Series: The Ending #4
Publisher: L2 Books on November 20, 2015
Genres: Post-Apocalyptic, Romance, New Adult
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A year ago, the Virus killed off most people in the world.
A year ago, strange things started happening to those who survived. Some of them transformed into something dark and sinister, while others evolved, becoming something more, something beyond human.
A year ago, Dani and Zoe were lost. They traversed the country to find one another, losing some of the people dearest to them along the way. They fought for their right to simply live, uncovered long-buried secrets, and discovered irreversible truths. And after everything Dani and Zoe have been through—even with the battle wounds that they bear—they’re still not safe.
It’s time for the struggling to end, for survivors to take back their lives, their families, their safety. It’s time to really begin to live, and to do that, they must wait for the first rays of dawn.
I pulled back just enough that I could see Jason’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make us both so grumpy.”
I couldn’t remember the last time we’d been off the farm, just the two of us, and I just had to go and drag us down the nearest doom-and-gloom rabbit hole. So much for our peaceful, relaxing alone time.
Jason pressed a gentle kiss against my forehead. “Tell me about these death caps.”
I relaxed against him, resting my cheek on his heavy raincoat. It was the first period of no rain in weeks that had lasted longer than a day, and we’d jumped at the opportunity to spend the morning together, foraging in the mile-long stretch of woods atop the hills to the east of our valley. But we also weren’t about to risk being caught in a surprise downpour unprotected.
“Well, death caps look like normal mushrooms, I guess. They’re not ugly or anything.” I glanced down at the aforementioned mushrooms. “They’re kind of nice-looking, actually, don’t you think? I mean, as far as mushrooms go…”
Jason held me tight against him with his left arm around my shoulders while his right ventured under my coat, his hand tracing slow, soothing patterns on my lower back. “Sure…”
Smiling, I shivered, just a little. I loved when his voice took on that distracted quality, but only when I was the distraction. “They tend to grow at the base of oaks,” I continued, “especially live oaks, and their caps have a brownish-green or yellow tinge…and there’s a bulbous bulge at the base that makes them look a bit like, well…a bit phallic.”
Jason grunted a laugh. “Somehow I doubt Daniel mentioned that.”
I shrugged as best as I could in his hold. “That might’ve been a personal observation.”
With another laugh, this one low and throaty, Jason brought his lips to my ear. “Gutter-brain.”
I grinned against his jacket. “Takes one to know one.” Thunder rolled in the distance, and I hoped it wasn’t an omen of impending rain.
“That it does, Red.” Without warning, Jason picked me up and turned in a half circle, earning a surprised squeak from me and sending chanterelles and oyster mushrooms flying out of my basket, and pressed my back against the oak’s rough trunk. Beneath our boots, death caps littered the forest floor, scattered and crushed. “That it does.” He leaned in, his hand cradling the back of my skull, and I relaxed my arm, letting the basket fall to the ground.
“Wait!” I hissed. Two blips had just appeared on my telepathic radar. I hadn’t noticed them until it became obvious that they were moving toward us. “Someone’s coming.”
A hairsbreadth from my lips, Jason whispered, “Someone we know?”
“I—” Brow furrowed, I shook my head. “There’s two of ’em, and there’s something familiar about one mind—maybe someone we’ve crossed paths with in New Bodega?”
“Hmmm…” Jason didn’t sound pleased. I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t feel very pleased, either. In fact, I felt decidedly displeased. Gaze scanning my face, lingering here and there, Jason tucked a few flyaway curls back into my braid before stepping away and releasing his handgun from his thigh holster. I did the same.
Squinting, I focused more on my telepathic radar than on the pistol in my hand and, once again, shook my head. “Must just be a couple New Bodega people.” At least, I hoped that was the case.
“What direction?” Jason asked, scanning the spaces between the mossy trees and gnarled, leafless branches.
I pointed to the southwest. “They’re close. Should be able to hear them soon.”
“I know you’re out there,” Jason called, his focus on the woods intent. “Either identify yourselves or start moving in another direction. The choice is yours, but you’d better make it now.” He glanced at me, his eyes filled with questions.
I could only answer one. I shook my head. “They’re still coming.” I did a quick scan of the animal minds lingering nearby. There wasn’t much in the way of predators, but I requested that the few hawks in the area and the murder of crows looting a patch of overgrown and rotting pumpkins head our way, just in case.
Jason raised his gun, his eyes never straying from the gloomy trees. “Remember, Red—shoot first, feel—”
“Feel bad about it later,” I murmured. “I know.” Of course, the last time I’d stuck to that survival philosophy, I’d shot a little girl dead. Sure, she’d been a Crazy who just happened to be lunging at Zoe at the time, and sure, I’d been fairly certain that she was the cannibalistic variety of the post-apocalypse’s less-than-sane brand of survivors, but still, she’d also been a little girl. And I’d killed her without hesitating. The blood blossoming across her chest…her body landing on the forest floor…Zoe’s aghast reaction…that single moment was forever etched into my memory.
“Hello?” a man called ahead. “Who’s there? Can you tell us where we are? We seem to be a little lost.”
I split my attention between watching the woods for the intruders and studying Jason’s face. The skin around his eyes tightened, and his nostrils flared. The man’s words hadn’t put him at ease in the slightest. If anything, they’d only fanned his apprehension.
A man came into view between one of the few pines in the forest and a robust oak tree, a woman a few paces behind him. The man was tall and slender, with silver hair that nearly reached his chin and a closely trimmed beard, while the woman, younger—in her mid-thirties, I thought—was brunette and broad-shouldered, looking like she could put up one hell of a fight.
When the man caught sight of us, he raised his hands defensively. “Whoa, whoa, friends…no need for guns. We’re simply lost and, well, you see, we were looking for mushrooms to trade in town, and—”
“You’re a trader,” I blurted. “I’ve seen you before.” I tapped the muzzle of my gun against my thigh. “You traded my friend and me a bottle of antidepressants for—”
“Tincture of white willow bark.” The man’s face lit up, and he continued walking toward us, though the woman hung back, lounging against a tall pine tree. “Yes, yes, I remember. You were with that pleasant young doctor.” The trader smiled broadly. “Quite effective, that tincture. I’ve had very happy customers. You’ll have to give me the recipe.” He tilted his head to the side, just a little. “Tell me, how did the Sertraline work on the poor dear? A girl, yes—a teenage girl, if I remember correctly?”
“That’s close enough,” Jason said, his gun lowered but still drawn.
I holstered my own gun, then waved my hand at him. “It’s fine, Jason.” I looked at the trader. “Unfortunately, the pills didn’t seem to make any difference for Vanessa. On to the next, I guess.”
It had been Harper’s theory to try Vanessa on the same medications that had worked so well to equalize the brain chemistry of people before the Virus. Chris had been skeptical—which was quickly turning into smugness—saying that something was broken inside Vanessa’s mind, and it was something that made her brain function so differently from the rest of ours that she doubted anything but a time machine would fix the teenage Crazy. Not that Chris’s pessimism stopped her from spending every spare moment studying Vanessa, looking for a way to return her to a state of normalcy. She loved Carlos like he was her own son, and she was bound and determined to give him his sister back. And a determined Chris was a sight to behold.
“Hmmm…well, I have a few other drugs you could try,” the trader said. “I’ll take whatever’s left of the Sertraline back.” Not more than a couple dozen feet away, he reached behind himself. “Exchange it for the same amount of—”
In the blink of an eye, a small, black pistol was in his hand, and it was pointed directly at me.
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