by Courtney Farrell
A crew of orphans is all that stands between Jackie and life as a prisoner in some squalid basement harem. When pox killed their parents, she took the boys in. Taught them to scavenge. Taught them to kill. But she's not much older than they are, and the boys are growing up fast. Her authority is eroding. The guys begin to compete, and the winner will lead the crew, alongside her. Infighting threatens to tear the crew apart. When rival gangs discover that their little band has one of the last surviving girls, Jackie must make a decision. Will she give herself up to save her crew, or take off alone through the streets?
Rape gangs might be the least of her worries. Pox is spreading among animals, who gain an eerie intelligence before they sicken and die. One-legged Joe thinks she’s nuts, but Jackie is convinced. The pox is sentient, and it’s after her.
We headed for our usual booth. Dakota always slept on one side of the table, and I slept on the other. That night, when I crawled onto my bed, Ash and Keenan had already taken over Dakota’s side. They sat shoulder to shoulder, stiffly, like they had something to say. I glanced at Dakota to see how he was handling that. He didn’t seem to care. He just collapsed in the booth behind me instead. Since I couldn’t flop down like I wanted to, I sat there, stared at Keenan and Ash, and waited.
That pair had been joined at the hip since they came to me as lost fourth graders. If the world hadn’t gone to shit, Ash would have been the most popular boy in school. He could be deadly when pushed, but his mom must have raised him with all kinds of compassion. He used to rescue moths from windowsills and pick earthworms out of puddles after it rained. That night, I figured Ash meant to rescue me. Why he brought Keenan along, I had no idea.
Ash leaned forward, a sympathetic smile on his handsome face. Dim red and blue neon light shone off his perfect chocolate skin and wooly hair. “How you feelin’, Jack?”
“Fine.” I kept it short, hoping they’d go away so I could sleep.
“I got something for you. Or we do. It’s from Keenan, too. I couldn’t have got it without him.” Ash dug into his pocket and pulled out a small leather bag. He pushed it across the table to me.
I poured out the contents and gasped. A handful of gold and diamond rings spilled out, along with a fat roll of hundred dollar bills. Paper money didn’t mean much anymore, at least in my neighborhood, but those rings made the best trade goods ever. I flicked the bills aside and played with the rings, admiring their glitter in the neon light of the bar signs in the window. “Wow. This is really something.”
“Spoils of war,” Keenan said. “By the way, I didn’t get the chance to tell you earlier, but you look gorgeous in that dress.”
I felt my eyes widen in their sockets. “Uh, thanks,” I choked out.
The back of my seat rocked a little as Dakota rolled to his knees and leaned on the partition between the booths. “Go to bed, you guys.”
“Okay,” Keenan said obediently. As if they’d rehearsed it, Ash and Keenan laid down in Dakota’s spot, feet together and heads in opposite directions. It looked crowded and uncomfortable, but they settled in like they meant to stay.
Dakota shot them a murderous look. One on one, he could whip either of them, but together, those boys could kill him. I felt sick thinking about it. The winner—or winners—would lead my crew, alongside me. And from the way Keenan looked at me, that wasn’t all they had in mind. I could have sworn fourteen was too young. Guess I was wrong.
As the only girl around, I’d been pressured for sex since childhood. Some men wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I got pretty good at taking cheap shots and bolting. That kind of thing got worse as I got older. Dakota watched out for me, sticking closer as I got into my teens and even normal, non-pervy men started taking an interest. That was when I cut my hair off and tried to look like a boy. We never talked about it—I was way too shy—but Dakota had to know I was still a virgin. Now he obviously wanted to be more than friends, and I couldn’t get comfortable with it. I didn’t want anyone else. Never had. Dakota was the only guy I ever dreamed about, ever pictured myself having babies with. The only one I didn’t want to reject. But old fears die hard.
A child’s high-pitched scream came from inside the store. A cloud of bats passed the big front window, so many that I couldn’t see beyond them. Gunfire thundered from the parking lot, making me flinch. I shrugged off my pack, dumped it on the sidewalk and tore through the contents. Lock picks and coils of rope got pushed aside. One bright yellow lighter lay at the bottom of the bag. I seized it, ripped open the door of the shoe store, and ran inside.
The heavy glass door swung closed behind me. The mob of bats had stopped circling. Their restless wings whispered from the shadows.
Caleb yelled from somewhere in the back of the store. “Help! I’m trapped in the storeroom!”
“Stay put, I’m coming!” I dove for one of the empty shoe boxes that littered the floor. Five seconds with the lighter, and one end of it burned brightly. Gripping the bottom of the box, I held it high.
The lone bat still sat on the top shelf. Flames reflected off her black button eyes. Maybe she was sick. Maybe the pox was eating her up inside, and she didn’t have the strength to fly. Somehow I doubted it.
She bared her teeth at me, revealing rows of miniscule, white needle teeth. One naked, semi-transparent wing arced forward, so I could see the outlines of the bones inside. Thousands of bats fluttered to the front of the store, clinging to the doorframe, the sale posters, to anything they could. Blocking my escape. Their massed bodies dimmed the room to a gray twilight.
The cardboard burned too close to my fingers, and I had to drop it. It glowed feebly from the tile floor as the fire died. I bent to snatch up another carton. The bat on the shelf leaned forward eagerly, eyeing the back of my neck. I spun to face her. Coughing from the smoke, I touched flame to new tinder.
The bat shifted anxiously, watching the flames, but she didn’t fly away. Both wings swept forward, so the pointy tips met. Her colony instantly left the window and swirled around me in a moving cloud.Though I stood near the front of the store, the living tornado completely blocked my path to the door.
I let out a panicked gasp and spun in place, waving fire. That one controls the rest!Normal bats don’t do that. They’re infected for sure.Oh my God, oh my God! What am I gonna do? When I threatened from one direction, more bats darted at me from the other side. Outside, gunfire raged. This can’t last. They’re going to take me!
A grim smile touched my lips. “Fine. We’ll all die together.” I let the flame lick the side of another shoebox. That one had shoes in it. I didn’t care. Black smoke rose around the boss bat’s head.
She snapped her wings open. The cloud of bats split, clearing my path.
“Not that easy. I’m taking my kid with me.” Holding the burning cartons over my head, I walked down the aisle toward the back. The room got darker as I moved farther from the big front window. “Caleb!” I yelled. “Where are you?”
His scared voice came from behind a door. “In here.”
I yanked open the door of the dark room. Caleb’s dirty-blonde head caught the faint light from my fire. He ran to me, a sob catching in his throat, and threw his arms around my waist.
“It’s okay, honey. Careful, take this.” I handed him a burning box. “Stay close. We’re walking out of here.”
“They’re poxy, aren’t they?” Caleb babbled. “The bats.”
I gave him a short nod. We strode to the front of the store. Bats covered the door.
“Clear the door now, or I’m gonna burn this place down,” I bellowed.
The press of dark bodies instantly split. Bats flapped in opposite directions and scattered.
Caleb was awestruck. “They understand English.”
“Only ’cause they’re infected,” I said, head swiveling, looking all around. “Caleb. Get that shopping bag. Take every last sock. We are damn well gettin’ what we came for.”
He held up his burning box, eyebrows raised in a silent question.
“Toss it,” I said.
Caleb hurled the smoldering carton onto a shelf and snatched up the shopping bag. We pounded toward the door as bats took flight. I pushed the kid through first. Then I threw my own burning box, ran out, and slammed the big glass door behind me. Inside the store, flames were already spreading.
The Jeep roared across the parking lot toward us, swerving around the grisly remains of the hunters. Ash slammed on the brakes, laying rubber. Keenan opened the passenger side door, dived out before the car stopped moving, and rolled to his feet in one fluid motion, shotgun ready. Staring open-mouthed at that epic move, I completely missed the hunter coming out of the food court.
A whisper of shoe on pavement alerted me. I leaped sideways, pulling Caleb with me. The hunter was a lot taller than us, with a tangled mat of dark, curly hair clinging to his skull. He was young, in his twenties, and he hadn’t been infected long. Those were the most dangerous kind, with speed and agility intact. I know it sounds crazy, but the pox inside him saw me, and I saw her, too. I recognized her, even disguised as she was in a male body. I’d seen that predatory expression before, behind different eyes. Behind my mother’s eyes.
“You,” I mouthed. No sound came out. “I know you.”
“Jacqueline,” the hunter moaned through lips wet with silver drool.
I’d never heard a hunter speak. I didn’t know they could. He knows my name. He knows my name! How?
I jumped between Caleb and the infected man. “Run! Run for the car!”
Caleb bolted without hesitation. The hunter let him go and came for me instead. I’d stupidly gotten myself trapped between the infected man and the burning shoe store. Plastic-laden smoke filled the air, making me sick. I was in trouble.
He pressed his body hard against mine, and I forgot my worries over Flint, or the pox, or anything. I tipped my head back, lips parted, my hands wrapped around the outsides of his thighs. Dakota’s fingers traced the low-cut neckline of my dress. He kissed the soft hollow between my neck and shoulder. “I love you, Jackie.”
A thrill went through me. “I guess I accidentally told you, the night we thought the pox got me, but . . .” I couldn’t say it. Even though it was true. I couldn’t tell him I loved him. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was all tangled up in my mind with begging him to shoot me.
If I succumbed, and gave him my heart, would I become a girlie-girl, giggling and flipping my hair? I doubted it. I’d rather be a mythical outlaw, going into combat by my lover’s side. Sadly, I suspected that my future would be a lot less epic, and a lot more about diapers and dirty dishes. Was I ready for that? Was he?
Dakota gently turned me to face him. I couldn’t even speak. He was everything I ever wanted. My doubts faded. I stood on tiptoe and kissed him, his dark, wavy hair soft between my fingers.
“That night, when you stole the Jeep, and I thought you’d been infected,” Dakota whispered. “That’s when I knew I loved you. That could have been the worst day of my life, but it turned out all right.”
He reached out and opened our ragged curtains a little. Only a few scattered lights dotted the dark city. On the other side of the diner, Keenan rolled over in his booth. I hoped he was asleep. It wouldn’t be past him to come out and make trouble, especially if he saw me and Dakota kissing.
“So, I’ve been thinking about you and me, pretty much nonstop.” Dakota laughed softly. “And I had this idea. Can I show you?”
I smiled. “Sure.”
Dakota took me over to the bar. “See how there’s already kind of an enclosed space here? With a little work, we could build ourselves a room. I know it smells like stale beer in there now, but…”
“I don’t mind, as long as you’re in there with me,” I whispered.
We moved behind the bar and kissed until I thought we’d both lose control. Dakota slid his hands under my dress and touched me in places no boy ever had. His whole body felt tight with pent-up tension. “Oh, Jackie, I want you so bad,” he whispered.
I twined my arms around his neck, stood on tiptoe, and touched his ear lightly with the tip of my tongue, enjoying the shiver it sent through him. I whispered one word. “Yes.”
Dakota took a quick breath. He pulled back a little to look at me. “Are you sure?”
“Completely.” I looked down in case he saw the truth in my eyes. I did want Dakota, more than anything, and I couldn’t wait. Not just because I loved him. Not just because he drove me out of my mind with desire. I couldn’t afford to wait. Flint’s Army was right outside, and I wanted my first time to be with Dakota. That gift was for him. Not for Flint, or one of Rico’s men.
After a while, I sat on the bar, legs dangling. Dakota stood in front of me, and I cradled his ribs between my thighs. His head rested on my chest. Joy radiated off him. So much love filled me that I thought it could fly out and heal the whole world. Then Flint’s drums pounded from outside. Our sentries howled their defiance.
“Build this room soon, Dakota,” I whispered, stroking his dark hair. “Really soon.”
Courtney Farrell is a biologist who turned her love of books into a career as an author. She has published fourteen nonfiction books and three exciting novels for young people. Courtney lives with her husband and sons on a Colorado ranch where they enjoy a menagerie of horses, dogs, cats, and chickens.