Eve of Tomorrow
I flatten myself to the forest floor just in time to see a knife fly through the space where I'd been standing a second ago. “Run!” Corey's command urges me forward as I get to my feet and take off through the mess of charred and twisted trees of the unfamiliar forest.
I'm fast, but my pursuer is faster. He uses long strides to gain on me as I allow myself a moment of hesitation and a single glance back at him. That's all he needs to close the gap. Still moving, I see him hurdling forward and then blackness envelops me.
I'm only out for a minute or so. The half-naked, tattooed man has an arm around my throat and warm blood trickles from where the tip of his knife is pressed into my back.
Corey’s eyes are cold as he stands with his gun trained on my captor. “Let her go,” he demands.
“You are the trespassers here,” the man responds.
“We don't mean any harm.” Corey lowers the gun, trying to diffuse the tension.
“Why are you here?” He doesn't remove the knife from my skin.
“Let the girl go and we can talk.”
For a brief moment, I think he's going to do it. Instead, his arm tightens, making it hard to breathe. I gasp for air and struggle against him.
“My tribe is hunting nearby,” the big man says ominously. “If you shoot, they'll come.”
One look at Corey tells me that he's already thought of that. I see his lips twitch up into a smile before he hides it with a grimace. I hear the crunch of leaves underfoot before the arm goes slack at my throat and the man jerks against me. I clench my teeth as his knife cuts into my back before he falls away. My body sways as I fight the need to, but Ryan is there to catch me.
“Where were you?” I say as loudly as my voice can manage as I inhale sharply. I step away from the dead man. Ryan's blade protrudes from the back of his head.
“Damn freedom fighters,” Corey curses, holstering his gun.
“Sorry,” Ryan starts. “I'd gotten pretty far ahead of you guys.”
“We need to stick together,” Corey states.
Ryan nods his agreement. They don't seem as shaken up as me. This is hardly the first time we've been attacked since leaving the Rebel compound weeks ago, but it’s the first fight since reaching the wastelands two days ago. We're in their territory now. The freedom fighters reign supreme here. That's why most avoid this place at all costs. The tattooed warrior clans fight without abandon and no one really knows what they fight for. A long time ago, they actually were fighting for their freedom. Now, that is just a name.
“Do you think we should have questioned him?” I ask when I get my wits together.
“He wouldn't have told us anything,” Corey answers gruffly. “And we aren't torturers.”
“It's up to us to find my sister.” Ryan steps on the dead man for leverage as he pulls his knife free and cleans it on his pant leg.
“He said his tribe is hunting near here.” Corey starts to move. “We need to keep going.”
I wince at the thought. My back hurts where I was cut and my shirt is sticky with blood, not all of it mine. It'll heal though and I don't want to slow us down. We can't stop until we find Emily. Ryan's kid sister was taken by the freedom fighters during the fighting in Texas. We left her outside the walls, thinking she'd be safer. We don't know what they want with a 10-year-old American girl, but it can't be good. I don't look down as I step over the dead man and follow Corey and Ryan farther into the woods.
Hours later, we're still walking, but I can't keep up anymore. We haven't had a proper sleep in days and our food supply is running low.
“Ryan,” I yell, hoping he can hear me despite the distance between us. He does. He turns and jogs back.
“You okay?” he asks.
I don't know how he still has so much energy. Maybe it's the fear masking as adrenaline running through his veins, pushing him to find his sister quickly.
“We need to set up camp to get some rest,” I say.
“It's still light out,” he protests.
“She's right,” Corey agrees. “Now that we're in the Wastelands, we want to travel at night to use the darkness to hide us. We'll rest until the sun goes down.”
Ryan drops his shoulders in resignation. He knows we're right and his argument disappears. The boys set up a makeshift camp while I check the packs for what food we have left. There’s half a loaf of stale bread and a bit of meat that we cooked a few days ago. It's not enough to fill us. The hunting has been sparse for week now and we've given up our expectations of regular meals. We do have plenty of water, though. Two days ago, we came upon a stream where we were able to bathe and fill our empty water bottles. I take a swig and the water slides down my dry throat and drops into my empty stomach, triggering the nausea that only the truly hungry know.
I pass out the food and scarf mine down. It's all I can do to keep from trying to pick the crumbs from the ground. I do have some dignity left. Corey takes first guard and I lay back, hoping sleep can ease my weariness.
“Dawn.” Ryan lightly shakes me awake and I sit up suddenly. He pats my back to calm me, his fingers finding the blood crusted into my shirt. “Are you okay?”
“I'm fine,” I say as I rub my eyes and stand. “My guard?”
“Yeah,” he says, his voice is absent. “But you're hurt.”
“It's just a small cut.”
“Let me see it,” he says.
I sigh, lacking the energy to argue, and do as he says. I lift the back of my shirt and wince as he touches the spot where my skin has been split, pouring water around the edges.
He cleans away the blood and says, “I can't do anything about the shirt.”
“It's fine,” I say.
“Okay,” he begins. “But there’s no way I can sleep. I'll sit your watch with you.”
“You need rest.”
“I'll rest when Emily is safe,” he replies. Knowing there is no way around his stubbornness, I shrug and we sit in silence for a while before he talks again.
“Who is this guy?” He motions to Corey's sleeping figure. “I mean, we've been on the road with him for a while now and I still don't know why he came.”
“Corey is a Texan,” I start, unsure if I have the right to tell this story. If we're going to make it, Corey and Ryan need to trust each other more than they have. “He lived in one of the farming villages with his parents. His mom, Bria, was sympathetic to the Rebels. She'd pass on messages for them.” I pause and close my eyes as a picture of Bria comes to mind. This isn't easy to talk about and my voice cracks when I keep going.
“When Gabby and I escaped Texas, we were helped by a woman named Allison. She was Bria's Rebel contact inside Texas. Corey's village was our last stop before reaching the Rebel compound. Bria hid us in her home, but we were found out by Texan soldiers. Bria got us out in time and sent Corey with us. She knew what they were going to do to her.”
Ryan's silence tells me he understands. Bria and her husband were killed. Ryan had to leave his home because of his father aiding foreigners. They have a lot in common.
“That's why Corey hates the Rebels?” he asks after a while.
I grimace, wishing it were that simple.
“He also saw Gabby kill someone point blank.” I look away, unable to watch that bit of information sink in.
Everyone at the Rebel base knows that Gabs killed the Texan farmer and tried to kill his son. It was only because of my intervention that Matty is alive.
Ryan laughs suddenly and I scowl at him before he explains, saying, “Aren't we quite the group? An American, a Texan, and a British Rebel.”
“I feel like that's the beginning of an epic story,” I say with a laugh, but I stop laughing when I feel a stab of pain radiate from the cut in my back. The heroes in epic stories always suffer and, in real life, they don't always save the day. I sigh and shake my head as I watch the last rays of light leave the woods.
We wake Corey before the moon is high and start moving again. We don't know exactly where we're going, but I feel like we're close.
The closer we get to Emily, the less Ryan talks. It’s been a couple days since our guard duty chat and now he’s angry and scared all at the same time. I know the feeling. When my sister was in the Floridaland slave camp, I was a mess.
As the sky darkens, a burst of chilled air moves through the trees. I shiver and pull my arms tight across my chest. I'd kill for a cuppa right now.
“I wish we could start a fire,” I say.
“I wish we could find something edible,” Corey says wistfully.
Ryan stays quiet. I nod as I lean back against a tree and close my eyes, trying to push all thoughts of food out of my mind. I’ve never felt this empty. Last night we found some kind of animal, but there was only a small amount of meat.
Instead of dreaming of food, I dream about the night my patrol was attacked by a band of freedom fighters at the river's edge. I see Lucas, Grace, and Brent fighting them off. Other members of my patrol are dead at our feet. I'm grabbed from behind by a fellow Rebel. King. We wear the same uniform, but his gun is trained on me. I hear someone yell and lunge before a bullet rips into my shoulder. I wake suddenly and sit straight up with sweat dripping down my face and breaths rasping in my chest.
“You okay?” Corey asks.
“Fine,” I answer shortly. I've had that dream before, many times. I do my best to forget. “We should get going,” I say as I stand and begin to erase all signs of our presence from this clearing. We don't want anyone following us. I can't get King's face out of my head. Other than a few friends and my sister, I haven't trusted the Rebels since then. King shot me on orders from Jonathan Clarke. He was the Rebel leader. Now he’s held prisoner in the very base that he controlled. I never did find out if my mother wanted me dead or if Clarke kept his second in command in the dark.
My father, General Nolan, leads the Rebels now and I don't know what to think of him. He refused to allow me to go on this mission. Well, he abandoned me to make my own choices for most of my life. I don't need him telling me what to do now. He pulled rank and ordered me to stay, but I never wanted to be a Rebel soldier anyway. He can have my uniform. I'll gladly shed that burden.
I only wish my father had told me what he knows of the Wastelands. He seems to know everything that goes on in the colonies so I doubt he’s as ignorant of this place as he let on. He did warn me against coming, but all I care about right now is finding Emily.
Here's what I do know. The Wastelands are a charred mess and no one seems to know why. It happened a long time ago. It has long been thought that no one could live here. Crazy weather patterns are the norm and the land is harsh. Crops have trouble growing and animals tend to stay away. How could anyone survive?
But obviously, the Freedom Fighters can. Such a wretched place is the perfect hiding place for them. My father warned us that they’re much more likely to find us than we are to find them. We came anyway. We can't let them have Emily. She's just a girl. What could they possible want with her?