would do the best with what she had.

True fear curdled in my stomach. If my house had been hit by a bomb, then Mom would be gone. As much as I fought with her, she was all I had left. I wasn’t ready to lose her.

Every night my mom taught me about the arrival of World War III and its inevitability, what to expect, what not to accept, and how to stay safe.

According to Mom we would all lose the final war which was the only outcome no one could control. The information was right there, smack in the center of Revelations. She would quote more scriptures and I would try to retreat into my happy place where mothers didn’t lecture their daughters on morality and religion.

A burning sting in my forearm brought my attention back to the chaos around me. Chunks of burning wood marked my flesh. I brushed them off, jerking my arms closer to my body.

Even the teachers ran with no real plan. Mr. Denning stood in the corner, feet from the entrance hole and muttered, walking two steps forward and stopping when he rammed his head into the wall.

I didn’t have time to find Bodey. I had to find Mom.

My plan needed to be fast. Mom would expect me home as soon as possible. If she… I shook my head. Nope. One of the tactics Mom drilled into me was never think defeatist thoughts. If you give into the negativity, you’re already defeated.

What did I need? Was there anything at the school I had to take with me? Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to retrieve my backpack. My locker had disappeared in the mess destroyed by the front door. As a senior I had premium real estate by the entrance and that particular seniority right had cost me.

The few blocks would pass quickly. I just needed to get going. I shut out the fear sending tingles to my toes that she wouldn’t be there when I got home or even that I might not make it home.

I had to get home. There were no other options.

Darting into the mass exodus of teachers and students, I stumbled over the rocks and broken glass before finding my footing in the deceptively green grass.

Nothing could get in my way.

A younger boy – maybe a freshman? – grabbed at my arm. His fingers had a charred-hot-dog-on-a-stick look with the flesh plump and oozing with blackened tips. “Help me,” he sobbed, blood seeping slowly from his nose and ears.

I reached for him, desperate to hold him up, give him some form of relief. Grabbing his forearms above where the material had melted to his skin, I tried holding him up. I tried.

His face froze and the focused pain in his eyes faded. Right there in my arms. He died. And I didn’t… I gasped. I couldn’t hold onto his sudden weight on my hands and he fell to the ground, drooping over rebar protruding from the mangled concrete beside us.

Backing up, I covered my mouth. Someone bumped me from behind.

I blew air out of my lungs. Calm down, Kelly. You can do this. Get it together.

A teacher blew a whistle and heads turned. They’d been forcing dumb drills on us for the past few months now. Rumors the “war to end all wars” was right around the corner spread like gossip in a high school.

Everyone became survival experts.

Via the drill, a teacher would whistle and all the students would surround the leader. Everyone was supposed to wait patiently for help or seek shelter together.

Always together. Like they – whoever they were – didn’t trust any one person out by themselves.

Maybe Mom had learned how to telepathically transfer her conspiracy theories into my mind. I swear, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Fear that Bodey had arrived in town filled me but I focused on the task at hand.

Big groups were a bad idea. More people made bigger targets. Glancing at the body of the boy one last time, I broke into a loose jog and forced myself not to sprint. I had to hold the same calm pace so I could see all my options ahead of me.

People who panicked died.

Another Mother-ism.

Yet I would listen, because for once? Mother just might be right.

 

Chapter 2

Cars and trucks crawled by me. So close together I could pretend the vehicles were attached by string and pulled by a large child, maybe a large toddler throwing a temper tantrum.

I dodged between a sedan and a pickup, the drivers hollering from their windows at groups of children. I’m not sure about their execution, but I’m glad they put a stall on the string of careening vehicles blocking my way.

In a fenced subdivision beside the sidewalk where I jogged, another explosion crashed through the air, shaking the ground. I dove to the grass, banging my knee on a partially hidden sprinkler head. “Oomph!”

Rolling to the side, I grabbed my leg and stared upward.

Numerous black and grey plumes of smoke dirtied the clear blue sky. I didn’t want to blow apart and become a whiff of smoke. Not today.

Time between explosions increased. The number of dark shapes in the sky lessened, but didn’t disappear. Peering through stray tendrils of smoke and floating debris, I could just make out the outline of my neighborhood. Everything appeared to be intact – so far.

Pushing up to stand, I shook off the ache below my kneecap. I would definitely bruise, but what if it swelled? Injuries to the knees could impede running. Lovely, just what I wanted when I already watched people die and buildings explode.

I didn’t want to look behind me, but I couldn’t fight the urge. I was like the rubber-necking fools at a bad highway accident.

Multi-colored shirts marked a large group of people gathered at the north end of the parking lot.

More cars stopped on the road and people jumped out of their doors. Random stopping and starting while they searched only created more of a traffic problem. Arms waving and voices raised in desperation, they worked to claim someone in the crowd or maybe to find someone who wasn’t there anymore.

The dead boy’s fear-filled face crossed my mind and I squeezed my eyes shut for the briefest second.

I turned forward, waving the caustic air from my face. Moving the smoke around didn’t help. In fact, I might have made things worse since little particles of ash coated my tongue and throat.

My house still stood. Oh thank the heavens. Relief loosened the tension in my muscles and my stride steadied while my shoulders dropped to a comfortable position.

The immediate houses around ours had escaped damage but the next street over had nothing standing except an old oak tree I had climbed once as a small girl. Dwelling on the damage and the memories wouldn’t get me home any faster.

A piercing whistle drew my gaze as I jogged. My mom waved from our back deck. I coughed, lifting my hand to return the wave.

I squinted. Was she holding a tea mug? Did she think the queen was coming or something? I picked up my pace, lengthening my stride. There we were getting bombed and my mother had a cup of tea.

Rolling my eyes, I sprinted the last hundred feet across the road, dodging cars and panicked people carrying boxes from their homes.

The acrid scent of burnt hair and flesh hit me at the same time I stumbled. Looking down, I recoiled, gagging deep in my throat.

What was—

Hand to my mouth, I held in my sob. My brother’s dog, Captain Pete, had somehow been burned – horribly. He whimpered, scratching himself closer to the open gate.

I had forgotten to close the stupid gate on my way to school. Captain Pete had gotten out because of me. Hot tears coursed my cheeks and I clenched my teeth together. He stopped moving and his eyes closed.

Oh, no. Twice? In less than an hour? No. Please, no.

Standing, I sobbed and backed through the open gate. I couldn’t slam it shut. My increased speed combined with the discovery of Captain Pete left me huffing. Chemical-tinged smoke burned my throat as I gasped through my mouth. Breathing through my nose hurt worse.

I stamped down my hysteria. Fear wanted to boil over. I had to pull my stuff together. Mom would not tolerate panic. She wouldn’t accept anything from me that we hadn’t practiced. She was nothing, if not prepared.

Stopping at the corner of the house, I leaned against the shaded vinyl siding.

Mom was okay. Captain Pete and that kid weren’t. Half the school wasn’t and judging by the damage in the neighborhood half the community wasn’t either.

But Mom was. She was so fine, she took time to make and enjoy a cup of tea.

“Kelly? Come on. Get up here.” Mom called me as if I was just getting in from hanging out with friends. Where was her panic? Her fear? Of course I wouldn’t be allowed to witness them. She would bury them beneath her faith, drown them in her tea. If she even had any emotions like that at all.

I clamped my mouth shut. That wasn’t fair. Mom cared about me. She had more empathy than most people. She didn’t overreact to situations because of her faith. Blaming her for events outside of her control wouldn’t sort anything out or make the world safer.

Pasting a neutral expression on my face, I bit back my fear. If she looked too closely, she’d see my hands shaking. I reached for the thin gold chain my dad had given me before… well, I didn’t want to think about that or my neutral expression would fade.

“Hey, Mom. What do you think?” How unnatural to be blasé about the horror around us. But she expected control. She expected faith. We had a plan and we would follow the steps.

She sipped her tea, focusing her eyes over the cup rim toward the deteriorating garden of houses spread every direction around our place.

The explosions had all but ended. Dark eyebrows arched over eyes so blue she often styled her brown hair back from her face to enhance them. “Well, this certainly isn’t a drill, Kelly. Grab your father’s bug out bag and your hiking boots and meet me in the kitchen. We need to make some sandwiches and grab some fresh food before we leave.”

I climbed the stairs two at a time, holding onto the railing, and stopped inches from my mom. She didn’t drag her attention from the tragedy around us. Turning to see where I’d escaped, I clenched my hands at my sides. “We have MREs in the bags. Do we really need to pack more stuff? And why Dad’s?” Not that I was really complaining. Something of his would go with me wherever I went. A plan I could get on board with pretty quick.

Plus, I just needed to talk about anything mundane, anything to keep my mind off the last sixty minutes of my life.

“Because I readjusted the bag’s contents. The majority of your stuff is in there, his bag is bigger, and can carry more.” She sighed, turning toward me and lifting her mug. “And we’re taking as much fresh food as we can because I paid for it and I hate to see it go to waste. Okay?” She narrowed her eyes and I caught a glimpse of fear she didn’t want me to see.

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” Stomping wouldn’t behoove me. She would just make me walk the path again. I reined in my frustration and bit my tongue – not hard enough to draw blood but with enough force the sting dulled my anger. She didn’t ask how the people at school were handling the attacks. She didn’t asking anything, but issued orders instead.

Her gaze slid downward, taking in my arms and the blackened soot over the tops of the forearms. “You’re burned. Is it bad?”

Shrugging, I waited for her to examine my skin. As a nurse, she had more sense than most people did and a little bit of burning wouldn’t faze her – even on me.

A large part of me didn’t care where or what we did and, in fact, the weightlessness of allowing my mom to plan and control everything released some of the stress of the moment.

If everything went down the way my mom claimed, I would never see my home again. The pictures on the walls, the miniatures claiming the shelves, everything we collected over our lives would be left behind. Even the small personal items of Braden’s and my dad’s. Nothing extra was allowed to go.

Once a few months ago, I asked Mom if I could fit something in my pocket, if it could go. She had stopped cutting onions and turned to study me. Eyes wet from the dicing, she pursed her lips before speaking slowly. “I’m not doing this to be mean, Kelly. Everything is planned out for a reason. Every ounce is calculated for survival. We might not even need any of it anyway. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

I had nodded, turning back to setting the table for the two of us. We would need it, but neither of us wanted to call out the fallacy of her statement right then. Why would we? Pressure mounted all over the world and many times we pretended we didn’t notice.

The only items allowed would be the ones I could fit in my pack. How depressing. No tablet or music or teddy bear. Nothing extra.

She couldn’t understand my bitterness.

Upstairs in my room, I could almost pretend nothing was happening. Like I’d just gotten home from school and Mom had cookies in the oven or something.

Waiting for me on my comforter my dad’s bug out bag sat beside my emptied maroon bag.

She had transferred everything for me. Not one thing had been left behind. Her methods sometimes sucked in how she dealt with me, but with that act, she proved that she got me. She didn’t question why most of my stuff was gender neutral or leaned toward the more masculine side.

The space! She hadn’t been kidding. The top third sagged with emptiness, which would be used for food, not my favorite books or my jewelry box handmade by my dad when I turned six. Everything would stay.

I knew the drill. We were lucky in this scenario. I had time to change and time to pack appropriately. Based on Mom’s lack of pacing, I sensed we weren’t leaving in the next five minutes which surprised me.

According to Mom’s explanations, I’d be missing out on showers for quite a while, which I didn’t find funny, but I understood. What I hadn’t quite figured out was why she wanted my chest flattened with three sports bras and an ace bandage.

Yet, I complied, the tight material compressing my ribcage and decreasing my ability to inhale comfortably.

After replacing my jeans, green shirt, and normal bra with dark cargo pants, three sports bras, a black thermal long sleeve shirt under a lightweight but warm t-shirt, I brushed my hair and pulled the strands into a tight braid.

Yanking on my hiking boots, I glanced around my room one last time. My stomach hurt with the reality of what was happening. Everything my mother had ever warned me about jumped forward into reality.

She’d been right. I didn’t want her to be right.

Mostly though, I didn’t want to believe it.

I pulled the bag onto my back and paused at the doorway. Rubbing the foot of a small teddy bear I had since my third Christmas, I looked at my bed. Then at my things, at the evidence of me – of what made my life, made me who I had become.

Would I lose that girl? Would my mother’s predictions continue to settle on the correct side of the spectrum?

I shut the door softly. I could hold tight to the illusion that my room wouldn’t change, it would stay unmolested and I could return one day.

My heart sank. I would never be there again. I wasn’t stupid. Hopeful, yes. Stupid, not so much.

“Kelly?” Mom’s voice broke my reverie.

“Yep, coming.” I clomped down the steps and joined her in the kitchen. She’d changed in the small amount of time I’d been gone and her bag stood patiently on the table, waiting for more items.

Bread and cheese covered the table. “Mom, there has to be enough here for thirty sandwiches.” I shook my head. What would we do with so much food?

“Eighteen actually. Trust me, we’ll be grateful we have it tomorrow or the next day.” She cut more cheese, laying the slices across the bread. Nodding toward the mayonnaise container, she added. “Get going, please. I’m sure the looting will start soon. I want to be out of here before the real danger reaches the neighborhoods.” She slid baggies from the bright blue box and set one beside each sandwich.

Looting and rioting. I focused on spreading the mayonnaise and the mustard.

Once complete, each sandwich went into a separate baggie and Mom stuffed those into one of our bags.  “I’m short two sandwich baggies. Let’s eat one now.” She retrieved plates from the cabinets for us and gently set our sandwiches on the shiny cream ceramic.

To be honest, it had never occurred to me she would be missing things, too. I thought I was the only materialistic one.

Swiping a knife over the last bread, I peeked at her solemn face. “Are you scared, Mom?” Part of me waited as if frozen in anticipation – like everything hung on her answer. What if she said yes? Would real terror set in? What if she said no? Would I be able to trust her? Because who in their right mind wouldn’t be scared in that exact second?

She tossed in oranges and apples, yogurts and even a bag of mini-marshmallows. “You know what? The situation is frightening, and yet, I can’t help but be grateful for what we have. The steps we’ve taken to be prepared for this type of event. Scared? You bet. Is the fear debilitating? Nope. The Lord is on our side.” She winked at me.

Throwing her faith into the mix answered the question perfectly. She was afraid but she didn’t doubt we would be fine. Only my mom would find a way to answer the question and comfort me all at once.

A shot rang out a few houses down. Mom and I looked toward the front door and back at each other. Faith aside, my heart pounded.

Things just got real.

She dropped her voice into a muffled murmur. “Grab your coats and layer up. I don’t know when we’ll be able to stop.” She pointed at the chair where my jackets hung and she pulled on her own layers. I followed suit. What else was I supposed to do?

A new urgency fueled our movements.

Pushing at the tops of our bags, she clicked them closed and hefted mine onto my back.

“Oh, wow.” Adjusting my shoulders, I shrugged at the pressure of the bag.

She paused, turning to me and rubbing my shoulder. Mom ducked and met my gaze. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Her apology scared me more than any of the bombs or the screams of people emerging from fiery homes, or even the fact that I’d be leaving the relative safety of my life-long home. Because my mom didn’t apologize for things, especially stuff outside her control. At least to me.

We grabbed our sandwiches and I followed her without another sound. Who knew when I would have to apologize for my rudeness or complaints – I needed to learn to keep comments to myself. And I would. I just needed patience. Wasn’t that supposed to be a virtue?

Late March daylight faded around six pm in the northern Idaho region. Streetlights that hadn’t been blown to bits didn’t flicker on. Instead they stood along the streets with their heads bent as if in mourning. Homes on fire lit up the neighborhood similar to overzealous bonfires seeking the stars.

Mom shut the back door. Her hand lingered an extra moment on the glass of the slider and she bowed her head. Probably to pray again. Another shot resounded off the neighborhood fences.

I ducked around, looking for the culprit or group of people. The sound was so close.

Her consistent praying made us late for anything and everything in our normal everyday activities. She was going to screw us over in the here and now.

“Are we taking the car?” Naturally, I whispered. Undue attention wouldn’t be good with people already shooting in our neighborhood.

She shook her head. “No. Too conspicuous and we would only get so far. With gas at six dollars for so long, I haven’t filled up the tank in a while.” Mom led the way down the steps to the backyard. “We’re going up through the new construction sites. Shouldn’t be anyone that way just yet and if we need to we can camp the night there.”

“Why don’t we sleep here tonight? The looting shouldn’t reach us until morning, right?” I glanced up where my bedroom window would be, already missing the soft mattress and squishy pillow. But the shots had been too close and I was really just begging for the chance to cling a teeny bit more to what we had to leave behind us.

Mom lowered her head and then lifted it again. She didn’t look back at me. “Do you really want to take that chance?”

I couldn’t give her an honest answer. I didn’t know what chance exactly I would be taking, but I could tell her I didn’t want to find myself in any of the situations she had described as possibilities over the years.

Not one of those scenarios had occurred in our house. I could pretend our house was magic and we’d be safe forever there.

Or Mom couldn’t see herself living in a home where bad things happened. That was more likely and easier to swallow.

Who wouldn’t want to believe the good or even the improbable good? Especially since Dad and Braden had been safe and protected at home until they had gone together on a business trip to Atlanta, Georgia.

Their illness and death had occurred away from home. We had never gotten an answer regarding the disease – too many had died, too many to bury. Too many…

I didn’t want to think of my dad and my little brother. Not right then. Not when I walked away from their memories.

What were we doing? Were we so desperate to survive we would abandon everything?

World War III couldn’t be all bad. Humanity wouldn’t change so much we wouldn’t be safe with other people.

Right?

Chapter 3

Trudging down the empty sidewalk, I focused on placing one foot and then another in the shadow of my mother’s steps. The further from town we walked, the more deserted the streets and houses seemed.

To our right, the grating sound of metal rolling on metal scratched through the smoky air.

Mom grabbed my sweatshirt and shoved me behind a privacy line of arborvitae. The scratchy branches and foliage clung to strands of my hair, freeing them from my braid. She tucked me between her and the tall bushes. Through thin slits we watched in half-hunkered down positions.

In the setting daylight, a man poked his head from the open garage. He checked the road, left and right, inspecting homes and their yards. For the briefest moment, I could’ve sworn he spied us, but his gaze moved on. After another heart beat, he disappeared back inside his garage.

Red lights glowed from the opening at the same time growls from a turned-over engine reached us.

“Get down on the ground.” Mom pushed on my shoulder, and I sank to the short grass under the pressure. She joined me, yanking at the dark hood on my jacket to cover my face. “He’s going to come this way. We came in the only entrance by road.” She really had researched our route.

The two-door Jeep backed down the driveway and turned around on the street. He passed us, things tied to the tops and back of the vehicle with bungee cords. Small faces peered into the neighborhood from the back windows and a woman’s face blocked the man’s in the passenger window.

Mom folded her arms. She murmured a quick prayer and stood once the red lights had turned the corner to the exit. “They won’t make it far.”

And that’s all she said.

Real sadness welled within me. Would anyone else make it? Would we?

We tromped onto the sidewalk, falling easily into our pace. Mom looked around us consistently, as if knowing where we were and if anyone was around us would keep us safe.

The acrid scent of smoke didn’t burn as badly so far north.

I snorted, watching as we passed line after line on the sidewalk.

Mom stopped and turned, panting slightly. The light wasn’t lingering and shadows hollowed her cheeks and eyes. “What’s the matter?”

Shaking my head, I planted my feet beside her. “Nothing’s wrong. I was laughing at myself.” Grateful for another break, I continued, trying to prolong the rest even if only for a few more seconds. “The smoke doesn’t seem as thick up here. I think it’s funny we haven’t gone more than a couple miles and I’m already talking like we’re so far away.”

I bit back on confessing about the sting in my heart that I was leaving home. Mom had already prepared me for this. Inevitable and destined. Nothing much more was needed, I guess.

She glanced beyond me, toward town, eyes narrowed. “Yep, I can imagine that would be funny.” Piercing me with her stare, she brushed at my sleeves and small white and black flakes smeared more than anything. “You have ash on your clothes. Did you get burned at all?”

“No. Just my arms. It’s not a big deal, Mom.” I pointed at the house we stopped in front of. “Do you think we could stay here tonight?”

Pressing her lips together, Mom cast a fleeting look over her shoulder and then back to me. “No, I’m sorry. I know you’re tired and ready to stop for the night, but we need to keep going. We’re supposed to be at the checkpoint in two days. At this rate, we might not make it in a week.” She slowly caught her breath as she focused on inhaling through her nose and exhaling through rounded lips.

Her priorities had shifted from working and crafts to center around the checkpoint, the camp, the group, the preparations, etc. Nothing ever came before preparing for the impending war. Even her prayer circle had its own time and place. Mom only went to church if she determined the situation was safe. Too many people trying to topple Christ, she said.

I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew was that most of the kids at school had left to be homeschooled and the ones who continued attending were too scared to ask their parents if the world was crashing while we sat unprotected at our desks.

In my case, I guess I should’ve asked about being unprotected in the bathroom. Oh, crap What if I had actually been using the toilet when the bombs had started? A shiver trickled through me, standing my arm hair on end.

“Kelly, are you listening to me?” Mom snapped her fingers in front of my eyes. Her nails were cut short and she’d been picking at her cuticles.

I blinked. “Yes, I am. What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to go over the rules again while we take another second to catch our breath. After, we’ll find a place to make camp. We can go down early, so we can get an early start.” She lifted three fingers. “Name—”

Cutting her off, I covered her hand with mine. How did I make her understand I wasn’t a toddler? “I know the rules, Mom. You don’t have to keep reciting them to me.”

“Then let’s hear them. In the proper order, Kelly.” She arched her eyebrows and waited, not lowering her hand.

The proper order. Always the order. If she didn’t stop issuing demands, I would consider changing the order, just to set her on edge. Okay, it was a weak threat, but I was too tired and irritated to play her games. Yes, thankfully, she had been prepared for the chaos, but part of me worried maybe everything had happened because of people like Mom who had worried it into happening.

Oh, wow, I better play along before my fatigue had me convinced Mom was the one behind the entire world falling apart.

Clenching my teeth, I inhaled through my nose. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I could believe she didn’t know how irritating the repetition was. She might not know her rules didn’t fit with what I was trying to do with my life. But the resolve in her set jaw and tightening of her cheeks indicated none of that mattered.

I glanced at her hand, the fingers waiting for me with more patience than her expression. Fighting the urge to roll my eyes, I muttered. “Pray. Trust no one. Stay alive.” While staying alive fit in with my plans, I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t trust people, and praying just wasn’t me.

Her faith hadn’t passed to me like her brunette hair and blue eyes had. Faith had skipped me as surely as Bodey, the captain of the math team – yep, homeschooled, too – had passed me by. Over and over. Like I didn’t exist. Since he’d graduated my opportunities had become more scarce to try for his attention. Even though we knew each other and often said hi, he wouldn’t think about me right then… not at the end of the world.

Didn’t matter now. He was probably dead. Like everyone else.

She inclined her head, finally dropping her hand. “Good. Let’s get to the forest, break to the north of Rathdrum, and stop. We should be out of the immediate crowds and a closer to the checkpoint.”

What crowds? I nodded. Even frustrated I wouldn’t abandon her. No way would I leave Mom, not when we only had each other. Where would I go? Running away wasn’t my style, especially at the beginning of a war predicted by historians as the war to obliterate the human species. People interested in history could be so vague.

Plus, she was all I had. I couldn’t forget that.

And I loved her. My mom.

We fell into step again, me behind, like a practiced funeral march.

***

Left, right, left, right, left, right. Oh, for the love, I almost fell over on that one. I shook my head to wake up. We had been walking for quite a while. An hour or two?

The darkness of night had fallen to mask the majority of the scenery around us. There was no light anywhere – except in the sky.

“I’ve never seen so many stars.” My mom’s whisper reached me as I walked forward, coming abreast of her.

Glancing upward, even in my fatigue I couldn’t deny the simple beauty laid out over me like the thickest of blankets with no end in sight. “Yeah, me neither.”

“Do you know God intended for His children to outnumber the stars?” Mom didn’t slow her steps, but spoke into the black void around us, with her head tilted back to view the skies.

I didn’t answer. Everything she said would turn back to her beliefs. When Dad and Braden hadn’t come back home, I had looked away from the faith she held so close. What guiding hand would take a father and son who hadn’t done anything? During school at the time, I think we had been studying something from the Naturalist’s Handbook. The theories in those pages had been easier to grasp than the one which stated I “was loved and redeemed but my family didn’t get to stay.”

Nothing seemed fair since.

Changing the subject, I pointed at the houses in the distance – their rooftops stark against the well-lit night sky. “Looks like the electricity is out everywhere. Do you think anybody wasn’t affected?”

“If not, it wouldn’t be for long. We’re too close to the Fairchild Air Force Base. Of course, our area would take the brunt of the attack. If we head too far east, we’ll run into the missile fields of Montana and the Navy bases of Athol and Sandpoint. Straight north of Post Falls? We’re looking at a richer option – one filled with others who think like us as well as a small community for the safer-group co-op – just north of here.” She didn’t even hunch over as she walked with the weight of her bag on her shoulders.

“Can we use our flashlights?” My logic made sense. With no one around to see the light, we didn’t have anything to be in danger of. We could walk with a faster pace if we didn’t need to squint at anything we weren’t ready for. “Nobody’s out here.”

“No, using them just wouldn’t be smart. Noises are already stupid, but add in lights? We might as well hold up a neon sign to our location. People are out there. Trust me.” She veered off the sidewalk and walked through someone’s yard.

Suddenly we left the illusion of a safe fenced-in-mentality of a neighborhood and entered the forest.  Hopefully, we would lose ourselves in the dark twists and turns as we located somewhere to camp.

I refused to argue. We’d left the monotony of the sidewalks and landed on a smoothly packed gravel drive. At least the crunch of my footsteps created enough distraction I didn’t fall asleep with the cadence.

Another thirty minutes or so passed in silence.

Mom stopped abruptly and I slammed into her back. “Oh, sorry.”

“Shh.” She shook her head and grabbed my arm. Pointing off the drive, she muttered. “We’ll make camp in there. Remember the rules, Kelly, and you’ll be fine.” She leaned over and squeezed me. I’m not sure what she was getting at with the pseudo-comfort, but her reassurances were there and I’m not too proud to admit it worked.

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Author: Chelsea Paulson

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