The release of the final book in the End of All Things series is only 15 days away!
Here it is... The first chapter of Shadows Have Gone.
Carly watched the army truck crest the hill. After exchanging a few dazed looks with her friends, she trotted forward, raising her arms to wave.
Justin grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back. “No, wait, Carly, don’t.”
But her arms seemed to operate on autopilot as she reached upward. “It’s the army!” She tried to struggle her way out of his grip. “Justin—”
“Everybody, get down!” Justin called over his shoulder to their group.
Stan hesitated, glancing back toward the truck. “But, Justin, isn’t it—”
“Go!” Justin shouted, and the urgency in his voice seemed to break the spell holding everyone in place.
Pearl and Stacy ran to the right side of the road and slid down the embankment while Stan grabbed the shoulder of the teenage boy they had discovered with Marcus’s group and darted to the left. Mindy and several others followed them as they fled into the drainage ditch, the only cover available on that side of the road. It was overrun by long grasses and wildflowers now that there was no one to mow the roadside.
Carly tried to pry Justin’s hand off her waist. “Justin, let me go!”
“Get down!” he repeated. “It’s not the army.”
He tugged her over the embankment after Pearl and Stacy, pulling her down with him into the lowest point, where a large galvanized metal culvert allowed the creek to flow beneath the road. Pearl flattened herself at the top edge and aimed her rifle toward the truck. Justin nudged Carly toward Stacy, who crouched beside the sluggish stream of groundwater trickling through the culvert.
His words finally broke through to Carly, but they still didn’t make sense. “What do you mean? But—”
“It’s not the fuckin’ army!” Justin’s voice echoed down the metal tunnel behind them, and Carly stopped struggling. “The army doesn’t exist anymore. Shh!”
“How can you be sure?” Stacy whispered.
Justin turned to gaze at her. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Justin nudged Carly lower, more behind the metal edge of the culvert, hiding her behind his own body as the truck pulled up to the intersection. Cold, stagnant water seeped into her boots.
Carly could hear the huff of the engine and the crunch of gravel only a few paces away. The brakes gave a high-pitched screech, and there was a chunk sound as the door opened and closed. Two footsteps crunched on the pavement.
Justin’s breath was hot on Carly’s ear. “Stay here.”
He slipped away from her side and crawled through the culvert. The heels of his boots disappeared, and Carly dared a peek over the edge of the ditch.
A man in camouflage fatigues peered through binoculars toward Clayton, where dark smoke from the burning courthouse smudged the bright blue sky. Between the cap he wore and the binoculars blocking his face, Carly couldn’t make out much detail about his appearance. Tendrils of golden hair peeped from beneath the cap’s bottom edge, and stubble dotted the pinkish skin of his jawline.
There wasn’t even a sound to warn him. Justin appeared at the guy’s side, gun extended, but far enough away to be beyond his reach. “Don’t move.”
The guy jumped in surprise and dropped the binoculars. They swung down by their strap to smack him in the chest as he whirled around to stare at Justin.
“Hands up,” Justin said.
Carly crept up the bank of the ditch, wriggling on her stomach toward the top. Stacy grabbed her boot heel and shook her head with a quick, frantic motion. Carly glared at her and shook off Stacy’s grip, using her elbows and knees to push herself along the soil. She lay down beside Pearl and peeked through the tangle of grass and weeds. Pearl gave her a slight, amused smile over the stock of her rifle before putting her eye back to the scope.
The guy obeyed, his eyes still wide. He was younger than Carly had thought, probably in his mid-twenties. He was good-looking, even with a crooked nose that looked like it had been broken a few times. His eyes darted around quickly but came back to focus on Justin’s face.
“Wh-who are you?”
“I’ll ask the questions. Stan!”
Stan scrambled from the ditch. “Yeah?”
“Cover him. Drop him if he moves.”
Stan nodded. He took out his gun and aimed it at the guy’s chest. The man gave Stan a quick, nervous glance, but it was Justin he was concentrating on as Justin began to sort through the guy’s pockets.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Justin gave the guy a sharp rap on the top of the head with the butt of his handgun. “Bullshit.”
“Ow! I really am.” The guy used one of his raised hands to rub his injured noggin. “First—”
Justin slugged him in the gut. The guy staggered to stay on his feet. He dropped one of his hands to clutch his midriff, and Stan shouted at him to keep his hands up. He did but still doubled over slightly.
“Okay, okay,” the guy said with a small groan. “Evan Dawson.”
“Where are you from? Who are you with?”
“The army.” He shied away wincing. “Don’t hit me again. I’m telling the truth. We’re the United States Army. What’s left of it, anyway.”
Carly saw one of Justin’s eyebrows inch upward. “You know how I know you’re lying? You’re an enlisted man claiming a commissioned rank, and I doubt you got a battlefield commission. Dumbass.”
“It ain’t that way anymore,” Dawson said.
Justin had finished his search and stepped back. “Were you in the army Before?”
“I was a mechanic. They found me in Louisville, and I joined up about a year ago. This is the rank I’ve earned.” Dawson’s eyes gleamed with defiance, but his body was still crouched in a defensive posture.
Justin’s eyes sharpened. “Louisville, Kentucky? That’s over seven hundred miles away. What the fuck are you doing down here?”
Dawson shook his head. Carly noticed that his hands were trembling so hard that the fingers were almost a blur. “I don’t know, man. They don’t tell me much. I heard something about a radio message.”
Justin considered. He gestured with his gun at the truck. “You’re out here alone?”
Dawson nodded. “I was scouting. I saw the smoke and decided to check it out.”
“Pearl, search the truck,” Justin called.
Pearl surged to her feet. With her hair swept up in a smooth bun and her dark clothing, she looked sleek and lethal. She went to the back of the truck and spun around it, gun extended as she swept the inside for any danger before hopping up over the tailgate. She disappeared inside, and Carly saw the truck shake a little from her movements.
“They send their scouts out on their own?” Justin asked Dawson. He tilted his head and squinted at him before looking back at the truck.
“Sure.” Dawson swallowed. “Usually . . . um . . . this is the first trouble I’ve ever run into. Most people, you know, they just want help. They’re excited to see the army.” He held up his hands quickly. “Please don’t hit me again.”
“How am I to know you’re not just a bunch of assholes who found a National Guard station and decided to play army?” Justin said, raising an eyebrow. “Sure, people would be glad to see you. They’d throw open the gates and welcome you inside . . . then you could take what you wanted.”
“We’re not like that. I swear.” Dawson shifted on his feet. “I could take you back to meet the guys and—”
“No way,” Carly called. “Justin, you are not going anywhere with this guy.”
Justin gave a small sigh and shook his head. He directed his attention back to Dawson. “How many of you are there?”
“What, total?” Dawson blinked a few times and then used one of his upraised hands to scratch his head before returning it to its former position. “I . . . um . . . I’m not really sure . . . I don’t think I’m supposed to tell you that.”
“What did you find?” Justin asked Pearl as she emerged from the truck, never taking his eyes off Dawson.
“Truck’s running on propane,” Pearl said. “Nice stash of ammo. A couple of first aid kits. Water and ration kits—about enough left for three days. Looks like he had enough for about a week with him when he started out.”
“So you were making a pretty wide sweep.” Justin tilted his head. “Gone for at least three days. What were you looking for?”
“Just . . . you know, looking,” Dawson said. At Justin’s scowl, he elaborated. “I’m not really sure. I’m just supposed to report what I run into, you know. Camps, groups of people, any settlements. Supplies. That sort of thing. So they know what’s around.”
“But they send you off on these long trips all by yourself with no definite schedule.”
“No, I . . . they’ll expect me back soon, if that’s what you mean.” Dawson’s eyes darted from face to face. “They’ll come looking for me if I don’t come back.”
“So, in other words, don’t kill you if we don’t want trouble.” Justin’s mouth twisted in a wry smile.
Dawson swallowed. “Yeah. Um. Something like that.”
“I think you should kill him.”
Justin turned around to face the kid they’d found in Clayton. He’d come up out of the ditch on Mindy and Stan’s side. His face was pale, and he had a rock clutched tight in his hand.
“That so?” Justin’s tone was casual, as though they were talking about inviting Dawson for dinner.
“Yeah.” The kid pointed with the hand that held the rock. “He’ll be able to lead the others right back here.”
Justin shrugged. “Nowhere near home, so who cares?”
Everyone had the brains not to correct him.
Dawson shifted his weight on his feet. “Look, I’ll . . . uh . . . I’ll tell the guys I promised not to say anything about your location if you let me go.”
Justin laughed. “Your commander is a fucking moron if he’d abide by that. But make no mistake—you come after me and mine, you’d better be backed by more than a bunch of mechanics from Louisville playing dress-up in fatigues.”
Dawson went pale. It wasn’t Justin’s words, and it wasn’t his tone. He was smiling, and his words sounded playful. It was the murderous glint in his obsidian-hard eyes. “T-take whatever you want from the truck, okay?”
Justin rolled his eyes and lowered his gun. “We’re not robbing you. Go on. Get the fuck out of here.”
“Listen.” Dawson licked his lips. “They may want to talk to you guys.” He glanced at the gathered group around the truck.
Pearl slung her rifle over her shoulders. “I’d imagine so.”
“Is there . . . uh . . . any way we can contact you?” Dawson swallowed visibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Really, just talk. I mean, we’re not . . .” His voice faded away, and he didn’t seem to know what he wanted to say.
Justin considered. “This spot. I’ll check it once every couple of weeks or so. You can leave a message for us here. Now, go. Go on. Get out of here.”
“Okay.” Dawson nodded and scurried for the truck. He slammed the door behind him, and Justin burst out laughing when Dawson reached out and swatted the door lock down. He raised his hand in a wave as Dawson drove away, but Dawson didn’t look back. Carly trotted up out of the ditch to Justin’s side.
“That could be a problem.” Stan scratched his chin as he joined them.
“Maybe.” Justin’s eyes were on the truck’s retreating taillights as it disappeared over a low hill. “Depends on a lot of factors.”
“They might be better equipped with weapons than we are if they have a base,” Pearl said. “He was willing to give us his ammo, which may indicate they have a good supply of it.”
“Guns are only as useful as the person pulling the trigger,” Justin said. “A gun is probably more of a danger to that guy than it is to the person he’s trying to point it at.”
“They’re not the army?” Carly asked again, feeling a little foolish but unable to let go of the tiny hope in her heart.
“No, honey, they’re not the army. Not the army we knew, anyway.” He shook his head. “Those guys . . . I don’t know if they’re trying to run a scam or to take over territory by claiming affiliation, but they’re doing it poorly. Dawson’s just a mechanic wearing a scavenged uniform. Maybe they do have a guy who was once army in command, but they’re not the US Army. That’s gone and it’s not coming back. Not for a very long time.”
Carly nodded and swallowed past the lump in her throat. As foolish as it was, for an instant, she’d thought it was all over. An end to the chaos that had descended since the Infection had wiped out the world she’d once known, leaving behind a lawless wasteland, with only their makeshift walls and scavenged guns to protect themselves. The sight of an army truck had been the restoration of America, and she had nearly run to it with open arms. It was the perfect bait for those who still harbored a tiny hope that things could return to what they once were. A land of electricity, and police patrolling the streets, and stores with an abundance of food—a place of schools, and doctors, and courtrooms.
When Justin had hauled her away, it had been a cruel, crushing blow to those hopes, and for a moment, she had been furious with him, as though he had stolen away her chance for normalcy. A chance that never existed in reality. Reality was their little community entrenched behind walls, struggling for every scrap of food and living with the fear another group would overwhelm their defenses and take everything they had.
Justin put his arm around Carly’s shoulders. “Let’s go home.”
After the smoke had drawn the truck, Pearl and Stan opted to stay behind in Clayton to begin the process of cleaning up and gathering any useful supplies. Together, they all transported Kross’s body to the burned barn that had been their headquarters during the raid and laid the tarp-shrouded form in the cool shadows.
Carly knelt beside his still form for a moment, her fingers hovering over the tarp. Poor Kross. Carly mourned him. He shouldn’t have died like that. Only seventeen . . .
She drew her hand away and stood, blinking hard against the stinging tears. They had known they might suffer losses, but nothing could prepare them for the actuality of it. Stan still couldn’t look her fully in the eye, and she accepted his anger. She felt it herself. What were they doing bringing a seventeen-year-old boy into this mess?
Carly hadn’t been close with Kross, but her adopted son, Kaden, was his best friend, and he’d take this hard. Kaden had already seen far too much death in his young life. The Infection had taken his family, his community, the world he had known. And now his best friend had been killed trying to defend their home from a gang of predators that roamed the wasteland, devouring everything in their path. The only consolation she could offer him was that those parasites wouldn’t hurt anyone else. Kross had given his life to protect their home and any other people these predators might have come across in the future.
Stan insisted Mindy go with Justin and Carly’s group to Colby. Mindy protested, but Stan silenced her with a kiss.
“Go on, honey,” he said. “People will want to see you to know you’re all right.”
“Well, what about you?”
He smiled. “You can tell them. Go on.”
“You’re just sending me back because I’m pregnant,” she grumbled.
“Yep, that’s true.” Stan gave her a wink. “I am delighted to have an excuse to be overprotective now, and everyone will be on my side.” Since Mindy was only the second woman they knew of to get pregnant since the Infection, she was priceless to all of them.
“Pregnancy is not a disability!”
Mindy looked like she was ready to stomp her foot in frustration. Carly sympathized, because she had an overprotective husband herself, but as Stan had predicted, she was on his side. Mindy really did need to stay home.
“I know, but you do need more rest,” Stan said. “A pregnant woman doesn’t need the stress and strain of lugging around bodies in this heat.”
Putting it so bluntly made her flinch a little, but Mindy still opened her mouth to argue.
Stan shook his head and cut her off. “We know you’re willing to do your part. No one thinks you’re shirking. Think of the baby. Don’t you think he or she would like a little bit of calm and quiet after what we just went through?”
That got through to her. Mindy paused for just a moment and then nodded. Stan kissed her again and gave her a little push. Mindy scowled at him but gave him a quick hug and followed Carly and Justin down the road. Austin walked a few paces behind them, a silent shadow. He kept his head down. Not sullen, but quiet. Carly wondered what he was thinking, but his expression gave her no clues. He had been with Marcus’s crew, and she knew it was his youth that made Justin spare him. But Justin must have seen something else that made him think Austin was worthy of bringing home to Colby, to give him a chance to have a good life with them.
Stacy was at the rear of their group, lugging the large tool box that she used as a medical bag. Justin glanced over and offered to carry it for her, and she gratefully accepted.
“Ma’am, I’ll take your backpack,” Austin said to her after she handed over the tool kit.
Stacy blinked in surprise but shrugged it off and handed it to him with a smile of thanks.
Justin caught Carly’s eye and raised a brow as if to say, “See?”
But Carly knew enough to trust Justin’s judgment if he thought there was something in the kid worth saving.
“I guess I feel better that we’re not leaving Kross alone,” Mindy said. “That bothered me a little, when we were all going to go before. I know that nothing would . . . bother him, but it still didn’t sit right with me, leaving him behind like that.”
“It’s just his shell,” Justin said. “He’s not there anymore.”
“I know, but . . .”
Justin nodded. “I understand. It’s about your respect for him.”
Mindy relaxed a little. “Yes.” She bit her lip. “Justin, I feel like I need to tell you . . . Stan isn’t really angry at you and Carly.”
“It’s okay if he is,” Carly said. “Really. He said something to me about it right after we found out Kross was . . . he said he sort of needed to be angry. I understand that. He needs some time before he can deal with it, and anger can be useful for that. And maybe we deserve it. We brought a teenaged boy into battle.”
“In another time and place, he might have been considered a fully adult man capable of fighting for his homeland,” Justin said.
“In another time, or in this time?”
“This time, too,” Justin said. “I think maturity is something we’re going to have to reconsider now, too. I thought Kross was mature enough to come with us. I still believe he was. He was skilled, and he knew what he was getting into. He knew there was always the chance he wouldn’t be coming back, and he accepted that. Had a knack for explosives that I haven’t seen since—” Justin shook his head. “I’m sorry as hell for his loss. You don’t know how sorry. But I don’t regret bringing him. If Stan needs to be pissed at me and Carly until he can sort out his shit, I’m okay with that.”
“So, what now?” Mindy stuffed her hands into her pockets.
“We go home. Show them we’re okay. Tell them a little about the battle so they can be assured that they’re safe now and can settle back into their everyday routines. We get some tools and the horse and wagon and return to Clayton to finish the job. Scavenge what food and weapons we can, though I doubt there will be much. Then we head back home.”
“Where will we bury Kross?”
“There are cemeteries outside of town.”
“What about the place where the church used to be?” Mindy asked. “There’s that open lot that—”
“No,” Carly and Justin said at the same time.
They glanced at one another, and it was Justin who continued. “The nearest cemetery is about half a mile away. There’s a little church there where we could have the funeral. We should do it there. I don’t think . . . I don’t think we should put anyone else in town.”
“Anyone else?” Mindy asked. She didn’t know about Tom and Cynthia’s graves in the lot beside the place where the church used to be. Carly was the only one who knew Justin had buried them there, although he didn’t know she was aware of it. She had only learned of it after hearing him sitting there talking to them one day and realized what the little tree with the ring of stones around it represented. It was a secret she let him keep.
Justin didn’t answer Mindy’s question. He stared straight ahead as though he hadn’t heard her. Mindy gave a small frown but decided not to press him. Carly was grateful.
They were heading overland instead of following the roads, cutting across low hills and around the swampy areas, through yards and fallow fields going to brush. Some of the abandoned houses and barns they passed were now no more than mounds of vegetation, swallowed up by the kudzu and cat’s claw vines that quickly overgrew anything if left untended, including the cars in the driveways. Only a window or a corner of a roof poked out here and there to remind them what it had once been. The telephone poles looked like trees, top-heavy with wads of plant matter. Vines twined outward around the wires, which would break under the weight within a few years.
The roads themselves would be gone soon, Carly noted. In places, the pavement had already crumbled into gravel, and the grass pushing up through the cracks was helping the disintegration along. Vegetation flowed over the edges, creeping inward more every month. It wouldn’t be long before most of the traces of the old world were gone and nature fully took it all back within her grasp.
The only sounds around them were the singing of the birds and the chirping of insects. No motors, no radios, no televisions blaring through windows. The bright blue sky above had only clouds, no straight white trails to mark the path of jets. Occasionally in the night sky, with no light pollution to obscure their view of the heavens, they were able to see satellites. Justin had craned his head back to stare up at the bright little light as it arced by.
“They’ll circulate up there for a few hundred years before they fall out of orbit. What do you think our descendants will make of them? By then, do you think they’ll still have legends of people who went to the moon and rockets that lifted transponders into space?”
“They’ll still have our books,” Carly said. “They could learn all about the history of NASA and the space missions.”
“Who says they’ll read them? Think of how much English has changed in the last two hundred years. Some of that Victorian stuff was nearly incomprehensible to modern kids. With the way languages shift, in a couple of hundred years, people might not even be able to understand the language our books are printed in.”
“Do you really think language will change that much?” Carly knew that slang and new terminology could creep into a language and replace words, but she had a hard time imagining English itself being forgotten.
Justin nodded. “Regional dialects will emerge, especially without television to be a common norm. I’ve visited places in the world where dialects are so different from one region to the next that it’s almost like another language. In the future, people in Los Angeles could be speaking a completely different language than those in, say, Philadelphia.”
“Reading itself might be forgotten,” Carly said. It worried her that the kids in town weren’t getting a formal education, and she recommitted to finding a way to make that happen. It was too important. If they didn’t teach their own kids diligently, thousands of years of knowledge could be lost. The human race could plunge back into the Dark Ages.
“Literacy just won’t seem as important,” Justin said. “Not when there’s so much else that kids need to learn just to survive. Sorting through all the information they can’t use to find something they can . . . I imagine they’ll find our books as uninteresting and unrelatable to their lives as tomes on Victorian teatime etiquette. It will probably be a specialized thing with people like librarians being the only ones who are literate.”
“The rise of a new priestly caste.” Carly shook her head. “I don’t like the direction this is going.”
“There’s not much you can do about it,” Justin said. “Society will change as it sees fit.”
They passed a crossroads where one of Justin’s signs lay in splinters in the ditch, warning travelers to stay away from Clayton. He had tried to range farther out each time he put one up, but Marcus’s men always found his signs and destroyed them before long. They could only hope they’d been effective in warning some people away before they could fall into the trap. No travelers had come to Colby in months. Carly could only hope it was because they had been warned off, not preyed upon.
This route, which they wouldn’t be able to take with the wagon, shortened their travel time by hours. It was midday when they reached Colby.
They were sweaty and tired as they trudged down the road toward the bridge that would lead them into town. Nearly a dozen alligators of various sizes lay on the banks, sunning themselves on the narrow dirt bank. Their pitiless eyes watched as the travelers approached.
“Shit,” Austin said. His eyes widened, and he took an involuntary step back with a small shake of his head.
“It’s okay,” Carly said. “I’ve only seen them try to charge a traveler once, and it didn’t end well for the gators. I think they may have learned from it.”
“Come on.” Justin nudged him forward, and Austin pressed closer to their group, his eyes darting from gator to gator.
“They look hungry,” Austin said.
“They probably are.” Carly kept her hand on her gun, just in case. “The small mammals were mostly killed off buy the Infection, just like people. We think they’ve been living on fish and birds in the swamp, but those stocks have to be getting low.”
“Marcus brought home some alligator meat one night,” Austin said. “They didn’t share any with me, but they seemed to think it was pretty good.”
Mindy gave Austin a glance. “They didn’t treat you very well, did they?”
“They didn’t like me.” Austin’s voice was low.
Carly didn’t have time to respond to that because they had reached the gate. A cheer went up from those on the Wall, a cheer tinged with relief. “They’re here! They’re back!”
There would be questions, she knew. Everyone would want to have the battle recounted. All she wanted was to go get her baby and hole up in their house for about a week until her nerves didn’t burn with electric tension anymore.
Grady pulled on the chain to draw up the garage door that served as a gate between the stacked shipping containers that formed the Wall. Their little group stepped through and was immediately surrounded. Carly felt hands pat her shoulders as more people crowded around, brought by the noise of the cheering. Smiling faces, some sparkling with relieved tears. Faint shouts and pounding feet as others ran up.
“Did we . . . did we win?” Grady asked.
“Yeah, we won,” Justin said with a brief smile. “As Carly predicted, Marcus’s gang wasn’t expecting a town of farmers to take the offensive against a threat. They’re gone.”
Beside her, Mindy explained that Stan and Pearl had stayed behind. Veronica ran up and threw her arms around Stacy. She was saying something to Stacy, but Carly couldn’t make it out because Veronica was sobbing as she spoke, sobbing even as a huge grin stretched her face. She tried to hug Stacy and hop at the same time, nearly jiggling Stacy right off her feet. Stacy laughed and kissed the top of her head.
Carly saw her freeze and followed the line of Stacy’s gaze to see Mark lingering near the edge of the crowd. His hand was on Michael’s shoulder. He raised the other in a small wave and then spoke to the boy. They both turned around and headed back toward their house. Stacy looked away, back down at Veronica, and smiled as the her adopted daughter squeezed her again.
Kaden ran up to throw his arms around first Justin and then Carly with an almost bruising force.
“Mom,” he whispered against her hair, and she smiled at the name. “You’re back! You’re back.”
Kaden’s body trembled as he hugged Carly again. He had been understandably terrified to lose his new parents after all the other crushing losses in his young life.
Kaden scanned their group. “Wait, where’s Kross?”
“I’m sorry, Kaden,” Justin said. He put his hands on Kaden’s shoulders. His gaze was steady and compassionate as he waited for his words to sink in.
“He . . .” Kaden stared at him. He seemed to be waiting for Justin to amend the statement to make it less final or to reveal it was some sort of cruel joke.
“He was killed in the battle.” Carly wished she had words that could lessen the pain, but sometimes, words just weren’t enough. Sometimes, words could devastate but were small and frail things when it came to giving comfort.
Kaden didn’t reply. His face was as blank as paper.
“We’re going to go back for him,” Justin said. “But we wanted to come home first, so everyone knew . . . knew how it turned out. We’ll go back, to give him the respect he deserves, but we didn’t want to delay the news.”
Kaden stepped away and slowly exhaled. He bent over for a moment, his arms braced on his knees. Carly started forward, but Justin laid a hand on her waist, and she knew without him speaking that he was telling her to let Kaden digest it in his own way. After a moment, Kaden straightened and glanced around their group.
“You wanna introduce yourself, kid?” Justin asked.
“Hi. I’m Austin.” The kid’s voice was so soft, Justin had to ask him to repeat his introduction.
“Did you find him in Clayton?” Kaden’s eyes narrowed, and Carly saw the muscles of his jaw clench.
“He wasn’t with them in that way,” Justin said, and Carly let go of the breath she’d been holding.
“Something like that.” Justin put an arm around Kaden’s shoulders and murmured close to his ear. “Just give him a chance, okay? I have a feeling he’s a good kid who just found himself in some really shitty circumstances. If I’m wrong, we’ll kick him to the curb, but I think we should give him a shot.”
Kaden glanced over at Austin, who stared at the toes of his tennis shoes. He had the look of a person who wished he was invisible. Carly didn’t blame him. It had to be an unnerving situation. He had been mistreated by his previous group, and now he had been taken in by the people who had eliminated them. He probably didn’t expect to fare much better here.
“Okay,” Kaden said. Carly wanted to hug him again.
The questions were coming thick and fast, and the crowd around them was growing. “Please, everyone . . .” Carly said, holding up her hands. “We’ll have a meeting at sundown tomorrow and tell you the story, but right now I just want to go see my baby.”
They seemed to understand that, although there was disappointment on some of the faces. The crowd parted to let her through, but poor Mindy was still being peppered with questions so faster than she could answer them. Carly walked over and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Mindy, you go on home and get some rest.”
“Sure. Are you going home after you see Dagny?”
“Just for a bit. I’ll take a shower and change clothes, grab a few things. Watch after Austin, please. We’ll find him somewhere he can stay when we return, but if you could watch over him until we come back, I’d appreciate it.”
“How closely do I need to watch?” Mindy glanced toward the kid, who stood at the edge of the crowd and studied his shoes, ignoring the curious glances shot his way.
Justin gave a small shrug. “I don’t think he’ll cause you any trouble. You have that empty room upstairs. Pop him in there and give him some magazines or something. I’ll bet you don’t hear a peep out of him all evening. But he’s an unknown factor. I know you’ll be able to handle anything, if it becomes necessary.”
Mindy nodded. “Come home soon.” She walked over to Austin and led him across the common toward her house.
Carly took Justin’s hand and headed for the Reverend’s house. Stepping onto its shady porch, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. A pair of birds twittered in the large bush by the edge of the porch, and a soft breeze rustled the leaves of the trees nearby. Sweet quiet and calm. An illusion, yes, but one she would savor for a moment.
Colby was safe again. Carly couldn’t help but wonder for how long. She thought of that army truck, and a wave of exhaustion washed over her. Silly Carly, imagining that defeating Marcus would be the happy ending for their story. It would never end. The price for having this gem of safety and normalcy for her child was having to eternally defend it from those who wanted to take its supplies and walls for themselves.
She tapped on the door. Mrs. Davis opened it, and for a moment, Carly saw the raw anxiety she had hidden beneath her serene exterior. It shattered, and relief washed over her features. She swayed for a moment as she closed her eyes and whispered a swift prayer of thanksgiving.
Mrs. Davis barely let them get through the door before she seized Carly in a hard hug. “There aren’t words for how glad I am to see you.”
“Thank God,” the Reverend murmured. He put a hand on Justin’s shoulder, then grabbed him into a hug. Justin detangled himself when he could and came over to Carly to crouch beside the sofa where Dagny lay, face down and fast asleep, clutching a plush rabbit by one foot, as though afraid it might escape during her nap.
Carly was glad she was asleep. It probably would have upset Dagny to see her mother and father for only a brief moment before they left again, but Carly couldn’t fight the compulsion to see her. This is what she was fighting for, after all.
She ran a hand over the baby’s whisper-soft hair and leaned down to press a kiss to her temple. Dagny didn’t stir.
She looked up at Mrs. Davis. The Reverend stood behind his wife, his hands on her arms. They had married because the Reverend thought it was improper for him to travel with a woman otherwise, but Carly could see strong bonds of affection between them now. She could see love in the way Mrs. Davis laid a softly wrinkled hand over her husband’s and turned to glance up at him with a smile.
Carly stood. “Thank you so much for taking such good care of her,” she whispered. “I should be home soon. I just . . . we have a few more things to take care of.”
The Reverend nodded and laid a hand on Carly’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re back.”
Carly gave him a smile she didn’t mean, and he squeezed her shoulder. His eyes were so warm with sympathy that she had to look away. She didn’t deserve sympathy.
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