Chapters:

Preface and Chapter 1

I have a hard time recalling what life was before the end.

But I will do my best to educate you with the knowledge I have in my possession.

Shortly after my thirty-third birthday, the Plague broke out, a disease which I can grossly estimate exterminated billions of the global population. Initially, humanity was hit with a pandemic, a kind of viral flu which incapacitated and killed millions; the Plague, however, was a mutated, second wave of the preliminary sickness. Unlike its predecessor, the Plague was ruthless, swift, and lethal, and because we had beat its prototype, we naively believed we would easily conquer another surge.

And fuck, were we wrong.

It spread out of India, decimating their people within weeks, and then quickly manifested in Africa, Western Asia, and Eastern Europe. The death toll was unlike anything our species has ever witnessed: countless bodies, hospitals filled to the brim, voices shouting, no one listening…we should have perceived it was only the catalyst for the end of days. On the contrary, our governments did not want to panic their people – therefore, they withheld just what sort of beast this Plague was, killing our fellow man hundreds at a time, as if we did not matter.

Because to them, we did not matter.

The pharmaceutical companies became greedy, hubris and petty politics overriding the urgency of life and death. Another dime to make, another pandemic to overcome, so without heeding the warnings, they took their time to produce a truthfully valid vaccine, and that delay cost us. The price was millions upon millions of lives, and their preliminary cure was a farce…a way to pacify the mobs of desperate, fearful people. When we did ascertain the lie we had been fed, it was then they produced a miracle ‘cure’, and while the cure worked on the majority of us, the rest went utterly mad.

That’s a story for later.

Within six months of the Plague’s grip on the earth, we lost roughly one third of the population on this planet to an illness which destroyed the ability to bring oxygen into our bloodstream – our lungs rendered useless, and an incapacity to breathe only fueled the panic in those suffering as well as those surrounding them. By nine months, well over half were gone. The rest…well…they trickled off in the ensuing weeks of the Plague, bloodshed, and all-out fucking anarchy.

This anarchy I speak of is the stuff of nightmares: protests evolved into violent riots in the streets, which led to homes…businesses…towns…cities…burning to the ground in a matter of hours. People tearing each other apart for scant resources and reserves, driven by fear and survival. Our police and the National Guard turned on their citizens, and instead of protecting us or helping us, they began to kill anyone who did not abide by orders. There were no groups of six or more allowed in public or private, curfew from 7pm to 7am every day with no exceptions, no weapons or any object they perceived as armament were allowed to be carried, and check points were issued on the outskirts of every municipality – no one in, no one out, to contain spread of the Plague and, moreover, to contain us.

Anyone who disobeyed was under threat to be shot on sight.

Those who spoke out were made example of, and were executed in the open for each of us to see…by hanging.

We existed this way until there was an odd sort of calm; patrols eased, the amount of police and soldiers lessened, and though we lived in fear of them, we did what humanity does best and adapted. No true government existed, just Marshall Law – we were told what to do, how to live, and with no other option, we cooperated, holding onto the hope that in time, there would be a future.

Sometimes, I remember thinking that in our little town of Bend, Oregon, on the outskirts of everything, we might be some of the only ones left.

I still wonder that, on occasion.

The whole world went silent, perhaps to get our bearings, to understand just what the hell had actually happened to us, and for about six months, it became so very, very quiet.

Then, in the night they came, collecting the men. There were no negotiations allowed: whatever male the army could find over the age of twelve years old was taken, and the absentee government promised us this was for our final stand to lasting freedom. It was nothing but rhetoric and lies, based on false claims the unvaccinated wanted in, the countries around us sought control, that anyone who wasn’t an American wanted to take the very little we had left, and with the nose of a gun pointed between our eyes, we obeyed.

Survive or die. And women, well…we always choose to survive.

But we grew to wholeheartedly despise them for it.

The wars began. Food. Water. Timber. Gasoline. Corn. Wool. Cotton. Whatever they deemed necessary to live, they squabbled, battled, and died over. After two years, we were informed the last of the battles were taking place in the Rockies and on the west coast of California, along with the promise that when the war was won, and when it was safe, the rebuilding would begin.

Safe. It makes me laugh aloud, the delusion of it.

In the aftermath of victory not six months later, instead of reinforcements for the National Guard as we expected, the army arrived in Bend, taking complete control of our town. Patrols occurred two times during daylight, one during darkness; our community, used to fending for itself, quickly discovered we had a new sort of enemy in our midst. Because the army? Well, they’re only a little better than the Heathens, a group of vagabond, cannibalistic pirates who prey on what is left of us, members of what are call the ‘de-noculated’. The women of Bend now find ourselves in a very similar situation to the women of Berlin after World War II, when the Russian occupation refused to leave – assault, rape, theft, bribery, murder…it is just a tiny facet of daily life. Each hour we withstand is a testament to our nerve, and our determination to persist.

There are only rumors and ideas as to what might come next, but we endure, and we women…we few and far between women…do our best to live with hope.

But it is a funny thing these days…hope…

I am not sure I believe in it any longer.

I.

“Gracie…”

I hate her for being here. At my feet, my basset hound, Annabelle, stirs upon hearing Sierra’s familiar voice, and I try to withhold my gaze.

Her tone hardens. “We have to go, Gracie.”

In reality, I don’t hate her. I hate why I am still here. It’s been hours since Jenna was murdered, and yet I cannot move, stuck in the corner of her room perplexed and devastated, unknowing as to how I might exist without her. Bo, Sierra’s beautiful golden retriever, lets out a tiny howl just a few steps behind his master, as if pleading with to me to listen to her, and instinctively I look to Sierra, my eyes full of tears.

“Why…” I manage to speak, pulling my knees tighter into my chest.

Sierra releases an audible sigh, one I know she wants me to hear. “They will come, Gracie. Soon. And they’ll hang you when they find you here.”

She is, of course, right. My stare wanders to the bloody, lifeless corpse of Lucas at the foot of Jenna’s bed, the man she promised we could trust, and a man I half believed wanted the best for her.  Instead, he’d killed her for nothing, and I just happened to be the unfortunate soul who heard her screams in the middle of the night. By the time I reached the bedroom, he’d strangled her to death, and with the last bullets of my 9mm, I put that son of a bitch in his grave.

I’d find more bullets. I would not find another Jenna.

“Gracie,” I hear Sierra again.

“Do you have the truck?” I utter, shifting focus to getting the hell out of there.

“Yeah.”

I nod. “Grab Annabelle, then the trunk in my room and throw it into the truck bed. There’s a duffle of ammunition in the basement, with some more boxes stacked on the storage racks, and a cannister of my moonshine.”

“Anything else?”

Fuck, I say under my breath. “No. I’ll get the gasoline.” She doesn’t respond. There is no need to, we both are prepared for such things, we just try to hope they don’t happen.

The next thing I know, I am standing in the middle of our house…my house…matches in trembling hands, listening to the gasoline as it drips over every inch of surface, drenching the thirsty wood, the putrid smell of it stinging my nostrils. Everything we could need from this place is loaded into the truck or packed tightly onto the back of my motorcycle, and Sierra is patiently waiting for me on the street regardless of the danger.

“Do it!” she yells, her words not forceful, only encouraging.

With a breath, my eyes scan the room.

“Jen…” I whisper, “Jen, I love you. I am…I am sorry…” The stench is suffocating, and I involuntarily cough in my sorrow. “I should have known…I should have…”

With pause, I cease my words. How could I have known Lucas was a traitor? How could I have known he would betray us?

It didn’t matter – I should have killed him for even making eyes at her. As a consequence, I had to set fire to the very little I had left. My shelter, my home, the two-bedroom house we’d made our fortress had to be incinerated, along with each memory and every trace of our existence. Jenna, my friend…my sister…a piece of the very little family I loved, taken. And for my own crimes, I would be hunted like a dog until the day I died.

“I’m sorry, Jen.”

I strike a match, release it down to the ground, and stride out the front door, only to turn briefly and witness the life and the existence of who we were scorch into flames.

“Don’t look at it,” Sierra calls to me, hovering near my motorcycle. “It’ll only make it worse. We got what you need, now we need to get the fuck out of here.”

Walking to me, she hands my helmet over, and I swallow hard. “How much time do you think we have?”

“I would bet a half hour. Maybe less.”

I pull my gloves on, hands still shaking. “This place will be nothing but ash by then.”

There is a moment of pause, followed by Sierra giving me my 9mm. “I filled the magazine just in case.”

“Heathens?”

“Word is they’ve been out in droves. Not sure who we should be more worried about, them or the fucking patrol.”

Once I holster the gun on my hip, I hop into the seat of my GS F700. “Smoke is really starting to rise high. Let’s get rolling.”

“You got it.”

Sierra jogs to the truck, hops in the front seat, and turns on the engine. With a quick wave to me out the window, she peels out and to the right down Portland Street, and I rev the throttle of my motorcycle, jetting into line right behind her and not daring to look behind me.

If there is one thing this life has taught us, it is not to look behind.

We blow through the intersections where there used to be stop signs, wanting to get through the deserted main roads on the west side of town as fast as we can while cautiously avoiding a tail. Not five blocks from the house, I peek into my side mirror to be sure patrol isn’t already on us, and immediately draw my eyes back to the road in a vain attempt to stay sharp and concentrate. It’s in that moment just as we pass 9th Street, that Sierra that slams on the breaks of the truck, and I do the same with my BMW, unable to see what is in front of her. I expect her to give me a signal, yet she remains still, and I feel a wave of dread wash down my spine. Her gaze finds mine in the rearview mirror of the truck, and there’s panic.

“Heathens,” I whisper.

Heathens are the antithesis of everything human. When the vaccine for the Plague went public, a very small percentage of humans showed averse reactions to its intended use, becoming wholly consumed by their ‘id’ and nothing else. I know what you’re thinking – zombies, right? Wrong. Imagine your worst nightmare – an intelligent being who does not feel, does not have empathy, and cares only for carnal desires and demonization. That’s a fucking Heathen.

And they, unfortunately, wanted us.

I flick my head backward, and Sierra winks her right eye in agreement, a method commonly used in caravan parties these days. My left foot jams the motorcycle into first and, cranking the handlebars to the right, I hit the gas, turning our direction around entirely. I pop to second gear, carefully observing Sierra, who doesn’t bother to turn the truck around; instead, she reverses full speed in my wake, and while I make a swift right turn down 9th,  she throws the truck in neutral to spin the front end forward and then straight into drive while the tires screech loudly in resistance.

Once we catapult down the hill, I take a rough right turn down Newport and launch into third gear as my knee drags ground, taking advantage of the straight shot to check in with Sierra. The truck is not two car lengths in my rear, but we are not alone, and my stomach drops when I assess our pursuers in my mirrors. Taking the corner in our wake are two trucks full of Heathens, every one of them dressed for a raid and smeared from their foreheads to their chests with blood, waving bludgeons, bats, and shovels over their heads. In each truck bed, there is one shooter, and as I squint, I am at the very least relieved to notice they are 22s and not sniper rifles.

I veer to the left and wave Sierra up beside me, and she accelerates ahead. With practice I unfasten my helmet and remove it from my head just as Sierra rolls her window down. With a toss, I send my helmet to her, and in exchange, she throws me two extra magazines full of 9mm bullets, which I hastily attach to my utility belt.

“We have to lose them!” I yell to her. “Head up Galveston! If we don’t finish them by Skyliner, you get your ass out and you run!”

“I am not fucking leaving you!” she retorts stubbornly.

“You are if they kill me! Are you armed?”

I can sense her fear. “I didn’t…I just have the shotgun…I didn’t think…I didn’t expect…”
Shit. “Load it! Take lead! Just keep fucking driving!”

Once we’ve taken a left down 12th and then a right onto Galveston, Sierra and I hit the gas, and the Heathens mirror us. I draw my 9mm from the holster and take a long, deep breath.

Just breathe, I remind myself. You’ve gotten through worse.

Whatever you do, don’t stop the motorcycle.

What if I need to run?
Then you’re already caught.

The Heathens shouts and jeers can be heard over the roar of wind in my ears while the trucks draw in closer to the tail end of my motorcycle. Using my mirrors, I discern two drivers in the left truck, one shooter, and one more lingering in the truck bed; on the right, I spot one driver, one shooter, two others in the truck bed. As practiced, Sierra is giving them a run for their money to provide the false premise that this will be a chase rather than a fight, and I can tell from their imperiling expressions the Heathens have fallen for it.

Whatever you do, his voice in my head reminds me, You die before they catch you. If they catch you, it is far worse than death.

No shit, I say to him. Its torture. Its rape. Its mutilation. And then, I’m dinner.

If you are lucky, you’re dinner.

“Fuck!” I curse aloud. One more deep breath, and I give Sierra the sign.

Here we go.

I steer ever so slightly to the left, and in that same second, Sierra hits the brakes, unexpectantly causing the Heathen car on the right to swerve rather than collide, thus sending them on a little off-road adventure into the trees. Immediately she hits the gas once more and is out front, with bullets flying her way from the second Heathen vehicle, a few grazing the side of her truck. The shooter from the left truck aims for my head and thankfully misses, cracking my tiny front windshield, and I instantly check my speed, slowing so that I am directly to the right of the Heathen’s truck bed. Happily, I catch them by surprise, and before he can fire again, I take out the shooter with two bullets in his chest, firing with my left hand. One of the two remaining Heathens manages to take a swing at my head with his baseball bat, and I barely dodge the strike as I thrust my body forward onto the tank, almost losing my balance while keeping my motorcycle at a steady 70 mph.

With control, I sit upright as he winds up again, though this time I don’t hesitate and easily put a bullet between his eyes. The final Heathen seizes this opportunity of distraction to launch himself onto the back of my motorcycle, leaping from the truck bed and landing directly behind me. The impact of his weight sends the handlebars reeling and I struggle to prevent a crash, aware that if I don’t act fast my throat will be slit. I slam my left foot down to get the engine in neutral just as the Heathen wraps his hands tight around my throat, and fighting every instinct in my person, I manage not to lose my nerve. I let him squeeze for only a moment, feeling my windpipe bruise and the blood pressure in my head heighten.

In a steady move, I draw my knees up and fix them firmly against the handlebars, passing my 9mm to my right hand. Satisfied the motorcycle is set on course, in haste I reach my left arm up over the top of myself and the Heathen, grasping all the hair I can at his scalp. It takes every ounce of strength I can muster to pull his head forward and onto my right shoulder, and I release a loud bellow of strain as I overpower him. He is biting at my ear, at the side of my cheek like a wild animal, and in a flash, I pull the nose of the gun up and under his chin and fire one shot out the back of his skull.

His whole body goes limp, and with a shrug and shuffle of my body, I cast him off the side of my bike, shuddering.

Boom!

The loud and welcome thunder of Sierra’s shotgun rings out, and it’s then I notice she managed to ambush the driver on the opposite side of the truck. From across the galley of her vehicle, she shot the driver dead out her passenger side window, spraying blood everywhere before the Heathen’s truck starts to dawdle and then run off the side of the road.

I brake, allowing her to cross in front of me, then speed up to her side of the truck. “Holy fuck I almost lost an ear!” I exclaim, almost laughing as the adrenaline courses through my veins.

“I thought for a minute that 22 got you!” she shouts.

“If it was a quarter inch closer, I wouldn’t be here!”

Out of the blue, we both hear the roar of an engine, and we instantaneously whip around to spot the second truck back on the road, barreling towards us.

“God dammit!” I yell. “It looks like just the driver and the shooter made it!”

The crack of his 22 hits our ears, and bullets are flying.

I give Sierra a confident nod. “Keep the pace steady!”

She produces a grin. “Reload, would ya?! He’ll be out of bullets in six shots!”

“I can drain him for six shots. Drive hard, let’s run ‘em in!”

Pedal to the metal, Sierra dodges out ahead of me, and I release the empty magazine of the 9mm before thrusting a full one from my belt into its place. With each crack of the 22, I count down. Five shots. Then four. He busts my taillight on the third, and I am all over the road, giving him a lesson in target practice. With two it hits Sierra’s rear window and cracks it, and the final one he uses to shatter the glass. The moment I hear the final shot I slam the brakes and drop two gears, and just like that, the Heathen shooter is gaping at me, wide eyed and mid reload of his weapon. I raise my 9 to fire and he throws the 22 at me in self-defense, causing me to miss as I bat the gun away. Next, he draws a bludgeon with an axe on the end, taking one big swing at my shoulder which nearly catches me, though I manage to avoid it with a hasty maneuver of my bike.

Realizing I can’t win this round with my gun, I shove it into the holster on my hip, preparing for what will undoubtedly be a relatively painful confrontation. The Heathen pulls the bludgeon over his shoulder like a hammer and brings it down hard, his goal to knock me from the motorcycle. Instead, I stand straight up on both foot pegs and grab his forearm in midair with my right hand. In my left is my Kershaw switchblade, which I send directly into his gut, giving him a slow, miserable death, twisting the blade.

“Fuck you, you piece of shit,” I hiss, sending the knife in deeper.

The Heathen lingers for a minute, snarling as he chokes on his own blood, then keels over and collapses. After seeing his comrade fall, the driver makes a move to swerve the truck hard to the left in an attempt to run me over. Before my ass is even in the seat, I hit the brakes, draw my 9, and shoot the driver through the rear window, killing him in a handful of shots. The truck gradually eases its speed and swings to the right, disappearing into the wilderness.

Ahead of me, Sierra stops in the middle of the road and hops out. I ride to her, and I can feel my whole body start to shake. Unsteady, I kill the engine and drop the kickstand, holstering my gun once more before I dismount. We are at the Skyliner trailhead, the final check point, and as we stare at each other, terrified yet thrilled to be alive, I feel a small tear float down my cheek.

Sierra stares at me. “That was…”

A lump forms in my throat. “I know.”

Taking a step forward, she puts her hand on my shoulder. “Stay with me. It is time to go. You know we can’t linger.”

“Yeah. Time to go,” I concur.

With a melancholic grin, she circles back to the truck. “Follow me!” Sierra shouts, the door slamming shut. “We need to get some cover!”

My heart is pounding, but I return to my motorcycle. “Thanks for saving my ass again, Freya,” I tell my motorcycle as I climb into the seat. “You are the real hero today.”

Sierra flips around in the truck, heading the way we’ve come, and I turn on my engine to do the same.

I take one, long deep breath, and put the bike into first, warily shaking my head.

“Fuck.”

Sierra’s home, in reality, is less than a mile from the charred remains of my two bedroom on 2nd Street. Our detours are for protection, not just for us, but for our entire community of survivors, and though we are spread far and wide, we are not alone. Sierra and her son are the only inhabitants on their block, so as we pull into her garage, we waste no time killing engines and grabbing our guns, inching our way to the vacant door to check for pursuers. One minute passes, then two. When we reach five, I ease my stance, holster the 9, and peer over at her.

“Let’s lock up,” she mouths at me.

Moving noiselessly, we retreat and gently lower the garage door, staying as quiet as we can to close out the dangers of the external. Once we are sealed in, we grab the padlocks to make sure no one gets in without our approval, securing the shackles to the steel frame we replaced the old wood one with three years prior.

That was just after the first Shadow loot, and Sierra would rather be captured by Heathens than have her son taken.

With the padlocks latched, we simultaneously let out sighs of relief. Leaning against the garage wall, I slide to a seat on the ground, exhausted.

“I can’t believe it,” I murmur.

“Me either,” she replies.

I double check the safety on my gun in the dim garage light. “Sierra?”

“Yeah Gracie?”

“Lucas told me some shit.”
Though I couldn’t quite make out her face too well in the darkness, I see it contort, confused by my words. “What did he tell you?”

“You aren’t going to like it.”

“Well I never liked Lucas, so that isn’t a surprise.”

It is silent again. “Let’s get the pups?” I suggest, gesturing to the truck.

“They seemed fine on the way back,” she assures me, reaching a hand out to help me to my feet. I take it. “Annabelle was a little anxious, but hell, not many bassets enjoy hearing a full shotgun blast.”

A tiny smirk comes to my lips. “She’ll make me pay for that later.”

We amble over to the cab of the truck and open the second set of passenger doors. Through our own separate miracles, Sierra and I were lucky, and intelligent enough, to keep our dogs alive through the worst of the Plague. There were plenty of others, yet our two were a special pair, and we’d done their training together. Annabelle could track any scent given to her, whereas Bo kept tabs on Annabelle, who would disappear into the abyss of smell if left to her own devices. The pair of them not only were able to assist us in foraging in the forests around what was left of Bend, but also in saving a handful of souls from the Heathens. To our dismay, it didn’t matter how many times we tailed Shadows – they were never caught.

For their safety, we’d made our dynamic duo a tiny bunker underneath the backseat where we could hide the dogs in case of an incident like this afternoon; still more importantly, it was where Sierra would hide her son, Van, in case of an emergency, particularly if it involved Shadows or Heathens. The bunker was carpeted on the inside for bumps and sharp turns, and as Sierra pops the seat up and off of their hideaway, Bo and Annabelle peek up at us, tails wagging.

Sierra glances at me with a grin. “Never gets old, does it?”

“It sure fucking doesn’t.”

I scoop up Annabelle’s oddly shaped 40 pound body into my arms, only to be greeted with one swift kiss to my nose before she nuzzled into my neck. Sierra lets out a whistle and Bo hops out after us while we make our way over to the door which leads into the house.

“Cecily got Van?” I ask her as she untangles her keys.

“She said she’ll bring him by tomorrow,” Sierra informs me, shoving the door open. “She was worried I wouldn’t get to you in time.”

“In time for what?”

Bo dodges into the house, Sierra and I, too. “In time to save your sanity.”

“Well, I’d say my sanity is always debatable.”

After I set Annabelle onto the ground, she trots off to join Bo in waiting to scarf down the dinner Sierra will soon be cutting up for them in the kitchen across the living room: a feast of leftover elk from our hunt three weeks ago, which gave us a generous amount of protein for the summer months. With the dogs taken care of, Sierra and I unload the truck in complete silence, the adrenaline of the chase wearing off and fading fast. Sierra then goes on to light a few candles around the kitchen, and we saunter to the fireplace, utilizing the few embers which remained lit to get the fire rolling again. I proceed to pull a flask from one of the bags from the house and pass it over to her, and we sit beside each other on her sofa.

“Thank you,” I mumble.

“For what?” she poses, taking a big swig and handing it to me in reciprocation.

“I was ready to die.”

“We all knew it. That’s why I came.”

“I didn’t think anyone was on the CB.”

Sierra bites her lip. “You know Gibbs always is. She always has hope.”

Taking my own drink, I enjoy the burn in my stomach. “Gibbs and Cecily came right over then, eh?”

“Not sure it was you she cared for. I think she was more worried about making sure Annabelle made it out.”
A real chuckle comes from my heart. “She loves that dog.”

“We all do, and we love you.”

“Does Katie know?”

“Avery was going to find her. She was out foraging this morning.”

The knot in my throat is returning, so I shift subjects, passing the whiskey. “You want to hear what happened?”

Sierra looks right in my eyes. “You know I do.”

“Please tell me you have more to drink.”

“I have a stockpile.”

“Perfect.” I take a few seconds to gather myself up, one big breath in, one heavy exhale out. “I was dead asleep. Two straight days I’d been up, nightmares keeping me from rest, so when Katie finally formulated a special tea for me to sleep, I thought nothing of it. But on top of that, Lucas insisted he make us dinner that night…and I think he put something in my strawberry wine on purpose.”

“So he drugged you?” Sierra presses.

“I am positive he did.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” she utters, rising to her feet. “I’m getting more. Continue.”

“Well…I guess she…Jenna…must have fought him hard enough to let out a few screams. I shot awake, uncertain if I’d dreamt it until I saw Annabelle on the edge of my bed, eyes on the door, scared, shaking. I was so damn stupid. I hadn’t reloaded my 9, and so I could only hope there was more than one or two bullets in the magazine.”

“How many did you have?” Sierra asks, returning to sit beside me and handing me a giant glass of bathtub gin I’d made personally a few months prior.

“Four.”

“Plenty for a kill.”

“Thankfully yes.” I cease my story to take a sip. “I grabbed the 9, ran to her room, and the door was locked.”
“There goes one bullet,” Sierra remarks.

“Exactly. It didn’t matter though. By the time I blasted through the lock and broke the door down, Jenna was dead, and Lucas just stood there. He must have thought his drugs would render me totally unconscious, or…or maybe even kill me. I pointed the gun right at him and couldn’t take my eyes off her, just lying there, lifeless.”
“And you didn’t kill him then?”


That was Sierra, and I fucking loved her for it – shoot first, questions later, especially with the assholes. “I shot him in the leg, and then I…I…”

I am torn. What I didn’t want to admit to her was in that moment, I’d lost myself. It was as if I’d gone rogue, and I didn’t care what it took to seek revenge. I had to know why he killed her, why he would do this to us after establishing such a profound and deep level of trust. I could readily ascertain there was a bigger plan which stretched far beyond that of Jenna or myself, and yet she had been collateral on my watch. My pride would not let Lucas walk out of that room without making him bleed everywhere.

“I beat the absolute shit out of him,” I confess to her. “If he evaded a question, I hurt him. If he made a noise, I hurt him. I don’t think he’d anticipated there would be any retaliation. I doubt they did either.”

Puzzled, Sierra’s head tilts sideways. “They?”

This is where my true test would lay – getting Sierra to believe me. “You know for months I’ve been trying to speak out and get everyone talking about this so-called fucking army that patrols us…the people that are apparently upholding our government as we wait for the dangers of war and the Plague to subside.”

To my relief, my comments do not phase her. “Yes, go on.”

“Lucas said something he didn’t mean to when I was questioning him about motives. I kept pressing and pressing, interrogating him about the army, and instead of saying army, he said the…the coup had it under control. That they knew our town better than we did, and had enough artillery stocked up to take us all out if they so pleased. He was adamant they’d be there within a few hours to get him and kill me, and it was over…that I ought to just turn myself in. But girl, that one word…that one slip…”

Sierra’s eyes grew wide. “He…he said coup…”

I nod in return. “He said coup.”

Having a chug of her booze, Sierra is aghast. “We don’t…we can’t know how…how deep it runs, but if it is what you and Katie hypothesized in the beginning, I just…” She has another gulp, stricken. “Gracie, who the fuck are they?”

“I don’t know. But after today, I am certain they aren’t who they say they are.”

“Another outlying faction preying on us,” Sierra growls under her breath, furious.

“I’d imagine so, yes. We’ve all been raped. We’ve all been beaten. We’ve all dealt with their shit for months on months on months. Is it so hard to believe that perhaps these bastards really are just another group of marauders we need to get rid of?”

Licking their lips, Annabelle and Bo find their way over to us, each hopping onto the sofa next to their respective owners, and I am happy in that moment to have my hound nestle up in my lap. The fire burns bright, and feeling a strong buzz hit my bloodstream, I am suddenly grateful for the few precious things I have left.

“Gracie.” I hear the anger in Sierra’s voice.

“Yeah?”

“What do we do?”

I finish my gin. “I don’t know yet. But we will figure it out.”