One night, when we made camp a bit earlier than usual, I wandered toward the campfire and was shocked to find Zeke sitting near the f lames, reading to Bethany and Caleb. Stunned, I crept closer, hardly able to believe it. But he was reading, his low, smooth voice reciting passages from the large black book in his lap, the two kids perched on either side.
"'Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,'" Zeke said quietly, scanning the pages before him, "'and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were f leeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water f lowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen-the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.'
"'But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in Him and in Moses, His servant.'"
A bitter lump caught in my throat. For just a moment, I saw myself and Stick, huddled together in the cold shell of my room, an open book between us. Zeke didn't look up, didn't notice me, but I listened to his calm, quiet voice as he read, watched Caleb and Bethany hang on his every word and felt a strange sense of longing pull at my stomach.
Jebbadiah's voice echoed over the campground, and Zeke raised his head. Seeing the old man waiting for him several yards away, he closed the book and put it in Caleb's arms.
"Hang on to it for a second," I heard him murmur, ruff ling the boy's hair as he stood. "I'll be right back." When Zeke left, curiosity drew me closer, wanting to see the book, to hold it in my hands and read the title. Bethany looked up, spotted me, and her eyes got wide. Scrambling to her feet, she ran off after Zeke, leaving Caleb sitting alone by the fire, a vampire looming over him.
Puzzled, Caleb craned his neck, looking back at me, and smiled. "Hi, Allie!" he said as I moved up beside him. "If you're looking for Zee, he just left. He'll be right back, though."
"Can I see that?" I asked, pointing to the leather-bound tome in his arms. Caleb hesitated.
"It's Zee's book," he said uncertainly, holding it tighter.
"He told me to watch it for him."
"I won't hurt it," I promised, kneeling in the cool grass.
He paused a second more, then brightened.
"Okay, but only if you read me something."
"I..." A part of me recoiled, remembering all those lessons with Stick, and how he stuck a knife in my back for my trouble. But I was still curious, and if this was the only way to see the book without tearing it out of Caleb's hands... "I guess so," I said, and Caleb beamed at me.
Handing it over, he scooted close and perched beside my leg, listening expectantly. Settling back, I gazed down at the leather-bound tome, the first real book I'd seen since f leeing New Covington. It didn't have a title, just the symbol of a gold cross gleaming in the center of the cover, much like the one Zeke wore around his neck. I held the book on its side and saw the edges of the paper were gilded gold, too.
"Read something, Allie," Caleb insisted, bouncing next to me. I rolled my eyes and opened the book with a crackling of pages, turning to where a ribbon bookmarked the middle.
It seemed as good a place to start as any.
I read slowly, for the letters were tiny and strange, a style I hadn't seen before, "'Again, I looked and saw all the oppres-sion that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed-and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-and they have no comforter.'" I felt a chill in my stomach. When was this passage written? The tears of the oppressed, and the power of their oppressors, with no comfort on either side. It seemed to be speaking about the entire world, right now. I swallowed hard and continued.
"'And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both...is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.'" I shivered and closed the book. Caleb watched me, a confused frown on his face. "What does that mean?" he asked.
that particular passage," said a new voice from above us, "was not meant for certain little ears." Embarrassed, I stood quickly, facing Zeke, who had walked up with a half amused, half concerned look on his face. "Go get dinner, rug rat," he told Caleb, who grinned and scam-pered off toward Ruth and the crowd that was gathering around her. Zeke looked at me, furrowing his brow, though his expression was more intrigued than upset. "I didn't know you could read," he said in a low voice.
I shrugged, holding out the book. "Kind of a depressing story," I said, unwilling to reveal how much it spooked me.
Zeke smiled as he accepted it.
"Some parts of it are," he agreed. "But there are others that can be quite comforting, if you know where to look."
He paused, then opened the book again, f lipping to a certain spot as if he had them memorized. "This one," he said, handing the book back to me, pointing to a certain line. "My favorite quote."
"Zeke!" called another voice, Ruth's this time, echoing shrilly over the campground. "Did you tell Darren he could have your share of the jerky?"
"What? No!" Zeke whirled around as Darren jogged away, laughing. As Zeke took off after him, Darren shouting he'd better catch up before he ate his share of the meal, I bent to the passage Zeke pointed out.
"'Yea,'" I muttered, stumbling over the archaic word,
"'though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me.'" A nice thought, I mused, watching the boys chase each other around the campground. But I knew better. Jeb was right; there was no one watching out for us. And the sooner Zeke came to realize that, the longer he would survive this hell.
The following evening, I crawled out of my tent to find Zeke and Darren crouched near the edge of camp, talking in low voices. Both looked as if they were trying to avoid attention, which of course piqued my curiosity. Brushing dirt from my sleeves, I ambled toward them.
"I knew this would happen," Darren muttered in a low voice as I approached. "We should've stocked up when we had the chance. Who knows when we'll come to another town?"
"What's going on?" I asked, squatting beside them. Zeke looked at me and sighed.
"Supplies are running low," he confessed. "At this rate, we'll run out of food in a couple days, even if we cut back the rations." He stabbed a hand through his hair, raking it back. "Darren and I are thinking of going hunting, but Jeb doesn't like the group to separate. Not when there's a chance we could run into rabids. Plus, we're using these," he added and held up a bow and a quiver of arrows. "Which makes it even harder. It's almost impossible to sneak up on deer in the open, but dusk is the best time to try to bring one down." Across from Zeke, Darren gave me a brief, sudden smile. I blinked and returned it. At least the two boys didn't seem to care about a certain person's gossip-mongering, though I'd never heard Ruth talking about me to Zeke or Jebbadiah.
"Why not use guns?" I asked, remembering Zeke's handgun, and the sawed-off shotgun Jeb carried around. Zeke shook his head.
"We're pretty low on ammo," he replied. "The only time we use firearms is for defense, or if it's an emergency. And since we're not quite there yet, it's bows and scavenged arrows for hunting."
I looked down. There was an extra bow lying on the ground, unstrung and poking out from the square of oiled cloth it was wrapped in. Zeke followed my look and sighed.
"Jake usually comes with us," he explained. "But lately, his shoulder's been bothering him and he doesn't have the strength to pull the cord back effectively."
"I'll come with you."
The boys exchanged a look. "I'm a fast learner," I added, ignoring Darren's raised eyebrow. "I'm quiet, and I'm stronger than you think. I'm sure I can get the hang of it."
"It's not that," Zeke said hesitantly. "It's just...I don't want to get you in trouble with Jeb, make him question his decision to let you stay with us." He jerked his thumb at the other boy. "Dare just follows me around like a lost puppy, so it's expected of him-" he dodged the dirt clump lobbed at his face "-but you're new and he won't like it if you wander away from the group. It's probably better if you stay here for now. I'm sorry."
Annoyed, I frowned at them both, vampire pride sting-ing. If you only knew. I could bring down a full-grown stag before the pair of you realized it was there. But I kept my opinions to myself and shrugged. "If you say so."
"Maybe next time, okay?" Darren offered, giving me a wink. "I'll show you how it's done." I bristled, but Zeke grabbed his bow and pushed himself to his feet.
"Let's get moving," he said with a stretch. "Jeb won't leave without me-I hope-so this is on my head if he wants to punish anyone. People have to eat, whether he likes it or not.
Allison," he added as I rose as well, "will you let Jeb know what we're doing?" He grinned at me. "After we're a good distance away, of course. Ready, Dare?"
"Sure." Darren sighed, slinging bow and quiver over his shoulder. "Let the exercise in futility begin." Zeke rolled his eyes and gave the other boy a half hearted shove as he turned away. Darren swung at him in return, overbalanced as the other dodged, and strode after him as Zeke jogged backward, grinning. I watched their lean forms fade into the darkness, getting smaller and smaller, until they vanished over the rolling hills.
Then I swooped down, grabbed the extra bow and quiver and turned in the other direction.
"What do you think you're doing?"
I sighed and looked over to where Ruth stood, two bowls of the night's dinner steaming in her hands, disapproving scowl firmly in place.
"Sneaking off, are you?" she demanded, narrowing her eyes. "Jeb won't like it. Where are you going?"
"Why don't you just make something up?" I said, taking a step forward, pleased when she hastily backed up. "That's what you've been doing all this time, right?" She f lushed, and my smile widened. "I notice you don't talk to Zeke or Jeb when you're spreading your lies. Afraid they'll see the forked tongue come out?"
She looked as if she wanted to slap me, and a part of me hoped she would. I bet she wouldn't be nearly so smug with a missing tooth. For a moment, she struggled to control herself, gripping the bowls of stew so that her delicate knuckles turned white. "I don't know what you're talking about," Ruth said at last, and I snorted. Glancing at the bow in my hand, she sneered at me and raised her chin. "You think you're going to bring something back? What do you know about hunting?
If you think Zeke will notice your pathetic attempt to show off, you're sadly mistaken."
"Yes, shooting a deer so the lot of you won't starve because of the delusional paranoia of a madman is me showing off." I rolled my eyes. "What a brilliant assumption. Why don't you go tell Jeb that?"