Through the Flames
Chapter 1: Andy
Andy had never heard of death feeling like an earthquake. The ground rumbled, shaking him from his stupor. Pain in his side jabbed up through his neck with a slight thrum. Noise reverberated from underground as if from far off.
Just as suddenly as it began, the grumbles stopped.
Fevers made a person hallucinate. Maybe he had a fever. He breathed as shallow as possible, careful not to jostle the camouflage he’d been buried under. Just in case. Plus, what would he do if it was an earthquake? Doubtful in the area, but one never knew.
A footfall rustled the damp leaves and pine needles maybe ten yards downhill from his spot. Another fell, followed by a frantic whisper in the mid-day stillness. “Andy?”
Someone knew his name and was there looking for him. Andy sighed, relief warmed his cold extremities. He didn’t recognize the voice behind the whisper, but that could be due to any number of things, his infection acting as one of the main proponents. The voice had to be Josh. Andy breathed in, unsure if he’d be able to inhale enough to speak, but if he didn’t his friend wouldn’t be able to find him.
The moment saved his life.
A separate voice carried to him, the tone muffled by distance. “I don’t see him. Maybe he’s dead.”
The much closer man shushed the other and replied in a lowered voice. “I don’t care if he’s dead. We need his body or Doctor Parker won’t be interested in what Doctor Bastian has to offer.” A step or two in random directions. The jerk-wad had no idea where to look.
No answer from the cynical partner.
And no answer from Andy.
The pain dulled compared to the sharp anxiety rising in him. Where had his warming relief disappeared to? His arms and feet froze with fear and he struggled to keep his cool.
Okay, break it down, Andy. One, they wanted him for something. Two, they knew where he was stashed – if not exactly. Three, Doctor Parker must be Rachel – his Rachel. Four, they needed Andy’s body which meant dead or alive and that didn’t bode all that well for Andy.
Crackles and snaps from the first man grew louder. He moved in Andy’s direction. The paralyzing fear that had crashed over Andy in the gym before his escape consumed him like fire. Andy imagined each step shook the ground like a giant.
What if Andy was just a body the next time Rachel saw him?
He wanted to fight. Get up and run. Do anything but lie there. His injuries prevented a response from either the fight or flight arena. He could use a gun. Why hadn’t Josh given him a gun? Where had Josh gone? Oh, the questions were redundant and Andy would’ve given anything for an answer to something, even something as simple as what time of day it was.
Pop! Followed by the quietest whisper of air splitting sang over him, feet above his position. A thud followed and the footsteps in his direction ceased.
If possible, Andy froze further. He closed his searching eyes. Breathed in through his nose and out through his parted lips. Screw the men after him. He was in danger of hyperventilating and passing out – maybe to suffocate under the moldy smelling brush. Although passing out and then being killed didn’t sound like such a bad idea compared to an end filled with torture or disease. Lying in the dirt with injuries that hurt like his couldn’t be good toward warding off infection.
A hand grabbed him between the elbow and shoulder. Andy jerked and squeezed his eyes shut. Holy shit, he might have an accident.
“I got you, Andy.” Josh’s murmur slowed Andy’s racing heart. He swallowed the sudden sob that pushed up from his stomach – most likely a cough. Josh swept the layers of leaves and pine needles off Andy’s face. “I’m here.”
But Andy couldn’t give in to the comforting expression on his best-friend’s face. Not completely. Not until they were both in the clear. Pure adrenaline pulsed in his blood, enough to fuel him with the energy to utter, “There’s another one.”
Josh snapped his head up. His smile whipped off his face. He squinted into the forest and listened. A cock of the head and he closed his eyes. Without warning, he scuttled in a crouch across the sloping forest floor out of Andy’s range of view. The noise of his departure faded.
Andy strained to hear something. One, two, three, four – he counted his heartbeats to keep time. Eight, nine, ten. Another quieter pop sounded from further down. Another thud. Slight rustling headed his way again.
Relax, man. You’re fine. Josh was the only one who knew exactly where Andy was.
Andy’s pain made its presence known. The damn ache came back with a vengeance. He groaned.
Josh ran in a slouch to Andy’s side and grinned when he met his friend’s gaze. He searched Andy’s face. “Are you okay?” A quick glance over a white bandaged shoulder poking from under his flannel punctuated the urgency to their reunion.
“I’m dying.” Andy whispered. They’d watched Tombstone enough times together, if Josh didn’t smile, Andy would have to waste more energy trying to crack another joke. He made jokes at funerals – his own if need’s be.
“No, you’re not. But nice try. And you sure as hell aren’t Val Kilmer. I think even Rachel would agree with me on that one, bro.” Josh pointed up the hill. “I’ve got one of your quads up a ways. I need to get it down here. Can you hang on a second?”
His breath spent, Andy nodded the best he could. So many questions piled on the ones already culminating in his head. Had Josh seen Rachel? Had they spoken? What had her reaction been? Had she been grieving too much to remember Josh or maybe she didn’t care? Or maybe, just maybe, she fell into Josh’s arms and they… Ugh. Different thoughts, different thoughts. Andy didn’t have a clear time frame between when he’d last seen Rachel and when he’d been “rescued” by Josh and then dumped. He had to focus on something else.
Jealousy warred with Andy’s pain and the two raged inside him, struggling for a foothold. Or was that fever? He wasn’t an insecure man, but how else should he feel, if his wife thought he was dead – had to – and had rediscovered her what-if-guy? His discomfort had to be due to fever. His friend would never screw him over. His wife loved him.
His quad purred. Oh, yeah. Andy’s eyes closed. Josh was there. No matter what else happened, his friend was there for him. Andy would see Rachel again, if the pain in his side didn’t kill him.
Josh stopped the vehicle a foot from Andy’s head. The emergency brake creaked. He climbed from the seat.
Andy could feel the heat from his friend’s leg reach over the damp, cold ground. He imagined he could turn his head and see the leg an inch from his ear. Andy took the moment to take in the overcast day. No sign of the sun to indicate the time. With the light leaking through the flat clouds, it could be early morning, late evening, or noon. Not that Andy cared.
Josh moved above Andy and froze. He looked left, right, around in a slow circle. Like a dog catching something on the wind, Josh searched and searched, unsatisfied with the quiet. He glanced at Andy and his mouth quirked at the side. “I feel like Rambo.”
The butt of a gun came down on Josh’s head with a hollow thump. He crumpled to the ground beside Andy.
A man dressed in black fatigues and a black hat stood above the pair. He watched Andy and tilted his head. In a thick accent Andy was too tired to identify, he said, “Mr. Parker. Your presence is requested.” He knelt down beside Andy, his features blankly average. He busied his hands out of Andy’s view.
Everything was happening too fast. Was Josh dead? He couldn’t hear any sounds to indicate he still breathed, but Josh’s face had turned from Andy as he’d fallen and Andy couldn’t turn his head to investigate further.
The man leaned closer and prodded Andy’s neck with covered fingers. He avoided Andy’s eyes. A sharp prick overrode the pain in Andy’s side for the briefest second and then it disappeared. The man stood and chucked something into the brush behind him.
Thu-thump, thu-thump. Andy’s heart rate slowed. A hazy gray film covered his sight and the man disappeared. Working his chin, Andy forced his tongue to move, but sudden dryness made anything else impossible.
His eyes closed. His presence was requested? What the hell was that? An invitation to tea with the Queen?
Chapter 2: Brenda
Beau rubbed his nose, spreading the dirty smudge up the bridge and down the side by his eye. “Aunt Brenda, how come we can’t go back home? What’s going on?”
How did someone explain the end of the world to a four-year-old? Brenda’s mouth fell slack as she took in the expectant face of her nephew. She had nothing, and she knew it.
He ducked his tow-head an inch, lifting his blonde eyebrows. “Aunt Brenda? If you don’t know, that’s okay.” But still he watched her.
A bit of paranoia crept up to itch the brand on her neck like a flea. The pain was receding but in its wake the discomfort of healing was nearly unbearable.
Kayli walked up behind her brother and nudged his shoulder. “Leave Aunt Brenda alone. Mom said she’s dramatized.”
Dramatized? “You mean traumatized?” Brenda yawned. The six hours of sleep she’d scraped together after Rachel and Josh had left hadn’t even scratched the surface. The kids would head to bed as soon as the sun sent shadows across the clearing.
Her six-year-old niece nodded her head. “Before she left, Mom said you got hurt and we’re supposed to take care of you.” Kayli patted Beau’s back, sounding more like a twelve-year-old. “Are you ready to eat dinner? Mom left us some anti-chili and for dessert, her special trail mix.”
Beau’s somber expression split into a smile. “Yeah.” He abandoned his question about what was going on out in the real world and ran to the kitchen in the bunker-style house his dad had built into the mountain.
Oh, it’d be awesome to be child again. “That’s a great idea, Kayli, thank you.” Brenda left the couch and angled around the chair and small table against the wall. She peeked out the door since the windows were covered in tin foil.
Twenty-four hours before, the clearing had been masked with a random pattern of “mole hills” acting as raised gardens. The area had been clean and relatively empty. Now, a thick layer of dirt and rocks covered the grass. Large boulders rested against damaged trees across from the dwelling.
Rachel, Brenda’s sister, had put the dirt bike Brenda had escaped on into the lean-to style garage tucked beside the house. Where Brenda had propped the bike against a tree stump, a pile of rock and debris held together a stack of crushed tree limbs and brush.
The bombs hadn’t fallen in the clearing or on the hillside harboring Rachel’s house, but had terminated the mountainside north of there, where the plane had crashed – according to Rachel and Josh. Josh had hinted at erasing evidence of something, but Brenda hadn’t caught what.
Kayli handed Brenda the dish of anti-chili – which just meant it had a whole lot more than just beans in it – from the cooler, a cave-like room cooled by an underwater spring in the rock. Beau reached for bowls and spoons, while Brenda rummaged in the cupboards for a pan. Even in a survival aspect, her super-organized sister annoyed Brenda… even when she wasn’t around.
And Josh. Josh had fallen through the front door, his shoulder lacerated by thrown rock, while the bombs crashed outside. He’d saved her from the captives in town, well kind of. Brenda had orchestrated a mass escape but at the end, things had fallen apart and Josh had been there to help out.
But he’d left Rachel’s husband – his best-friend – Andy, somewhere in the forest with an infected wound and lost Cole, Rachel’s oldest son, to the militia. His résumé wasn’t looking too good for “knight in shining armor”.
Brenda’s attraction to Josh had nothing to do with his broad shoulders or blue eyes. She just had a thing for the wrong-type of man. Look at the sick attraction she’d had for Daniel, her captor. And the most infuriating part about the illogical attraction was that she couldn’t control it. Damn men. And damn her insecurities.
Soup sloshed into the pan. Tomato chunks and ground meat blended with green peppers, dark red kidney beans, and onions. The red color reminded her of the blood in the gym, when they’d shot people. In front of her. She winced and looked away. A wave of nausea rolled over her.
Dinner was going to be a long ordeal, if she couldn’t get past the memories of the last few days. Rachel and Josh had more on their plates than she did. Brenda just had to focus on the kids and figure out the best way to help Andy, if Josh got him to her before he died.
All of it was going to be a long ordeal.
Chapter 3: Tom
Tom’s lungs ached for a deep breath of fresh air. A prehistoric-sized rock pinned him to the side of the mountain. From his angle, the rock looked like a statue of a turtle.
He wiggled his toes. Good he could move them. His fingers, too.
He closed his eyes and strained to hear something – anything – in the after-avalanche silence. He reopened them and glanced as far around as his pinioned torso would allow. From the looks of things, he’d slid down about a hundred yards from Jenny and his dad.
A shout from above echoed down over the newly laid landscape. Tom closed his eyes. He didn’t recognize the voice – or the language.
Tom’s dad answered in the same language, but from the other side of the trail, where Tom had left him. Since when did his dad know how to speak anything but English? The bigoted ass had always made comments about “coming to America and speaking the language”.
Maybe only the shale clearing had been affected by the falling debris. But that didn’t make sense. A rock slide from that high up would decimate trees and other items as it crashed toward the bottom. His dad, Jenny, and the bastards with Farnham hadn’t even been that far into the protection of the forests. How had they escaped?
As the last of the pebbles settled and the dust calmed around him, Tom focused on more noise, more info. If they got too close, they’d take him, and any chance he had of saving Jenny or his dad would be gone.
“Tom?” His dad called down over the slant. “Tom? Did you make it?”
Tom wanted to answer his dad, but his gut told him to keep his mouth shut.
Backbone against the ground, Tom bent his arms at the elbows, flattening his palms against the rough rock. Could he push it off him? The barest amount of pressure, just enough, and it rolled, moved, teased Tom with the briefest moment of room for his lungs to expand. He let his hands pull back and the rock reversed, crushing him with more weight. The air he’d gasped in exhaled on a whoosh.
Dirt sprinkled from his bangs into his eyes and nose. He smothered a sneeze and whispered to himself. “Okay, I can do this. Push it down and rush for cover. Any cover.”
He looked up, straining his neck to see over his head and see what lay behind him. Trees further off than he remembered them being at the trail. The increase in distance could be from the rock slide or from the spread of the shed-off as it slid further down the face.
The stupid turtle-rock blocked his view of exactly how far he had to the opposite side. His decision would have to be split-second. Crap.
To his left, the mountain hadn’t stood a chance under the onslaught of rock. The shale had been replaced with large boulders. The remains of trees and other vegetation looked like a woman caught upside down in a dress with their roots flapping in the gentle breeze. Only Mother Nature would caress a disaster site after something like that.
The sound of rock sliding and shifting shattered his planning time. Either the rock was unsteady and about to crash further or they were coming for him. Tom didn’t want to be there to see which it was.
His dad called out to him, again. “Tom? Can you hear me?”
Yeah, Dad, I can hear you, but I’m not answering, he thought. Hands repositioned, he closed his eyes and rocked it a bit to his left, then let it recoil just a touch back on him. On the returning roll, Tom pushed with everything he had. Crunch, crash. The rock rolled, slid, rolled, and then slid to a stop twenty feet from Tom. The turtle shape disappeared in a new angle.
Tom bent at the waist, or tried to. He could move his toes, but his legs didn’t want to do anything. A shout made him force his legs to cooperate. But oh, hell, the friggin’ pain. He’d grind his teeth to a pulp before he’d make a sound.
In a sitting position, unable to stand, he glanced at his choices again. Forward led to a treed area that wasn’t too far and looked unaffected by the rock slide. The tree line behind him was farther than he’d first realized.
He glanced up the rock face and winced. His dad and two other men picked their way toward Tom. They’d reach him in five minutes.
He had to do something. He spared a few seconds to search the trees for Jenny. But he couldn’t see anything.
The ground to the trees in front of him looked unstable and rocky. Tom bit his lip. The knees of his pants were red and shiny, coated thick with blood. He might not be able to walk. If he couldn’t walk and he couldn’t fly, how the heck was he supposed to get off that mountain in less than five minutes?
His dad called down to him. “I see you, Tom. We’re coming to get you. Hang on.”
Crap. Hang on? Seriously, his dad had a mental issue if he thought his reassurances were comforting in any way. His dad’s comment sparked a fire under Tom’s already flaming desire to get moving. If he had the guts, he’d throw himself down the rest of the slide. Nothing would hurt worse than that move and create the least benefit.
Tom pulled himself around and dragged his body over rocks and trees and brush and weeds. Tears rolled down his cheeks from the pain in his legs and his lower back. His going was slower than damn molasses.
Come on, Tom, go. He put his hands down and pulled, his biceps screaming. His legs trailed behind him, worthless and filled with an overabundance of pain. Breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth, he pulled and pushed and wiggled his hips and strained with his toes to move. Each glance up the mountain showed his dad and two men moving closer.
His wrist bent on a slab of quartz and Tom cried out. “Oh, crap.” He shook the limb and tried again, but his wrist collapsed. He held the arm to his stomach and closed his eyes. Down to one arm. One damn arm and no legs. Where was he supposed to go with just one arm?
Maybe he should just give up. Maybe they wouldn’t hurt Dr. Parker, Jenny, or anyone else. Maybe his dad was in on it, whatever “it” was, and he could get some kind of leniency or something for Tom.
The rocks slid under the men’s weight, closer, closer.
Tom eyed his dad, the only one without a gun. Dr. Mason’s eyes shifted here and there and wouldn’t settle on Tom. The other men, however, had no problem staring at Tom with disgusted arrogance in the tilt of their chins and squinting eyes.
Closer. Closer. They jumped into the spot where Tom had been pinned and crossed to him in seconds. The same distance Tom had needed minutes to maneuver over.
His dad stopped three feet shy of Tom’s motionless feet and let the men surround his son. Tom didn’t react, just absorbed what he could through the rough grasping of the arms as they reached for him and dragged him without care over the uneven terrain. He’d be damned if they heard one peep of pain from him.
His dad followed, watching Tom’s face. Tom’s feet screamed to be cut off, burned off, anything to get away from the jostling he was being subjected to.
Tom checked his dad’s face for any emotion. Anything to suggest things were going to be okay. But the bastard didn’t express any concern. His shiftiness had faded but to where?
Rotors slapping through the air caught Tom’s attention. Who would fly a chopper out that way unless they were the “bad guys” or associated with Farnham – the other bad guys? Heck, wasn’t anyone good anymore?
The bird came from the base of the mountain to hover over their location. A bull horn sounded from above. Had Tom heard correctly? Had they been calling for Rachel Parker?
Which left the question – who were the good guys? And why the hell was the helicopter lowering a rescue basket with a man inside pointing an automatic weapon their way?