Christmas Eve, raiders swooped into the Zone. Whoever they were, they might’ve thought everyone in Rule was drinking eggnog and roasting chestnuts (that would be no), but—Peter being Peter and always spoiling for a fight—the patrols were ready. The guards kept Alex and the girls bottled up in the house, where they huddled by the woodstove for most of the night, through an intense battle they only heard: stutters and pops and the ripping roar of what sounded like rifles on full auto. The other girls dozed, but Alex remained awake, raweyed and so anxious her skin crawled. Her thoughts churned and tumbled, each new fear feeding another. Before, she’d had some half-baked idea that she might be able to slip away in the chaos, but now all she could think about was Chris, out there fighting, being shot at. Was he safe? What was happening? God, if they’d only let her help.
When the weak glimmer of a cold winter’s dawn finally lightened the trees, the woods were quiet and word came that the battle was over.
“How many men lost, Nathan?” Jess asked the guard who delivered the news. The skin over her knuckles whitened as she clutched a shawl to her throat.
“Ten men lost, about the same number wounded—three pretty bad,” Nathan said. He was a grizzled, compact fireplug of a man, but his voice was surprisingly light, almost musical. “Could’ve been worse.”
Alex felt the air leaving her chest. Lena’s eyes narrowed to
watchful slits, and the color drained from Sarah’s cheeks. “What about the boys?” Jess demanded. “What about Chris?” “Is Peter all right?” Sarah asked at the same moment. “Is he—” “He’s okay,” Nathan said, and then his gaze shifted to Alex.
She wasn’t prepared for the surge of relief, a great wash that flooded her veins and made her knees go a little wobbly. Too late, she saw Jess flash a quick measuring glance.
“And Greg?” Tori asked. Her face was pinched with worry. “Well.” Nathan’s gray eyes slid sideways. “Greg got clipped—” “Oh!” Tori gasped, a hand going to her lips. “How bad? Is he …
will he—” “Doc says he’ll be fine. Just lost some blood, that’s all,” Nathan
said. “Can I see him?” “Orders say you got to stay here.” “It’s okay, Tori, I’ll go. Kincaid will need the help anyway,” Alex
said, but Nathan was already shaking his head. “Why not?” “Orders,” Nathan said again, stolidly. “You’ll be safest staying here. Doc wants you, he’ll let me know.”
From the set of his face, Alex knew arguing would get her nowhere. But why wouldn’t Kincaid let her come? Because he didn’t want her to see who he was going to let go? Allow to die?
Christmas morning was a subdued affair: no presents other than hand-knitted socks Jess made for each of them, because anything else was wasteful and Jess thought they ought to spend time being thankful they were alive. While that was a little sucky, Alex was glad; what, exactly, would you give someone like Lena? Maybe a muzzle …
In all the excitement, church was pushed to the afternoon: one big service held on the town square. Alex looked around for Kincaid, but the doctor wasn’t there. Standing on the church steps, Yeager launched into a long sermon about our men of Rule, like they were crusaders on some holy mission.
“And our Lord has called on you, my consecrated ones,” Yeager said, his breath smoking in the wintery air. He peered down at the rows of men, gathered in front on folding chairs, who’d been in the battle the night before, and now Alex spotted Chris, Peter, Greg—with a bulky bandage around his left bicep—and a clutch of other boys, so easy to pick out from the old men who flanked them. “I have even called My mighty warriors, My proudly exulting ones, to execute My anger. Is this not a description of our men of Rule? We are the guardians of righteousness! The followers of Satan have become as beasts, they bear the Mark of Cain and the Curse of Ishmael, and yet we endure as the Lord’s strong right Hand!”
This being Michigan, there weren’t hallelujahs or anything, but Alex saw heads nod in agreement. When Yeager called the men up for a blessing, her blood warmed as Yeager clamped his hands on Chris’s shoulders, and she felt something almost proprietary. A feeling that Chris was hers somehow; that his victory belonged to her, too. Then, when Chris rose and turned, his gaze brushed over the crowd, found hers—and did not falter.
For an instant, it was as if the world had stopped turning; everyone around her simply melted away, the shadows hugging Chris dissolved, and there was only his face and the look they shared. And was it her imagination, or was the scent of sweet, crisp apples that much stronger, so rich it overpowered everything else?
Tearing her eyes away from his was an effort, an act of will that was almost painful—because she didn’t want to look away. Her face was suddenly slick with sweat, and her pulse tripped in her neck. What was happening to her? She couldn’t have these feelings. Yes, Chris was fine, he was okay, he was a nice guy; but he was not Tom. She couldn’t like Chris, shouldn’t care about him. If she did, then Tom was gone, really gone—and she wasn’t ready to let go.
“Please,” she exhaled. “Please, Tom, please don’t leave me, please.” Her words were no more than a murmur, as insubstantial as the mist rising from her lips, and barely audible to herself, but she felt eyes again—not Chris’s. She looked left and met Jess’s gaze.
Alex stiffened in alarm. Had Jess heard? No, that was impossible; she’d barely breathed the words. But Jess was studying her with that same calculating look from earlier that morning. The older woman’s scent betrayed nothing, and Alex thought once more of how Jess was a little like Yeager that way. Her scent was not like cloudy glass, however: just … nothing. Jess’s scent was a
big zip-zero, like the white spot Chris associated with his mother.
“Hey.” Sarah plucked her sleeve. “Are you okay?”
At that, Jess broke her stare and turned to face forward once more. Alex flicked a glance at Sarah. “I’m fine,” she said, forcing a quick grin. “Just a little tired.”
She heard nothing after that and only mouthed the words to the hymns. Jess did not look at her again, but Alex knew what she’d seen. Jess’s scent might be a white blank, but something flashed across the older woman’s face just as she looked away that Alex could read, loud and clear.
And then it was the day before New Year’s.
“I’m leaving town this morning. We’ll probably—” Chris broke off as Tori slid a plate of biscuits and scrambled eggs onto the table. They were virtually out of baking powder, and the biscuits looked deflated, like miniature hockey pucks. “Thanks.”
“Where are you going?” asked Alex.
“Coffee?” Tori held up a pot.
“Uh, sure,” said Chris. He watched as Tori poured a dank black liquid that smelled suspiciously tarry to Alex. Even Chris raised an eyebrow. “What’s in this?”
“Chicory,” said Jess, coming up from the root cellar off the pantry with Sarah close behind. Both dumped an apron of potatoes into the sink. “In New Orleans, that’s a delicacy.”
Chris gave a noncommittal murmur. “Any butter?”
“I’m afraid not. What little we had we used for Christmas baking,” said Jess. “Those milkers need better feed.”
“I know.” Chris snapped a biscuit in two. “It’s on the list.”
“Where are you going?” Alex asked again.
“A lot farther than I’d like,” Chris said, around biscuit. He swallowed, chased the biscuit with a sip of pseudo-coffee, and grimaced.
“I’m sorry,” Tori said. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I had to cut the flour with a little cornmeal. I know they’re heavy. You want me to see if I can find some honey?”
“No, no, this is great,” said Chris. To Alex: “We’re going out a lot farther this time, I think. Most of the towns around here are cleaned out, virtually nothing left. Peter’s thinking we should head for Wisconsin.”
Tori gasped. “Aren’t they guarding the border?”
“We’re going to find out. A week there and back, easy, and that’s not counting us having to actually find something.”
“Then you won’t be back until after the New Year,” Sarah said. She sounded disappointed.
“Nope,” said Chris, and then looked up as Lena hip-butted the kitchen door with an armload of firewood. “Probably not.”
“Probably not what?” asked Lena.
“Chris and Peter won’t be here for New Year’s,” Tori said. “They may have to cross over into Wisconsin for supplies, if they can get across the border. It’s not fair they fight on Christmas Eve and now this.”
Lena did her usual eye-roll, but this time Alex agreed with her. Life hadn’t exactly been fair, in case Tori hadn’t noticed.
Chris said, “If you guys want something special, make a list. I can’t promise anything, but—”
“Real coffee,” Lena said. “Failing that, a one-way ticket out of here would be nice.”
“Here we go again,” said Sarah.
Alex was tired of that subject already. “I don’t understand, Chris. You said there are other towns, right? And there are the various groups of raiders you guys keep fighting, right? So why don’t we, I don’t know, organize? Or trade? Or maybe just share and share alike? That way, you guys don’t have to worry about getting shot all the time and you don’t have to travel as far.” She remembered the discussion she’d had with Tom about this. “What you’re doing is kind of inefficient.”
“She has a point,” said Jess. She didn’t look up from scrubbing potatoes.
Chris looked uncomfortable. “That’s really not my call.”
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