Brent Zindell lay flat on his belly in the dirt, a bat at his fingertips. Moving his head from side to side, he could see through the slats concealing the crawl space. The white paint had blistered and peeled from the fire that had nibbled at the cluster of buildings. Glass glittered on the scorched earth. Most of the buildings had collapsed, but the crawl space remained secure, shielded by debris.
He peered into the darkness, not seeing so much as feeling them. His people. The Chosen. Twenty or so slumbered in the crawlspace. Another fifteen sheltered in the remains of an old cabin. And twenty more in the triangle left standing of the museum. He had led them here, to safety. To Payson. He hadn’t expected the small town northeast of Phoenix to be bombed. He should have known better. The government destroyed what it couldn’t control or understand. He’d once worked for Child Protective Services, worked to repair broken children and family.
Now, he had a new mission—to keep this family alive.
After all, family mattered more than anything. And God had given him a second chance to protect his family. Brent scanned the street through the slats again. Nothing moved. Not that he’d expected it. Under his leadership, his people had learned quickly to travel at night. They’d arrived before dawn and had watched the school all day, not seeing a sign of the enemy—the crazies.
The crazies had driven Brent’s family from Camp Verde, then hunted them to Strawberry and Pine. The crazies had cost him his daughter, Cheyenne. Not that Cheyenne was dead.
At least he didn’t think so. His daughter should be safe with the Robelskis. Brent picked at his frayed cuff. He wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Robelskis. They had shoved Cheyenne into their van and driven off instead of standing and fighting with him.
Didn’t they know only he could keep them safe during this time of tribulation? The mantle of power closed around Brent like a noose. The bite of autumn wind mingled with the smoke and charred meat. Not meat. Human corpses. Brent peered through the slats again, this time focusing on the bomb crater eating away at the parking area. White bone gleamed in the moonlight. Beyond the crater, suburbia decayed.
The soldiers had been very thorough with their destruction of the town.
Too bad it hadn’t stopped the spread of the crazy. Now, all that remained of civilization was him and his followers. And he needed to find them food and water. His nose wrinkled at the stench of dead fish. Water was surprisingly easy to find in the desert. There was an entire lake full behind them. As for food… He stared at the school.
There should be a smorgasbord in the school across the street. Asphalt shingles littered the gravel landscaping. School books, backpacks, and parts of children radiated from the crater to the right of the administration building.
So the crazy had struck the last day of school here, too.
He hoped that this place had remained untouched since then. The Chosen needed food. Crawling on his knees, he pressed his head against the wood slats. Bits of blistered paint rained down like soiled snowflakes. He shivered in his thin suit jacket. It wouldn’t be long before they would need to find shelter for the winter. At least, his daughter Cheyenne would be safe and warm on the Robelskis’ farm.
Fabric swished. The sweet scent of roses surrounded him.
His wife was awake. Brent glanced over his shoulder.
Kelly’s pale face was hazy in the darkness. “Is it time to go, yet?”
“Nearly. Mary should be signaling soon.” Brent checked the school parking lot again. With all the abandoned cars and downed trees it was hard to see Mary and her husband, Jeffrey, returning from their scouting mission.
Kelly scooted closer and curled her body against his back. She shivered in her cotton shirt and slacks. “Do you think there is still food in the cafeteria?”
“I hope so.” Brent’s stomach echoed the sentiment. “I am hungry.”
“Aren’t we all?” Kelly kissed the back of his neck before shifting to sit beside him. She caressed the slight bump of her stomach. Their second child would be born in February.
“How is he doing?” He stroked her stomach. I promise you will never go hungry, son.
Kelly set her hand on his and squeezed. “I know there will be food. Lots of food.” She winked. “Of course, it’s cafeteria food, so it may not be fine dining at the Pointe.”
His mouth watered at the thought of steak. Meat. He hadn’t had meat in forever. “If there’s not plenty, you know our people will sacrifice a portion so that you can eat your fill.”
“You need it more than I.” She jerked her head toward the crowd of people in the crawlspace. “They crave your leadership, trust your judgement. Since they have none of their own.”
Brent’s shoulders bowed under the weight. None of the Chosen spoke, except his wife and his lieutenants. And yet he knew their thoughts and feelings. At the moment, hunger gnawed on him like a wild beast. “I won’t let them down.”
He couldn’t. Their trust was exhilarating and exhausting.
She caressed his cheek. “You’re not alone.”
No, he wasn’t. He kissed her palm then folded her fingers around it, holding it close. He had done better than most. In fact, the three days without food had been the longest stretch. But finding food was getting harder, and the crazies more skilled at fighting.
A twig snapped.
Kelly tensed. Brent grabbed for the bat near his thigh and raised it to his shoulder. The wood settled into his palms easily. Too bad it wasn’t a gun. He would love to have a gun.
Moonlight glinted on the bald head of the man running across the street.
“It’s Jeffrey.” Brent rested the bat on his shoulder and duck-walked toward the exit.
“Do you see Mary?” Kelly crawled behind him. The scrape of metal against rock indicated she kept her golf-club close.
“No, but Jeffrey isn’t signaling for help.” Brent lowered her weapon then curled his fingers around the panel to exit the crawl space.
“Must you go?”
“Yes.” Brent could not ask others to do what he could. He must prove himself worthy of the responsibility given to him. After a quick glance at the lake beyond the sloping yard, he moved the panel aside and slid out. “I want you to say here.”
“No. My place is at your side.” Rubbing her stomach, Kelly crawled under the floor joists. “Our place is at your side.”
Brent stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “It could be dangerous. We do not know what is in there.”
His heart raced and his palms were slick with sweat. They had been ambushed before. They’d numbered over a hundred when they had fled Camp Verde.
Kelly drew her legs against her stomach and frowned at him. “Is this because I’m pregnant? Because you know, I was pregnant before and it never stopped me from doing what needed to be done.”
Brent bit back his retort. His wife had never been forty-four and pregnant. The first time, she had been twenty-six, and it had taken them five years of medical intervention to conceive Cheyenne. Kelly had nearly miscarried at three months, and had bed rest for the last two. Releasing his wife, he quickly eased the panel back in place. “Yes, of course it’s because you’re pregnant. I will not endanger our child. And working in an office is not the same as surviving an apocalypse. Stay. Put.”
She wrapped her fingers around the slats. Dirt filled her chipped nails and ash smudged her cheek. “I love you.” She pursed her lips through the opening.
He quickly kissed her.
“I know you can do this. And I know there will be food. Enough to last for weeks.” She wiggled her fingers goodbye.
Brent turned away from her. Weeks. He needed more than weeks of food. They needed months of it to get through the winter. He turned up his collar against the cold.
Jeffrey crouched near the curb, hiding in the shadows of an overturned Mercedes.
Brent reached him just as his wife, Mary, appeared. He released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
Mary’s black eyes flashed in her dusky skin. The moonlight turned the white streaks in her black hair to silver. “The school, it is deserted. I check the back. I check the front. Nothing.”
Her words had the rolling staccato of her Columbian heritage.
Practically poetry. Brent had stumbled on the couple north of Strawberry, just as the silence nearly crushed him, just as he would have given his life to experience the verbal sparring with his teenaged daughter one more time. He’d begun to fear he wasn’t as unaffected by the crazy as he believed. Mary and Jeffrey had quickly pushed that notion aside.
It was the weight of making all the decisions that ground him down.
“We should cross the street in small groups. If anyone is watching, we don’t want them to get a tally of our numbers.” Brent eyed the distance to the school. A three lane street, a clearing, then the parking lot. Two sandbag bunkers provided cover before the last sprint to the building. It was almost too easy. “Any sign of weapons or ammo?”
He’d seen cops and soldiers mingling with the crazies. None had carried their weapons. They’d probably forgotten how to shoot. God knew his followers depended on him like children. He’s shook off the negativity. Soon his luck would change. No, he would change his luck.
“No weapons or ammo.” Mary and Jeffrey shifted.
They would change their luck.
“Let’s sweep the building before we send for the others.” But they shouldn’t all go. If something happened to him, he would need them to look after his wife. “Jeffrey, you stand guard here. We’ll take Rachel and Ashley with us.”
Mary shook her head. Her curly black hair bounced around her shoulders. “No Ashley. She is with the child. Rachel and Juliet, I thinks will work.”
Brent blinked. That made the third pregnant woman among the Chosen. Women who must be protected at all costs. Their children would populate the world they would inherit. He should have her sleep in the center of the group, offer her more protection. No sooner had Brent thought it than movement animated the crawlspace.
Ashley’s floral dress dragged behind her as she crawled into the middle of the sleeping group.
Rachel tucked a tattered scrap of blanket around her, then crawled to the opening. Juliet brought up the rear. Sometimes it was good they didn’t need words.
Jeffrey shifted aside the panel and allowed them out. They squatted on the slope, twisting their hands around the golf clubs.
Mary removed a stick from her back pocket and gouged the dead grass into rectangles and circles. “This is the school. Administration is gone. Classrooms. Cafeteria. All the buildings, they are damaged, but not looted, yet.”
She stabbed the rectangle corresponding to the faux stone building closest to them and removed her hand from the knobby end of the stick.
Brent swallowed. Not a stick at all but part of a shattered leg bone. All those years of working for abused children, he’d seen as many x-rays as most doctors. At least now he had the power to right those wrongs. Too bad, he did not have the muscle to back it up. Why couldn’t the military have left a few machine guns behind? What had they done with them?
Jeffrey removed the broken femur to carve a little square out of the cafeteria. “The kitchens are in the back. This is the storage room. Not damaged. You will need more than the four to carry all back.”
“We’ll stay with the food if the area is defensible.” He’d had food snatched from their raiding parties before, because he hadn’t sent enough people. “Suggestions?”
“Natasha and Kris.” Mary spoke for her husband. In a short time, both women appeared at the panel. Jeffrey let them out before he slipped inside.
Brent knew that some crazies hid their women, but he had superior humans. When his women went up against a crazy, they won nearly every time, because they used everything as a weapon. Brent almost felt sorry for the enemy. Or he would, once the crazies were all dead.
Mary glanced at Brent. “Kris and Rachel. Then you, followed by the others. I’ll cover us.”
Crouching, Kris sniffed the air. Her fingers dug into the dirt before she and Rachel sprinted across the street. They scrambled under a beater truck in primer gray, then jogged to the shaggy detritus of landscaping.
Brent chased after them, but skirted the truck. A crispy hand scraped his cheek. Blackened flesh peeled off white bone. He rushed across the street. The soles of his dress shoes hit the gravel as the girls dove into the sandbag bunkers. He sensed the others moving behind him, felt their heartbeats sync. Adrenalin coursed through his veins. His muscles heated. The wind ruffled his hair.
Kris popped out of the bunker, sniffed the air. She froze.
Fear spiked. He hit the asphalt. Pebbles and brass cartridges greased his landing and his arms slid out from under him. The impact shoved the air from Brent’s lungs. What had she smelled? Someone? The good thing about the apocalypse was no one showered. Everyone reeked, making the crazies easy to detect if they were upwind.
Kris and Rachel leapt from the bunker and crossed the parking lot in a serpentine pattern and flattened themselves against the cafeteria.
The constriction in Brent’s chest eased. They were safe. His hard-soled shoes tapped the asphalt as he hurried to join his two scouts. Bits of bone crunched under his feet. Brass tinkled as it sailed to the curb. He touched the building just as the two women rounded the corner. The stone façade scratched his palms as he crept away from the door under the collapsed portico.
He rounded the corner and caught his breath. The rafters of the cafeteria’s roof stuck up like pick-up sticks. Across a crater the size of three minivans, the front of the two-story building had sheared off, exposing the classrooms like a dollhouse. The administration building to the north had taken a direct hit, turning it inside out and shattering the windows of the schoolrooms on the opposite side of campus.
Kris and Rachel scrambled over the debris and sniffed. Nothing. But the enemy could approach from three other sides. Still the women had scouted for him over the last two months and excelled at their job. He trusted them. Given that Kris was the same age as his daughter Cheyenne, that said a lot about the state of the world.
The corner where they stood remained upright. That had to be the storage room and kitchen Jeffrey had marked. Brent crawled over the mound of stone and concrete, then ducked under a rafter and slid down the other side. The stench of rotted food assaulted his nostrils. His stomach heaved. They were too late. The food was no longer edible.
Mary leapt to the floor beside him. She removed a cylindrical device from her belt and shook it. A beam of light bounced around the room. Dust motes danced in front of the stacks of folding chairs and tables. I-beams blocked the crumbled metal shutters of the kitchen. The spotlight stopped on a closed metal door. “There.”
Natasha and Juliet rushed forward. Juliet tugged on the handle. Turned it then tugged again. Nothing.
Brent gritted his teeth. He would not make his people eat the dead fish in the lakes.
Mary reached into the pocket of her wool coat and removed a set of keys. “I was the health inspector for the district. School cafeterias, they were my area of expertise.”
The girls scuttled to the side. Mary inserted the key and twisted it. The door opened easily.
Juliet crept inside. Natasha followed, then Mary.
Brent waited. A burst of joy hit him. Food. They had found food!
Mary appeared in the doorway, waving him in with her flashlight. “Freezer’s been raided.”
He stepped into the kitchen, then buried his nose in his sleeve. The body of a lady decomposed on the floor. Rats and mice poked through her stomach before scurrying for darker parts of the kitchen. Natasha and Juliet each offered him a can of peaches. Two cans. Two! His fists clenched. This was supposed to be food for his people. They needed it. His wife needed food. And he had promised her… Now he would have to break his promise. Again.
Natasha and Juliet cringed before him.
Brent patted their shoulders. “You did well.” He held up the restaurant-sized cans. “We shall eat tonight.”
The girls scraped the corpse onto a few fallen ceiling tiles, then carried it away. Brent explored the rest of the room. Four more cans of peaches sat on the counter. The shelves above the oven held baking soda and pots.
“Not all of us will eat, unless…” Mary bit her lip and stared at a Baker’s rack shoved against the wall. A stack of chairs wedged it in place. “Can you help me move this away?”
“Sure.” Brent didn’t have anything else to do while he starved to death. Starting in the middle, he levered half the chairs upright.
Mary huffed and righted the other chairs. With a shimmy and shake, she pushed the Baker’s rack out of the way, revealing a metal door. Placards in white with black lettering proclaimed ‘storage’ and ‘authorized access only.’ She sorted through her keys then inserted one in the lock.
Brent held his breath.
Mary opened the door. Row upon row of shelves lined the walls. Many had restaurant-size cans of food.
Brent nearly fell to his knees in gratitude. This bounty would see them through two or three weeks. More than enough time for them to come up with their next course of action. He raced into the cafeteria.
Kelly poked her head under the fallen roof. “Is it all we hoped for?”
“Nearly a month’s supply.” Brent helped her find her footing.
Others scrambled over the rubble. Soon the cafeteria was full of the Chosen. A few sorted the sleeping arrangements. One man helped Ashley to a pallet in the center of the room then lumbered toward the kitchen. Zachary had been a chef before the crazy. He coasted to the oven and selected a soup pot. He drifted into the pantry and retrieved two cans of crushed tomatoes, which he offered to Kelly.
Brent shook his head. How strange he could remember some tasks, yet others remained beyond him. Perhaps cooking and eating were so elemental, the memory remained.
Kelly searched the drawers, finding the can opener on her third try. The man disappeared into the pantry, returning with vegetables and a box of potato flakes.
Soup again. Brent’s mouth watered at the thought of meat. Not this meal, but at least they could have the soup with mashed potato dumplings.
“We should stay here a few days, I thinks. If any of the crazies, they try to attack, those metal doors, they will hold them back.” Mary pointed to the intact wall of the cafeteria. “They must to stick the heads in first, and then crawl over the debris there. And while we beat them on the heads, we can to exit through the loading door in the store room.” She yawned.
“I’ll keep watch.” Brent liked the plan and the location. But first, he’d do a little investigating. Schools still taught geography, didn’t they? If he could find a map, he could find the Robelskis’ ranch. He’d bet there was plenty of food on the ranch.
Chef Zachary selected a few knives then handed the rest to Rachel for distribution.
Good, his people were arming themselves with better weapons than golf clubs and bats.
Kelly took charge of the pantry, counted the supplies.
Brent joined her as she placed a can of peaches on the white tub of oatmeal flakes. “If we stick to eating two meals a day, we have a month’s worth of food.”
“No point in being greedy.” He nodded. On bad days like yesterday, only the children and pregnant women had eaten, but they wouldn’t waste food.
He entered the kitchen, ignored all the appliances made useless without electricity. The scent of tomatoes filled the air. Chef Zachary removed sprigs of plants from his jacket pocket and sprinkled them in the steaming pot balanced over the propane burner they’d brought with them. Saliva pooled in Brent’s mouth. The soup would be ready soon. He had to move quickly.
Entering the cafeteria, he scrambled over the debris and stepped outside. Kris and Juliet rose from their hiding spot.
He motioned them back down. He wasn’t going far and didn’t need an escort. Brent checked left then right before crossing the quadrangle and reaching the breezeway. Glass crunched under his shoes as he approached the classroom building. He stepped through the bent doorframe. Digging out his flashlight, he flicked it on.
Rats and field mice scurried along the corridor. A breeze streamed off the lake and whistled through the twisted metal blinds that remained. Above the putrid odor of rotting fish, he detected crayons, chalk, and paste. Every school must smell the same.
He reached the first door, stopped, and listened. Nothing. A quick peek inside revealed toys and cubbies. Too young for maps. He made his way down the hallway. His skin prickled in the silence.
One more door, then he’d head back. He peered inside. The death mask of King Tut stared back. Yes! He’d found it. He yanked open the door.
Cold metal pressed against his temple. A pistol cocked.