Worth of Souls – Book 3 – Chapters 1 – 3

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Worth of Souls

Chapter 1

How could I be sure Rowan wouldn’t kill my husband? Or my father-in-law?

I couldn’t and that simple fact scared the crap out of me. The main reason I’d run far and fast from the gates of the compound was to seek out Simon Phahn… but the further I got from the fence, the more scared I became that I wouldn’t make the distance or I wouldn’t be around in case John and Bodey tried to get out and find me.

Leaning forward on a peeling white-ish wicker chair standing guard on an old wraparound porch, I folded my hands. With my head down, I stared at the worn and faded deck. The peeling paint reminded me of simpler times when Dad would notice the disrepair and run to the store to get items to fix the chipping exterior.

The house wasn’t mine, but I could pretend. I hadn’t had my own home since the one I’d shared with Mom in Post Falls. Where was I now? Did the small section of homes have a name? Or would the small neighborhood be lumped in with a once-famous resort town?

The baby kicked me in my ribs, forcing me to lean back in the chair. The tight wicker weaving creaked with my movement. My back ached. My legs hurt. My breasts pushed against the bonds of my bra. I had a headache that didn’t want to stop – probably from not getting enough water.

A few days ago, I had doubled-backed to the compound. I couldn’t go very far. Rowan wouldn’t stop hunting me, but as long as I didn’t go far, he wouldn’t find me. Every other day the Jeep roared off down the road and I watched the towers for Bodey to return to his shifts. But when early evening approached, I would make the hour long hike back to the small community of empty homes I’d found and wait for the next day.

Leaving and then not running for help seemed pointless and every night as I lay down by myself, I considered running into the community, begging to be taken back.

But I would wait. I held my growing stomach tight. I could do it. I’d give it one more day and then I would try to find my way to Bayview. One more day.

But one more day turned into two and I found myself climbing trees around the perimeter of the compound. Climbing Tamarack trees wasn’t easy, especially with being six months pregnant, but as the only trees in the forest with easily reachable branches not completely covered in needles yet, they were my only options. The needles were newly coming in with spring in full swing and the woods coming to life around me.

When I returned to the neighborhood where the gardens had been left unattended and the greenhouses grew things year-round, or tried to, despair at my situation consumed me. The only real vegetable or fruit I’d found worth eating was rhubarb, bright red-stalked rhubarb. Tart with minimal sweetness, its only redeeming quality was that it was edible.

If something happened to Bodey or John, I could always use the poisonous leaves to finish the baby and me off. Not that I would. I had an uncanny ability to survive.

I chuckled, the sound disarming in the quiet of the afternoon.

Survival was only an accident. How I hadn’t died escaped me.

Between Charlie, Rowan, the re-emergence of Shane at the community, and escaping the confines of Freedom Pass into the wilds by myself – at six months pregnant, I should’ve died sooner rather than later. As things stood, I still might not survive.

Sleeping inside a home had drawbacks. I couldn’t hear anything unless I slept by the window. If I wasn’t careful, someone would be on me before I could do anything. I’d reached my third trimester and moving quickly was a dream on the wind and not a possibility, unless I was falling. I did that faster than ever.

An ant crawled along the grains in the faded wood, jerking its body left and right as if searching for a way down. The uncertainty resembled my own path when I’d left the community.

Now that I was out, I had to save Bodey, my husband, and his dad, John. But how far could I go without clear directions? What did I expect from myself exactly? I was pregnant and had no food, no way to stay warm. No real logical sense to be honest.

If I really wanted to get logical, I’d just ran, scared of the trade Rowan had suggested, scared that one of us would die for the baby, for pissing off Rowan, for just… being. Just surviving seemed to be wrong.

The muggy late-spring heat seemed out of season. Where were the fresh rains? The cloud cover? I shifted, uncomfortable in skin I shared with another person. I couldn’t wait to meet my baby, but if I was completely honest, I was terrified.

What kind of a world was I bringing him or her into? Was it cruel of me to allow it? Would terminating the pregnancy be in everyone’s best interest? Or was thinking like that just being selfish again? I didn’t know what to do.

I had no one to ask, no one to check my emotions with.

Not for the first time, I bowed my head and murmured to anyone who would listen. “I need help. I need help. Please.” What if someone heard my desperation? I didn’t even know who exactly I prayed to, but I had nothing else. All of my options were gone.

I could just run. Just get out of there. I had approximately three months left before I would need to get help delivering the baby. Certainly, I could find someone somewhere and be safe by then.

If I ran, though, I’d be leaving Bodey and John. I couldn’t do that. I’d already abandoned them to the repercussions of me leaving the compound. They couldn’t have known I was leaving, running away, but Rowan wouldn’t care.

He’d make them pay.

And then I would suffer. A shudder set my teeth to chattering.

The house I’d chosen had a manual pump out back, just to the side of the greenhouse. One thing Mom had always reminded her pregnant friends to do was stay hydrated. I’m not sure how to tell well I was doing, but I tried. Even the headache wasn’t a for sure sign I was dehydrated. Pushing myself carefully from the chair, I leaned backwards, stabilizing myself with a hand to the side of the small of my back. I wasn’t even as big as I’d once seen, but the ball under my ribs threw off my balance.

Crickets called to me as I made my way down the stairs. A fresh sweet-scented breeze brought a growl from my stomach.

Once I reached the bottom of the steps, I kicked aside the noxious Canada thistle clutching at my jeans. Everywhere I went something clawed at me, people, plants, everything.

Missing my daily showers I’d gotten in the compound, I brushed past overgrown plants encroaching on the handset stone path. Whoever had lived there had taken pride in their home with carefully matching paint on the greenhouse, main building, and three outbuildings, and sheets on all the furniture inside the house.

The homeowners had left, probably expecting to return but not for a long time. I couldn’t tell when they’d gone exactly, but with how rundown things had gotten, it must have been more than a winter season ago.

I snuck my hand under my belly, a habit I’d formed and couldn’t seem to stop.

A crackling of branches breaking and needles rustling startled me. Where had the sound of the crickets gone?

Past the greenhouse, just on the edge of the clearing of the property, more noises like large animals broke through the undergrowth at a whirling speed.

I waddled to the side, tucking myself into the dark, spider-web decorated corner between the shop and house. Unruly raspberry branches covered me, waving with my sudden appearance among them. They hadn’t bore fruit yet, but the slight blossoms and nubs covered the long bushes and I huddled behind them.

Getting eaten by a bear or a mountain lion wasn’t on my survival check list. However, I would prefer death-by-animal to the alternative of being tortured and killed by Rowan and/or Shane.

A man’s voice, stern and commanding, cut through the peaceful ambiance of the home I’d all but claimed as my own. “Check the house. He’s gotta be around here.”

Not the house. I hadn’t left my mark, but I wanted to stay there until I gathered the courage to search for Captain Phahn. And who was ‘he’? I had to watch out for someone they chased as well as them?

I closed my eyes, trying to project the idea that if I couldn’t see them, they wouldn’t be able to see me – like a small child playing hide-and-seek. Were they from Freedom Pass? The voice was familiar— maybe. Groups of people searching for something or someone weren’t common. People weren’t common. Not so long after the “end.”

Footsteps tromped up and down the wooden porch. I had nothing with me to give away my position or that I’d been inside. Even the leftover leaves from the rhubarb stalks I’d eaten were stashed behind tall grasses in the flower garden.

“Nothing, sir.” A man reported.

In seconds they thundered past, crashing like locusts traveling through a field. I didn’t open my eyes, even held my breath.

And then they were gone. Silence replaced their noisiness. Another minute or so passed and a cricket called, then another.

I exhaled on a whoosh, clamping my hand to my chest and gasping for air. The rhubarb I’d been eating most recently dangled from my fingers. I clenched my fist around it. I had to get out of there. What if they’d caught me? My nostrils flared in fear. What would they have done?

Slipping out the way they’d entered, through the woods, I followed a newly broken in path. Bent weeds and branches led the way from the men and wherever they were headed. If they continued going east, they’d reach Freedom Pass in less than an hour.

If they reached Freedom Pass, I wouldn’t be able to return there today. Maybe that was my cue to head toward Bayview – seek help, like I’d originally planned.

A game trail crossed the men’s beaten path and I turned, following the thin route through the trees and over logs and rocks. Game trails always led the way to water at some point. I followed the simple route until a wide, fast-moving creek blocked my way. If I did things smart, I could follow the water north until… oh, who was I kidding. I had no idea where Bayview was, except that it was north.

At least I’d found water.

I couldn’t go back to the house or houses. I’d probably be better off avoiding human dwellings, unless I wanted to count on the possibility that the encounter with the men had been a fluke, but as close as I was to the Community, the fluke had a higher chance of being a repeat occurrence. With so few people alive anymore, the only thing which made sense was banding together, gathering in for group living.

There was safety in numbers. Supposedly.

Listening carefully in case I was interrupted, I removed my shoes and socks,  and scampered up to the top of a moss-covered boulder jutting out over the small pool. Taking a seat on the edge, I swung my feet back and forth, my toes just barely dipping beneath the water’s surface.

The frigid temperature didn’t bother me. I ran on high heat with the baby and my nerves always on high alert. Birds chirped and crickets sang. Their songs mingled with the babbling of the water.

I had no one to talk to. Even talking to my baby didn’t make sense, since I wasn’t even sure I could have the child safely. Most of the time I was convinced it going to die – no matter what I did. Plus, what did I say to my baby? Sorry I have no food for you? Sorry to take you away from a warm bed and solid meals and showers?

Sorry to take you from your dad and grandpa?

If given enough time, my thoughts always redirected toward the Christianson men. What were Bodey and John doing? The sun had started its downward trek through the sky so if things were normal, Bodey would be sleeping and John would be finishing up his shift.

But I was gone. I’d run. And they would be dealing with the aftermath of my actions. Not for the first time, I considered running back and choosing Ethan. Rowan’s control came from supply and demand. But Shane’s… Shane wanted to hurt me for killing his brother.

Who was I kidding? Shane just wanted to hurt me for fun. He would use his brother’s death as an excuse.

How had I gotten in the position to have so many men set on killing me for one reason or another? Or, if not kill me, control me somehow?

Too late I noticed the shift in sounds, the switch to just water gurgling over the rocks.

Pulling my shoes toward me, I unrolled my socks swiftly.

“Kelly?” A man’s feet stepped into my line of sight, across the water on the other bank.

They found me. Ethan or Rowan or Shane. They’d found me and now I was going to die right there in the center of a beautiful oasis where I’d been stupid enough to stop for a break.

I lifted my gaze, fear slicing through me. I didn’t even have a weapon to use at that distance, unless I threw my shoes.

Captain Simon Phahn watched me, eyebrows furrowed as he continuously glanced up and down the creek and over his shoulder. His clothes were wrinkled and worn, but well-kept with patching. He carried a bulging backpack. Most importantly, his cheeks weren’t sunken in from hunger or dehydration.

I rushed to my feet, scrabbling from the rock and claiming my shoes and socks. “Captain Phahn!” I pulled up my pant legs and waded across the shallowest point in the water to reach him. Relieved to have found him – even though I hadn’t started looking or wasn’t even close to Bayview – I stopped beside him and stared. Could he be a mirage? I’d never heard of rhubarb having hallucinatory powers, but I didn’t know as much as I could.

He touched my shoulder and ducked down to put our eyes on an even level. “Are you okay? Where are John and his son?” Captain Phahn glanced around again, concern in his narrowed gaze.

The possibility that he would be just like Rowan or Charlie or Shane occurred to me. But if John trusted him, I had to as well. Why was he so far down south? What if Bayview was no longer safe? Desperation welled inside me at the thought. Was anywhere safe anymore?

I shook my head at his question.

His eyes widened and his fingers dug into the material of my jacket. “How? Did someone kill them?”

Realization ran through me. I rushed to fix my mistake. “No, I mean, they aren’t dead. I think. I’m out here and they’re inside Freedom Pass. I escaped a week ago.” A week. Just one week. The seven days wore on me and I questioned how close I was to losing my sanity.

He caught my arm and directed me toward a downed log. Covered in moss and fallen needles, the log protruded from a shale runoff. Leaves and branches from nearby bushes covered the other end.

Handing me a rag to dry my feet, Captain Phahn inclined his head. “Okay, so John and Bodey are still alive?” A pleasant mint odor drifted from him. I sniffed, maybe my headache would go away.

“Yes.” I dried my feet then shook off the cloth and returned it to him. “But I’m not sure for how long.” Pulling on my socks, I tried breathing comfortably around the baby in my stomach to speak better. “I got away, but that doesn’t happen – it’s not supposed to anyway. The head guy, Rowan, interviews people who want in. If he takes you in, someone else dies. And he doesn’t allow anyone over fifty inside or younger than fourteen or something like that.” I rushed on, allowing the terror to leave me in a virulent mess. “He only allows two hundred people in at once. He killed my friend. And her husband.”

I hung my head, shoulders sagging. I’d seen enough death to break people. But I couldn’t break. I couldn’t give into the hopelessness around death. The entire world had converted to discouragement and failure. And death. Rubbing my eyes, I lifted my gaze. “Have you heard anything? Are the governments coming back?” Will there be relief from all of this pain?

Captain Phahn stared at me, his mouth slightly open as he took in what I’d said. He shook his head the smallest amount, snapping himself alert. “There’s a lot of chatter on the radios, but it’s going to be a long time before countries can clean up this mess.”

“Oh.” Disappointment didn’t surprise me. “Were you kicked out of your community?” Why wouldn’t he be? Nothing else was going my way.

“No. I came down this way as an ambassador of goodwill. We have an overabundance of some resources and we’re severely lacking in others. The council and I decided it’d be good for us to attempt affiliating ourselves with another large community, create a collective of like-minded people.” He dropped his gaze to his lap and then looked over the pool of running water. “But we won’t want to be aligned with a group that kills to stick to a population number.”

Put so simply, the truth had a startling clarity.

We sat together in silence, the symphonic chords of nature swelling around us.

“Did you leave because of the baby?” He pointed toward my rounded stomach.

I nodded, my throat suddenly tight. “He… um, Rowan, he said I had to choose for one of us to die – Bodey, John, me, or the baby.” I lifted my palm and tried shrugging off the choice, like ‘no big deal’ but the pain in the decision choked me and my words came out clenched and broken.

Captain Phahn’s eyes glistened and he nodded shortly. “Yep. That makes sense. This Rowan is the leader of the whole camp? It’s just him?”

“Yes. Him and his son.” His son. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to castrate Ethan. If he had kept his lustful wants to himself, I wouldn’t have been considered for his wife or property or whatever Rowan saw me as for his son.

Captain Phahn watched me carefully, as if every nuance could give him more clues to go on. “What’s with the son? You talk like you have a history with him.”

I half-shrugged. “The only reason they let us into the compound was because his son wanted me.” Heat flushed my cheeks, but he didn’t seem to notice. He nodded for me to continue. I breathed deep and ignored my embarrassment. “Things got so bad, that when Rowan said I had to choose between the baby and someone else, he gave me a different option – to go with his son, Ethan.” I shuddered. “They’re creepy.”

“Yeah, that is creepy.” He screwed his lips to the side. “We had problems with a previous group in our camp who wanted to control the residents similar to how you’re describing – about the time you guys came through and I couldn’t let you in?” He continued after I nodded that I remembered. “They wanted to ration food and only allow specific people in, if any.”

Captain Phahn picked a chunk of moss from the creases in the log and tossed it into the stream. “While I understand the idea behind hoarding the resources and keeping to ourselves, I don’t condone only allowing a specific number of people in or even a specific kind of people.”

I drew my knees to my stomach, no way would they reach my chest with the stomach I’d grown. “What happened?”

“After a division of interests with a third of the people siding with them and the rest with my officers and me, we got them to leave. It wasn’t pretty, wasn’t even peaceful, but they won’t be using up our resources or blocking others from joining us. You guys will be safe up there, if you want to give another place a try.” He smiled reassuringly at me. How refreshing to be able to sit with another person and not be cataloged as a resource or for how useful I was. He glanced around us once more.

But his community had abandoned others to the wilderness for the sake of the group. What about the individual? “Why is that okay to do? Choose who stays and who goes?” Rowan had taken liberties from his group, taken survival away from even more. Maybe Captain Phahn would have insight as to why.

“Yeah, I understand your frustration. I didn’t let you guys in and I’m sorry. But I’ve known John a long time and I didn’t want to bring him in and have him bear the brunt of revolt simply because he knew me from before.” He paused, as if trying to figure out the best way to answer my question. “When it’s all about surviving, it’s got to be about more than just breathing. It’s in the living, right? You can live or die, okay, but is that it? Is that what we’ve become? Animals intent on just reproducing and eating and sleeping?”

He shook his head, staring down the valley created by the water then turning to search my face. “Surviving should be more than just live or die – it should be about living justly, living with ourselves. Because at the end of the day, when we look back at what we did or didn’t do – we’ll need to answer a question on our humanity.” Captain Phahn’s passion didn’t raise his voice, but it clipped his words and strengthened the heat in my chest. “What’s the worth of our souls, right?”

His question, phrased so simply, slammed a memory to the forefront of my mind. Mom had confronted Dad and me about where we’d been all morning a few years back. Dad said it wasn’t a big deal. He didn’t want her to know we had been out buying a birthday present for her. But I said we’d been at the circus and went into great detail about things we hadn’t seen.

Mom had looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked so simply, “Is your soul worth a lie?”

The worth of our souls. I’d only ever considered the value of myself as a person, never as more than what I was on the earth. This was my life, right? I only got one. Unless, as Mom had repeatedly claimed, we had so much more going for us than the small amount of time we’d been given on earth.

What was my soul’s worth? Did I have value? Who decided? Me? Other people? Who? Rowan? Shane? Bodey? Or even Captain Phahn?

“I’m sorry. I feel very strongly about this topic. I think it’s why the council gave me the official title of Bayview Goodwill Coordinator.” He scoffed at the loftiness of such a plain position. “It’s just something to think about, you know? Even as we camp and live off the land, can we still be considered civilized?”

I chewed on the skin of my inner cheek. “Do you think you can still have value, if you killed or abandoned people?” Nobody deserved my details. But I needed to know if I deserved my shame.

He held up his hands, and then tossed from him a blade of grass clinging to his pants. “Hey, I’m not clergy, by any means. But I do have the right to say every instance has a large grey area surrounding a minute black and white spot. Yes, killing is bad, but was it self-defense? Abandoning people isn’t a great action, but what was the intention behind doing so?” He glanced at my stomach and softened his tone. “I would think that to save the life of a little one, your intentions are just in abandoning someone capable to defend themselves.”

My question had been rhetorical, I don’t… another lie. I had to make myself realize I was better than that. Right? “What are you going to do?” I wanted to lump myself in with him and say “we,” but I didn’t know him and I wasn’t his problem. My baby wasn’t his problem. But I owed it to John and Bodey to ask. “I’d originally planned on finding my way to Bayview to ask for your help. Once I got out though, I got too… scared to go far from the compound.” Embarrassment flushed my cheeks. “Why are you here by yourself, if things are good at Bayview?”

“Well, we wanted to partner with another group to barter with like I said, but those men who tried taking over are still out here. They must have caught on that I’d left Bayview because they’ve been chasing after me ever since I headed this way.” He studied the ground at his feet and glanced around again.

“I saw some men that way, in a community of houses. I hid when they trampled through. The lead guy was saying something about finding someone.” I pointed back the way I’d come.

Captain Phahn studied the trees the direction I indicated. He slowly nodded. “We need to save John and Bodey. That’s obvious, right? And I know I can, if I go back for help, but…” He glanced at me, discomfort in the lines of his face and gaze which he dropped to my abdomen and then back to my face.

“But what?” If he could save them, then what was the problem? Why hadn’t he left yet?

“I can’t just leave you here by yourself. You’re pregnant and defenseless.” He crossed his arms and watched me, gauging my reaction.

“I’ve been on my own for a week and I’ve made it just fine.” I didn’t mention that the only food I’ve had is rhubarb and something which may or may not have been currant berries. At least I hadn’t died, right? “I could come with you, if that’s what’s worrying you.”

“You’re right. You’ve done well, actually. I’m not suggesting you come with me. Actually, I would prefer you come with me, but in all honesty –” Captain Phahn held up his hands. “I’m not trying to be rude or offend you or anything, but I can go faster without you. I’m sure you’re very fast, too, but you’re very pregnant and it’s a long walk going by road. I want to take the back way which is almost half the time but twice as hard.”

Half the time? And at least he noticed I was very pregnant and not just kind of pregnant. “I agree. You would be faster without me. Don’t waste any time. Just go. I’ll be fine.” Even as I declared it, I started planning on where I would go to avoid detection and get something to eat.

“I’m not leaving you unprotected. You aren’t even in safe from the environment.” The man was good at stating the obvious, but his concern warmed me. My aloneness didn’t seem quite as stark with someone else worrying about me.

Gruffly, I said, “You’re wasting time.” I pulled on my socks and shoes and stood, pushing at the small of my back to relieve the tension building just below the curve. “I can make it another couple days. You’ll return soon and then we can go get Bodey and John. I’ll be fine once they’re free.”

Standing with me, Captain Phahn watched where he placed his feet. “Let’s find a place for you to stay first.” He led the way down the game trail I’d followed earlier, holding back a low-hanging branch for me to pass. “I passed a small collection of caves and outcroppings you could stay in while I’m traveling.”

A cave. Great. But just because I was safe, didn’t mean I’d survive. I had no water, no food, and no way to stay warm. I didn’t voice my concerns, and instead followed as closely as I could with pressure on the front of my hips from the baby.

Going downhill was going to suck.

 

Chapter 2

Surprisingly, the caves weren’t too far away.

Up a slight hill, boulders grouped together in the middle of a copse of trees as if someone had taken “build a solid foundation” seriously. Bushes with dark green and neon green new growth sprouted from beneath the bend in the rocks and covered the openings to the caverns. Cool air whispered around the bushes and the leaves twirled in barely perceptible dances.

In a small hole to the side, just off the game trail, Captain Phahn pulled me to the mouth and pointed back down the path. “I’m going north, following the water. There should be some jerky in my pack and two water bottles. You might also find crackers and an MRE or two.”

I glanced behind him. A second smaller backpack stuffed to within an inch of its seams bursting hid in the dark corner. Glints on a two-inch carabiner gave away its position and outline. “I can’t take your stuff, Captain Phahn.” The thought of jerky after days and days of rhubarb made my mouth water. I wouldn’t argue with him much over the offer, but I wouldn’t feel right taking his resources to survive. Crossing my fingers, I silently prayed he had more food in the backpack he carried and the second one was extra.

He patted my shoulder, ducking his head to fit under the lip of the opening. “Kelly, you can call me Simon. I’m no longer captain of anything, but thank you.” The weight of his hand on my shoulder brought tears to my eyes – not pain-filled, but more like wistful. I hadn’t been able to speak to anyone in ages. “You take it. I’ll be back at base in no time, less than ten hours. The pack I have has some food and I can load up again in Bayview. If I need more than I have, I can get water from nature and some other things.”

Relief he would be there and back in less than forty-eight hours comforted me. While hunger gurgled in my stomach, fatigue had been replaced with the presence of hope. “Thank you. I really appreciate your help.”

“Thank me when I return. We haven’t gotten those men out of there.” He read the sudden worry in my eyes and rushed on. “We will, we just haven’t done the job, yet. I’ll come back here as soon as I can with help and more food.” He touched his forehead like tipping a hat and walked down the path.

He disappeared past some long evergreen branches, the feathery tips of newer branches moving as he went. The absence of noise didn’t surprise me so far from the water. When the resources got loud, so did the animals.

I ducked further into the slight decline of the rock, the back of my head grazing along the bumpy surface. Crouching beside the bag, my hands shook with anticipation. Food. MREs – the closest thing to a meal I would see for a while. If he had the ones that self-cooked, I would be in heaven. One time, John had found some in an Army Surplus store and mine was lasagna which reminded me so much of the homemade version, I could’ve cried.

Spaghetti with meat sauce tempted me in the entrée packet. Blueberry cobbler? Skittles? I closed my eyes and crushed the MREs against my chest. “Everything is going to be okay, baby, we’re going to eat something. Yes, we are.” A notch in the plastic of the MRE was placed to help open easily. I curved my fingers into position.

“NO!” Captain Phahn’s voice echoed off the rock around me.

Shoving the bag back into the pack, I tucked myself into the darkest corner of the cave. I searched with wildly roving eyes for the man who had left moments before. Bracing my hands on the gritty wall behind me, I ground my teeth together. Don’t scream out for him. Don’t call out.

But I wanted to. Almost like I needed to. I opened my mouth, scuffing my foot forward as if to step out of my hiding place.

His next yell cut me off. “Kelly, run!”

Run? I tensed. I was stuck like a dang jackrabbit in a trap. There were no other exits except the main one and based on the nearness of his voice, he was right on top of me.

Grunts and thuds filled the air. Material ripped and a muted cry awakened my fears further.

Where could I go? The cave wasn’t huge, maybe ten feet deep and seven across. The opening didn’t gape or anything, but it was wider than a normal sized door in a house. Because of the leaves from the bushes in the way, I couldn’t see anything happening – only green leaves and brown twigs and branches.

“Check for the girl.” Ethan’s voice carried the distance to me. I had to make a run for it, before whoever he sent caught me.

I zipped the pack and drew on the straps. Ethan’s obsession might get me killed.

The bang of a gunshot suffocated me. Startled, I ran like a pheasant from a field. I didn’t even look where I was going, just ran headlong out of the cave – right into the guard’s arms. His eyes widened when he recognized me. The same guard who had let me out, who had wanted to walk me into the woods the day Shane stopped me. His dark features gave him away with deep brown eyes and close-cut curly hair.

He held me in a bear-hug and cradle-walked me to Ethan and a downed Captain Phahn. I tried jerking from the guard to get to Simon, but his hold was too strong combined with my hunger induced weakness and lack of solid sleep.

Ethan watched us approach. He couldn’t hide his glee, as he hopped from one foot to the next, his gun aimed at Simon. A twinkle in his eye sparked concern when he threw his head back and crowed like a rooster. “Take that!” He danced a little jig and sashayed closer to me.

Once the guard had me within reach, Ethan grabbed my bicep and jerked me to him, lowering his gun. His breath hot on my face, he murmured, “So happy to be the one to find you, Kelly. Did you miss me?” He leaned close, inspecting my skin. The next instant, he licked my cheek and I jerked back.

Without looking at the guard, Ethan motioned down the path. “Grab the old man, let’s go.”

The guard pulled Simon to his feet. A large red spot on his jeans above the hip pocket worried me. The location was too close to the same spot Mom’s gunshot wound had been. And she’d died. I searched the captain’s face, his features tight and pale. He stared at me, as if trying to telepathically give me a message. But I wasn’t good at understanding facial expressions or even lip-reading.

Ethan yanked me around to follow him. His grasp enclosed my wrist, rubbing my skin painfully, I had little room to maneuver for escape. Where before the forest had been so appealing, I found the nuisances as every root jutted from the ground to trip me, every thistle clung to my pant legs, every rock seemed covered in moss for me to slip on, and Ethan pulled ever onward.

I glared in his direction as I straightened myself after another near-complete stumble.

He’d driven the Jeep and hadn’t parked far from where we’d hidden by the caves. Pushing me into the front seat, Ethan clipped the seatbelt shut and leaned close. I tried leaning away in case he licked me again. “If you try to escape, I’ll shoot you in the stomach.” The baby. How dare he threaten my child? I ignored him, staring straight ahead, arms crossed at my waist. The man had better be careful before he calls out mama bear. Idiot boy.

I rolled my eyes. “Then I would die and you couldn’t have me.”

The four-door Jeep filled up quickly as the guard and Captain Phahn climbed in the back. While Ethan ran around the front of the vehicle, I glanced over my shoulder to my new friend. He met my gaze and nodded his head the smallest amount, flicking his eyes toward the backpack I’d worn.

I couldn’t get any of the contents to him at the moment, but maybe he had some kind of weapon inside or something. I didn’t remember a gun, but his coat had enough pockets, it wasn’t impossible if he carried.

After Ethan climbed in, I couldn’t help myself. I had to know, so I asked, “Are we going back to Freedom Pass?” The name brought bile creeping up my throat. Nothing about the place was free and forcing myself to stoop to talk to Ethan made me ill.

“Not yet.” He reached over and pinched my leg above my knee, allowing his hand to stay there and rub up and down my thigh. I tried pulling away, but there was only so much room and so far I could move with my stomach and aching back and hips. He clenched his hand down on my leg. I winced. He muttered, “Stop trying to get away from me. We’re meant to be together. Just give into it. Things won’t hurt as bad.” He winked at me and then released my leg.

Off-key, Ethan hummed My Girl, a very old song Rowan made us listen to some nights when I stayed in the compound. Like a scene from my mom’s favorite old movies. I wanted to scream at Ethan that we weren’t on a date and I wasn’t his girl and no matter what he wanted, I wasn’t going to do it.

Oh, how I missed my husband. I turned and stared out the window. I hadn’t been in a moving car in so long. The last time I’d been in a vehicle, I’d cuddled up next to Bodey in a rainstorm, our bodies heating each other while we’d waited for a sign John was safe.

Where was my husband and why hadn’t he escaped yet?

Okay, the last part was unfair. There was only so much he could do – anyone could do.

I’d lucked out escaping when and how I did. But enough was enough. I needed him back and safe.

My reflection in the window had a rounder face than I remembered, like I ate better than I did. Beyond my features, trees and rocks whizzed past. We bumped and jostled down a dirt path… I didn’t want to call the path a road, because that would suggest it was easily passable. There was nothing “road” about the trail we were on.

The right tires went up three feet on one side as they climbed the varied angles of the path, while the left stayed on the more level ground. I grabbed the overhead handle and closed my eyes, holding my stomach with my free arm. Oh, my word, was that me that stunk? A whiff of body odor hit me when I lifted my arm, begging me to drop my hand out of embarrassment.

Seven days without a shower…

Simon grunted. The bumping couldn’t feel good on his wound. I hadn’t even had a chance to look, but any body shots weren’t classified as desirable for a reason.

We bumped down the trail for eons and years and decades, and oh my word, when was it going to stop?

And just like that, the bumping from hell stopped. I patted my stomach, around the navel and down by the pubic bone. Everything seemed okay. I slowly opened my eyes, watching as Ethan bounded down from the Jeep and rounded to my side.

He opened my door. I shrank from his clutching grasp as he reached for me. His face darkened and he roughly yanked me from the seat. “You’ll learn to like me.” But something in his tone told me even he didn’t believe his words.

I know I didn’t.

We reached the door and Ethan stopped, letting the guard push Simon through first. Ethan turned me toward him, his touch suddenly gentle as he grazed my cheek with his thumb. “Just think, Kelly, we could rule our own community. You and me. I’ve seen how calm you can be. You would be my rock and I would be your hero. Let me. Let me love you.” With both hands, he framed my face, the bulk of his palms under my chin. Tilting my face up, he pressed his lips to mine.

I closed my eyes, grinding my lips together as hard as I could against his invading tongue. He dug his thumbs into the soft skin under my chin and I opened my mouth to cry out. Taking advantage of my vulnerability, he shoved his tongue in my mouth. The hot wet invasion gagged me as he tried tasting all of me.

He pulled back, satisfaction glowing in his eyes. “I told you, you’d like it.” He dropped his hands and I breathed, wiping at my lips and grimacing.

If anything would bring on morning sickness, it would be another one of those.

“Do you want me to carry you across the threshold?” He reached down and slapped my butt. I hadn’t felt so materialized in a long time.

“No, I don’t. We’re not married, remember?” I grabbed the straps of the backpack to steady myself and hold back the punch I wanted to deliver.

But Ethan was unstable like a weighted ball on a crooked surface. Physical contact of any kind might encourage him. Or, yet again, if he felt threatened or whatever by me, he might take his insecurity out on someone else, or me, or worse, my baby.

He shrugged, his grin like that of a small schoolboy. “It’s only a matter of time until you’re mine, Kelly. Why fight me so hard? Plus, Bodey isn’t much. He has nothing. Is nothing. You could be with somebody important.” Ethan opened the door and guided me through with fingers on my elbow. His manic mood swings made me dizzy as he slapped the side of the wall and grabbed the side of his head. “Why won’t Dad just kill them already? It’s not like we need them.” Ethan kicked the side of the cabin, yanking me roughly forward and then coming to a stop.

Wait! Bodey and John were alive? If only for a moment, I would kiss Ethan again to hear more – how were they? Did they miss me? Were they in trouble? So many questions, but he’d only let the information slip. He wouldn’t be interested in anything other than him and me. His manic moods dimmed the hope his words gave me.

Sidestepping from Ethan’s instantaneous rage, I blinked at the sudden darkness. Small circular holes had been cut out of the walls, large enough for a gun muzzle to get through and see around, but that was about it. The holes didn’t lend much light to the small cabin, but enough to see by. My eyes adjusted to the dim interior and the sight of three other people standing against the far wall with their faces pinned to the rounded logs startled me.

At least we wouldn’t be alone.

Simon made it as far as the wall beside the door before he collapsed onto the ground, landing on his uninjured hip and side. I rushed to kneel beside him and to escape Ethan’s touch.

Ethan glanced around the cabin, his eyes landing on the other occupants. He turned a glare to the guard. “Outside, now.”

The guard followed Ethan out the door, both of them coming to stand beside the opening. Neither of them closed the rickety, dark brown panel.

“I told you to get rid of those people.” Ethan’s angry words shifted the tension and fear in the room to a discomfort unrivaled by anything else. Seriously, how did you sit beside someone whose death was being discussed like a paper that hadn’t been turned in on time?

“I haven’t had a chance to do anything. I’ve been looking for her with you.” The guard’s bitterness dripped from his tone. “Why aren’t you taking her to Rowan like he ordered?”

“Yeah? You’re on Rowan’s side now? Really it’s none of your business.” Ethan’s voice rose to a high pitch which made me squirm. “How about this? You get to stay with them, until they’re dead. Once you’ve completed your job, then you can come out. And I’ll do whatever I want with the girl.” Ethan drove the man inside, thrusting his finger into the guard’s face. “And don’t touch her.” He slammed the door, a grinding on the other side when he drew the bar across to lock us in.

Don’t touch me? Hypocrite couldn’t keep his hands off me.

The guard stood at the door, his shoulders heaving. He shook his head, not moving other than that.

Two men and a woman turned from the wall, facing us slowly. The woman watched us, circling around the room as if she’d seen us before, but couldn’t approach more directly. The men plopped onto the ground, leaning their backs against the wall and staring into space. All three were older, but not what I would describe as old. I hadn’t seen an “old” person in years.

The woman’s long silver-streaked brown hair was matted, but pulled back in a braid trailing down her back. Her jeans hung loose on a thin frame. Strong shoulders squared her shape instead of giving into the rounded look so common on women from slouching. Bright blue eyes watched me as she approached, slowly. Her gaze shot to my stomach and then back to my face, questioning.

As interesting as she was, Simon’s condition wasn’t improving. His ragged breathing scared me. Laying on the ground, he straightened his legs, letting the toes of his boots fall outward into an elongated V. He closed his eyes, ignoring the dirt floor and the straw as it poked him in the neck and head.

Shuffling toward him and kneeling, I bent toward his chest, tucking my arm beneath his shoulders and back. “Come on, let’s see if we can get you to sit.”

He nodded shortly, the effort obviously energy-sucking. He hissed when he reached half-way up.

The guard spoke, his volume subdued but clear. “Don’t bother. None of us will make it out of here alive.”

“I didn’t ask you.” Focusing on Simon, I rolled him to rest on his side, wound side up. “Do you think it’d be okay, if I look at the wound? I did medical at the compound.” In our situation, he didn’t need my credentials, but I wanted to validate myself, give myself more expertise than I felt like I had at the moment.

Because right then I felt like nothing more than a scared, knocked up nineteen-year-old alone with other prisoners held by a psycho.

Oh, wait. That was actually my reality. Validation wasn’t needed.

“Of course,” he whispered, his lips tight from the pain. He winced as I pried the shirt from his waistband and tugged his cargo pants down lower on his hip. A nice clean entry point camouflaged the jagged exit wound in the back. Angry flesh bled onto his thick jacket.

Pulling off the backpack, I dug around, searching for extra material. A pair of wadded up socks would do. Shoving the socks against his back, I tried not to grimace, but hold a calm expression. I’d never been good at hiding my emotions, but maybe the situation would warrant the semi-panic screeching across my features. Either way, what my face showed didn’t matter, because he faced away from me and I didn’t have good or bad news to give him.

The woman studied my face. “Is everything okay?”

“Sure.” I held the socks tight to his wound. “I need to get him a poultice but we need him to stop bleeding first.” Cammie had used poultices and compresses on everything. I couldn’t remember all the ingredients but she’d urged me to remember some because one or two was better than none.

“We don’t have anything in here, except a little rain water to drink.” She rubbed her arms as if suddenly chilled.

I glanced around the sparse room. A table lay on its side, legs broken off, one shoved through a hole in the wall. Red-tinged fingernail scratches in the door and around the holes painted a picture I wasn’t ready to assimilate. “What about food? Doesn’t he feed you?”

The man furthest from me snorted. “Food? Why would he waste food? He wants us to die, he just can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.” He jerked his thumb toward the guard still standing at the door. “He has to have some poor schmuck do it.” The man raised his voice and glared at the guard. “Right? He has to have you do it and you can’t, because you’re the one who let us in the stupid camp in the first place.” The man huffed, sitting back, adjusting his shoulders. “Talking about some great place with food three times a day and music. Where’d you go when they kicked us out and we had to wait for you for seven hours – locked between the fences?”

Turning around, the guard nodded jerkily. He swallowed, watching us each with wide eyes, the whites clear in dark. “That’s my job, to let you in. I didn’t know they would kill you if they didn’t want you inside.” He offered a lame shrug and a half-smile. “Once I let you in, I went back to my own bunker because my shift was over. I didn’t even know you were waiting that long.”

The guard’s smile angered me. I held pressure to the exit wound and pushed with my bare hand to the front. I didn’t have enough extra material to bandage the front too. I shook my head, settling onto my rear end while administering to Simon.

When I finally started speaking, it was quiet but I built in volume. “Rowan has been killing for quite some time. People go missing and the residents don’t say anything because they like their food and their homes. You have some power with your gun and your position. You’re no better than him or Ethan when you do nothing.”

“I have one gun. They have lots. You should see under the warehouse. More guns than I’ve ever seen!” He shouted. The slight echo of his words bounced back at him and looked down at the floor. “Look, now I’m one of you. I want out, too.” Hard to take him seriously when we all knew the only way he was getting out was if three people died.

The silent-to-that-point man leaned forward on the ground, his eyelids droopy. “The only way he’s going to let you out is if you kill us.” He looked at the rest of us, nodding toward the guard. “I say we kill him and eat him. I haven’t eaten in so long and he looks like a good piece of steak.”

Before things had turned worse and the bombs had dropped, my mom and I had discussed the possibility of cannibalism. Then, when our fridge had been full of food and we ate three to four times a day, the thought had been repulsive. But as I sat there, having not eaten well in a while, I could see the appeal. My dad had once laughingly claimed people would taste a lot like pork, because the diets were similar.

I hadn’t had bacon in a long, long time.

Shaking my head at the turn of my thoughts, I laughed to lighten the mood. “We could, but we don’t have a fire and I’m not eating anything – or anyone – raw.”

The guard hugged his waist and sank to the ground by the door. He whimpered, closing his eyes and staring hard at the swirls in the dirt.

“Since we won’t eat you, you can answer our questions instead.” The woman moved toward him, her mouth set in a thin line. “First, what’s your name?” A civilized question for a man who might not deserve civility. But I couldn’t begrudge her the politeness.

He nodded curtly, leaving his eyes closed until he spoke. “Mike.” He pulled his knees toward his chest.

The woman moved closer to me and the downed captain. “Okay, Mike. I’m Dana. The men over there are Lance and Gary.” She pointed at me and Captain Phahn. “They’re new, so they can introduce themselves.” She inclined her head my direction. Something familiar in the way she held her chin and the tilt to her eyes.

To be honest, I didn’t want to introduce myself. Dana could be civil. Simon’s blood spilled onto my skin because of the actions of Mike. Why did I have to play nice? I took a moment before answering, collecting my anger into little bundles in my head to deal with later. Quietly, I did as Dana suggested. “I’m Kelly and this is Simon.” I had so many questions, I wanted to spout at him, but I held my tongue until Dana’s directed interview allowed.

“Kelly and Simon, nice to meet you.” Dana smiled at us and then turned toward Mike. “Don’t you think it’s nice to meet us, Mike?”

Had everyone gone loopy? Who cared if it was nice to meet us? But her questions and the mannerisms she’d adopted calmed the room. While everyone was still hungry, no one looked at Mike like a meal – hard to eat your steak with you remembered it as Bessie. My dad had a lot of good one-liners.

Mike nodded jerkily, his eyes darting from side-to-side as he focused on each of us. “Yes, nice to meet you.” I bet.

Dana stepped a little closer to Mike as if establishing a private conversation. She spoke slowly. “I’m very hungry, Mike. Did you happen to bring any food with you? Three days is a long time to go with nothing but water.” Her tone was even, but her hands shook at her side.

Before Mike could answer, I spoke up, asking the men and Dana, “How long have you been in here?”

The man Dana indicated as Lance raised his hand limply from his knee. “Six days.” His wariness made sense. There were no safe places to rest their heads or even to sit properly.

Gary avoided looking directly at me, except to cast skittish glances at my stomach and Simon’s wound. “Five.”

Dana held up four dirty-smudged fingers and her gaze returned to Mike. “We’re hungry.”

The guard didn’t answer, just stared at the ground. Where had the manners gone?

Sliding the pack off my back, I reached inside and pulled out all the food I could find and spread the contents out beside me, just behind his back. His chest rose and fell. I assumed he slept, which should be a good thing, but I wasn’t sure. Mom had fallen in and out of sleep with her injury. She’d bled out and I just couldn’t let Simon do the same. Mom hadn’t lived long enough for me to worry about infection, but Simon would and I would get to deal with it in all its troublesome glory.

But what could I do? “Here, we have to share and I’m not sure how long the supplies will last, but there’s some in here for everyone, if you want it.”

Gary and Lance moved slowly toward me on their hands and knees. Their weakness from hunger more apparent as they moved. Could I be happy that they’d had water for the last three days?

Dana walked to me, but lost all grace when she lunged for the floor, grabbing up a bag of jerky and ripping the plastic open. She handed meat to Gary and Lance and then tore into the strips with voracity.

Embarrassed at their base need, but understanding it, I cautiously pulled the peanut butter packet from the abundant pile of food and ripped the packaging open. Eating the peanut butter plain with one hand, I held the makeshift dressings to Simon’s wounds with my free hand and my knee. I needed to eat and the prisoners’ desperation dragged at me, reminding me how close to the same emotion I was.

“Can I have some?” Mike watched us, his eyes narrowed, as if worried we would eat all the food.

Dana and the two men didn’t even acknowledge his request. I figured it would be safest to do the same. What if I offered him something and the other three turned on him and I like a pack of hyenas? Safety-wise, not giving in to his demands would be the best bet.

Since no one else seemed interested in asking him questions, I didn’t hold my tongue anymore. My questions pressed at me from my heart.

“How are Bodey and John? What’s happening inside?” I glanced at Dana when she stopped chewing and stared at me, then back at Mike’s face. “Did Rowan hurt them? Are they…” I couldn’t say what I should. Couldn’t ask if they’d been killed. As much as I wondered and thought their murders were possible, saying it would thrust the concept out into the universe and might make it happen. So I held my fear close to my body, not wanting to say the words, but having to ask anyway.

“Freedom Pass is falling apart.” Mike unfolded his arms and glanced toward the hunting hole-sized windows. By the time we were done in there, Mike’s fingernail marks could be on the walls, too.

“What do you mean falling apart?” If he didn’t get talking, I would consider feeding him to Gary and Lance.

“What do you think I mean? Your disappearing stunt triggered something, like a revolt, but worse. People aren’t working because no one is in the clinic to take care of injuries or illnesses. Rowan tried shuffling things around, but no one likes the job in there or even knows what they’re doing. The morning you left, John went to his shift at the shop and told the other guys there you were gone and why. They dropped everything, grabbed up tools for weapons and stormed Rowan’s place.” He shook his head, disbelief slowing his pace. “They destroyed everything they could reach.”

I didn’t care about all that. His mundane details didn’t matter to me. “But what about Bodey and John? Are they okay?” Watching him, I ignored everything else around me. I had to know.

Because the only thing holding me upright and hopeful was the fact that Ethan had said they were alive.

But what if that just meant, they hadn’t died…

Yet?

 

Chapter 3

Mike continued talking like I hadn’t interrupted. “When everyone found out you were pregnant – nice job hiding that by the way – and that Rowan had said you had to choose for one of them or yourself to die, I think that broke the complacency for everyone.” He shrugged, avoiding eye contact with everyone but me. “Well, most people. Some just ignored it. We’ve had nothing but problems since that day.”

“It’s only been a week.” I scrunched my forehead, perplexed that my simple absence could cause such turmoil. Nobody even knew me, let alone cared about me enough to begin a revolution in my honor.

Mike lifted his head, his eyes hard as he thrust his chin forward. “A week from hell. Rowan stopped anyone from being brought in and just wants everyone killed until he can get this under control.” He shook his head, his shoulders hunched as he tried to keep himself protected against the door. “If you ask me, there’s no controlling this. He wants us all to bring you in so he can show everyone you’re alright and not dead like they all think. Then I bet he has you killed. He hasn’t killed your men yet because he’s worried about furthering the revolt.” He shifted his eyebrows and rolled his eyes to the side.

Oh yeah, he would definitely have me killed. I picked at a chunk of jerky, forcing myself to taste the salty end. Until Bodey and John’s fates were a certainty, my appetite might not return. “Why do people even care? Nobody knew me.” And they all stayed away from me, like a pariah or something. Even Cammie had been slightly reserved at times, as if she expected me to disappear any moment.

Dana listened intently. She answered for Mike. “Because pregnant women are special. There’s something about them even infants don’t have. There’s like a hope or something wrapped up in a woman pregnant with a child.” She smiled softly at me, glancing at my growing belly.

“How many guns does he have? You mentioned a warehouse of weapons.” Simon’s question crept quietly from his spot on the dirt floor. Thank you, Lord, he’s awake and sounds lucid. I repeated his question for Mike.

Eyes lit up on the topic which wasn’t so personal, Mike replied, “He has a whole warehouse full.”

“What warehouse? The only one there is the food warehouse.” I watched Mike. Maybe Mike lied. He hadn’t said anything about Bodey or John.

“The weapons are under the edible inventory. Rowan has so many. Did you know the compound used to be a stopping station for military? They abandoned the concept a few years before the War.” Mike knew more than he let on. His knowledge just might save him from being eaten alive – if he provided information about Bodey and John like I needed.

“Answer her question about the men.” Dana had been listening. I appreciated her help.

Mike sighed, folding his hands between his knees. “They’re in containment. I haven’t seen them, so I have no idea what their condition is but I can’t imagine it’s good. Rowan goes in to see them every day and there’s usually some…” He glanced at me, then toward the wall. “There’s usually some screaming.” He rushed on when I gasped. “But it’s never very long and I think he’s just trying to get some information.”

“Why can’t he just let me go?” My hands shook, but I knew why. Charlie had been similar and Shane. The crazy ones would be the ones to survive to make the rest of life hell for those of us just seeking something safe and secure. With so few survivors, they would be able to focus on someone like me, someone who normally wouldn’t merit attention but without competition, I stood out like lightning on a dark night.

“Psh. A revolt started because of you. People took notice. I don’t think that’s coincidence and well, you’ve seen Ethan. He’s like a rabid dog. He won’t stop. Something is wrong with his head and Rowan gives him whatever he wants. Too bad for you, and all of us, you’re what he wants.” Mike glared at me. “Why not just go with Ethan and stop this? Freedom Pass was okay, it was safe, you know? Food and water. You had to go and get greedy.”

Fluttering in my stomach along the outer perimeter grew with my anger – the baby sensed I was upset. “Greedy? Wanting safety without fear of death from anyone is considered greedy? What is wrong with you? Is Rowan slipping you guys something in your drinks?” I thrust my lower jaw to the side, staring at the man like he’d lost a few marbles. Maybe he had. What type of person put themselves above others, wrong above right?

The classic survivor did. The person who would do anything to stay alive.

Me. I would’ve done the same thing not too long ago. With my headlong flight from Freedom Pass, I still felt like I had done exactly that – put myself first. But my intention hadn’t been to harm others, or make things harder. My intention… had been to save my family, my baby, my husband and his dad. And me. Lastly me.

Was it so wrong to want to stay alive? Did my desire to survive make me the same as Mike? The same as Rowan and Ethan? Or could I say I had some of the captain in me – integrity while not dying? Living with something to be able to look back on without guilt, without shame.

Mike continued speaking, breaking through my musings. “Ethan locked Rowan up on a pretense, like he was taking over. So Ethan does what Rowan wants and the people trying to revolt are somewhat assuaged thinking he has his own agenda. The only ones who know are the guards. We do what we’re told.” Sadness covered his words and he pushed a rock around on the ground with one finger.

“What are they going to do with everyone? Kill anyone who’s against them?” I bit my lip. If that was the case, then John and Bodey didn’t stand a chance. In fact, they’d probably be first to go. Unless, Rowan wanted me there to see the mess I’d caused and to see the consequences. The man had lost his mental capacity, so who knew what was going through his head.

Scoffing, Mike rolled his eyes. “He can’t. One-hundred-seventy-five people are the minimum needed to run the compound to its potential. Don’t you remember your initiation? They need the people to do their jobs. That’s why so many have been weeded out. If you dissent in any way, you’re one of the first to go when new people come in. He wants followers.”

“You seem to know an awful lot for a lowly guard.” Dana chimed in, her opinion valid and welcome as my brain seemed to turn to mush under the onslaught of information and worry building about John and Bodey.

“Yeah, well,” Mike shrugged. “Ethan talks a lot when we’re scouting. Mostly creepy stuff about her.” He pointed at me, curling his lip.

I had considered Ethan as an option for a split second, but realized quickly he wasn’t the type of guy to be happy with something he caught once he captured it. He’d grow bored and toss me aside. Fortunately, I’d only let it be a possibility as a way to save Bodey and John, not as a possibility for my heart. Turning away from the choice hadn’t been hard.

“Okay, so why is everyone in here? Why not just do what Rowan said and kill them?” I scrunched my eyebrows together. I would make sense of everything, if it killed me. Which, if I was honest, just might.

“Ethan can’t kill anyone. He can shoot them to cause harm.” Mike pointed at Captain Phahn and angled his eyebrow upward. “But he can’t directly shoot anyone fatally. The fact irritates Rowan more than Ethan lets on. He brings them here and either lets them die or has a guard come take care of things.”

We let that sink in, the utter finality in the offhand remark. One way or the other, the people in the cabin were always taken care of.

I licked my lips, my voice hoarse with nerves. “What will happen?”

Mike folded his fingers together and leaned his head back to stare at the dark ceiling. “We’ll die. He doesn’t bring food or water here. These guys were smart and collected the rain from the windows, but that food you brought in here will only prolong the inevitable. He won’t come back. Not for a while.”

I didn’t remember it raining in that area, but that didn’t mean it didn’t happen. The mountains were fickle and weather changed fast.

“Why is Rowan having people killed instead of just turning them away?” I had to understand what was happening inside the camp. Like if I could understand the mind of the man leading things, I could guess his next step with Bodey. Understand which way he would go next. Desperation ruled me to estimate his next move.

Sighing, Mike shook his head, lowering it meet my gaze. “A group came in and turned out to be bent on getting our resources rather than joining us. They asked more questions than they answered and they kept saying something about joining forces with someone else and taking over the rest of the area. When they mentioned revenge for rejecting them, Rowan shot them in the back as they walked out. He said he wouldn’t sit around and wait for them to attack.”

“Well, I wouldn’t sound too upset about it, sure sounds like you would have shot them, too.” I bit out angrily. Nothing made sense. My stomach twisted in confusion.

Shame colored Mike’s face. “Actually, I can’t shoot people. Curfew was set up and we’re supposed to shoot people on sight, if they’re out… and I can’t. That’s why Ethan brings me out here. I’m no good in there.”

Dana made an understanding sound. “That’s not a bad thing, to not want to kill people. Don’t become like them.”

Mike glanced quickly at her and then away. He peeked at me from the side of his eyes, pointing toward Simon. “We’re never getting out of here. You should just let him die.” He folded his arms across his knees and lowered his head to his forearms.

Maybe I should let Gary and Lance eat him.

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Author: Chelsea Paulson

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