"No, don't waste ammo," he warned, eyes narrowed as he peered past the smoke and f lames from below. "They're too far out still, and it's nearly impossible to kill them in one shot. Let 'em come closer, get a good bead on them, before you start firing. We might not need to shoot at all." The rabids suddenly jerked to a halt, gazing at the wall with blank, hungry expressions. Zeke and Darren kept their guns trained on them, but it seemed the rabids knew just how close they could be without getting fired on. They skirted the edge of the field, keeping just out of reach, ducking behind trees and into bushes, never getting close enough for a clean shot.
Beside me, Zeke made a noise that was almost a growl. I stared at him in amazement. His shoulders were stiff, tense, and his eyes glittered with hate. "Come on," he muttered, and the cold rage in his voice shocked me. "Come a little closer, just a few more steps."
"Easy, boy," Larry soothed. "Don't be too eager. We don't want to attract more with the commotion." Zeke didn't answer, his entire focus on the rabids below.
He seemed different now; the smiling, easygoing boy I knew was gone. In his place stood a dark stranger with cold, ruthless eyes, his expression frozen into a f linty mask. Watching him, I felt a stab of apprehension. In that moment, he looked very much like Jeb.
"They've gotten wise to us," Larry muttered, squinting to see past the f lames into the darkness. "A few years ago, there were a whole lotta them, and they'd come rushing up to the walls, searching for a way in, all night. We picked off several-damn things are hard to kill-before we got the fire idea. They still hang around-" he jerked his thumb toward the edge of the forest "-but they very rarely come close anymore. Mostly, they check to see if we have the fire going, and then they leave. Look, there they go." I watched the rabids melt back into the woods, disappearing into the trees. The tension left Zeke and Darren's shoulders, and they straightened, lowering their guns, though Zeke looked disappointed.
"They'll come back," Larry said, not weary or resigned.
Just a statement, a simple fact. "They always do." He tapped Darren's shoulder. "Come on, then, Darren was it? Let's get back to our post. Sometimes the monsters creep around and come at us again from the other side, sneaky bastards." Darren and Larry climbed down from the platform and shuff led back to their own, Larry already pointing out more rabid "strategies," if you could call them that. Zeke set down his rif le and leaned next to me against the railing, our shoulders barely touching as we gazed out over the fields.
"They have a nice life here," he said, and his voice wasn't mocking or sarcastic. It was almost wistful, envious. I snorted and crossed my arms, hiding the unease of a moment before.
"What, you mean with the wall and being penned in like sheep, and the constant threat of rabid invasion? It's like a miniature New Covington, except there are no vampires here." Except one.
"They have a home," Zeke said, giving me a sideways look.
"They have a family. They've carved out their own lives, and yeah, it might not be completely perfect or safe, but at least they have something that belongs to them." He sighed and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "Not like us, constantly wandering around, never knowing what we'll find or what comes next. Not having a home to go back to." The longing in his voice was palpable. I felt his shoulder against mine, our arms brushing together, the heat radiating from him. We didn't look at each other, keeping our gazes on the looming forest. "What was home for you?" I asked softly. "Before all this, before you started looking for Eden.
Where did you live?"
"A little yellow house," Zeke murmured, his voice sounding distant. "With a tire swing in the front yard." He blinked, giving me an embarrassed look. "Ah, you don't want to hear about it, do you? It's pretty boring. Nothing special." I gave him a puzzled look. My whole life, I thought there was nothing beyond the vampire cities but wilderness and rabids. The fact that there were other settlements out there, other towns, no matter how scattered, gave me hope. Maybe the world wasn't as empty as I'd first thought.
But I didn't tell him that. I just shrugged and said, "Tell me about it."
He nodded, paused a moment, as if gathering memories.
"I don't remember much," he began, gazing out into the darkness. "There was a community down in the hollow of a mountain range. It was fairly small, everyone knew each other. We were so isolated, we didn't even think about rabids and vampires and things happening on the outside. So when the rabids did come, no one was prepared for it. Except Jeb." Zeke stopped and took a quiet breath, his eyes far away and dark. "They came to our house first," he mused. "I remember them scratching at the windows, tearing down the walls to get in. My mom or my dad hid me in a closet, and I listened to their screams through the door." He shivered, but his voice was calm, as if this had happened to someone else, and he was detached from the boy in the story.
"The next thing I clearly remember was the door opening and Jeb standing there, staring down at me. He took me in, and we lived there for several years."
"Is that where the rest of the group came from?"
"Mostly." Zeke gave me a sideways glance. "There were more of us at first, and some like Darren we picked up along the way. But, yes, the majority of us came from that town.
After the rabid attack, people were scared. They didn't know what to do. So they started listening to Jeb, coming to him for help, pleading for his advice. In time, it became a weekly thing, where we met in the old church for an hour or so and listened to him talk. Jeb didn't want to be a preacher again, he told everyone that. But people kept coming. And after a while, he sort of...gained a following."
"But...Jeb believes God has abandoned the world, that He's not here anymore." I gave Zeke a confused look. "I can't imagine that went over well."
"You'd be surprised." Zeke shrugged. "People were desperate for some sort of guidance, and it wasn't as bleak as you might think. Jeb believes that, even though God is no longer watching us, we have to keep fighting the evil while we're here. That we can't let ourselves become tainted by the demons. That it's the only way to have a shot at eternity when we die."
He smiled faintly. "He did have some rather strong opposition, but it didn't seem to bother him. Jeb was never really attached to the town, not like me. Now that I think about it, I don't think he ever meant to stay long. Not with what he was teaching me."
"What did he teach you?"
"Everything I know-how to shoot, how to fight. We would go out to the hills behind the town, in the daylight, of course, and he would show me how to survive in the wilderness. I shot my first rabbit at the age of six. And I cried all the way through cleaning it.
"But," he continued, "that evening, our neighbor took that skinny carcass and made a stew out of it, and we sat around our kitchen table and ate it all. And Jeb was so proud." Zeke chuckled, self-conscious, and shook his head. "That was home to me, crazy as it sounds. Not this endless wandering. Not a faceless city that we might never find." He sighed heavily, glancing back toward the barn, and the burden on his face was almost overwhelming. "So, anyway," he finished, shaking off his melancholy as he looked back to the woods, "that's why I think the Archers have a good thing here. Rabids and walls and fire and everything." He finally looked at me then, smirking and defiant. "So, go ahead-tell me I'm a sentimental idiot if you want, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it."
"You're not," I replied. "I think you're too hard on yourself, and that Jeb shouldn't expect you to keep everyone alive and safe and happy, but I don't think you're an idiot." He smiled, a real one this time, though his voice remained teasing. "So, what do you think I am?" Naive, I thought at once. Naive, brave, selfless, incredible-
and much too kind to survive this world. It'll break you in the end, if you keep going like this. Good things never last.
I didn't say any of these things, of course. I just shrugged and muttered, "It doesn't matter what I think." Zeke's voice was soft, almost a whisper. "It matters to me." I looked at him. His eyes were stormy blue in the moonlight, his hair a pale silver-blond. The cross glimmered against his chest, winking metallically as if in warning, but I couldn't tear my eyes from his face. Slowly, he let go of the railing and leaned in, reaching up to brush a strand of hair from my cheek.
His fingers grazed my skin, and warmth shot through me like an electrical jolt. I heard his heart thudding in his chest, the pulse throbbing beneath his jaw. His scent was everywhere, overwhelming; heat and blood and life, and a distinct, earthy smell that was uniquely him. I imagined kissing him, trailing my lips down to his throat, a rush of hot blood f looding my mouth. I felt my fangs lengthen, even as I leaned in.
Ruth's voice shattered the stillness, jerking us apart and bringing me to my senses. Horrified, I rose and stepped to the edge of the platform, facing the wind. What the hell was I doing, playing with fire like this? Biting the preacher's son was an excellent way to get myself excommunicated and hunted down. Jeb was ruthless when it came to moving on, but I had the feeling he would make an exception for me.
Even worse, Zeke would know what I was-and he would hate me for it.
And, a dark little corner of my mind whispered, what if you had bitten him and couldn't stop? What if you had drawn every bit of light and warmth into yourself, and when you were done, nothing was left of him?
I shuddered and willed my fangs to retract, stif ling the desire and the Hunger that came with it. I thought back to our almost kiss and had to wonder: would I have kissed him, or would I have leaned in those final inches to tear out his throat?
"Zeke!" Ruth called again, oblivious to the scene up top,
"Miss Archer wants me to remind you that the fire outside the wall needs to be fed. The woodpile is back behind the water cistern. I can show you where it is if you want to come down."
"I'll go," I said quickly as Zeke leaned over the railing to call back to Ruth. He stopped and gave me a puzzled look, but I turned away toward the ladder before he could say anything. If Ruth wanted alone time with Zeke, so be it. She could have her chance. Right now, I had to get away from him, before we both did something we'd regret.
"Allison," Zeke said softly, stopping me. I glanced up at him from the ladder, and found him looking at me with a sad, confused expression. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I shouldn't have...I thought..." He trailed off with a sigh, raked a hand through his hair. "Don't go?" he pleaded, giving me a hopeful smile. "I'll behave, I promise."
But I can't. I shook my head and climbed down, leaving my rif le up top against the rails. I felt Zeke's eyes on me as I left, but I didn't look at him.
Naturally Ruth glared at me as I descended, but I ignored her, too, continuing toward the water cistern at the far corner of the lot. Her shoes clumped against the ladder as she climbed up to join Zeke, and I forced myself to keep walking. Hopefully, Ruth's single-minded adoration would distract Zeke from coming after me, though a part of me wished he would.