Prologue

 

 

IT’S JUST past noon, if I had to guess, based on how high the sun is. Of course, this is only a guess because I don’t have a watch; never really wore one before, but what I wouldn’t give for one now, because trying to guess just what time it is by looking at the sun is not something they trained me for in my posh boarding school in the city. There we listened for bells to tell us when to wake, when to move, when to eat. Then, I hated those bells. Now, I would give anything to hear just one again, to let me know exactly what I should be doing and when.

What I should be doing is sitting in the end of my calculus class, wondering when I’ll ever use a matrix while listening to my grumbling stomach. What they should have been teaching us in math courses is how to navigate correctly without any instrument of help, or how the sun moves, or how many miles it is between New York and the equator. All useless now, what I know. Of course, there are few people who would have been prepared for this.

It’s noon, or somewhere thereabout, and I’m sweating profusely in the only set of clothes I have left. My right hand grips a hunting knife of some variety—also something I know nothing about from my education—but it’s long and jagged, possibly designed for skinning animals. I use it for everything. My hands are bandaged with old scrap material because the sunburn is so bad there and yet I can’t cut my hands any slack; I’m just sunburned everywhere, actually.

It hurts to move, not just because of the sunburn, but because of the overall fatigue that aches right down to my bones. There are no desks to sit in now, no dorm rooms to shelter myself in. Now I’m on my feet at least eighteen hours of the day, and I sleep crunched into the tiniest form possible at the base of a tree, or sometimes in a tree to avoid being seen.

It’s summer. That much I am sure of. It should be the summer postgraduation, the summer before I start college. Should be. There are a lot of should-bes now. I am seventeen, but not for long, although the days are no longer marked, and whenever the day comes that I turn into a legal adult, it will pass in obscurity without my noticing. It matters little. There are few laws left to uphold.

I am alone. I haven’t seen another person in a little over two weeks. I haven’t spoken to another person in almost two months, maybe longer. It’s been at least three months since I left the city on my own. I left exactly four days after the phone lines started to fade into static; I hadn’t spoken to my parents in at least a week before it was too late—not a phone call or an e-mail could be sent. In school I was a loner, and I never considered myself extremely close to my parents, but now the loneliness kills me. It’s not the constant struggle to find water or food or the exposure when the temperature drops sharply after the sun goes down. It’s the empty feeling when my voice barely croaks from neglect or how startling it is when I catch a reflection of myself in the windows of an abandoned car.

No one would recognize me now; I don’t recognize myself. The fat in my cheeks and around my hips has melted into bone, diminishing what might have constituted a girlish figure beforehand. My hair is patchy in length and quantity after not only a sharp decline in my nutrition, but also less than a handful of some bad berries that immobilized me with cramps for some time. My skin too is patchy, in rough flakes from extreme sunburn from the first weeks, when I thought the best way to combat heat was to shed as much clothing as possible, but such mistakes haven’t been made since. The knife glued to my hand is perhaps the most discernible part of my image; previously, the most dangerous thing I carried was a cell phone.

I am not dangerous, but I live in constant danger. We all do now. Laws are gone. Organized government has decayed into something we can’t trust, mostly biohazard vans that roam the roads between rundown or broken cars, collecting people under what are often false pretenses of safety in mystical places. There are no safe places. I’ve traveled around three hundred miles by rough estimation, and I’ve seen enough of big cities, the suburban neighborhoods around them, and even the secluded country homes that are all equally ravaged by our current epidemic. The plague to end all plagues. The apocalypse, hysterical people said.

It must be roughly July, maybe even August. It gets harder to count. I’m seventeen. I’m dying. We’re all dying. I should be dead already. Maybe I’m in Virginia, or West Virginia if I’m lucky. The items I carry on my back can be counted on both hands. I haven’t spoken to anyone in so long I forget the words for things like safety or necessity. There are no organized laws, but the laws of nature still rule. I follow just one above all.

Move. Just keep moving. Moving is breathing; moving is life itself. One foot in front of the other until you no longer can. Rest, but not for long. Get up when your feet still bleed. Move, because when you don’t move fast enough or far enough, something will inevitably find you that you wish hadn’t. Hungry, desperate people. A biohazard van. Scared animals. The disease. Virus. Contagion. Agent. Whatever they never decided to call it.

It’s been well over a hundred days since the last televised news went off the air. Back then they didn’t know what it was or what to call it. Anyone left now knows exactly what to call it—the end.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

IT HAPPENS on a day when I can’t remember ever falling asleep or waking up, just a moment of realization that I’ve been crouching somewhere for a while because my feet are numb and my thoughts sluggish. When I reach into my bag, there’s a half-eaten granola bar I’ve been saving for some time. I go ahead and eat it for breakfast, even though it must be late evening. It’s usually safer to sleep in daylight hours, and easier too, because it’s too hot to move often.

Until the last couple of weeks, it had been relatively easy to find supplies on the go. Ransack an old grocery store here and there, although those are often picked over to dust now. Still, there are small drugstores with things to be found and residential areas with abandoned homes where I can often find food hidden in kids’ rooms even when the pantries are empty. Of course, I’m not the only scavenger out there, and I have fewer and fewer places on the map to find. Now I’m moving farther and farther into wooded areas. It’s safer in the woods, but my food supply is nearly gone and so is my sanitized water, although I have the means to boil water from any kind of river or stream, and not only that, but moving off the road means detours farther south instead of cutting west like I mean to.

It’s with some great pain that I eat my last bit of granola and wash it down hastily. When I rise I stomp my feet in place before risking a step forward. I feel light on my feet while they’re still asleep, hardly an ache to be felt in my pirated men’s hiking boots, stuffed with bloodied rags.

I’m sweaty despite inactivity; the day is cooling down finally, but it’s still stifling below the cover of trees. Above me and around me I hear faint signs of life, all quiet enough that I believe I’m safe, that it’s animal life. It’s good. It’s natural. Today, before nightfall, I become the hunter.

My lack of protein is increasingly apparent. Besides my sleepwalking-to-waking episodes that I now apparently suffer, it’s difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. Migraines plague me. My body dwindles down to nothing. If I don’t get a proper meal soon, I won’t be able to keep moving and I’ll effectively be dead, but without any proper long-range weapon I’m forced to run down prey, which has never worked well.

Fortunately, from our long lists of gym activities for the upper class, I dabbled in archery lessons at school. Not that I have a bow, but I do have an eye for distance and aim. Throwing a knife not meant for throwing is no easy task, but once well acquainted with the drag and uneven weight, I can hit a target with some accuracy from several yards away. A stationary target, that is.

In the dying light, I look for small game. Bunnies or squirrels. Even a plump bird, if it stays still long enough. I clip a rabbit and miss a bird by a mere inch. As I climb back down a tree after retrieving the knife, my stomach cramps so suddenly my hands slip, and I drop like a rock to the ground. Gasping, I clutch my stomach.

Until my skills as a hunter improve, I have only one option. Return to civilization. Or what’s left of it.