Exchange Rate – Book 2 – Chapter 1 – 3

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Exchange Rate

I’m pregnant and I couldn’t be more excited. But the community Bodey, his dad, and I live in has rules. Rules that make Mom’s rules seem like safety nets.

Only 200 people are allowed at a time. My baby will make it 201.

The leader is making me choose someone from our house to die so there will be room for my child. Either I make the decision or they take… my…

Even in the craziness that the world has become, I refuse to believe only 200 can live in it at once.

The “community” is safe-ish, comfortable. We have food, warmth, and there isn’t immediate danger of being robbed while we sleep.

Doesn’t it make sense we’d have to exchange something for all that?

I’ve survived this long. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe I should die so my family can live.

Or maybe I can get through the lines and find a people worth sacrificing for.

Chapter 1

I’m not sure what I thought would happen when I escaped a group of men intent on selling me for resources. Hoping they’d forget about me, I didn’t tell John and Bodey why Charlie and his group followed us like the most rabid of hyenas.

At least at first.

John’s intuition nailed truth on the head. When he’d cornered me about the man, asking if he was the same one who’d stalked my mom and burned John’s house, I’d nodded, biting back tears. My shame haunted me. We ran from Charlie while seeking John’s family, using valuable energy to constantly look over our shoulders.

Even as John constantly warned us to stay together, his despondency at ever finding his wife and daughter grew. His depression worsened and more often than not he sent Bodey and me out on food hunts and resource scavenges.

“I don’t want to be watch this time, Bodey.” I crossed my arms and rolled my eyes toward the ceiling. John had sent us out about an hour before. I liked being alone with Bodey. His accidental touches would sometimes turn purposeful.

Ignoring me, Bodey called from inside the walk-in pantry. “Kelly, do you see anything?”

Usually I complained about it, but that’s just so he’d come out and coerce me into wanting to do it.

I glanced out the window, intent on finding something – anything – to report. We needed to see some action, no matter which direction it came from. Bodey was partial to finding some food or maybe a shoot-out with Charlie and his gang. I waited for the chance to get close to Bodey, almost kiss, then kiss, and then hold hands.

The romance was helping me survive.

Food helped him.

I grinned, thinking about the different things we needed to be happy. He’d never feel about me, the way I felt about him, and I didn’t care. He felt for me. Cared more than I could understand.

Caught up in my musings, I almost missed the flicker of movement on the other side of the fence. Almost. The corner of a jacket flashed red.

I jolted upright and whispered, “Bodey, someone’s here. We need to go.” I couldn’t understand why Charlie hadn’t given up. John said they’d died with some soldiers back in Athol a while back, but he hadn’t stayed.

Charlie reminded me of a horrible, evil cat – more lives than anyone else around him – and he kept coming back for more. Seriously, what was wrong with the guy? We’d been running for so long, our campsites never lasted more than a day or two.

Settling had become my dream. I didn’t care if things returned to the way they used to be or not. I really would like to just stay in one spot long enough to get used to sleeping in the same spot for more than two nights.

Bodey left the pantry, joining me by the window. He wrapped his arm around my waist. “Are you sure?” He peered outside, like he waited for someone to jump out with a target painted on their chest.

He thought I was trying to get him to come out to me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so tricky. I backed away from potential view. “Yes, they had a red-lined jacket on. We need to get out of here.”

“You’re skittish.” He understood, taking my hand and pulling me toward the garage. “There’s a man-door out the other side. We can hide out there until they’re gone.” He softly tugged me with him. I followed with no resistance.

Whoever I’d glimpsed past the fence wasn’t Charlie. More brazen, Charlie walked like he owned the world and didn’t care who saw him. Like we couldn’t escape him.

But we always got away, even though each time our margin for success grew narrower and narrower. Sometimes, I suspected Bodey purposely tempted a brush with the man who constantly chased after me, like a protective desire to kick some butt.

The person wouldn’t be John either. He wouldn’t run. The jacket had been moving fast, like at a run.

I carefully closed the mudroom door to the abandoned house, shutting us in the garage. Bodey ducked through the man-door on the other side of the shop area, dragging me along. He stopped just outside the doorjamb, leaving me inside the garage. We would search our areas simultaneously while our backs were protected.

Voices carried around the side of the house, deep and male and distinctly familiar. Every time we tried getting away, they were there, like bad déjà vu. They grew louder as the men rounded the house.

Empty paint cans, broken tools, and a torn drop-cloth were piled in the corner. I held my breath, my eyes flicking from side to side as I scanned for an emergency exit. I wasn’t in a movie theater though, no neo green lights to shine the way. An upended garbage can in the middle of the cement floor testified we weren’t the first ones to search that house.

Bodey glanced around sharply. He didn’t wait for me to join him and instead roughly moved me outside and shoved me inside a small tool shed packed with garden hoes, shovels and other equipment. He climbed in beside me. Closing the door, he backed against the rear wall and gripped my hand in his. Short panting lifted his chest and he glanced my way, grinning.

Grinning! I narrowed my eyes. If my heart ever stopped pounding, I’d make sure to slap him on the shoulder. And if I had room, I’d lean forward and kiss the curve from his lips. Flakes of chipped pain sprinkled his dark jacket.  

Footsteps fell right outside the shed. I widened my eyes.

“Have you seen anyone inside?” The deep voice came so close as they walked beside our hiding place. A crack between the door and the wall allowed me a brief view of the men. The dark hair and faded black coat confirmed Charlie’s presence. He wouldn’t change it. I’d never seen it off him.

I swallowed and closed my eyes for a brief second. The scent of stale fertilizer and dirt assailed me.

Charlie got closer and closer, every day. What were we going to do when he caught us? And he would. It was only a matter of when at that point.

What if he found us right then?

“I saw them go inside, but I had to round to the backyard, so I’m not sure if they’ve left or not.” The second man’s voice trembled, cracking on the last syllable. He couldn’t be much older than Bodey or me. Why was he working for Charlie?

But it made sense. People joined groups so they didn’t have to survive on their own.

Charlie, smooth as silk, reassured him, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure you did your best. This particular girl is… well, let’s just say she owes me a lot and I’m going to collect. I won’t tolerate anything getting in my way.”

I breathed shallowly, meeting Bodey’s eyes as Charlie continued talking about me like I was a traitor to the world.  

“Look inside. I’ll check out here and join you in a moment.” He patted the kid’s back. “Just hold them with the gun when you find them, don’t shoot. I want that pleasure, alright?”

“Yes, sir.” The boy disappeared, overly anxious to please his boss.

“No one around front. It’s feasible they made it out the back again.” Another man’s voice startled me. I’d heard him before, but where? The deep timbre had been slurred the last time I’d encountered it. I couldn’t place him.  A glimpse of auburn hair above thick shoulders was all I got.

I carefully pulled my fingers from Bodey’s grasp and wiped my moist palms on my pants. Why was I freaking out more than usual? Tension mounted and I wanted to vomit. Something was different about this time.

“Do you realize I’ve been chasing this little… ugh.” Charlie growled. “Longer than I should. How stupid do I look to the men? I need to find her. She owes me. She owes us all.” He shook the wooden picket fence, loose boards rattling in his angry silence.

The boy returned, regretful. “They aren’t in there. I checked everywhere. They might have escaped out the front?” He didn’t know what he was talking about. His half-hearted attempt at a guess had me closing my eyes again.

Charlie sighed. “Thank you for looking.” The rub of metal on leather chilled me.

The sound was one I’d heard more times than I cared to count. Every time John drew his gun from his leather holster to protect us with a warning shot or otherwise, that sound had filled the air.

Bodey reclaimed my hand, shaking his head. He mouthed, “Not us.”

I nodded, understanding his words but unable to accept their meaning. I didn’t want that end for anyone. No one.

The retort echoed off the walls of our prison. I dug my knuckles into my lips, silencing the panic the shot spiraled through me. The boy’s body thudded when it fell lifeless to the pathway.

“Don’t bother picking the mess up. We’ll leave it here in case she comes back. Maybe she’ll see I’m serious.” Footsteps marked his travel inside the garage. “Check that shed and then we’ll go out the front. I’d hate to know she was right there the whole time.”

My lips pushed against my fingers as they tried to part. I shot my gaze to Bodey. He shook his head, tensing. Curling his fingers around a garden trowel, Bodey lowered himself into a squat, prepared to lunge.

I couldn’t relax my fingers from a fist. If Bodey didn’t attack when the man opened the door, we’d be found and vulnerable. A moment of clarity provided me with gratitude that we hadn’t tried running out of the fence because we would’ve been found, but another second of anger mixed with my fright. If we hadn’t hidden in the shed, we wouldn’t be close to being found.

The man Charlie left behind sighed. His fingers settled on the handle to the shed – a slight jiggling giving away his actions. He pulled the door toward him and Bodey burst from the opening, knocking the man to the ground.

Lifting the tool, Bodey slammed the handle into the man’s face. Over his shoulder, Bodey called out. “Run, Kelly. Go.” The man pushed at Bodey’s waist, twisting and turning to get out from under him.

Where would I go? Without Bodey? I jerked myself free from the dangling bike handles and leapt to the path beside him. “No! Come on, Bodey.” He had to come with me. I wouldn’t leave him there. I couldn’t survive without him.

Another hit with the tool to the back of the head and Bodey’s opponent stopped struggling.

Jumping up, Bodey grabbed at my jacket, yanking me forward. “I told you to go!” He dropped the tool and we ran from the yard. Our gasps patterned together like a frictional war underscored by the taps and thuds of our boots on the uneven terrain.

The forest line and the cover of the trees had never been more welcome.

Chapter 2

What girl has had to kill someone on the day of her proposal?

Can I see a show of hands? Oh, just me?

I clutched my mug of rare-hard-to-find hot cocoa and stared into the black, white, and red coals. The heat wasn’t enough to lull me toward sleep. The chill had become a bitter friend, keeping me alert even at the latest of nights.

My nerves hadn’t calmed down from the day’s events. Speaking normally hadn’t been an option for a little while as we’d run the entire way back our camp. John had made us pack up everything in less than three minutes and then he’d run us for a few hours to a new location. A new but old spot we’d been to many times. Like a vacation home you visit as often as possible but you can’t live there.

The camp didn’t have anything special to separate it from a campsite before the war. We used the site as a long term emergency go-to, though. I’d asked John if we could call it home once and he’d laughed, replying with, “No, but we can call it Chronic. Our Chronic Camp.”

Our Chronic Camp.

Flickering flames from the fire mesmerized me. When hadn’t I felt so defeated? So turned away from life? The only times I felt alive were during escapes like earlier and when Bodey held me in his arms.

For the first time since we’d been out trying to survive, I realized the person who might be sabotaging our escapes could be me. I constantly sought the sensation of caring, of nerves, of anything that would make me feel human again.

Bodey crouched beside me, leaning to kiss my cheek. His sudden presence warmed me faster than the cocoa or the fire ever could. Dark gold stubble covered the lower half of his face. Blue eyes roved my face and a soft smile curved lips I’d grown very fond of.

I passed him a chipped green mug and poured him water from the kettle.

“Oh, that’s warm.” He moaned in the back of his throat, the same sound when I kissed him deep. I grinned.

We kept our conversation low. John wasn’t the heaviest sleeper and if we woke him up, who knew how far we’d have to walk that day.

Bodey scooped small spoonfuls of the powder into his mug. “I was so excited Dad found some of this. I just can’t wait ‘til morning.” Metal clinked on ceramic as he stirred.

“Yeah, right. You just wanted some alone time with me.” I nudged him with my shoulder, blowing him a kiss, before sipping more of the sweet liquid I used to take for granted.

“We don’t get enough. Can you blame me?” Bodey twirled the spoon in his drink, watching me.

True. His dad, John, watched us like we planned the next world war. Not that there was much left of the world. I giggled. “Do you think he knows and is just ignoring it?”

Bodey wiggled his eyebrows. “Know what? That you’re a secret spy? And you’re hiding a stash of OREOs and ice cold milk?” He sipped his drink, fire light dancing over the rugged angles of his face. When had he started looking more like a man and less like a teenager?

I lost my humor, my smile slipping from my face. “If only.” So much had been left behind us over sixteen months ago. Forced to keep track of the days in the back of Mom’s Bible, I guarded the tiny ticks jealously. If I ran out of blank paper in the back, I would have to use the borders around Genesis. Hopefully, I wouldn’t need any more than the pages I was on.

Bodey stared into the pile of coals, sipping the steaming liquid.

I regretted my humorless reply. I forced a slight chuckle. “Can you imagine how sick we’d get if we had a whole package of OREOs? You couldn’t even handle those animal crackers.” I hid my fake grin as I sipped.

“Me? You didn’t even eat two.” He relaxed, releasing the tension.

I didn’t want to fight with him. And somehow the topic of never enough or what we’d lost always seemed to end up causing tension between us.

“Do you want to go shopping today?” He lifted his eyebrow. Our game – shopping. Like we had money to trade for the things we scavenged. So much had been looted, lost, and we always pretended to pay for whatever we found. The game made the activity more fun, more normal.

Whatever that was.

“Of course. I love to shop.” I didn’t have to fake my grin that time.

Bodey settled onto the log beside me, his leg pressed to mine. We sat together as dawn crept upon us, glistening on the dew ridden grasses.

 

~~~

 

Somehow I’d survived sixteen months with John and Bodey. I bent my head over the pages of the Bible, careful not to pay attention to the highlighted scriptures framed by Mom’s tight notes. I didn’t hold the book to make myself a believer, I held it because Mom’s fingerprints riddled the cover. We were connected while I held the pages. Guilt nagged me as I remembered how I’d been so callous about the book being taken by Charlie at that camp. Even though I didn’t believe her religion, didn’t mean I had to be so insensitive. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to apologize for that and so many other things.

I sniffed and focused on the pages again.

September. My birthday was in days. I would be nineteen. How had I lost my eighteenth birthday? I hadn’t even told anyone. The topic never came up. Plus, I think we all hoped society would return in some manner before our next major holiday. We celebrated Christmas with jarred apple sauce and compasses John found. The apple sauce had cinnamon flavoring.

If I closed my eyes, I could still taste the sweetness.

I rolled over on my bedroll. Bodey would be back from the bushes any minute and then we would head into the neighborhood a mile back on the road. John would join us after packing up camp. We moved often.

Charlie. The bastard had some gall to continue to chase us. And he was killing his own people. I could only imagine what he would do to me.

Moving to all fours, I tucked the last of my things into the backpack John had given me the day my mom died.

I would be nineteen. And still a virgin. At the end of the world. What was wrong with that picture?

 

~~~

 

Bodey wrapped his arm around my waist and we walked, our steps in sync, on the cement sidewalk.

The sun had risen an hour ago. Birds sang in the trees and clouds puffed across the blue sky. Grass lawns had overgrown to large patches of dandelions and knee high blades with overgrowth tan amongst the green. Weeds encroached into the lines of the sidewalk and cracks of the driveways we passed.

Fences gave under disrepair. Chipped paint on the wood ones with faded boards paled next to the dirty spottiness of vinyl fencing. Many fences missed planks and posts, some chopped out and others broken out like they’d been kicked in.

Leaves on Maple trees were turning to flames on branches. They would start to fall soon.

Another winter would be upon us with only the resources we carried on our backs.

“Do you think we’ll have a more stable place this winter?” I reached for Bodey’s hand and he dropped his arm from my waist to hold my fingers in his. I loved that he needed to touch me, even just casual touching. I wished he would give in and do more with me than kiss. Feeling alive and more in control of my life had become so wrapped up in whether our intimacy was physical or not.

I couldn’t explain why. Maybe I just needed to be wanted.

He sighed, watching the street ahead of us and glancing behind us to check our rear. “I hope so, but as long as that creep continues tracking us, we’re not going to be able to stay in one place for long.” Of course, he was right. He could’ve been his dad with everyone he learned alongside John. The men had become the world to me. I loved them, but I kept it bottled inside.

I swallowed. We hadn’t said the words yet, but I wanted to, so badly. I opened my mouth but Bodey clenched my fingers in his and pointed toward a white house with a dark blue door. Multiple levels trimmed in red demanded attention.

“You don’t think that nice of a house has been looted yet?” Of course it had. Probably every home in the neighborhood had been. We weren’t the only survivors and evidence of that fact grew everyday with lessened amounts of supplies we scavenged. Where there used to be a box of cereal or crackers and a bag of sugar, there might only be baking soda and oats. Most likely not even oats.

Baking soda didn’t fill any holes in anyone’s stomachs.

“You might be right. I wouldn’t feel right though, if we didn’t at least check.” He smiled at me and my heart skipped. He tugged me beside him, never letting me fall behind. Why couldn’t every moment with him feel so great? Why did we have to run for our lives?

Cautious, but not worried we would find anyone – nothing moved – usually by that point a warning greeting would be given. Being met by landowners wasn’t so bad. Usually we could barter with them, gather information, and share ours. But when they hid? Too many variables for safety.

This time, though, nothing moved. No curtains, no blinds.

Up over the patio steps and to the front door, we stepped around a hole in the broken slats of the deck steps. Rusty nails had worked themselves up from their holes, staring at us as in crooked rage as we walked by, suspicious in our doings.

Bodey tested the door, the handle giving easily to his twist. I looked behind us once more before we ducked inside.

Nothing moved.

Even the bright day seemed to pause.

“Wow, what a beautiful home.” I trailed my fingers along the railing of the stairs leading up. Pictures of people and places and pets graced the hallway. Books stacked shelves lining the den. We tread quietly on the mauve carpet runner framed by wooden flooring.

“Would you want a home like this?” Bodey looked back at me, his eyes blue, brilliant, and warming.

I shrugged. “Maybe? But how safe is it? What could I do with that many books? Start a fire?” A house like that was designed for a family. For kids. My laugh didn’t develop all the way. Mom would want grandbabies, but I wasn’t ready for that type of thinking. I couldn’t guarantee my safety, how could I do little ones?

Bodey pulled me to his side as he drew to a stop in the kitchen doorway.

We faced each other, our chests barely an inch apart and then he lifted his hands and cradled my face as he slowly kissed my lips. Passion consumed me, helping me forget we had walked into someone’s home and they were probably dead.

His hands worked up my sides, his fingers trailing my ribcage. He pulled me closer until we touched from knees to shoulders. I moaned, his tongue tracing my lips. Drawing back from me, Bodey watched my face like he searched for clues to the lost world.

I loved his tenderness. I pushed closer. “Do that again.” Lifting my face, I waited for his kiss again. But nothing. Dropping back down, I licked my lips. “Don’t you want to?”

He glanced at my lips and then at my eyes. “I want to kiss you all the time.”

“Then why are you stopping? We could go upstairs – or just in there.” I pointed to the couches in the living room. “Your dad won’t be with us for another hour.” I pushed against him suggestively – well, as suggestively as I thought I was. I was most likely bumping against him like a log in water.

He chuckled, touching the tip of my nose with a finger. “You know I can’t. It’s not right.”

Trying not to pout and failing miserably, I pushed closer. “Why? I… I…” I wanted to tell him I loved him, so much. But I couldn’t. What if he died tomorrow? What if something happened to us?

Or worse, what if he didn’t love me back?

What if I broke my silence and told him and he didn’t say it back? My stomach clenched at the thought.

“Why? What if you got pregnant, Kel? I can’t get you prenatals or anything. It’s not like we can go do the clinic for diapers and formula, you know?” He brushed my hair from my cheek, skimming my lower lip with his thumb. My lower body separated from the logic he tried injecting into the moment. His voice grew huskier. “I have something I want – no, need to tell you and I won’t wait anymore.” Bodey took my hands in his and pressed me back to lean on the doorjamb. Sunlight shafted through the front windows, lightening his golden hair with sparkles and shine.

Told me what? Nervous, I chewed my cheek. Moisture dampened my palms. I rubbed my hands on my legs, leaning my head back to train my attention on him. “Okay.” I offered lamely.

His slow smile melted my anxiety. “I love you.”

Time froze. Heat flooded me. I stared into his eyes, disbelieving. “You do?”

His grin faltered. “Yes. Of course. I thought you knew.”

I glanced at his collar. “No, I knew you liked me, but I never thought…” Meeting his gaze, I grinned slowly. “How could I be so lucky? I’ve wanted to tell you the same thing for so long, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.” The moment couldn’t be more perfect.

“You wanted to tell me what? You have to say it.” His eyes sparkled as he teased me.

I giggled, unable to tear my gaze from his. “I love you.” I glanced at the couch. “So, if we love each other, can we?” I lifted my eyebrow.

“You’re terrible. No.” He shook his head, mocking a frown. “I want us married. You deserve that much. At least then I won’t feel so foolish, if you do get pregnant. And…”

I arched my eyebrow at him as he trailed off. “And what?”

He sighed. “I don’t want you running or camping like we’ve been doing, if you do get pregnant. We need to be in a community. I need you safe. This isn’t safe.” He slapped his leg. “Having a baby with just a couple of men to help isn’t safe.”

Slapping my thigh, I stood away from the frame. Huffing, I bit the inside of my cheek. “So we’ll never be together. Not like that.” I slammed my lips shut tight, pressing them into a thin line.

“Why not?” Bodey followed me as I paced onto the tiled floor of the kitchen.

“Because there’s no one left to marry us. There is no law. There’s nothing. We can’t even say vows because we don’t have anyone to officiate.” Hopelessness welled inside me. I didn’t even care that much about the sex. The need to feel less alone drove me.

He said he loved me, mentioned marriage, but we didn’t have any way to see our dreams come to fruition. I fought frustration. I didn’t want to ruin a memorable day. He loved me, what more did I want? Besides him naked? “I don’t want to get pregnant either, but… how did mankind survive if women only got pregnant when a hospital was around?” Now, I just sounded pouty.

Bodey cornered me, my back pressed to the counter. He braced his arms on either side of my waist. “Hey, you need to relax. I’m here. We’re here. Let’s take this a day at a time, okay?”

I nodded, but did he mean it when he said he loved me? “Okay.” I swallowed. “Do you think there’s any food in here? Or do you think we’re just wasting our time?”

A heavy footstep fell in the hallway. I stopped moving, resting my hands on Bodey’s inner elbows. I whispered, “What was that?”

As if magically conjured, Charlie stepped through the doorway, his smirk crooked and dirty, framed in a matted beard. “Me, sweet Kelly. Just me.” He spread his arms, encompassing the room.

No. Our special moment couldn’t be ruined by Charlie of all people. Dread dug around my heart, chilling my skin. I hadn’t seen him since the day Mom died and he’d destroyed Bodey and John’s home and killed their dogs. I backed up, my elbow knocking a picture from a shelf behind me. The crash startled me and I jumped.

Charlie narrowed his eyes, his grin growing.

“What do you want? We don’t have anything.” Bodey turned, his back braced against me, blocking Charlie’s reach.

But Bodey knew what Charlie wanted.

What he’d always wanted.

Me.

“Oh, but you do. I’ve been chasing after her for months. Too many months. Too long.” Charlie licked his lips, a fanatical fire in his weasely eyes. “Oh, Kelly, you took your mom from me. She was…” His eyelids fell to half-mast. “You’ll be a good replacement. You look just like her.”

Bodey stepped forward, meeting Charlie in the center of the kitchen. He flexed his fists tight at his sides. “You can’t have her.” He glanced at me, unwilling to relent on that point.

“Oh, little boy, I’ll have whatever I want.” Charlie’s fist swung through the air, connecting with Bodey’s jaw before he had a chance to look back.  

Bodey bent to the side, hand to his face. “You can’t have her.” Straightening his shoulders, he dropped his hands into a fighting position, foot back and fists protecting his face. He jerked his fingers toward his chest. “Try that again, old man.” A red spot marked the first hit.

Charlie stepped forward, his fist zooming in the direction of Bodey’s face. Bodey slid across the floor, punching downward onto Charlie’s arm before slipping back into his original position.

Grunting, Charlie spun, swinging his other arm around and catching Bodey in the side. They crashed to the ground, legs and arms a mixed blur as they rolled and oomphed on the hard floor. Flesh thudded into flesh.

I flinched, edging around them, biting my nail. What could I do? I had to help Bodey. Scanning the counter, I reached for a meat tenderizer, the wooden handle like a baseball bat. Pulling the club to my shoulder, I waited, watching, holding my breath. If I could just get a good shot, I wouldn’t mind —

There!

Swinging forward with my hips and pivoting on my toes, I smacked the metal cube into Charlie’s head. He jolted upright like a rod was shoved up his spine. He fell from Bodey, slumping to the floor in a heap.

Blood dripped down Bodey’s upper lip from his nose. Numerous scrapes covered the right side of his face. Fingerprints bruised into his neck were already starting to show bright red. He shook his head and pushed from the floor, wiping at his lip. Wild and unfocused, his gaze skipped around the kitchen, landing briefly on me and then moving to take in Charlie’s unconscious form.

“Is he dead?” He crouched, checking Charlie’s wrist for a pulse.

Blood spilled onto the ground around the jerk from a head wound. I hadn’t made any effort to be soft. The bastard had everything bad coming to him. If I wanted to stretch things, I could almost convince myself Mom had helped me because of what he’d done to her back at camp.

I shrugged, dropping the tenderizer to the counter. “I don’t care.” Crossing my arms, I settled my weight to my hip.

“Why? You act like this every time we see someone dead. Like death doesn’t matter. It matters. Lives matter.” Bodey stood, trekking back and forth from Charlie to the sink.

I spun, angry and biting back so many words I wanted to fling at the man I loved. But I maintained my calm, or at least barely gripped my control. “Lives matter. I agree. His? Nope. It doesn’t matter. He’s the guy who burned down your place. He doesn’t matter. He’s the man who raped my mom, got her killed. He doesn’t matter!” I swallowed back the angry bile creeping up my throat. Of course, Charlie could ruin my happiness even as he lay in a puddle of his own blood. “He won’t stop.”

Bodey glanced at me, wiping his hands on a crusty towel beside the sink. “I couldn’t find a pulse. Don’t you worry what will happen when things get back to the way they were and you’re held accountable for the things you’ve done?” He thrust his hands to his hips and watched me like my answer shaped my future.

And maybe it did. What if I refused to pay for my actions later? What if I was asked how many people I’d killed? I scoffed. No way would I be honest. I hadn’t killed anyone. All I had done was protect my boyfriend. Self-defense. Plus, crime would be hard to prove with most of the population gone.

I lifted my chin. “Back to the way they were? Are you serious? Things will never be the way they were. They can never be that way. We will never see OREOs again or Cap’n Crunch or anything. Cold milk? Nope. So stop saying things like it might come true.” My crying days were over. I hadn’t shed a tear since the first time I thought John had died. I didn’t have enough energy or enough water in me.

In three large steps he crossed to me, taking my lower arms in his hands. “Kelly, we will. Things have to stabilize, return.” He gently shook me until my gaze met his. “Even if society doesn’t go back to the way they had it, I have to believe any family we have isn’t doomed to a life of scavenging and looting to survive. What kind of a life is that?”

Family? I couldn’t imagine having a family life beyond what we had. Our attention focused on finding food and searching for resources to trade later. A kid or two in all that craziness didn’t seem fair to either party involved.

Thundering footsteps echoed down the hall and John burst through the kitchen doorway almost at the same time the sound of the footsteps did. In seconds he took in the scene, my angry face and Bodey’s pleading one. “What happened? What’s wrong with your face?”

“I fought him. For Kelly.” Bodey crossed his arms. I hadn’t even taken in the injuries. He’d fought Charlie for me. He’d protected me and there I stood yelling at him. Regret filled me.

John inspected the scene again. He focused on me. “You asked him to fight for you?”

“No, sir. Charlie wanted to take me and Bodey said he couldn’t. So they fought.” Shame filled me and I glanced down. “I think I killed him.”

“You finished the fight? With what?” John scanned me as if for injury. His gaze lit on the tool I’d used as a weapon. “Ah. I see.”

“How’d you know we were here?” I stepped around Charlie’s body, careful not to kick him but I can’t promise I didn’t step on his fingers. Bastard.

“I’ve been tracking the group following us and their tracks led me to this neighborhood. The door wasn’t closed, so I took a chance. Looks like a good move to make on my part.” He checked the pantry beside him, pulling out a shaker of salt and garlic seasoning. Lately we’d eaten as many dandelion weeds as possible. Sometimes we grilled them and sometimes just ate them like a salad – without the dressing.

I had to ignore the body on the floor.

Everything we attempted to eat went down smoother with flavor – even if the texture was off. A couple weeks ago, I’d made a pinecone broth which wasn’t great, but filled the hole in our stomachs for a few seconds. The brief respite was welcomed after hours and days of emptiness.

As if on silent cue, Bodey and I turned to the cupboards and systematically checked them for anything we could use.

Yells from the front yard reached us in the back of the house. We lifted our heads like prairie dogs, watching, waiting, and listening for more.

John motioned us toward the back door. He muttered quietly. “This group is terrible. They were at the other end of the street when I got here. Let’s get going. Just leave him.”

I pocketed packets of instant oatmeal shoved back into the corner of a deep drawer. About four of apple and cinnamon flavored. I couldn’t wait to show the guys. We pushed out the back door, stepping down the porch steps and using the cement border to keep us from leaving a trail in the overlong grass.

We didn’t look back. I’d learned not to anymore. There was nothing behind me that would help me tomorrow or even later that day. Once we reached the woods, we hid behind a collection of thick trees and watched the house. My breathing had slowed, but my heart rate still ran fast. If Charlie really were dead, his men should find him soon and then we’d see what kind of a gang we’d just set off.

I couldn’t care about killing him. My only regret was I hadn’t strangled him to death the night Mom and I had left that stupid camp. I’d tied him to a chair and didn’t bother finishing him off. Why? What was my reasoning? Why hadn’t Mom? Justifying unjust actions didn’t make sense to me. I shook my head and focused on the yells and shouts escalating through the house.

Three men rushed onto the back patio, looking for someone to still be there. Like the killer would be stupid enough to hang out and have a picnic.

A man stepped from the door, his eyes focused and clear. His familiar features and auburn hair stirred my memory, but where had I seen him? From that distance, a bloody line down the side of his face tried blending into the line of his hair from where Bodey must have hit him with that trowel.

“Shane, what should we do?” Another man with empty arms threw his hands wide. “Charlie knew where the next camp was.”

Shane. Shane. The last Shane I’d seen had been in the woods with Mom when they’d tried kidnapping her and I’d had to shoot his friend.

“We’ll find Charlie’s killers. And we’ll deal with them.” Spitting onto the lawn, Shane hit the deck railing and spun, particles of dirt dropping from his jacket in the sunlight. The other men followed him inside, the clumps of their boots like a small stampede.

A distinct feeling of personal hatred reached me on the slight breeze. I’d pissed off Charlie, but Shane had just become my enemy on a whole new level. His and Charlie’s connection wasn’t clear, but it was there.

Turning my head, I blinked back tears, my vision of John hazy and blurred. I quietly whispered, “Why wouldn’t he stop coming after us, John? What logical reason…” I couldn’t finish. None of it made sense. And while I didn’t care about death – at least as long as it didn’t affect me personally, I didn’t want to be the one killing. Something seemed so wrong in the act. Why hadn’t Charlie just given up after the first few times he’d missed us?

“Some men – and women, too – just can’t let things go. Like an obsession.” John’s explanation seemed so simple but made perfect sense. He wrapped his arms around our shoulders and murmured, “Looks like we’re moving on at just the right time.”

I nodded, glancing at Bodey’s scrapes and bruises. He didn’t look at me.

Where had our happiness of the morning gone?

 

Chapter 3

We didn’t have to walk far outside of the neighborhood to get to John’s holding place. Stuck between two closely growing trees, our packs stacked up and covered by branches and leaves.

The simple untouched beauty of the area hid everything well. I walked by the hiding place. John stopped us with a snap of his fingers.

Hauling out our bags, John helped us pull them on and snapped our extra bags to parallel poles he dragged behind him. Bodey grabbed the bottom ends of the poles to avoid leaving a trail.

I caught Bodey’s eye as I fell into step beside him. He limped but not enough to impede his speed. I spoke low, not wanting to involve John or give away our location to anyone who might be nearby. “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” He watched John’s feet, avoiding my gaze.

“Are you mad at me?” I chewed on my bottom lip. What had I done wrong now? He’d just told me he loved me and now he was mad.

His lips appeared even softer with the border of stubble. He glanced at his dad and then peeked at me. He spoke hurriedly and hushed. “I had him. You protected me like… a little boy. I could do it.”

I recoiled, hurt by his response. “Are you serious? You’re upset because I hurt him? You were doing fine, but I couldn’t stand there and not help. Not after what he’d done to Mom. You can’t get hurt and he was going to kill you, if he had the chance.”

Bodey tapped the poles with his fingers. “Just a second, Dad.” John stopped and waited as Bodey lowered the poles and then pulled me aside. John averted his gaze, picking his fingernail like it was the most interesting thing to happen to him in years.

Grasping my upper arms, Bodey met my gaze square on. “You don’t understand. I have nothing to give you. And with that stupid utensil you took away my chance to protect you. I don’t even have that now.”

I blinked back angry tears, scrunching up my lips and nose. “Were you serious? Back there? You would marry me and be with me, if you could? Do you know what that means? It means we would be partners. We would protect each other. Why…” I swallowed. How could he treat me like that? I didn’t do anything wrong.

He glanced in his dad’s direction, but my words shouldn’t have reached him. I spoke hushed and fast.

Bodey’s grip loosened, but he still held on. “You don’t understand. I want so much for you. I want you to be happy and comfortable… fed. I’d give you everything, if I could. You would never want for anything. But I have nothing.” He softly shook his head, lifting his hand to inspect the scrapes and rubbed skin along the knuckles. “All I have is my strength. I can protect you, defend you, but you have to let me.” He cradled my neck, his fingers branding me with his touch.

I stuck out my lower lip. “Don’t be mad at me then. I want to do the same for you. And I’m not as strong as you, but what I can do, I will.” I lifted my chin. “So don’t begrudge me that.”

He inclined his head. “Point taken. Oh, I do wish I could marry you now, Kel.” He touched his forehead to mine, closing his eyes. His nearness comforted me and his touch reassured me that we were fine.

John cleared his throat. “You guys okay?”

Bodey and I pulled apart. I blushed. John knew we cared about each other, but I think he blocked out just how much. Bodey intertwined his fingers with mine and lifted his chest. “Yeah, we’re fine, but Dad, I love Kelly.”

Looking between his son and me, John didn’t say a word. He waited for more. How could there not be more?

Not missing a beat, Bodey continued, his tone strong but still held at a private level for safety. “I want to marry her.”

The silence after Bodey announced something we hadn’t completely discussed could have knocked over a stone wall. I shifted on my toes, certain I would have to start running – but from what, I wasn’t sure. The air tightened around us as I waited for John’s reply.

John jostled his backpack higher on his waist. Solemn, he considered us longer. “Do you mind if you give me time to think about this? I didn’t realize your affections had reached this level.”

“Of course not. We seem to have all the time in the world.” Grinning, Bodey released my hand after a quick squeeze and reached for the poles. He waited for his dad to return to the head of them and retrieve his end as well.

A fine perspiration covered the back of my neck. John wanted to think about what? What was there to think over? He didn’t like me? Maybe thought I wasn’t good enough for Bodey – which, I couldn’t agree with him more. Bodey’s sweetness and goodness would be enough to make him a man worth loving, but add in his hard-working ethics and his honesty and he became the perfect kind of man before and after the end of society. He trusted people and didn’t expect bad things to happen.

Me? I couldn’t be more different. I wasn’t necessarily nice and I tried to get out of work which made me hurt. If lying would get me out of trouble, I wouldn’t hesitate to fabricate a story no one would believe. I was so worthless as a girl, men wanted to trade me for textiles.

Why would Bodey want to be with me?  

Maybe because he didn’t have any other choice.

 

~~~

We walked all day and probably didn’t cover more than five miles. Up and down mountainsides and through small creeks and large rivers, those miles grew and grew. We really just wanted to get a comfortable distance from the northern Spirit Lake neighborhood and the men after us. As ironic as it was we’d been running from this crazy man and his gang for months and had never gone outside of a couple counties. John’s wife was so close. Or so far. Or not even there. Or. Or. Or. Or. The possibility that she was out there searching for him kept him going.

Maybe his obsession and Charlie’s ran on parallel paths. Hopefully, John’s didn’t slam into a tree like Charlie’s had.

Dusk bit into our daylight and John stomped his feet, an indication he was nearly ready to stop for the day. I sighed, grateful I didn’t have to keep going. Between uncertainty about how he felt about me and Bodey and fatigue, I don’t know if I could’ve kept going much longer. Every footstep hurt.

The litany of doubt continued to cloud my mind. Wasn’t I good enough? Why wasn’t I? I had expected him to immediately say he couldn’t agree more, or he loved us both and wanted us happy. Something. Anything. But he’d asked for time to think about his son and me.

He’d broken my heart and my excitement over Bodey’s revelation dimmed under the weight that John didn’t feel about me the same way I’d grown to feel about him.

Shrugging off the pressure of having unreciprocated feelings, I assessed what needed to be done in the camp. I didn’t cook every night. Bodey was in charge of looking for food. After John would set up the fire pit and start the flames, I would help Bodey cook whatever he found – plants of some kind, bugs, animals – if we were lucky – or even bark we boiled in water and drank like broth. We weren’t above anything, if we could pretend it were edible and tasty.

I dug in my pockets and handed the packets of oatmeal to Bodey who fingered them in surprise. “Oh, this is great. Good find.” We fell into a task-oriented silence.

“I have a surprise tonight.” John broke the hushed hurriedness around our concentrated work. Was he going to surprise us with a yes? Or a no? His answer was the only thing I wanted.

Bent over, I didn’t look his way, stacking fallen twigs and broken chunks of wood in my arms.

“When I was packing this morning, I found a packet of jerky in the bottom of my bag. We must have forgotten the meat was in there when we moved a few weeks ago. I emptied out all our bags to check for excess moisture and repacked them. The jerky was a nice surprise.” He chuckled, scraping rocks on each other as he set up the fire circle.

Jerky. We hadn’t had meat in a while. My stomach growled on cue and I rolled my eyes. I didn’t want to eat. For the first time in I couldn’t remember how long, I didn’t want to eat. Nausea blocked my hunger pangs. While I was grateful for the relief from pain in my food-starved stomach, the nausea didn’t feel much better.

“Oh wow, that sounds great. Kelly just handed me some oatmeal she’d found. Should be a gourmet meal tonight.” Bodey called back from just outside the circle.

We didn’t work on being quiet when we made camps in the middle of the woods. The first couple of months we did because there were more people out and about. But as medication became scarce, people ran out of their insulins and other necessities, and the few survivors there were dropped to a small percentage of what they’d been.

Nine out of ten people died. At least that’s the statistic John threw out at us about eight months ago. He’d been keeping notes of how many bodies we came across versus how many survivors there were. I’m not sure of his mathematical equations, but the numbers made sense considering even minor infections could kill you without access to antibiotics.

We danced around the topic of Bodey and me. Our future and what John’s thoughts were. I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t want his opinion to matter so much. But it did and I as long as I didn’t speak, I could hide how much.

My hands shook and I dropped the wood to the side of the half-finished pit. Pulling out our blankets, I yawned. So much anxiety piled on top of the normal everyday stress made me more tired than normal. One thing I didn’t have problems with, sleeping. I could sleep anywhere and usually did.

Slight crackling signaled the growth of the fire and I turned from my task. With the sinking of the sun, the September evening chill bit irritatingly through my jeans and at my hands. The warmth’s draw was stronger than my pride. I crouched beside Bodey and we held out our hands to the strengthening flames.

All three of us watched the oranges and yellows flicker and dance in the growing dark. That was the moment when our situation slammed into reality every night. I wanted a shower, but I wouldn’t get to be extremely clean again until we found water and a safe place to dry completely again. I hadn’t swum since July and I hadn’t gone into the water for fun. The seaweed had been a trial meal. We wanted to see if the underwater version had any taste or made us feel fuller than the on-land plants. Anything was worth trying.

No showers. No solid meals. No clean clothes or walls. A chair at a table was so far off I had stopped looking at them at the houses. I never had time to sit and enjoy just being because our days focused on finding our next sleeping place and food and resources. And escaping Charlie.

Always what was next, what was next?

I hadn’t had a period in almost fifteen months. Well, I’d spotted once or twice, but I remember my mom mentioning there would be a lack of a period when there was severe diet restrictions or stress on the body. We didn’t eat enough for our hormones to be regulated. With my weight loss, I had left the chest bindings behind. No hips, no breasts, nothing to define me as a woman of nineteen. Like I’d gotten stuck at twelve like Mom wanted.

Bodey didn’t seem to mind. I told him once I’d have more curves, if I could get more food in me. He’d grinned and commented he’d have more muscles with more protein. I believed him. We both were shadows of our former selves.

Bodey shifted back to rest on his rear, moving his leg so his knee bumped mine. We always touched, even little bits casually.

I couldn’t wait anymore. Screw it. “Did you think about what Bodey said earlier?” I didn’t even have the grace to blush. Enough was enough. I loved John, but if he didn’t respect me or his son, there was nothing I could do to change it at this point. At least bitterness made me feel that way. I could believe anything with an empty stomach and hopes dangling by a blade of grass all day long.

Cracking open the bag of jerky, John handed us each a strip. I bit into the chunk of dry meat, uncaring that the toughness was almost unbearable. I would chew and work on a small piece in my mouth for a couple hours. We could make the bag last a few days, knowing how sparse protein was in our lives then. In our reusable mugs, Bodey spooned oatmeal and passed the steaming dishes out.

The first bite was unbearably sweet and I craved more before I’d even swallowed. I couldn’t figure out which I needed more – John’s answer or food.

John paused before scooping a bite into his mouth. He motioned at us with his spoon. “I figured something like this was coming. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t expect it, I just didn’t expect it so soon.” He chewed, watching the fire while he thought more. “You’re both so young, nineteen soon and twenty even sooner. I can’t imagine getting married so young.”

But I didn’t feel young. I felt older than… I stared into the glowing coals. I couldn’t remember reckless or impulsive. Both could kill me now. Did loving Bodey fall into either of those categories? I glanced at him.

I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t care about Bodey in some way. I’d had a crush on him since freshman year. Discovering him alive sixteen months ago had been more invigorating than anything else I’d done, like my hope had exploded after swimming in such intense despair. I’d lost Mom and found Bodey and John.

“I don’t feel young.” Bodey murmured, jerking another bite of his share of the meat. He and I always seemed connected, like we felt what the other felt and understood. I was crazy and he was practical but when we got together we became half of the other.

Hot oatmeal and jerky settled in my stomach, replacing the aching emptiness. Now, all I had to do was make it through the turmoil, waiting for John’s answer.

He sighed, carefully dropping his empty mug to the ground. “There isn’t any way to perform a legal ceremony. I doubt any judges or preachers are around to marry you two.”

Bodey brought his gaze up, pinpointing his dad with his stare. “Dad, you could do it. You have all kinds of military and legal background.”

John lifted his hands, firelight flickering on the angles, casting shadows. “Now wait a minute, I was cop, not a lawyer. I don’t know the first thing about marrying people.”

The conversation jumped between them like frogs. I didn’t dare move my head but my gaze passed from one to the other in quick succession as they spoke. Did they have any idea how ridiculous the argument sounded? Without a government, who would say it was right or wrong? We really just needed the marriage to be acknowledged in our little group.  

“You don’t need to be a lawyer. Just say some words. As long as you acknowledge it and we do, too, shouldn’t that be enough? How did they do it back in the old days?” Bodey reached for my hand and gripped my fingers tight.

“In the old days? How old? Because as long as I’ve been alive, people have needed judges or preachers to marry them.” He grinned, enjoying Bodey’s attempts to convince him to perform our wedding ceremony.

The knots in my stomach loosened as I realized he played with Bodey and me.

“Old. Like nineteen-hundreds or the seventies.” Bodey’s earnestness warmed me. He wanted to marry me. Almost as badly as I wanted to marry him.

John’s laugh burst from him like a long awaited storm in a drought. My nerves relaxed. He hunched his shoulders as his back shook. “The seventies weren’t that long ago, son. But I see why you would think they were.” He nodded his head, his eyes shining. “I can do it. You both come up with your own vows and make the plans and we’ll do it when you’re ready, okay?” He glanced at me, as I tried taking in what had just happened.

When I’m ready? Ready for what? For Charlie’s gang to catch up to us, rape me, torture me, and then trade me for a ball of yarn? The end of the world had turned into one big game of hurry-up-and-wait. We’d survived the bombings, the looting, the raiders, the multitudes of deaths, and even the dwindling supplies to do nothing but move from site to site searching for sustenance. Our lives didn’t have any purpose.

I needed purpose, value, and worth. Maybe being married would give that to me.

Would we be able to survive survival? How long would we have to struggle for food and a steady place to call our own? I wouldn’t last another winter like the last one.

My fingers warmed in Bodey’s grasp. If I could make plans with Bodey for a special day, maybe I could call him my own. And no one would be able to change it.

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Author: Chelsea Paulson

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