As I neared the fence between Districts, the hairs on the back of my neck tingled, making my gut clench. When you’ve lived so long on the street, you develop a sensitivity to certain things or your life is short and miserable. Someone was following me, or watching me.
Sliding my hand into my pocket, I gripped the knife and casually slipped into a darkened alley, scrambling over a pile of rubble in the entrance. Pressing back into a doorway, I pulled the knife, and waited.
My stomach gnawed against my ribs, and seconds passed into minutes, but I didn’t move. The jagged scar on my left arm prickled, a constant reminder against impatience. Years ago, I snuck through the window of someone’s house, looking for food, but had to hide in an empty closet when they unexpectedly returned. I thought I would sneak out when they left, but moved too soon, and the man found me. Furious, he swung a rusty pipe at me as I fled, catching my upraised arm and tearing it open. I nearly died that winter, and got stupidly lucky that the wound didn’t fester and my arm didn’t fall off, but I learned my lesson about being patient.
Ultimately, my patience was rewarded. A figure appeared at the mouth of the alley, thin and gangly, picking its way over the rubble. I held my breath in the doorway and didn’t move until it was right in front of me. Then, I lunged forward, slamming it against the wall, pressing the blade to its throat. The figure gasped, a high-pitched noise of terror, and in that second I recognized him.
“It’s me!” Stick whispered frantically, his voice reedy with fear. “Allie, it’s me!”
I breathed a curse and stepped back, the knife vanishing into my pocket as I glared at him. “Dammit, Stick,” I snapped, keeping my voice to a low hiss. “I could’ve killed you. What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you,” Stick said, his eyes doing that frantic, nervous darting whenever he was frightened. Frankly, I was shocked to see him outside after dark at all. His terror of vampires usually kept him huddled in the corner of the safehouse when the sun went down. “Rat and Lucas told me the news,” he whispered, leaning close as if someone might hear. “It’s all over the streets. There’s a whole lotta vamps out tonight. Rumors are, they’re going from district to district, looking for something. They might be on their way here right now!”
I felt a cold fear in the pit of my stomach, almost drowning out the constant, gnawing hunger.
“What are they looking for?” I asked.
“Does it matter?” Stick shuffled in place, looking like he might bolt at any moment. “We have to get out of here. Who knows how close or how many there are? You can’t outrun them. They can smell when a human is close. You can’t even hear them coming until they’re right up on you—” Stick was working himself into a panic, the whites of his eyes gleaming in the darkness, seconds away from hyperventilating. I shoved him, smacking him into the wall again. He hiccupped and shut up.
“The rumors have been wrong before,” I said, weighing my options. “I haven’t seen any vamps so far. Besides, I haven’t found anything yet, and I’m still hungry.” That was an understatement. My stomach felt as empty as a limp balloon. It wasn’t just uncomfortable; I knew from past experience that if I didn’t eat something soon, I would be in trouble. Starvation is an ugly, ugly thing, killing scores of Unregistered and even tattooed citizens every year. I’d seen the effects of not enough food. Wasted away, human skeletons with skin stretched across impossibly thin bones, their eyes glazed over and dead. I would not end up like that. I’d already spent too much energy scavenging with nothing to show for it, and I had no reserves to spare.
But Stick, who was in even worse shape, stared at me like I was crazy. “You go back,” I told him, turning away. “I’m going to keep hunting. If I see anything vamp-shaped, I’ll come back, but I need to find us something or I’m going to start chewing on my own arm.”
To my surprise, he didn’t immediately run off, but trailed me like a cringing shadow to the edge of the alley, hugging the wall as I peered out to scan the street. “Why are you still here?” I asked without turning around. “I told you to beat it. Go back to the hideout where it’s safe.”
“I’m not leaving you alone.” Stick sounded defiantly terrified, like he might burst into tears if I told him to leave. “S-someone has to watch your back, to make sure the vampires don’t surprise you.”
If had been anyone else, I would’ve told them, again, to get lost. Everything was easier if I was alone. That way, the only person I had to worry about if I got into trouble, if I needed to hide or run or fight, was me. A second body made more noise, attracted more attention, had second opinions about where you should go or what was safe. And groups, though there was relative safety in numbers, were noisier and even more opinionated. I was a lone wolf; I hunted alone, scavenged alone, took care of myself. And I liked it that way.
But Stick, though he was as brave as a jumpy cockroach, was the only other person I could stand to have around when I hunted, mostly because he was an expert at sneaking and making himself scarce at the first sign of trouble. He was, if it was possible, even quieter then me when it came to skulking through dangerous territory. And his acute paranoia made it nearly impossible for anything to sneak up on him, vampire or no. I didn’t know why he chose to grow a semi-backbone now, but if anyone was going to watch my back when bloodsuckers were lurking about, it might as well be Stick.
“Fine,” I sighed. “But, just a warning, I’m crossing the fence into District 3. You all right with that?”
He looked faint for a second, then nodded.
“All right,” I muttered. “Let’s go, then. We’re losing darkness.”
An hour later, the little group stood restlessly at the gates of the Archer compound, anxious and murmuring among themselves. Caleb and Bethany were crying; they didn’t want to leave the baby goats, and Ruth was trying in vain to quiet them. Zeke stood next to Jebbadiah, and for once his face was as blank and impassive as his mentor’s. The mood was pensive as everyone said goodbye. Patricia tried once more to convince Jeb to stay, saying we were all crazy for wandering around looking for a city that didn’t exist. Not when we could stay here and not worry about cold and starvation and Rabids ever again.
“If not for yourself, Jebbadiah, then do it for the children,” Patricia said, rheumy eyes flashing as she gazed over the group. “Surely you can see that this crazy wandering is only going to get them killed? Let them stay here, if you care anything for them at all.”
Jeb’s expression didn’t change; he regarded her with the same cold aloofness that he showed everyone else. “I thank you for your concern, Patricia, but I will decide what is best for this family, as I’m sure you will do the same for yours.”
“Jebbadiah, you stubborn fool—”
“I will not separate this family,” Jebbadiah said, a bit sharper this time. “It is not my place. However, if any wish to remain behind, I will not stop them.” He turned, sweeping his steely gaze over the group behind him. “Do you hear that?” he called, almost threateningly. “Any who wish to remain her, to abandon their faith and stay with the Archers, step forward now.”
Nobody moved. The only sound was Caleb, valiantly trying to muffle his sobs. Zeke finally stepped forward, scooped the boy into his arms, and began whispering to him. Caleb buried his face in his shoulder.
Patricia shook her graying head at us all. “You all are damn fools,” she sighed, “but I certainly can’t stop you. Remember, ya’ll are still welcome here, if you change your mind.”
“We won’t,” Jeb told her with absolute authority, “but thank you again for everything. Zeke!” he called, and Zeke returned to his side immediately, setting Caleb beside Ruth. “Let’s move out.”
It was a very quiet party that shuffled through the dirt and gravel to the massive iron gate waiting at the end of the yard. Larry opened the gate for us, corroded hinges creaking horribly as it swung open, revealing the fields and the dark woods beyond. Catching Darren, he pointed over the trees, off to the west. “If you follow the road, there’s a town ‘bout ten or twelve miles from here. It’s empty; most the folks that lived there either died fast or moved in with relatives when the plague hit. Ain’t no ammo left, probably, but there are still some supplies if you want to give it a gander.”
“Thanks,” Darren said, and Larry clapped him on the shoulder. Stepping behind the fence, he raised a hand in mournful farewell, as the gate creaked shut behind us and closed with a bang that seemed to echo across the fields.
Instantly, I felt very exposed and vulnerable, standing there on the open plain, our safe haven forever closed to us. Caleb and Bethany began sobbing again, their small voices unnaturally loud in the stillness. Jeb turned a piercing glare on Ruth, fervently trying to shush them.
“Quiet them now, before they bring the whole Rabid population down on us,” he hissed. Ruth went white, and she shook Caleb’s arm, pleading with him to shush. Zeke glanced over, looking like he wanted to help, but Jeb snapped his fingers and began speaking to him intently as they moved forward, so he had no choice but to follow.
I slid through the crowd, moving past Teresa and Silas and Darren, bringing up the rear. Ruth shot me a glare as I approached, but she was so busy with the sobbing children, she didn’t have anything to say to me as I slipped up behind them.
“Hey,” I muttered, bending down so they could hear me. “I saw Patch this evening.”
Both of them stopped, hiccupping as they turned to stare at me with wide eyes. “You did?” Bethany whispered. “Is he all right?”
Ruth’s eyebrows shot up. I ignored her, keeping my attention on the two kids, relieved that they had stopped crying. “Yeah, he’s fine,” I answered. “He’s so fat from that milk we gave him he can barely move. He just rolls around on his belly.”
They giggled, but then Caleb’s face fell. “I miss him,” he sniffed, and Bethany echoed his sentiment. “I wish we could have brought him with us.” His lip trembled, on the verge of more tears.
Ruth shot me a stony look, already blaming me for making them cry again. I quickly switched tactics. “But he’d be lonely without the other goats,” I said in a reasonable, cajoling voice. “Wouldn’t you be lonely, if you were all alone without your sister or Zeke to look after you?”
“I guess so,” Caleb muttered, sounding unsure.
“Besides,” I went on, hardly believing I was saying this, “maybe they’ll be goats in Eden. A whole herd of them; white ones, black ones, spotted ones, you name it. And maybe your sister will get one for you and you can raise it; your very own baby goat.”
“What about me?” Bethany chimed in, her chubby face hopeful.
“You can have one, too,” I told her, growing more uncomfortable with promises that I’d never be able to keep. Ruth glared poisoned daggers at me, but she was the least of my problems. As Caleb grinned and Bethany unexpectedly grabbed my hand, hugging my arm, I looked up to see both Zeke and Jebbadiah watching us from the front of the party. Zeke gave me a faint nod, but Jebbadiah was staring at me, no expression at all in his steely gray eyes.