“Run Sookie. Run!”
I tore through the trees as fast as my legs could carry me, hoping and praying Jason wasn’t too far behind. It had been stupid to go to land.
My stupid idea.
But when we spotted the telltale light of what we’d thought had been a fire, from our boat at nightfall, I’d wanted to check it out.
We’d been alone for nearly a year.
It wasn’t always this way, but it sure felt like it, which was why I’d been desperate for human contact other than my brother. We’d been teenagers, fourteen and nearly seventeen, when the world as we knew it changed practically overnight and the first whispers of the outbreak started making their way into the mainstream media. But it didn’t take long for the whispers to turn to terrified shouts, when people from all walks of life, all across the globe started falling ill with the same symptoms.
Tremors in their extremities.
Fevers spiking upwards of a hundred and four.
Veins turning black, so they ended up looking like a city street map.
And when that same darkness made its way into their eyes, you knew their end wasn’t far off.
My mother died less than twenty-four hours later when it happened to her.
From start to finish, the whole process took two days on average. Three if they were lucky. But if doctors or scientists had found a cure – much less a way to keep from contracting the modern day black plague – they weren’t sharing the information with the rest of us.
Not that there were many of us left.
We’d lived a quiet and humble life in Northern Louisiana back then, but Daddy had always been fascinated by the sea. From the time he was a little boy he’d dreamed of setting sail and letting the winds and current decide the path his life would follow. He’d joined the Navy as soon as he turned eighteen and spent four years at sea, but the toll on our family was too much for him to bear and he returned home at the end of his enlistment. Afterwards he’d gone back to only living on the ocean of his imagination. He put up a huge map in the shed when we were still little and every Sunday after church we would use it to chart out our fantastical journeys that had been nothing more than a dream at the time.
If only I’d remembered my lesson to be careful what I wished for, before I’d insisted we check out the campsite tonight, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Our Gran died within days of our mom, along with most of the town, so Daddy decided it was time to cut and run. Packing up everything he thought we might need, we grabbed my Aunt Linda and our cousin Hadley and headed south for the Port of New Orleans.
With the panic brought on by the epidemic, lawlessness was soon the new norm, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised when Daddy stole us a boat.
But I was nonetheless.
But I knew now it was why we were still alive.
Jason and me, at least.
He’d called it a good sign, seeing it had been christened the Northern Star, and said with a name like that it would never guide us wrong. So we lived on the open water, catching fish to eat and rainwater to drink, while sticking to the Gulf of Mexico for the first few years and just tried to stay out of the way of the hurricanes each season.
The Farmer’s Almanac was now our family bible.
But there were times when the fish weren’t biting and the rain wasn’t falling, so we would be forced to drop anchor just offshore and take a smaller rowboat to land, in search of food. Money was only good for kindling these days, with the new currency being weapons, medicine, and food.
You bartered and traded for what you could and did whatever you had to, to keep everyone else from taking what was yours.
That was how I ended up taking someone else’s life for the first time when I was sixteen.
But it had made no difference when my cousin Hadley died from her brutal attack anyway.
Aunt Linda passed away less than six months later. Daddy had said it was more than likely cancer that made her waste away.
I thought it was more than likely she’d died from her broken heart.
We were much more cautious when going onto land after that, but not everyone had turned into an animal. Three years earlier, during one such excursion onto land, we’d come across another family just trying to survive. They’d been nice.
It had been a nice change of pace. We stayed with them for almost two weeks, while Daddy helped them reinforce their home against attack, and in return we got a box of candles, a case of homemade preserves, and restaurant sized gallon can of chocolate pudding.
Jase and I were fat and happy for a month.
But we lived a harsh life. One I sometimes wondered if it was even worth living, but it was all we knew now. Any dreams I’d had of going to college, getting married, and having babies were just that now.
And when Daddy’s hands started shaking a year ago, two days later Jason and I were all that was left of the Stackhouse family.
Losing our father had shaken us both and left us afraid of leaving the safety of the open water in the year that followed.
And because I’d been so stupidly desperate to see a new face, I was terrified I could lose him now too.
Dear God, if you let us both survive this, I swear I’ll happily stare at nobody but him for the rest of my life.
We were always cautious, knowing just how uncivilized people could be, so we’d crept up on the encampment we’d spotted from the water. And getting an unedited view of them from our hiding spot in the trees, told us both we wanted no part of them.
They were armed. They were organized. And we’d been wrong about it being a fire lighting our way there.
They had actual lights, running off of generators.
It was enough to know we wanted no part of the bad vibe they were throwing off.
But not far from our hiding spot there was a pile of stuff that just looked ripe for the pickings. A few rifles peeking out of the top of a large duffel bag propped up against a tree, being chief among them.
It had been too tempting to resist.
So Jason had silently moved through the underbrush and when he saw his chance, he took it and grabbed what he could. But his theft hadn’t gone unnoticed, which was why we were now running for our lives, hoping to get back to the rowboat to take cover under the moonless sky on the open water.
Our sailboat was anchored far enough offshore that it couldn’t be seen from the beach.
We’d made sure of that.
I stifled the urge to scream when the gunshot rang out in the air above the men’s shouts, who had given chase, and forced my legs to move faster. With the blood rushing through my ears, I hadn’t been able to tell if Jason was right behind me, but when I leapt into the rowboat and he had stumbled in behind me, I’d never been so thankful in my life.
He’d lost our stolen loot somewhere along the way and for that I was grateful. Hopefully they would give up the chase if they got their stuff back, but I didn’t say anything and he pushed us back into the water, rowing the small dingy back towards the sailboat as fast as he could and once we were fifty feet out from the shore, he huffed out, “I think we’re good.”
But when another shot rang out, with the bullet whizzing just past my head, I wasn’t so sure I agreed.
However I kept my mouth shut since this had been my stupid idea to begin with.
We made it back to the boat in record time, but with no moon in the sky, I hadn’t noticed until we reached the galley and I lit a candle that something was wrong.
“Jason!” I cried out and pushed him down on the bench seat, ripping his shirt up and seeing the blood rushing from the bullet-sized hole on his left side.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’d been shot?” I yelled, grabbing whatever I could lay hands on to put pressure on the wound.
“Why would I?” he winced and then in true Jason-style, he smirked back at me and teased, “Did you think you were you gonna suck the bullet out?”
“Jesus, you’re such an ass!” I snapped back, now petrified I could lose him. “I could have rowed us back! God knows how much blood you lost doing that!”
“You row like a girl,” he chuckled, but his normally golden skin was much paler now.
Even for candlelight.
With his shirt already pulled up, I could see what he was reaching for when he grabbed onto a book tucked into the back of his waistband and tossed it onto the table, saying, “Don’t say I never get ya nothin’.”
I loved to read, but it wasn’t something we had in common, so he really had grabbed it just for me. Reading was my only escape, but finding new books to get lost in was damn near impossible with the way we lived.
Nosy as ever, Sully landed on the table beside him and checked it out before jumping down onto his chest to see what was going on. Jason pretended to hate him, but it was all an act, just like his threat when he looked up at him and said, “You shit on me and I’m gonna roast you for dinner and shit you out come mornin’.”
But hearing the little bit of normal coming from him was enough to make me chuckle out, “Liar.”
Sully was a seagull, with a white head and light gray back and wings, with black wingtips spotted white. He’d been a much darker color when I found him, barely out of his fledgling phase when I spotted him floating in the water four years earlier and fished him out. We’d come in on the tail end of a hurricane and Daddy suspected the wind had carried him out so far from land, but he was injured and too young to survive on his own, so I nursed him back to health.
He’d stuck around ever since.
And I suspected him and Jason didn’t get along as well because they were so much alike.
Neither one of them liked to share food unless they were sharing the food from your plate.
Bullet wounds far surpassed any first-aid knowhow I had, but I didn’t see an exit wound, so I had to assume it was still lodged in there.
Causing who knows what kind of internal damage.
“I’m gonna have to try and fish the bullet out,” I told him, using my no nonsense voice.
Because it was going to hurt.
Daddy had at least made his first criminal act a doozy by stealing us a monster luxury sailboat. One that had come fully stocked with a full bar. Daddy and Aunt Linda hadn’t ever been drinkers and the only time I’d ever seen them indulge was when we’d lost Hadley.
And Daddy drank a solitary toast when Aunt Linda passed.
So I got up to grab a bottle to try and disinfect everything that would be touching his skin when I went bullet hunting, but he reached out and grabbed my hand saying, “Later. First you gotta pull up anchor and get us outta here. We got no idea if they had any boats or canoes hidden further up the shore and I ain’t gonna do you much good in a fight if they come callin’.”
He was right, but I was torn.
He wasn’t looking good.
But I wasn’t going to fight with him, knowing he would absolutely die if they managed to reach us, and took off to get the anchor raised.
The sooner I got us out of there, the sooner I could get the bullet out of him.