Into the End – Book 1 – Chapter 1 – 3

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Into the End

Talking about the apocalypse versus ushering it in… Rachel has to decide which is worse.

As she and her family bug out to their safe house, Rachel hopes the things she’s done in her past as a strategical psychologist hasn’t played a role in American’s demise.

Her sister, Brenda, on the other hand, knows Rachel is no saint. But when Brenda sets out to find her brilliant sister and her family, she learns not everything should survive.

Explore the end from the safety of your seat while these sisters fight for their lives!

Chapter 1: Rachel

The end of the world had come.

Finally.

Rachel hadn’t had a solid night’s sleep in twenty-three months, three weeks and two days. An hour, maybe two a night for the last two years. Twenty-four hour news flickered on the TV.

Crisp May air breezed through the open windows. Rachel tucked the blanket tighter under her chin and readjusted her legs on the couch cushions. Restless leg syndrome would be a perfect excuse for her sleeplessness, but couldn’t be further from the truth. Her legs weren’t restless. She was.

The news anchor returned from commercial. Rachel turned up the volume. A squared picture flashed of burning buildings and gaping crevices. The older woman on screen sighed, weariness covering her lack of surprise. “Another earthquake in the string of disasters to the west coast struck an hour ago in Ellensburg, Washington. The Washington coastline has now been decimated to the middle of the state. Experts project a following tsunami to the new islands created from the Cascade Mountains should manifest in the next few hours.”

Ellensburg? Mere hours away. Andy had been right.

The camera shifted to the man who shuffled paper. Lifting eyes desensitized to the horrors from recent days, he continued below a new popup screen. “In other news, after almost ten years of closed, high security airspace, the president has released a statement declaring that the airspace over the States is now open. He has requested assistance from other countries. The White House sent his formal request yesterday morning and has yet to receive answers from the NATO countries. The open space is an invitation for any help we can receive. Do not be alarmed if you spot airplanes or helicopters in the air.”

A muffled thud sounded from the roof. Rachel muted the TV. And waited. At least she thought she’d heard something. Maybe… Well, maybe she’d slipped into that place between sleep and awake. Or maybe she was finally ready to sleep. It might be the mentioned assistance dropping food and supplies.

Rachel closed her eyes, smiling at the image of care packages dropping to the ground.

Thump! This time from the roof above her. Rachel snapped her eyes open and followed the sound with her gaze until it dropped off the steep grade. An orange glow drifted past the closed vertical blinds. Another. A new thud. Care packages didn’t glow… did they?

Rachel escaped the pull of the blanket and knelt at the window. A burnt umber shone around the edges of the blinds. Faded in and out. Maybe young neighbors played with fireworks.

She pushed a few of the slats out of the way and gasped.

Falling debris, some on fire, catapulted from the sky. Large pieces hurtled to the ground while other materials and paper rode the calm May air to settle wherever it wafted. Flames burned out on contact with the grasses and streets, but here and there a small ember took hold on a tree or roof top. Smoke billowed black and white with different fuel.

A scream rent the air.

Rachel scrambled from the couch and shot down the stairs. Out the door, she landed on the grass and froze. Where had it come from? A second shriek slashed from the house next door. Bob and Martha. Rachel ran to the front door and pounded.

The retired gentleman flung the panel open, his white hair tufted here and there. “Rachel. What’s going on?” He stuck his head out the door, the fire light revealing his absent hearing aid. “Where’s Martha?”

Crackling from the back yard and another scream led Rachel through the gate, Bob trailing behind. Both dodged the increasing onslaught of fiery remnants. A paper bag, the corner curling with flame, slid off Rachel’s shoulder. She stepped over a yellow charred chunk of foam in the shape of a small seat. A doll’s head, or half of one anyway, rolled on the grass when it landed.

Rounding the corner of the house, Rachel tripped over the cement patio. Damn. Every time she came over, she stumbled over the same protrusion. Good thing she hadn’t changed into her robe. The last thing she needed was to fight terry cloth tripping her up.

Finding Martha took a moment with vision limited through the falling debris. By the side fence, behind the rhododendrons, Martha chased her dog, whose tail and lower back had caught fire. Yips filled the air. Burning hair and flesh permeated the smoke trailing from burning paper and wood. The dog’s water dish sat on the edge. Rachel picked up the bowl and dumped it on the burning animal.

“Oh no.” Martha caught and patted the whimpering lump. She raised her eyes to her husband, tear filled. “Sparkles. He’s…”

Bob couldn’t hear her, but the pain on his face declared complete understanding.

Andy, Rachel’s husband, had a gun. He could put the poor animal down. The kids needed to get up and get out of the house. Speaking as calmly as possible, Rachel approached the woman and touched her shoulder. “Martha, we need to put Sparkles out of his misery. I’ll grab Andy. He can do it.”

Gray hair, matted at the back, shook as Martha nodded. Rachel’s heart ached for her friend. She struggled to keep from sobbing. “I’ll be right back.”

Sprinting, she returned to her house and bounded up the stairs. “Andy! Wake up. You need to get up.” She powered through their bedroom door and grabbed Andy’s foot. Hand over hand in the darkened room, she followed the lines of his sheet-covered, toned body and shook his shoulder hard. “Andy!” She yelled. “Andy, wake up! Hurry!”

Her husband didn’t open his eyes but brushed her hands from him and rolled over. Rachel glanced toward the doorway. “Wake up, damn it.” She grasped his shoulder tighter, ratcheting him back and forth until he turned to face her.

Andy yanked his ear plugs out and sat up. “What? I just fell asleep an hour ago.” Bleary, he blinked hard to wake up. “The house better be sinking.” He yawned and rubbed his face.

“Andy, things are falling from the sky. Martha’s dog caught fire. He… They need you to put him down. Please, hurry.” Rachel reached underneath the bed and pulled out Andy’s Glock. Snapping the clip into place, she palmed the butt.

Mouth agape, Andy climbed from bed, his boxers low on his hips. He slid his jeans on and his t-shirt followed. Rachel grabbed his arm as he bent to retrieve his socks. “No, you don’t have time. We need to go now. They need you.” She pulled him to the door and handed him the gun. “Here. I’ll get the kids ready. It’s time.”

“Time?” Confusion gave way to understanding, the softness of sleep hardened to the angles of his masculine features. “Got it. I’ll be right back.” He snagged a quick kiss, pressing his lips to hers like the world’s end had paused just for them.

Andy pounded down the stairs.

Rachel turned to the kids’ room. All three shared a room because Andy had opted not to spend any extra money on finishing the downstairs and instead had invested the surplus on supplies which he’d packed for speedy transport.

Cole stood in the doorway, watching her. “Mom? Where’s Dad going?”

Hugging her oldest to her, Rachel breathed in deep. Innocence would be shattered. Even as a psychologist she didn’t have the tools to prevent it. She pushed his unresisting form from her and looked into his eyes. “We have to go. Now. I need your help.”

Squaring his jaw in perfect imitation of his father, Cole nodded. “Tell me what to do.”

“Get dressed. Grab Beau and get him dressed. I’ll get Kayli.” Further into the bedroom packed with bunk beds and dressers, Rachel ignored the rush of fear. Adrenaline, pure and simple. She didn’t fear the end. She didn’t fear anything. Not since Rhode Island. She repeated her mantra. Nothing scared her. Not anymore. She had Andy.

Cole leaned into the bottom bunk. “Beau, we need to go. Grab Blanky. Hurry up.”

“Kayli, honey, you need to wake up. We need to get out of here.” Rachel rubbed her daughter’s arm.

The lightest sleeper, Kayli, a smaller version of Rachel with her dark brown bob and blue eyes, sat up and threw her blanket on the floor followed by her stuffed doll. “Is this the emergency you and Daddy talk about?”

Rachel opened her arms and helped the six-year-old down. “I think so. Either way, we’re going to pretend it is. I need you and Beau to get dressed and follow Cole to the backyard. Remember the drills?”

Solemn, Kayli and Rachel’s tow-headed, four-year-old boy nodded. “Yes, Mommy.”

Rachel nodded at Cole. The fourteen-year-old had plenty of experience watching the other two. They followed him like baby bears to peanut butter. She left the smaller kids in Cole’s capable hands to gather last minute papers and memory items. The majority of the necessities had been packed months ago.

A gunshot pushed its way through the walls. Rachel paused on the landing between the flights of stairs and hung her head. Martha loved Sparkles almost more than her grandchildren. Almost.

Poor Andy. He loved domestic animals. But he was strong. Stronger than most men. And he was hers.

Anxious whispers flitted down the stairs from the kids’ room. She’d have to hurry. The last thing she wanted was to have the kids outside by themselves, but she didn’t want them in the house too long either. What if it caught fire?

A few pictures from the walls downstairs topped the pile she accumulated on her walk through the house. Climbing the stairs, Rachel dodged around the opening door. “Sorry.”

Andy steadied her, his fingers warm on her elbow. “I didn’t know you’d be right here, sorry about that.” She met his solemn gaze. “I had to put the dog down. Martha is pretty upset, but Bob got her to go inside out of the fire. I asked them if they’d like to go with us.”

Rachel exhaled. “Oh, good. Are they going to ride their quads? When can they be ready?”

His hand on her back, Andy followed Rachel up the stairs. Even after all the time they’d been together, his touch still tingled. “No, they want to get to Spokane. The news reported the Red Cross stations are open and ready for thousands. I’d like to see if that’s changed. Bob is leaving in the next few minutes. They aren’t even packing.” The couple stopped mid-level. He reached up and brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. “Are the kids up?”

Beau appeared at the top of the stairs. “We’re here, Dad.” Backpack straps darkened his shoulders. Kayli bobbed behind him.

The electricity shut off. Darkness enveloped them. Kayli and Beau whimpered. Rachel searched with her hands and feet for the stairs and grasped their arms while offering sounds of comfort. Utter blackness greeted their eyes. Even the streetlamps fell victim to the blackout.

Andy moved around the living room, his steps padded on the carpet and stilted on the linoleum. A slight sticky sound indicated he stood in front of the fridge where Kayli had spilled grape jelly the night before. A moment later, a scratching and the flare of a match glimmered as the sun. Kayli, Beau and Cole followed Rachel down the stairs to the living room.

“I guess watching the news is out.” Andy lit a decorative candle from the centerpiece on the dining room table. “You guys have your packs? Rachel, is that everything you need?”

He led the way to the sliding door, his light a beacon as they left their home. Maybe for the last time. Or maybe just a drill. Rachel’s heart pounded.

Caboosing her family train down the deck steps, Rachel opened her mouth to stop Andy, beg him to reconsider. Spokane had Red Crosses. They’d be around others, know where their friends were. Sometimes being with the crowd was more than people gave it credit for.

Miniature meteors fell from the sky as far away as the river, over thirty streets away.

“Let me take that.” Andy set the candle on the lowest step and removed the pile from Rachel’s arms. The kids stared into the sky. Fire streaked the night sky, blocking out the stars. Andy pointed at the stairs. “Rachel, can you grab the radio? It’s in the box under the deck.”

Radio, radio. Rachel hated the Tupperware boxes under the steps during the daylight. Night time was worse. Maybe the bugs and spiders would know the sky was falling and leave her alone.

Locating the small wind up box required Rachel’s complete focus. She taught fighting fears and overcoming obstacles. A spider was not something that created fear. No, instead it was disgusting. All those legs.

Something brushed her arm. Crap, was that a spider? She shivered. Yuck. Her fingers closed around the box and she yanked it out, scratching her arm where the tickle had been. “Got it.” She banged her shin on the trailer tire, shapes blurred shadows against the white vinyl fencing.

Andy’s hand found her arm, his angled jaw and firm lips illuminated by fluttering flames. A thump on the tarp covering the trailer behind Andy’s quad startled Rachel. Andy took the radio before she could drop it. The spiders had bugged her more than she’d realized. “Beau, Kayli, Cole? You guys down here?”

Cole stuck his head up from the trailer behind the four-wheeler Rachel would drive. “Dad has us in already, Mom. Kayli and Beau are under here, too.”

“Thanks, Cole.” Her kids. Her husband. She needed them. Maybe that was a fear she had. Losing them. Tools to face fear made it hard to accept any. Focus on the moment, on the now. Not on what has happened and not what might happen. Focus. She wouldn’t lose them. Andy was too prepared.

A car honked from the front yard. Three houses over a roof caught fire, lighting the area like a large torch. Every moment more urgent than the last.

“Let’s see what we can get.” Andy pushed the buttons and messed with the antennae. Static. “There’s nothing on FM.” Garbled murmurs cleared little by little as Andy pressed the button.

Rachel leaned forward. “Wait, what’s that?”

“AM.” Andy bent the small antennae and a harried voice fought through the static.

“… end it there. I’m not sure where they went. Hold on, here comes something.” Muffled rubbing followed by sounds a phone makes when it’s dropped. The voice couldn’t belong to a guy older than high school, and he returned, hushed and frightened. “For those of you able to hear me, this is Tom Mason. We are under attack. I repeat, we are under attack.” Shuffling followed by quickened breathing. “Fairchild was targeted this morning and multiple bombs have made contact, annihilating the base. Spokane hasn’t fared any better, having received ill-aimed missiles.”

Rachel stared at Andy. She recognized the boy’s name. But… he’d said…

This was it. What they’d prepared for, Andy’d warned her of.

Tom Mason… She couldn’t grasp the familiarity. Where had she heard that name before?

But Andy had assumed, hoped, the end would happen in their children’s children’s lives. Not in their own. Prepared or not, the reality was jarring.

Tom continued, his young voice assuming a level of maturity well beyond his years. “Moments before the television was cut, the news said to get to the relief shelters in town. I wouldn’t do this as there is more danger in numbers. Get out of town, but be careful. I repeat, do not go to the relief shelters. Something isn’t right. I’ll sign back on once my position has stabilized.”

Static.

Palms sweaty, Rachel clenched her sweatshirt in her hands. “What do we do?”

“Exactly what we’re doing. Let’s get out front and see if we can warn anyone else.” He grabbed her hand. “We’re ready for this. Rachel, tell me you remember the way to the property.” A falling flame reflected in his eyes.

Rachel inhaled, focused on steadying herself. If the area was attacked, they’d planned on getting to their property in the national forest northeast of Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. He’d drilled her like their lives depended on it. Because they did. “Yes, I do.”

Andy nodded. “Good. We won’t get separated, but in case we do, get there. That’s where you’ll be safest. I will meet you there, just like we planned. ATVs are ready and packed. Let’s leave.” He pulled her into a hug and caressed her back through her shirt. “I’m sorry. I know you’re scared. We can do this.”

Rachel clutched him, hard. But time was of the essence. They separated and he gave her hand one final squeeze. “Did you get the documents?” The red container held their documents – birth certificates, Social Security cards, titles, immunizations, deeds, anything they might potentially need to prove who they were and where they belonged.

She had added the small file box full of the important paperwork and unhooked the external hard drive of the computer the day before. She’d scanned every document months ago and saved everything to the memory bank. When the hard drive had blinked, indicating it was full she’d added it to their cache of survival items.

Rachel tossed one last glance at the slider doors glowing with the reflection of bright orange flames from the burning house. One fleeting moment donated to the memory of her dark glossy hardwood California king bed. A folded open romance novel on the side table. Socks and underwear piled at the foot of the bed from laundry the day before. Rachel tightened her jaw. She had to do this. If she wasn’t strong for the kids, who would be?

The falling objects were more irregular, testifying of passing time. Rachel and her family wouldn’t be there much longer and who knew if they’d ever return.

Chapter 2: Brenda

Nothing pissed Brenda off more than when Rachel or her husband were right. Seriously.

She pounded up the stairs to the master bedroom and pushed the door against the pile of dirty clothes mating on the floor. Her husband was a slob. That was the nicest word she had for him.

Boots on, she tromped across the floor to stand beside the bed. Face up, he lay with his arms splayed. With his mouth open and his longish hair matted on the pillow case, he had an almost insane look to his normally hard and twisted features. Nothing about Lee spoke of a kinder, gentler side. Especially when he was awake.

Asshole.

But he was her husband and Brenda owed him at least a warning before she went. Disgust smoothed from her expression, she reached out and prodded his shoulder. Once. Twice. On the third one, he snapped his eyes open and grabbed her forearm, yanking her on top of him.

“Waking me up, Brenda?” His breath blew across her cheek and she closed her eyes against the stale alcohol mixed with pepperoni stench.

Brenda bit back her whimper. She swallowed. “But we’re under attack, Lee. There are bombs going off all over the place. Don’t you want to get out?” Please, please, let me go, she begged behind eyes that betrayed none of her fear or anxiety.

He ignored her, laughing at her situation instead. He rolled her to her stomach, ripping her thin scrub pants and shirt from her skin. “Just back from your trip and you can’t wait to get in bed with me. I’ll oblige you this time, Brenda, but next time you know the rules.”

Teeth gritted to prevent her screams from escaping, Brenda counted in her head. He never took longer than the count of three hundred. Never. Never. Never.

At two-hundred-and-fifty-seven he slapped her rear end and pushed off her. Brenda didn’t say a word but waited as he left the room for the connected bathroom – that her job paid for.

Asshole.

Karma would be a missile or bomb taking out Lee while he showered. But Karma hated Brenda. Not that she gave a damn.

Chapter 3: Andy

Thirteen years of marriage, five years together before that and Andy couldn’t believe his fortune. When Rachel held his hand, invincibility coursed through him. The effect hadn’t waned over the years.

Rachel checked on the kids in beds Andy had built in the trailers for just such an event. She whispered something to each one and kissed their heads. Two steps brought her to the oversized quad where she climbed onto the kickboard and swung her leg over the seat, settling in for the ride. Andy patted her hand and climbed on his.

The trailers would work well. He’d custom built the axle-free wagons when rumors of attack on American soil had filtered around the web over a year ago. Many people had scoffed at the possibility – who would dare to wage war with the Great US of A? Andy hadn’t needed more than a rumor. All too vividly he recalled the terror and loss of September 11, 2001. It didn’t take much to bring to mind the stories his grandpa had told of Pearl Harbor and the horrors there.

The earthquakes in California, Oregon, Nevada and southern Idaho had followed the whispers of foreign attack, smothering the warnings of invaders in the wake of the abysmal destruction. But Andy had ordered pieces for the trailers and upgrades on their four-wheelers, also called quads. He’d special ordered the ATVs to have engines as big as a car’s.

Two pairs of riding gloves rested across his gas cap. He tossed Rachel hers before yanking on his own. “The gate’s unlocked, we’ll just ride through. I want to double check on Bob. He might change his mind, if I tell him what we heard on the radio. Point to the street and the prairie. I’ll push through first.” He clenched his jaw and continued, “Your pistol is in the box zip-tied to the handlebars.” He hated that she might need the weapon, hated he’d made her take a hunter safety course and practiced how to use her gun. In fact, she could use all of the guns he owned and so could Cole. But she hated weapons. Something from her work with the government.

Andy started the engine and Rachel followed his lead. They gave the motors a moment to warm up, but couldn’t spare more. Andy pushed the throttle and all four wheels inched forward. He powered through the gate and Rachel followed. He tossed a glance over his shoulder. All three kids peeked over the side of the trailer from under the tarp Andy had placed to protect them from the falling debris, big eyes and little hands the only things in view.

Outside the semi-serenity of their backyard, chaos was building. Neighbors stood on their lawns, shouting to each other. Two more houses had caught fire, flames running along the roof line and in the windows. Five men stood by the mailboxes as they watched the sky.

Andy slid from the seat. He motioned at Rachel to stay put. Bob’s open garage door showed an absent car. Andy poked his head through the man door and called out. No one answered.

Anticipation tightened his shoulders. Another neighbor, two doors down, drove by in a truck, stopping to lean out his window. “Andy? Is that you?” The headlights sliced through the night, highlighting Rachel and the ATVs.

“Yeah, you guys heading out?” Andy walked alongside the rig, talking to the man while his wife drove.

“Yeah, news said to get to Spokane. Air Force is supposed to be helping with casualties and shipping people further east. First wave is leaving in four hours.” He looked at the four-wheelers. “You guys heading to Spokane in that?”

“No. We’re going into the mountains. Heard on the radio Fairchild was attacked. Spokane got stray bombs. I’m not sure the city is the safest place to be, you know?” Andy reached his driveway and stopped. Two more cars lined up behind the truck.

“Spokane is the safest place right now. You follow us. We’ll watch out for you.” The man waved to the other cars who responded with honks. He looked at Andy. “Bob and Martha left a bit ago. We’re going to try to catch them.”

“Okay, good luck. I’ll talk to Rachel. Don’t wait for us.” Andy studied his neighbor’s face. He wouldn’t see him again. Odd. He patted the hindquarter of the truck as it passed and waved at the passengers of the cars. A small girl, eyes wide, watched him from the back seat of a four-door sedan.

“Andy, we need to go.” Strength and weakness warred in his wife’s voice. She called her fears insecurities, hadn’t admitted to real fears since she’d gone east two years ago. She always overcame her “insecurities”. Taught others how to face their fears, define them, but never claimed her own.

Protecting his family took precedence over his neighbors. Safety. He had to get them to the ranch. “Let’s go.” He climbed on his quad and motioned Rachel across the street and up the embankment to the prairie plateau.

Metal creaked and rattled with each rotation of the tires as they moved forward. Eerie quiet allowed the crackle of hungry flames to drift across the field from bordering neighborhoods on fire.

Rachel revved over the curb, bouncing and tossing, picking up speed. Andy followed and sped up the incline to the plains.

A truck and a station wagon pulled from their driveways. A sports car followed suit and the three cars sped into the night. Toward Spokane.

Rachel stopped and waited for Andy. He pulled abreast of her and they turned to watch their neighborhood. Tail lights disappeared in the falling flames. His wife shook her head. “Do you think we’ll see them again?”

Reaching across the distance between them, Andy grasped Rachel’s hand. “No.”

A shudder ran the length of her body. She nodded and sniffed.

He wanted to take the burden from her, shoulder anything for her. “Leave the lights off until we get further from town. Something doesn’t feel right.”

She whispered, “Andy, nothing about this night feels right.”

He squeezed his wife’s hand before letting go. “At least we’re together.”

They revved away from the residential areas of Post Falls to the upper regions of Coeur d’Alene. They needed to make it through one city before they reached the wilds of the National Forest and the potential moderate safety.

Falling debris lessened south of Rathdrum outside Hayden. Dark evergreens sliced into the pre-dawn sky. A plane passed about three-hundred yards overhead. Rachel and Andy ducked from the thunderous noise. Cole poked his head from beneath the tarp only to retreat a scant second later.

Deeper into the trees skirting subdivisions and strip malls of Coeur d’Alene and Hayden, Andy motioned Rachel to stop. “Let’s take a quick break. If we see more cars, we’ll need to go the back way which will take longer.”

They cut their engines and slid off the quads. Andy stretched his arms over his head and bent down. The sudden quiet relieved the constant pull on his hearing. Without having to strain, he easily picked up the sound of car engines, horns honking, and shouts filtering through the thin protection of trees between Rathdrum and Coeur d’Alene.

The population wasn’t large in the Idaho towns. Spokane was the largest metropolitan area on the east side of Washington but nothing worth attacking if American domination was the goal. What was the goal? The result had never been hinted at, merely the attacks. Even the “who” had always been undefined in Andy’s findings.

Andy rolled his head on his shoulders and sat down on the edge of his trailer to think. Rachel joined him and placed her hand in the crook of his elbow. “What do you think is happening? Do you think Brenda is okay?” She murmured the last.

She hadn’t said that name in months. Andy wished he had answers for her. Something or anything to make her feel better, give her some staying power. “I don’t know. If it’s the Chinese, they have the numbers to attack by foot, but I’m confused why they would attack Spokane. I would have used my fire power on New York or Dallas, heck D.C. but Spokane? Kind of farfetched.”

“Do you think something will be on the radio? Are you sure we shouldn’t go to the shelters? She might be there…” Her voice trailed off with the shake of Andy’s head.

Through the lightening dark, the sight of Rachel lowering her face tugged at Andy’s reserve. “I’m sorry. I’m worried about your sister, too, Rach, but we can’t risk the kids. Maybe once we get up to the property and settle them in, I can leave for more information, maybe even retrieve her.” He forced lightness into his voice. “Who knows, we may be wrong and it’s just a freak accident and we’ll be home by Friday.” His wife nodded, clutching the false hope in his statement, though unable to let go.

“It’s a great idea to check the radio. Let’s see if Tom Mason is back on.” Andy stood and unstrapped the radio from the front rack. He pressed power and the lights lit up.

Whispered urgency crackled from the speakers. “…worry. There are a lot of people rushing toward town. I think the Arena is where they’re setting up shelters. I can’t tell you more because I’m not going into town.” A shuffling and heavy breathing and then, “After the first few bombs at Fairchild, I think we had a break, but a few planes have been circling and I’m not sure, but something else is going to happen, I just can’t figure out what. Get away from Spokane. Don’t go west. I repeat do not go west.”

As if in a cave or somewhere underground, his voice would rub in and out, clear and then not-so-much. His gasps suggested he might not be stationary, but the lack of background noise created a vacuum as they searched for signs of where he might be.

Rubber screeched on asphalt and the tear of metal on metal colliding ripped through the clearing. Andy pushed Rachel toward her quad. “Get on. Hurry!” Would they make it? His wife, he watched her. He couldn’t take his eyes from her.

They started the engines and pummeled deeper into the forest. Lights catapulted into the clearing off the side of the freeway. Cars piled up behind the accident. The new break in the trees and brush displayed the stop-and-go traffic.

A hundred feet separated Andy’s family from the next neighborhood. A straight path shafted through the jagged foliage line. Rachel followed him as he rolled along the fence perimeter. House silhouettes rose into the sky.

Relatively quiet engines were the selling point of the quads. Smooth rumbles disrupted the assumption the large beasts would roar when started, but Andy had added after-market mufflers which silenced the putt of the sound. He’d put them on in case looters or rioters were a risk as he shuffled his family to their cabin.

Homes in the cookie cutter neighborhood had an abandoned air. From the back yards at four in the morning people could be sleeping. Or maybe they’d noticed something was happening and they’d evacuated as well.

Andy slowed as he closed in on the turn of the vinyl fence, the street beyond empty.

A scream rent the air. He spurred forward.

The fence ended and the street opened to a Y leading left and right. In the crux of the split a house sat with a garage on one side and a large veranda off the other, giving the impression of arms welcoming each person into the neighborhood.

Flames grew from the garage roof and engulfed the lower portion of the house, except the far side of the deck where a lattice crept up the side. Another scream followed, sending chills up Andy’s spine. He didn’t want to put another living thing down because of burns. Or listen to its pain.

He climbed off his idling quad and rushed to Rachel’s trailer. The tarp was cool where he grasped the edge. “Cole.”

His son sat up, pushing the tarp from him. “Yeah, Dad?”

“I need you to sit on my quad and wait with Mom.” Andy swallowed and held back the blue covering while Cole climbed out. The boy’s awkward movements hid a grace he displayed on dirt bikes and on the football field. Growing fast, Cole would soon be able to hold him down in a play wrestling match, a fact that saddened Andy.

Rachel climbed down and joined Andy. Cole swung his leg over the seat and settled where his dad had been.

Andy grabbed his wife’s hand. She had to make it, no matter what. “Rachel, get back on the bike. Listen, I’m going in. If I’m not out in five minutes you have to go.”

A plane, its outline a mere shadow in the dark sky, zoomed overhead almost as close as the last one. The closest airport was thirty minutes away. They had no reason to be so low in that area. Damn. Josh had been more right than Andy’d realized. His ironclad grip matched the intensity behind his next words. Promise me.” Where his fingers wrapped around her wrist, he could feel her small muscles tense.

Her beautiful blue eyes wide, his angel nodded. “But…”

“No. Five minutes. Go. I’ll catch up to you, okay?” He looked once more at his wife. “Rachel, do you hear me? I’ll get to you no matter what.” She nodded and for the briefest moment, he doubted he’d see her adorable freckles again.

Andy looked to his son and shook the feeling of doom from his shoulders. He spoke slow in an unmistakable tone that a father used with his son. “You follow your mom.” Andy used his shored up courage and forced himself to turn from his family and sprint down the short stretch of blacktop to the house.

Unreal, the heat burned his skin through multiple layers of clothing, pushing from the house in a powerful consistent wave. A few degrees cooler than the baking body of the house, the deck hooked to thin lattice. Andy gained a foothold and climbed the questionable framework, worried he hadn’t heard another peep since he’d left the quad.

“Hello! Is anybody in here?” Crackling flames drowned out his words as they ate at the other side of the door. Strong heat buffeted from below.

Whimpers edged along the edge of the wall.

Andy swiped his hand through the air in front of him, back and forth. Inside, the house was darker than the forest beyond the fence. His fingers brushed something warm and pliable. A squeak said he’d found what he’d been looking for.

Two people, teenagers by their size, huddled in the corner clutched together. At least they weren’t on fire like the dog had been.

“Come on.” Andy tugged them toward the open window. The boy clamored out, the girl a bit more hesitant, but they both shimmied down the make-shift ladder.

A hiss from behind and Andy turned. A red line streaked through the dark. Creaking followed by pops like gunshots and sparks drifted up, or was it down? A loud crash and immense heat.

Rachel?

Kindle

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Author: Chelsea Paulson

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