The continuing saga of three generations of women struggling to stay alive.
He was the Buck Stranton, didn’t those people know who he was? Righteous pride faded as he realized those breaking into his home probably knew exactly who he was.
Buck rushed down the plush carpet of his hallway and quietly closed his bedroom door. He locked the door, but it was a half-measure when faced with invaders willing to break windows to get inside someone’s home.
Running a hand through his unkempt hair, he glanced wildly around his room. What was he doing? He had nothing in his bedroom but his bedding and clothes. All of his things were in the garage or basement. He didn’t even keep his shoes in there.
Gasping, he shed his lounge clothes and pulled on a t-shirt and jeans. He had nothing to put on his feet but socks and slippers. Slippers. He was going to escape his house in slippers.
Thuds and harsh laughter carried down the hall and through the door. Buck had no doubt they cared who he was. Now? He was nobody, just another survivor in the aftermath of a virus that had wiped out the world. He was no one and he had a feeling they knew it.
Buck paused in his search for a jacket. That would make a great premise to pitch to a production company. If things hadn’t gone to hell, he could’ve sold the plot and gotten back into the game.
He shook his head and stared at the door. The voices were louder and Buck’s panic was all-consuming. He didn’t have time to find a coat in his walk-in closet. He cast one more anxious glance around his room and rushed to the balcony.
Pushing open the double-doors, Buck inhaled the salty ocean air. It would probably be the last time he smelled his favorite scent from his home. There was no going back to normal after the attack going on inside.
His balcony was there purely for the view. There was no way to climb down to the pool area. To the right, his pool and lots of concrete stretched beneath him. To his left a grassy hill sloped gently down toward the pool area from the back of the garage. Past the recreational patio, a copse of trees blocked out the dumpsters and the sharp drop-off to the road. No one went down.
That’s where Buck had to go.
The cement obviously wasn’t an option. Buck swallowed, closing his eyes for a hard moment. Did he dare pray? Did he even remember how to mutter worthless words from his strict Presbyterian upbringing?
He softly muttered the lines from one of his scenes in a movie from long ago under his breath and climbed onto the top of the balcony rail to the left of the doors.
If he could only get away, he’d be able to hide. That was all he had to do for the immediate future. He’d worry about surviving more after that, if he survived.
He couldn’t think. Taking a deep breath, Buck pushed off from the rail. The air rushed by him and in his anxiety, he jumped too hard. Landing on his shins and knees, he fell forward. His forehead slammed into the grass as he absorbed the impact.
“Oomph.” Buck rolled to the side, holding his hand to his knee. What had he done? What had he broken? If things were as bad as he suspected they were, he wouldn’t get help at a hospital or a clinic. He couldn’t afford to get hurt, not without a way to treat anything.
Everything hurt. He couldn’t help thinking he was making all the wrong decisions. How was that possible? He wasn’t supposed to deal with these types of things. He was rich. Well, kind of. He should be safe in his home.
Lying on his side in dew dampened grass in slippers after just jumping from his balcony, Buck didn’t feel rich. Did he need more of a clue that he was losing it?
“Did you find anyone?” A loud voice called back to someone through the open balcony doors.
Buck’s eyes widened and he sucked up the desire to sit there and cry. He rolled further to the side, suctioning his body up against the stucco wall of his home beneath the balcony. He clamped his teeth on his lower lip, knocking his lower shin on a water faucet protruding from the wall like an afterthought. Leaning his head back, Buck tried to calm down, listening for a clue that he was in the clear.
A drawer from his dresser crashed onto the concrete only a few feet from his position. White and black silk boxers sailed through the air in slow motion as a breeze caught the sections of material and tossed them around.
“This guy was a loser. Who did you say he was?” Another voice, tainted with condescension and malice drifted down amidst the clothes as another drawer was tossed out the window. “Hey, see if you can reach the pool with this drawer.”
Buck closed his eyes. They were destroying his place. Nothing was sacred anymore. He couldn’t go back inside his home and feel safe. They had taken that from him. A spark of anger curdled in his gut and he ground his teeth together.
“Don’t be an idiot. I want to swim in that later before the algae takes over.” The man paused and then another drawer clattered to the ground, spilling jeans feet from Buck. “Did you ever see that zombie series? The one that got really big there before the outbreak? That’s this guy.” He didn’t sound impressed so much as bored.
“Yeah, that one chick was hot.” A crystal vase hit the concrete, shards of glass flying in an arc and striking Buck on the arm and chest. The other man laughed maliciously. “I’m bored. He doesn’t have any food or gas. There’s no one here. Let’s go to the next house. I thought I saw candles there last night.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’ve wanted in here for a while. He has more stuff that we can gather and trade. Come on, before the other guys beat us to it.” The voices faded but not the marauder viciousness they left in the air.
Buck sighed, his stomach tight. He was hungry and his anxiety only made it worse. If he wasn’t careful, he’d probably get sick and throw up food he didn’t have. Could he make it to the trees? He had to try for something. Who knew when they would start down to go swimming like they’d said they wanted to.
Taking a deep breath, Buck pushed off the wall, half-crumpling to the side as his knee tried to give out beneath him. He thrust his hand to the side, touching nothing but air yet still stabilizing himself from falling to the ground. Stabilized for the moment, he stumbled forward. He had to take the chance that they weren’t looking out the windows. He couldn’t look back. If he did, he might fall and if he fell… he wasn’t getting back up.
His slippers whispered over the texture lines in the concrete and then across the grass. He ducked beneath the low-hanging creosote and crouched close to the trunk. Closing his eyes, he pulled his knees close to his face as he leaned back on the bark of the trees protected from view by the brush.
Another window shattered and a hoot of laughter carried out into the night. His home. They were tearing his home apart. It might not have been warm like the house he’d grown up in where his mother had made cookies and baked bread, but it was his and all he had.
With his hurting knee, he’d never make it back to the garage before they did. He’d never be able to get to the things that were worth anything. His hidden stash of guns may or may not be discovered. He wasn’t sure. Buck was tired, too tired to think correctly. He was hungry and scared.
And unprepared for anything.
He winced at the sound of more things breaking. He looked around, scanning for the presence of anyone else. If no one was around to see him, would it still be considered crying?
Margie fell in the dark, her head thudding against the car before landing half-on and half-off the cement. Manson knelt down and felt along the line of her neck for a pulse. It was there and strong.
Good, he’d only knocked her out. He wasn’t ready to kill her yet. No, she still had a purpose. He gripped the crowbar with both hands and studied the dark around him. He wasn’t used to just knocking people out with the tool. He preferred taking care of people – killing them and being done with it. Keeping Margie immobile and blaming the attack on someone in the neighborhood would be a lot simpler. Manson liked simpler. He didn’t want her dead yet.
Kelsey on the other hand. He wanted her dead and couldn’t wait to do it. Having her in the seat behind him all that time and there was nothing he could do about it had driven him nuts. If he hadn’t had to worry about Cady or Ryker, Manson would have sat up, taken the pointed end of the crowbar and driven it through Kelsey’s chest while she slept. He’d imagined it over and over while he’d laid in that dang bench seat.
He had to hurry back to take care of Kelsey and then he might be able to make it back to wake Margie. That would help cement his trustworthiness in her eyes – rescuing her and Ryker from whatever attacker was out there.
As it was, Manson was done dealing with Kelsey. He didn’t irritate easily, but she’d gotten on his last nerve. He gripped the crowbar, reveling in the cool metal. He glanced around, searching the open parking lot for Ryker. That kid was all too observant. He listened but didn’t speak much.
His behavior creeped Manson out.
If Manson could deal with Ryker at the same time he took care of Kelsey, it’d be a productive day. Maybe he could set it up to look like Kelsey killed Ryker and Manson killed Kelsey to defend the boy. That would make things more interesting and Manson loved interesting.
He rounded the front of Skate Plaza, slowing his steps to listen for Kelsey’s position. Where had the old broad gone?
Shadows blurred as the clouds moved across the moon. Manson’s eyes adjusted further, catching a glimpse of light on the glass of the door. The front door had been pulled open. It must not have been locked when things had changed. Or maybe Kelsey had broken in or someone else had. The theaters were too far north of the lot for Kelsey to have gone there. Manson’s gut told him she was in the plaza.
Glancing around, Manson ducked inside, crossing through the small foyer and into the black interior. He propped the door open with a loose rock and blinked in the complete blackness. Would his eyes adjust without any light at all? He would have to use his other senses to find the little witch.
A sound to his right caught his attention and he turned his gaze as if he could see something just because he looked that way. Manson stepped further inside and then to the left, pulling his silhouette from being the only thing in sight.
She was in there. Manson knew it. He could feel it. But where was she and why was she hiding? Did she suspect he was after her? Prey could usually tell when they were being hunted, but he’d just started. Had she picked it up that fast?
How did he play this? He hadn’t been rude to her at all. Maybe he could play the friendly route and see just how far she would push him. They were supposed to be traveling together. He could be the comrade rather than the killer.
“Kelsey? Is that you?” He called out, hopefully no one else had hidden in the cavernous building. His voice echoed back to him and he swallowed. Yeah, he had to kill her and get out of there. He felt like he was in solitary confinement and that wasn’t going to do anything to help his state of mind.
A scrape from the far side and to his right pulled his sightless gaze. “Kelsey? If that’s you, let me know. If it isn’t, I don’t mean any trouble. I’m just looking for a friend.” He gripped the end of the crowbar with steady fingers. He wasn’t scared, but he didn’t want to just swing into the dark either.
Her snort made him smirk. Kelsey’s nasally tone was easy to recognize. “We’re not friends, Manson. You’re just trying to irritate me.”
“Is it working?” He hardened his voice but didn’t take the congenial tone out. There was no reason to be mean to someone you planned on killing. No reason at all. There was etiquette even in that. The lioness wasn’t mean to the zebra, she just ate. Everyone had to survive.
Kelsey flipped on a small flashlight, something he didn’t have. Another reason to kill her. He wanted to take it. The light beam immediately drew his attention to her and he moved forward. “Oh, good. You have a light.” He smiled in case she thought his movement was threatening. He hadn’t put his crowbar down and that wasn’t going to happen.
All he needed to do was get close enough to hit her with it. Then he could go back to his plan. First Kelsey and then Ryker. The end wasn’t looking too bad any more.
The gunshot startled Bailey. She cut the generator and rushed to the door. She stood there staring, watching in the dark with the door only open a few inches. She cradled Jessica close as if Bailey could protect Jessica from reality. Who was going to protect Bailey?
The expression on Beth’s face as she looked at Cady, the fury in her eyes. It hadn’t taken very much light to see the anger in her expression. Beth had killed that man. Her injury hadn’t stopped her. Bailey couldn’t believe it. She’d rushed back to the door of the garage and stared out at Beth dropped the gun.
Bailey had to put Jessica down. Her arms hurt and her upper back felt like she was going to be permanently curved around the child. What was she risking if she set her down? It could be everything. Nothing was normal. Bailey didn’t know what to do and her fear at the uncertainty was all-consuming.
Softly closing the door so not to attract any attention, Bailey carried Jessica through the garage and into the house. She couldn’t see well but she moved mostly by memory. At least her house hadn’t changed. At least she had that. The comfort of the rooms she’d grown up in. The smell of home that was a mix of cinnamon and varying essential oils her mother kept in a diffuser.
In the living room, Bailey settled on the couch, sighing with relief. Jessica’s small lips moved in her sleep. Not all babies were so calm. Bailey would give anything to know how Jessica’s first days on earth had been. She seemed happy as long as she was fed and held.
Leaning to the side, Bailey used her free arm to pull a throw blanket from the back of the couch. Leaving it folded, she turned and rested Jessica’s small form in the center of the makeshift bed. The baby softly moved her face to the side but didn’t wake.
Resting her head against the back of the couch, Bailey took a deep breath. There was another dead body in the front yard. Between Jason and the newcomer, the bodies were a definite deterrent to leaving the house via the front door. Two people had been killed at her house. No, three! Cady had killed Kent not that long ago herself.
The truth slapped Bailey across the face. She lifted her head from the cushion on the back of the couch. Staring out the window that showed the night, she chewed on her lower lip.
Beth was a killer. The look on her face as she’d stared at Cady could have frozen fire. Did Cady know what Beth was capable of? Bailey leaned her head back again, her adrenaline weak compared to her exhaustion. Nothing was going to help her move much.
“Bailey? Are you in here?” Her mom’s whisper seemed to shout through the lower level of the house. Did she suspect? Was that why she whispered?
Bailey lifted her head again and nodded while speaking, “Yeah, Mom, in here.” Please, don’t bring Beth with you.
Cady rushed into the living room. “I can’t be very long. I need to get some bandages for Beth. Listen, you need to be ready to leave. Get everything together that you have to take with you – but don’t fill more than one of those bins. I’ll grab the seventy-two-hour packs and put them by the door.” She glanced around, as if searching for someone she didn’t trust. Did Bailey’s mom know something Bailey was only starting to guess at?
Mute, Bailey nodded. She’d never be able to voice her thoughts even as she screamed at her mom that she couldn’t leave from the safety of her mind. How could Mom just say they were leaving so calmly? Didn’t she see the baby? Didn’t she know what was happening out there? Everything was falling apart and Mom just wanted to leave.
“I’ll be right back. I need to get something on her wound.” Cady stood, muttering as she walked away. “I think I have some Quick Clot in the First Aid supplies.” She was hard to see in the shadows as she walked away, but she left behind a sense of scattered urgency.
Bailey felt like she’d been slugged in the gut.
How was she supposed to survive anything, if she wasn’t at home? Her dad had built so many things there. She had so many memories of them – her family – at her home. What would Dad think, if he knew they were running from their home?
Was that what her mom really wanted to do? Leave?
Nausea worked its way up Bailey’s throat. She couldn’t leave her home. It was her home!
Wrapping her arms around her waist, Bailey rocked forward, closing her eyes. She didn’t want to leave. Her mom had to change her mind. Maybe she was just cautioning Bailey to be ready in case they needed to leave. She hadn’t actually said they were leaving right then. She said be ready. What exactly did that mean?
Moaning from the kitchen startled Bailey from her thoughts.
“I don’t want the Clot stuff. Cady, I’m serious. It hurts-” Beth’s rejections ended on a scream and then panting. Her words slurred and a scrambling sound as if she tried to grab for something on the table echoed in the dark.
Bailey pressed her knuckles to her teeth, smashing her top lip. She swallowed her whimper.
“Just let me die. Do you hear me?” Beth’s voice was rough with pain and anger. The same anger Bailey had seen in her posture.
“You don’t mean that. You’re just in shock. Remember? You said you were numb.” Bailey’s mom spoke as if she were terrified to do anything else, but was resolute to continue. “Hang on, I’m doing the back.” She didn’t stop to give Beth a minute to catch her breath.
“No, please, I’m – No!” Beth must have slammed her hand or head on the table because of the loud crash followed by more groaning. After a moment, she fell silent. More sounds of someone moving around and picking things up and then suddenly Bailey’s mom was kneeling in front of Bailey once again.
Glancing back toward the kitchen, she kept her voice down. “Beth won’t be able to go with us. She… she passed out, but unless the bleeding stops, she’ll have to stay here.” She looked away from Bailey as if leaving behind her friend was one of the worst things she could do.
“Mom, she killed that guy.” There were too many things to focus on and Bailey blinked at her mom like that was the most important thing to think about.
“I know. He… he’s the one who made the virus.” Her mom avoided her gaze, nodding to confirm the questions in the air. Then he did deserve to die. Why hadn’t her mom done it? He was dangerous. He’d only sent them one vaccine dose. How was that fair? She continued. “Plus, let’s be honest. I’ve killed someone already. That would make me a hypocrite to worry about what someone else is doing, don’t you think?” Her gaze seemed to pierce through the darkness.
Bailey shifted her shoulders on the back of the couch. Did Cady know Bailey had killed Jason? Was she judging Bailey for what had happened? Or was she suggesting Bailey not worry about judging Beth when they were all guilty of something?
Her mom cleared her throat, reaching up to rub the top of the baby’s hair softly. Blood flecks spotted the back of her hand like black spots in the dark. Her skin was so pale. Why hadn’t Bailey ever noticed just how pale her mom was?
Bailey grimaced but didn’t avoid looking her mom in the eye. “Do we really need to leave?” Would her mom hear her need to stay in her voice? Would she care that Bailey was terrified of leaving her home? Would she care that she just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for the next couple weeks?
Her mom sighed, dropping her hand to her side and rocking backward on her feet. “Yes. I’m sorry. I know this is your home, it’s mine, too. I don’t want to leave either, but…” She glanced toward the front window as if there was something out there that scared her.
“Where would we go?” Bailey followed her mom’s gaze out the window. She didn’t want to think about the things they’d dealt with in the last few weeks. The loss and the challenges and the struggle to survive and keep the house stocked when they had to leave anyway.
Her mom’s voice pulled Bailey from the memories. “Grandma’s.”
Grandma’s house. That reminded Bailey about what her grandparents had said. “What if Grandma comes up here? What if she makes it? She said she was coming…” But Bailey’s voice trailed off. Part of her didn’t want to face that her grandparents probably weren’t going to make it back, even if her grandmother had promised, it didn’t mean she could control everything.
“I don’t think she’s going to make it. We have to go, we can leave her a note to head back to her home.” Bailey’s mom didn’t even try to smooth things over about her own mother not making it back. She was tired and it was evident in her tone.
Was that going to be good enough – a note on the front door? In a small voice, Bailey asked, “What do we take?” Was she giving in? Was it a certainty that they were leaving? She didn’t want it to be, but at the same time, she didn’t want to get left behind or leave something she needed because she refused to listen to her mom.
“Only the important stuff.” She glanced at the baby one more time, then struggled back to her feet.
For the first time, Bailey realized just how tired and weak Cady looked. She hadn’t fully recovered from the sickness and there she was talking about running away. Would she have enough energy to get them where they needed to go? Did she have any idea what was out there? What was Bailey facing? And did she trust her mom enough to follow her anywhere?