First things first, though, and that was surviving.
Several minutes later, Rat and Lucas finally showed up.
Both were panting, and Rat glared daggers at me as he dropped from the ladder, his beady eyes filled with fear and hate.
"What happened?" I asked, narrowing my eyes as Lucas came down the tube.
"Ran into a couple pets near the broken statue," he muttered as he dropped beside me, wiping sweat from his brow.
"They followed us several blocks before we lost them in the park. Everyone up there is twitchy. Wish I knew what was going on."
"This is stupid," Rat broke in, his gaze darting up and down the tunnel, as if it was about to close on him. "We shouldn't be going...out there."
"Should we go back?" Stick whispered.
"No," I snapped. "If we don't do this now, who knows when we'll get another chance."
"How do we even know she's telling the truth?" Rat continued, switching tactics now that he couldn't scare me into giving up. "A whole basement of food? Gimme a break." His lips twisted. "Girls don't know what to look for out there.
Maybe she saw a few empty cans and jumped to conclusions.
Maybe she's too scared to go by herself and needs a big strong guy to keep her safe."
"Keep talking, moron. I think it's funny when you use big words."
"Will you two shut up?" Lucas snapped, showing how on edge he was. "We're wasting time! Allie, you know the way, right?" He motioned me down the tunnel. "After you." The sky was considerably darker when we crawled out of the drainage ditch into the open, gazing around warily.
Overhead, slate-gray clouds massed together, and a f licker of lightning lit up the ground.
"There's a storm coming," Lucas muttered unnecessarily, as a growl of thunder followed his statement. I muttered a curse. Back in New Covington, the rain would fill the wells and cisterns of the sectors, but it also drew more things out into the open. "And the sun is going down. We have to do this now. "
"Come on," I said, pushing through weeds and brush and chest-high grass to reach the top of the bank. They followed, scrambling up the ditch until we came to the edge and the tangled, empty ruins sprawled out before us, silent and menacing in the fading light.
Rat swore and Stick was breathing hard, almost hyperven-tilating. "I can't do this," he whispered, edging away toward the ditch. "I can't go in there. I have to go back. Let me go back."
"I knew it," Rat sneered. "Pissing little coward. Totally useless. Let him run home, but he sure ain't getting my share of the food."
Lucas grabbed Stick's arm before he could run away. "Rat's right. You do this, don't expect a share of anything we bring back."
"I don't care," Stick panted, his eyes wide. "This is crazy.
The sun is about to go down. You're all going to be killed."
"Stick," I said, trying to be reasonable, "you don't know the way back. Are you going to go through the tunnels in the dark? Alone?"
That seemed to get through to him. He stopped fighting Lucas and cast a fearful glance at the dark entrance to the sewers. Shoulders sagging, he looked up at me, pleading. "I don't want to," he whispered. "Let's go back, Allie, please. I have a bad feeling about this."
Rat made a disgusted noise, and my annoyance f lared.
"No," I said f latly. "We keep moving. There's still some light left. We're not going back without that food." I looked at Stick with an encouraging smile. "Wait till you see how much there is-it'll be worth it."
He still looked terrified but followed silently as we sprinted through the cracked, tangled streets, leaping over roots and weaving between rusty cars to beat the coming storm. A small herd of deer scattered before us as we hurried down the sidewalk, and a f lock of crows took to the air with startled, screaming cries. But other than that, the ruins were still except for our footsteps pounding over the cement and our own raspy breathing.
As I led them through the overgrown yard to the crumbled shed, the first raindrops began to fall. By the time we had crowded into the tiny building, a deluge was drumming the tin roof and pouring in through the holes. I clicked on the f lashlight as I descended the ladder into the basement, half-terrified that when we got there the food would be gone. But everything was as I had left it: a section of shelf lay broken on the cement, and cans were scattered everywhere, glinting in the f lashlight beam.
"Holy shit." Rat shoved past me, stumbling into the room.
His mouth dropped open as he scanned the wall of tins, his eyes gleaming hungrily. "The bitch wasn't kidding. Look at all this."
"Is that...all food?" Stick asked timidly, picking up a can.
And before I could reply, Rat shocked me with a wild, high-pitched laugh.
"It sure is, piss-wad!" Snatching the can from Stick's fingers, he pried the top open and shoved it back at him. "Check that out! Tell me that's not the greatest thing you've ever seen!" Stick blinked in astonishment, nearly dropping the opened can, but Rat didn't seem to notice. Grabbing two more tins from the f loor, he wrenched the tops away and started digging into them with long dirty fingers.
"We don't really have time for this," I cautioned, but not even Lucas was listening now, busy tugging the lid off his own can. Stick gave me an apologetic look before scooping out handfuls of beans, devouring them with as much gusto as Rat, whose face was now smeared with a slimy coating.
"Guys!" I tried again. "We can't stand around stuffing our faces all night. We're almost out of time." But they were deaf to my arguments, drunk on the amount of food and the prospect of filling their stomachs. That's what being Unregistered teaches you; when you find food, you eat as much of it as you can, because you don't know when your next meal might be. Still, all I could think of was how they were fat-tening themselves up for the things that wanted to eat u s.
Outside, the storm had picked up, howling against the walls of the shed, and water began to drip through the trapdoor. It was very dark up top, a dimming twilight, the clouds hiding what little sun remained. I peered up the steps, narrowing my eyes. The spaces between the slats were almost impossible to see in the darkness, but I thought I saw something move outside the wall. It could've been a tree branch, blowing in the wind, or it might've been my imagination.
I clicked off the f lashlight. The room plunged into shadow.
There was a startled yelp from Stick, and then a moment of silence as everyone finally realized what was happening.
"Something is out there," I said into the stillness, very aware of my own heartbeat thudding against my ribs. And, for just a moment, I wondered why I'd been stupid enough to lead everyone here. Stick was right. This had been a mistake. In the darkness, with the rain screaming outside, the piles of food didn't seem important enough to die for. "We have to get out of here now."
"Get the packs." Lucas's voice was gruff, embarrassed, as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I shot him a glance, and it was difficult to see his face in the shadows, but he must've seen my expression. "We're not leaving empty-handed," he said, "but let's do this as quickly as possible. Take as much as you can, but don't pack so much it slows you down.
We're not going to get it all in one trip, anyway." I started to say something, but he cut me off with a sharp gesture. "Let's move, people!"
Without arguing, Rat and Stick knelt and began stuffing their packs with cans, moving as quietly as they could. After a moment, I unzipped my bag and joined them. For several minutes, the only sounds were the scuff le of hands in the dark, the clink of metal on metal and the rain beating the roof overhead.
I could hear Stick's frightened breathing, Rat's occasional curses as he dropped cans in his haste to stuff them into the packs. I said nothing to anyone as I worked, only looking up when my bag was full. Zipping it up, I hefted it onto my shoulders, wincing at the weight. It might slow me down a bit, but Lucas was right; we'd come too far to leave empty-handed.
"Everyone ready?" Lucas asked, his gruff voice sounding low and small in the darkness. I looked around as Rat and Stick finished zipping their packs and stood up, Stick grunt-ing a little under the weight of his half-full bag. "Let's get out of here, then. Allie, lead the way."
We left the basement, inching up the steps to the ruined shed. Water poured in from the storm, running in streams from the roof, splashing over everything. Somewhere in the darkness, droplets kept striking a metal bucket with a rhyth-mic ping-pinging sound. It sounded like my heartbeat; rapid, frantic.
A gust of wind blew open the door with a creak, knocking it into the side of the building. Beyond the frame, the ruins were blurry and dark.
I swallowed hard and stepped out into the rain.
Water drenched me in half a second, sliding down my neck and f lattening my hair. I shivered and hunched my shoulders, striding through the tall, wet grass. Behind me, I heard the others following my steps as I pushed through the weeds.
Lightning f lickered overhead, turning everything white for a split second, showing rows of ruined houses side by side before plunging everything into darkness once more.
Thunder boomed. As the rumble faded, I thought I heard another sound, somewhere to my left. A faint rustle that didn't come from my friends behind me.
Something brushed against my jeans in the grass, something hard and pointy. I jerked away and clicked on the f lashlight, shining it at whatever snagged me in the darkness.
It was a hoof, small and cloven, attached to a hind leg that led to the gutted carcass of a doe lying on her side in the weeds. Her stomach had been torn open, and intestines spilled from the hole like pink snakes. Her eyes, glazed and dark, stared sightlessly up at the rain.
"Allie?" Lucas whispered, coming up behind me. "What's going- Oh, shit!"
I swung the light around, taking a breath to shout a warning to the others.
Something pale and terrible rose from the grass behind Rat, all limbs and claws and shining teeth. Before he knew what was happening, it yanked him off his feet. I didn't even have time to shout before he vanished into the weeds and darkness with a yelp.
Then he began to scream.
We didn't pause. We didn't waste breath to scream out the word. The grass around us started to move, rustling madly as they came toward us, and we just ran. Behind us, Rat's agonized shrieks abruptly cut off, and we didn't look back.
I reached the chain-link fence surrounding the yard and vaulted over it, landing unsteadily as the bag's weight nearly toppled me over. Lucas was right behind me, using both hands to launch himself over the top. Stick scrambled over and fell in the dirt on the other side but bounced to his feet in an instant and followed me as we ran.
Lucas's scream made me look back. His backpack had caught on the prongs at the top of the fence, and he was yanking at it madly, his eyes huge and frantic. I glanced at Stick, sprinting away into the darkness, and swore.
"Just leave the damn bag!" I shouted, stepping toward Lucas, but my voice was drowned in a roar of thunder overhead, and Lucas continued to yank on it, terrified. "Lucas, leave the pack already! Just get out of there!" Understanding dawned on his face. He shrugged out of the straps, just as a long white arm whipped over the links and grabbed his shirt, dragging him back against the fence.