Seeking Atonement

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Logline or Premise
Salvation is difficult to find during the apocalypse.
First 10 Pages

Chapter One

“Ian, get your ass up,” a voice hissed, cutting through the screams ringing in my ears.

The all-too-familiar nightmare that plagued me every time I slept dissolved, and my eyes popped open. My hand slid under my pillow to grab my gun, and the sight of a boot hovering over my chest greeted me.

I shoved the boot away, sat up, and placed my gun in the holster around my chest. “What do you want?”

Margarette’s scarred face twisted into its usual expression of bitchy annoyance. “Move.”

Had it been four years earlier, I’d have told her to stuff it and get the hell away from me, but I no longer had that luxury. No human did. We had to take what we got, even if the person had a lousy attitude and entitlement issues. At least she was a crack shot and knew how to set traps for game.

I yawned and ran fingers through my disheveled, choppily cut hair. Emma had tried her best, but she was far from being a hairstylist—not that it mattered much to me. The uglier my appearance, maybe I’d be safer.

“Aren’t you supposed to be on patrol?” Irritation shadowed my words.

“I’ve been up for hours, and I’m about to pass out. I want to sleep.”

“It hasn’t been eight hours yet.”

Margarette shrugged. “Close enough.”

I could kick myself. Why had I agreed to take the patrol shift after her?

“I hate you,” I muttered as I rose to my feet. I stretched until my back popped and then slipped on my hole-riddled jacket.

Margarette hopped into the spot I’d left. She snuggled up with the pillow and clamped her eyes shut. “Oh, poor baby.”

“Did you wake Edward?”

“He’s been up. Reya went into labor in the middle of the night, and he’s been by her side like the dutiful husband he is.”

No help there.

“What about Oscar?”

“Emma needs the second pair of hands.”


Hooray for another day of working by myself.

I sighed. At least Edward had a legitimate reason. I couldn’t ask the guy to miss his kid’s birth. I wasn’t a dickhead like some people.

“How’s it out there?”

“Nothing has changed in the shithole we know and love.”

“All right.”

Margarette made loud snoring noises.

I glared at her and wondered if a single look would rid her of her horrible nature. I’d been trying for the past two years with no luck. Perhaps I needed something stronger, like fire.

Gazing at her, I suspected someone had already tried. At some point, she’d been a gorgeous girl. She had the body of a goddess, sculpted cheekbones, and the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen. Margarette’s golden blond hair was long and thick despite our lack of hygiene, and Emma’s clumsy, well-meaning hands had never butchered it.

The twisted map of damaged, bumpy skin that started at her neck and stopped just above her eyebrows distracted from her appealing qualities. The strange black-red color of the scars looked otherworldly, and I suspected non-human hands had delivered them. Margarette presented a sad sight that made her demeanor much harder to deal with.

I left the living room of the house my group had claimed as our own a week and a half ago. My shoes left imprints in the mountain of dirt that remained even after Emma’s attempts at cleaning the carpet. Dust swirled up into my nose and mouth, and I sneezed and gagged. I hurried into the kitchen as I struggled to breathe.

“Here,” Annie said as soon as I entered. She held out an opened bottle of water.

I took it and sipped, and, in seconds, I was under control. “Thank you,” I muttered when I could talk.

Annie waved a wrapper in my face. “Want the other half of my breakfast bar?”

I shook my head and downed more water.

“She’s really loud.”

Annie spoke as she nibbled on the food I had refused. She ate like a starving, nervous bird, complete with the shifting gaze and hunched back.


Annie’s sapphire blue eyes shifted to the ceiling. “Reya.”

“Well, she’s trying to push a potato through a straw. I’m assuming that’s quite the painful feat.”

“If it takes much longer, Reya won’t see the sunset,” Annie said with such conviction that I had to wonder—and not for the first time—if she saw the future. The things she blurted out unnerved me, especially when her eyes glazed over and she shook as she spoke.

She wasn’t doing that now. Thank God for small mercies.

The loudest scream of pain I’d ever heard shook the walls of the house. A cheer followed, and the tense expression Annie wore fell off her pinched, pixie-like face. I almost saw a weight lift from her shoulders.

“Do you think Reya will let me hold the little girl?”

“It’s a girl?”

Emma hadn’t mentioned her suspicions, though maybe she thought I didn’t care about the sex of Reya’s baby. And she'd be right. I didn't.

“Yes, it’s a girl.”

“Good for Reya.”

“Will I be able to hold her?” Annie repeated herself, her tone almost angry.

I shrugged. “Possibly.”

I lied. I knew for sure that Reya would never let Annie near her baby. There was something wrong with Annie. I didn’t know her life story; I had never asked. It wasn’t my place to make her relive the awful things that kept her from sleeping for more than a couple of hours every few days.

But whatever her past was, it had made the girl (she couldn’t be older than fifteen) unstable. If I were Reya, I would be afraid of Annie dropping the baby or leaving it somewhere and forgetting.

“Baby girls are so sweet. So special.”

Annie’s gaze had turned soft. A smile turned up her chapped, blood-caked lips (Emma and I had tried everything to make her stop biting them), and she sighed.

I gazed at her, surprised to see her so happy. What did she remember?

“Yeah.” I coughed after a long moment. “Well, I’m going to go on patrol. You find something…you know.”

“You’re never careful out there.” Annie’s expression crumbled back into the one I’d grown accustomed to seeing on her face for the past year. “You don’t do things to jeopardize us, but you aren’t careful.”

“I’m careful enough.”

Annie closed the short distance between us and reached out. For a fleeting moment, I thought she would hit me, though she was incapable of swatting a fly. Instead, she grabbed the chain around my neck and tugged out the tiny pink plastic ring I always wore from underneath my shirt. She fingered the ring, and tears glistened in her eyes.

“You won’t solve anything by being reckless.”

My heart thudded as I tore the ring out of her grasp and returned it to its spot. “I’m not trying to solve anything.”

“Ian, antagonizing them won’t—”

“I’m leaving,” I announced, and I not-so-gently moved her out of my way. “Tell the others when they come down that I’m going to bring home food. I don’t know what it’ll be, but it’ll be something.”

I started for the back door.

“Wait, Ian. I’m coming with.”

I stopped mid-step and faced her. “Excuse me?”

“I’m coming—”

“No, you’re not.”

“I have to come with you today.”


Annie shrugged. “I just have to. You need me.”

“You can’t even shoot a gun!”

“Please, Ian. Trust me, you need me.”

I opened my mouth to disagree, but something kept me from saying anything. What if this was one of those occasions when she was right? What would I do if, by some miracle, Annie came in handy? Did I really want to risk whatever unpleasant things could happen if she wasn’t around?

And even if nothing out of the ordinary happened, she could help carry whatever supplies I found.

I relented. “I’m in charge. Whatever I say goes, and you will stay beside me. Do you understand?”

Annie nodded.

I’m going to regret this.

I opened the back door and gestured to the outside. “Come on.”

Annie scrambled past me. “You won’t regret it.”

I stared at her for a minute. This was a terrible idea. I should make her stay. It would be better—

“Are we going?”

I sighed as I repositioned my gun. “Yeah.”

I followed her.

Chapter Two

The early morning sky was just turning a baby blue as Annie and I cut through the backyard, crawled under the fence, and strolled into the adjoining lawn. I stepped lightly as I searched for resting snakes.

Annie walked like a drunken buffalo, turning her head turned up to gaze at the thin clouds. Twice, I had to steer her away from tree roots before she tripped over them.
“Pay attention,” I growled as we reached the back street. “I won’t keep you out of all the potholes, and I sure as hell won’t carry you back to the house if you sprain your ankle.”

Annie sighed. “Okay.”

As she forced herself to stay focused on what was in front of her, disappointment clung to her.

A soft breeze ruffled our hair, and I stopped for a moment to sniff. I caught no odd smells or traces of other people. That didn’t mean they weren’t here, though. The town we occupied was small, but there were many places for a group or two like mine to hide in. Yes, Edward and I had searched every inch of the town and found nothing, but that had been five days ago. Who knew how things had changed since our last sweep?

I shuddered at the thought of running into another group of people, and another scenario, like Waterchall, playing. With Annie and the new baby, there was no way we would win a fight. We barely survived the last confrontation when there were only five of us.

My head swung side to side as I searched for any signs of not only humans but also the demons that had made the earth what it was today. There weren’t nearly as many as when they first crawled out of Hell the day after Thanksgiving (such a terrible joke that the end of the world happened on Black Friday).

I don’t know where all the demons had gone—not that I complained.

The idea of confronting any remaining demons didn’t bother me. In four years, I’d discovered many ways to kill them. It wasn’t as hard as it at first seemed.

Shame you didn’t know that when—

I cut off my internal voice. I didn’t want to go there. Not today.

Couldn’t I go one day without thinking about her?

It was a beautiful late-summer day. The morning was brisk, but the temperature was rising. We passed trees displaying the barest hint of fall. The rainbow colors of the leaves would have captivated Jane, and she would have danced in this weather.

She had loved this time of the year.

Jane could do that right now if you hadn’t messed up, my internal voice snipped before I quieted it again. It’s your fault she’s in that unmarked grave. You promised you’d protect her, and you didn’t. You failed her.

I touched the chain that held Jane’s cheap, plastic ring—the cursed token that was my constant reminder of my little sister. I tried.

Uh-huh, my inner voice responded.

I sighed.

I couldn’t lie to myself. Yes, I’d only been fourteen when the biggest mistake of my life happened. And, yes, I’d been as scared and confused as the rest of humanity, but I should have known better than to leave Jane by herself, even for a few minutes.

It didn’t matter that I’d left to find her stupid pink ring, which she’d dropped and couldn’t bear to abandon. I’d seen what the demons were capable of when they slaughtered my father in front of me. I shouldn’t have been so naïve to think they wouldn’t find us in the woods and that they would overlook a ten-year-old girl.

Tears clouded my eyes as the last image I had of my sister flashed before me. She’d screamed my name, and I just stood there watching the two horrible monsters torture her as she scratched and kicked for her life. Jane had been so brave until a demon snapped her neck, ending their fun.

I hid until they’d lumbered off. With numb fingers and bleeding nails, I’d dug Jane a shallow grave, kissed her cold forehead, lowered her corpse into the grave, and covered her. That was the last time I prayed to God.

“Ian,” Annie whispered. She touched my arm and brought me back to the present. To the lonely, guilt-filled present.

I locked away my self-loathing and remorse and wiped my face. Expressionless, I met her worried stare. “What?”

“There is forgiveness in accepting your past.” Annie sounded wiser than her years.

“We’re taking too much time.”

I picked up my pace, left the back street, turned onto the town’s main one, and walked down the middle of the eroded road.

Annie chased after me. She wheezed as she tried to catch up.

I took pity on her and slowed my steps.

“I upset you. I didn’t mean to.” Annie coughed. “I thought I was helping. You looked like you were in so much pain. I only wanted to make it stop.”

“I’m fine.” I spotted a small grocery store we hadn’t raided yet. “Over here.”

As I dodged a rusted car parked in front of the building, I pointed at it. Probably, the owner had gone in for eggs and milk, only to be torn to shreds by a demon.

I stopped a few feet away from the building and pulled a jar of vapor rub out of my pocket. I opened it and picked up a glob with my finger. I turned to Annie.

She eyed the yellow goo. “What is that?”

“It’s vapor rub. It goes under your nose.”


“There are things in the store that have festered for years. It won’t smell pretty. The vapor rub will tone down the stench.”


Annie allowed me to smear it above her lip.

I put some under my nostrils, capped the jar, and placed it back in my pocket. I started toward the store’s broken door. Even before I reached the threshold, a wave of rotting revulsion crashed into my nose, and I gagged.

Annie stepped up beside me, and her breath caught. The next moment, she doubled over and lost her breakfast.

When she finished, she whispered, “I’m okay.” She straightened and wiped her mouth with her shirt’s sleeve.

“It helps to hold your breath and breathe through your mouth when you need to,” I said, and I did as I instructed as I entered the dark store.

It wasn’t as destroyed as the other places I’d gone to for food, but it still looked bad. Several shelves were knocked over. Open boxes of cereal and crackers dotted the floor, their spilled contents molded and dust covered. There were two broken cash registers on the floor. I couldn’t identify the origin of the glass that littered the floor like confetti.

I grabbed two baskets, gave one to Annie, and then worked my way through the messy maze before me. I ignored the many rats and bugs scurrying around as I picked through the unopened packages down one aisle. I only found two sleeves of cookies and a box of fruit drinks I placed in Annie’s basket. I moved down the shelves with a prayer that I’d find more. My measly discoveries would hardly be worth it if that’s all I brought back to the house.

“Can we take this?” Annie held up a can of corn.

I nodded and continued my search.

Over the next twenty minutes, we came up with three more boxes of cookies, a few energy bars, a container of military-grade powdered milk, and four cans of fruit cocktail. I sighed at our haul. It wasn’t terrible, but someone would have to go out tomorrow for more.

We couldn’t keep doing this. Sooner than later, we needed to establish a permanent residence. Perhaps we could settle on a small farm, ideally with a garden. It wouldn’t be that hard. Not with seven capable hands.

“Let’s try someplace—”

Annie’s head jerked, and she glanced out the dirty storefront window. “Do you hear that?”


“She needs us!”

Annie dropped her basket. It fell to the floor with a loud thud, but Annie ignored it as she raced for the exit.

I took off after her and left my basket of food behind. “Who?”

“Your redemp—”

I lost the rest of what she said as she left the store and took off down the street.

“Get back here!”

Her tiny form kept running away from me.

I groaned and removed my gun from its holster.