September 20, xxxx
“If we try to winter here, we’re all going to die.”
Eryn stood at the center of the bridge spanning the Cheesman Dam’s spillway and basked in the serene rumble of the tumbling falls. The weather had cooled considerably after yesterday’s rain, but it would be a while yet before they had to worry about real winter setting in. Of course, that just meant that now was the time to start thinking about what they were going to do. But that wasn’t supposed to be Eryn’s problem; as he was so fond of reminding her, Herschel was “the leader.”
“Eryn?” Lizzy was almost shouting, probably trying to hear herself over the crashing water. “I know you can hear me.”
“Ice and snow, lack of food, general doom and gloom,” Eryn called back. “I was listening.”
“And what? You want me to tell everyone we should try to find a better location? Build better cabins? Relocate to caves with interior hot springs?” Eryn put her back to the railing, resting her elbows on the top, and sent Lizzy the driest look she could manage while being pelted with mist. “I brought it up, several times, and I’ve been resolutely ignored.”
Lizzy scowled and pushed her damp bangs out of her face. She was pale and shivering, but that was nothing new. Lizzy had the thinnest blood in the world.
“Can we not do this out here? I can barely hear you.” Still clinging to the railing with both hands, Lizzy jerked her head back toward the canyon below where their band of refugees had been camping for the last seven months; almost since the Creatures first appeared in Denver. Even at a distance and sheltered by trees, Eryn had no trouble making out the ramshackle cabins built of mismatched logs sealed together by wet clay. No charcoal or straw had been added to the mud to create a longer-lasting, cement-like sealant—Herschel said the benefits weren’t worth the lost time—so there were often leaks after a good rain; such as the one yesterday.
All twenty-two inhabitants of the small commune had been up since dawn filling the holes that had formed in three of the four cabins. The fourth belonged to Eryn and her circle, which meant they’d done things right from the start. Not that Herschel would ever admit that Eryn was right about anything.
Sighing, Eryn pushed off the rail and waved for Lizzy to follow. There was an old building atop the dam proper that the group used as a sort of storage unit and emergency shelter. Technically, they weren’t supposed to be in there without Herschel’s permission, but Eryn tended to do what she wanted without consequence. Who was going to stop her?
Lizzy hurried inside as Eryn held open the door and immediately went to the crate of scavenged blankets. She pulled out the largest, fluffiest one she could find and cocooned herself atop the reclosed crate with a relieved sigh. Eryn snickered and went to the pantry shelves to look over their meager supply of canned goods.
She found one can of black beans and one of mushrooms, but nothing else. They still had some smoked venison they kept in a reused zipper bag, but it was hard as a rock and tasteless as shoe leather. If she could miracle up a can of tomato paste or sauce or even chunks, she could soften the meat up with the beans and mushrooms to make a hearty soup for dinner instead of the usual watery broth.
“You remember how it was when we first got here, right?” Lizzy sniffled a bit and snuggled deeper into her cocoon. “All that snow and ice and sleet?”
“I remember.” Eryn also remembered why they’d been forced out of the city in mid-February with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The attacks had started out so randomly, a bit on the news discussing an incident in New York or Chicago around the beginning of October before things escalated from one or two attacks a month to three or four a week. By January, the entire world was starting to panic as the Infected—though infected with what, no one knew—flipped from normal to blood-thirsty at the drop of a hat.
Eryn shuddered at the memory of being trapped in a University science lab with a boy who had been Bit. She hid her sudden unease from Lizzy by dropping to her knees to feel around the back of the shelves, pretending something could have been dislodged for her to find in a desperate treasure hunt. Her ruse wouldn’t fool Lizzy, and it didn’t block the memories either; no matter how much she tried to dislodge his convulsing and screaming and begging with badly remembered lyrics from the most recent, and possibly last, Avril Lavigne song released before everything went wrong.
“Sorry,” Lizzy said, her voice muffled behind the blanket. “I didn’t mean to drag it back up.”
“Forget it.” Eryn didn’t say she was fine because they both knew that was a lie. Climbing back to her feet, she brushed off her dad’s old tartan shirt to remove the clinging dust and cobwebs.
Grabbing the two cans from the shelf, Eryn crossed the room to sit heavily on the crate of winter clothes they’d found in Westcreek in July during their last scavenge. Herschel had brought up moving there for the winter since many of the houses had chimneys, but the Creatures had shown up out of nowhere. They’d lost two of their party in the scramble to escape.
“I do have a plan, you know,” Eryn said as she got comfortable. “I’ve been talking it through with Sam, and he thinks it’s doable.”
“Really?” Lizzy perked up, though only her eyes were visible behind the blanket. “What are you thinking?”
“I found that binder Dad put together before I came out here for school; the one with interesting things to do in the area?”
Lizzy hummed in thought, rubbing the blanket with her nose. “Most of our hikes were in there, right?”
“Right. Well…” Eryn looked away and dragged a hand through her pink-tipped, bronze-gold hair. She did her best to force down her embarrassed blush as she confessed, “It had more than just hikes. I don’t know how I missed it, but there are ranches listed too. One isn’t too far from where we are right now.”
Lizzy gasped. “Are you for real?”
Eryn nodded as she studied the stacks of firewood piled up against the right-hand wall. She could see spiders nesting within and knew they’d need to shift the piles to clear them out before someone startled a black widow and ended up dead. “Sam and I are planning a recon mission to see if it’s habitable; I figured you and Tyson would want to come too.”
Lizzy nodded emphatically but let Eryn continue.
“Going off the information in the binder, it should be safe. Honestly, I’d be surprised if the family, at least, didn’t still live there.”
“How big is it?” Lizzy leaned forward, her blue eyes sparking with excitement. “Is there more than one house?”
“Huge.” Eryn leaned forward to meet her cousin’s enthusiasm. “They have twenty-three cabins; some with three bedrooms.”
Lizzy gaped. “That’s—!”
Eryn cut her off with a raised hand. A distant rumble, different from the repetitive sloshing crash of the falls, reached her enhanced ears, and Eryn sat silently for a long moment. It wasn’t thunder she heard, the rumble was too regular and didn’t seem to cut off. If anything, it almost sounded like…
Gasping, Eryn leaped to her feet and raced for the door.
“Eryn?!” Lizzy scrambled to follow, her feet getting tangled up in the blanket. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
“Cars!” Eryn called over her shoulder. “Flag them down!”
Eryn sprinted across the dam to the precarious path the refugees had laid out using rocks and ropes as an alternative to hiking the canyon’s back trail from Wigwam Creek road. She held on to both ropes and leaped from precipice to precipice without so much as stumble despite the damp stone. Everyone else was still patching the cabins, so she didn’t bother with Herschel’s protocol about talking to him alone first and instead shouted her discovery for anyone in range to hear.
“Cars! Cars are nearby!”
Tyson, Sam, and Grace stopped working immediately and hurried over as Eryn leaped the last few yards without any assistance, but the rest of the commune looked uncertainly at Herschel. His lips were pursed and brow furrowed in that way that said he was working up to a rage. Eryn didn’t care.
She skidded to a graceless stop when her foot caught on a root, but Tyson was there to crash into. Not strong enough to hold her up, they both tumbled to the ground. Tyson groaned beneath her, but Eryn was already propped up on her hands and knees above him, grinning down at his bemused face.
“Tyson, someone’s come to save us!”
He went up on both elbows and grinned back. “It’s about time!”
Eryn laughed, so giddy she might just cry. For almost a year, she’d done her best to be the solid one everyone could rely on. Out of their entire group, she and Lizzy were the only ones who knew how to hunt and dress game, identify which plants were edible or good for medicine, or even fish. Tyson and Sam were eager to learn but most everyone else was content to leave the messy work to Eryn and her friends. More than once, Eryn considered leaving the Herschel and his flock of sheep behind to fend for themselves, but her conscience always got in the way. No more. Today, they were getting rescued.
A crack in the woods cut through Eryn’s laughter, and she sucked in her breath so fast she almost started coughing. Everyone was on her now, talking at the same time and demanding to know how she knew there were cars coming; did she see them?
Jumping to her feet, Eryn waved for quiet; her every nerve on high alert.
“Who are you to go around shouting like a lunatic then order us to be quiet?” Herschel demanded, two spots of color sitting high on his cheeks. At twenty-five, he was the oldest of their group and felt that gave him seniority. Eryn usually let him believe that, but now was not the time.
She shut him up with a sharp glare; his jaw snapped closed as he swallowed hard. Another crack in the trees. Eryn’s eyes darted toward the sound, but with the cars growing so much closer, she wasn’t positive of the exact location. She wanted to believe her giddiness had only startled a pack of deer, but she wasn’t that naïve.
“Get up the dam,” Eryn ordered, waving the others toward the ropes while keeping her eyes pinned on the woods. “Right now.”
“We can’t just leave!” Jules said, her eyes darting nervously from person to person as she wrung her too-thin hands. “We have to get our stuff—”
“There’s no time,” Eryn hissed, doing her best to keep her voice down. But if it really was those things, it wouldn’t matter. From the few encounters she’d had, Eryn knew their hearing was as good as hers. Were they drawn in by the sound of the cars?
“Herschel, you say you’re the leader, so lead.” Eryn cut a quick glance at the dark-haired man before looking back at the woods. The pounding sound of heavy feet grew louder, and Eryn knew they were out of time. “Get them out of here!”
Eyes appeared from the sun-mottled depths of the trees, reflecting the light: first two, then four, eight, twelve. Eryn gritted her teeth, but it seemed Herschel had some brains after all because he was shoving the younger kids, all between fifteen and nineteen, up the climbing ropes first.
Tyson’s familiar hand latched onto her upper arm and pulled, but Eryn didn’t want to be moved.
“Eryn,” he hissed, his eyes pinned on the eyes in the woods. “Come on.”
“Not yet,” she whispered back. “It will take some time for everyone to get up.” She sent him a brief smile. “You go; get to Eliza and help her flag down the cars.”
“And leave you here?” Tyson tugged her harder, but she still didn’t move. “Eryn!”
“I’ll meet up with you in a minute, I promise.” Reaching up with one hand, Eryn latched onto Tyson’s collar and dragged him down into a quick, bruising kiss. She let herself savor his familiar taste—charcoal toothpaste flavored with spearmint—for only a second before shoving him back. He stumbled, nearly crashing into Sam, who was herding the back of the line so no one broke away in a panic.
“Don’t worry, handsome.” Taking two large strides further away from the river, Eryn took up a defensive stance and drew the large hunting knife sheathed at the small of her back as the forest came alive with hungry screams. “Just doing my job."