Author's Note: While I've got several projects in the hopper, this is the story that keeps whispering to me in the dead of night. This will be one of my shortest at only four chapters, but there's something here that I can't shake, so let's do this. As always, let me know what you think here in the comments or over on Twitter (at virginiablk517).
Part 1 - A Quick Run
Bo took a deep, painful breath of freezing cold air and closed the lodge doors behind her with a clunk. The clouds that had brought five inches of new powder overnight were gone now. The sunlight was barely warm enough to feel on her skin, but it was bright and calming.
She fought the urge to smile and won, but it was close. It felt too damned wonderful to be out of the stifling warmth of the lodge’s common room packed in with the other residents. She winced when she realized she’d left her gloves inside, and could have gone back to get them, but it was quiet and peaceful out here. All eyes would be on her the moment she opened the door.
Though one pair of those eyes was more welcome than the rest.
She balled her frozen hands into fists, tucked them under her arms, and closed her eyes against the welcome glare.
A low whine from the access road grew louder as a vehicle approached. At the same time, the lodge door opened behind her. Bo probably looked like some kind of sun-worshipping hippie standing on the wide porch, letting the tiny bit of sun kiss her face. It wouldn’t be good for her reputation.
Bo opened her eyes as the thump of boots reverberated through the floorboards. A brush against her arm made her turn her head.
With a smile and a raised eyebrow, Lauren folded a pair of familiar gloves into Bo's hand, her touch warm against Bo's frozen skin. Lauren's long hair was tucked under a skullcap with the logo of a soccer team that didn’t exist anymore.
Bo wondered how Lauren had known about the gloves, as if Lauren had some kind of sixth sense attuned only to Bo. Then again, ever since Lauren had arrived at the lodge a few weeks ago, Bo herself always seemed to know where Lauren was.
Lauren had put on some weight since then and now had the build of a runner and not the emaciated refugee she’d appeared to be the week before Christmas. She wasn't dressed for the elements like Bo, and shivered in the cold. Lauren seemed taller from a distance, but this close, Bo found they were eye-to-eye. And right now, Lauren's dark eyes were as bright as her smile.
“Thanks,” Bo said, fighting off a blush at her forgetfulness.
An engine revved as something stopped in front of the main stairs, but instead of turning around, Bo watched Lauren looking at the new arrival. The smile on Lauren's face faded, then flared again as she nodded at Bo before heading back inside without a word.
Lauren never spoke. Not to anyone, not even Bo. She hadn’t spoken aloud during her entire stay at the lodge.
Bo sighed as she turned away from the doors.
Even though the driver was bundled in layers of outdoor gear, Bo knew who it was. Kenzi had taken the cover off the Jeep and the bulk of her coat and gloves and skullcap covered much of Kenzi's exposed skin, but long dark hair crept over lean shoulders.
“Just the bitch I want to see,” Kenzi said over the roar of the engine as she shifted into neutral. “You armed?”
“Yeah,” Bo said as she walked the few snow-covered stairs down to the gravel drive. She went nowhere without her pistol.
“Hop in.” Kenzi shifted the jeep back into first gear. She wasn’t wearing any of the harnesses or belts and danced a bit in her seat. “I want to make a run before the boys get back.”
“This late?” It wasn’t yet noon, but it was a bad idea to head out too late in the day. Too much of a chance of getting caught outside the perimeter after dark. Still, Bo climbed into the Jeep.
“Out and back,” Kenzi said, pulling away from the lodge. “Maybe two hours round trip. I found a new spot yesterday that I don’t think Dyson knows about yet. I want to see if there’s any good shit left. That bastard always gets first choice.”
Bo pulled the lap belt across her thighs and bolted herself in.
When Bo glanced back at the lodge doors, Lauren was standing behind the thick inlaid glass of the lodge doors.
Lauren waved. Bo didn’t wave back.
They rode the mile long drive to the perimeter’s barrier without talking. The wind made conversation difficult, and the roar of the old engine echoed off the side walls of snow piled up next to the road. The snow was half again as high as the Jeep, and Bo could only see the road ahead and the clear blue sky above.
When Bo saw the barrier, she didn’t have much to say anyway. The harsh reminder of their circumstances always drove any thoughts of conversation from her mind.
Welded metal stretching ten feet high marked the perimeter of the grounds of McCorrigan Lodge, the last human outpost in this region. The snow was cleared away ten yards from the wall and then a trench six feet deep lay right inside the boundary. The top of the wall was guarded by razor wire and spikes made of any metal that had been scrounged together - iron or steel, sharpened to points and designed to stop anything larger than a squirrel.
Anything that got over that wall would fall into the trench and get shot in the head seconds after.
Kenzi pulled up next to the command post. The guard, one of the younger boys who Bo knew had a crush on Kenzi, tried to look hard and official. Bo gave him thirty seconds before he caved.
He lasted almost a minute, then waved the gatekeepers to let the Jeep through.
Once they passed the gates, Kenzi picked up speed. The back end of the Jeep fishtailed a moment in the snow before Kenzi got it under control. Bo glared at the harsh treatment - her elbow had been bashed into the door - but Kenzi's eager grin kept her from saying anything.
“I feel like I’ve been cooped up in that lodge all fucking winter,” Kenzi shouted.
Bo agreed. During the summer months, many of the lodge residents would camp outside in tents and there was more privacy, but winter’s cold had driven almost everyone inside. Even though everyone had a job to do, the commons and barracks were crowded.
As nervous as she felt beyond the perimeter, Bo was glad to be outside. She did, however, wonder where the hell they were going.
Bo leaned toward Kenzi. “How did you even find this place?” After three years, everything in the area should have been stripped.
Kenzi didn’t turn her head as she navigated the roads. The asphalt had held up well considering maintenance in the area was now non-existent.
“I was walking the back ridge on patrol. Saw a falcon and pulled out the binoculars. It flew right over what looks like an old hunting cabin. Nowhere near the main roads.”
That didn’t sound good at all.
“So how the hell are we going to get there?” If Kenzi planned to drag her on some bullshit hike, Bo would make her pay.
Kenzi's crafty grin made her look like a movie villain as she patted one of the puffy pockets of her coat. “I found one of the old logging maps.”
Bo shook her head, but had to smile.
The old highway weaved through the woods and Bo tried to relax her body into the seat and enjoy the ride. On this side of the ridge, some low clouds hadn’t burned off yet and lay like cotton across the snow-covered pines. For a moment, she thought she might forget the world had changed, and there was no such thing as vacations in the mountains anymore.
The smile faded. She’d never forget.
“What did the mute want?”
Bo frowned. “Don’t call her that.”
“Bobo, she never fucking says anything. It’s creepy.”
“Maybe she can’t.”
“I think she can but won’t.”
Bo had wondered the same, but had never asked.
"And she's always staring at you," Kenzi said.
Bo didn’t want to talk about Lauren, mostly because she felt the urge to defend her but couldn’t say why. Kenzi was her best friend, and in the years since they’d met, they’d been inseparable. There were things they’d experienced together she could never share with anyone else, and there were almost no secrets between them.
Lauren was different, and Bo didn’t know how to explain it, but she knew all the glances she'd shared with Lauren didn't bother her as much as they seemed to bother Kenzi.
Kenzi turned right onto an old logging side road, and potholes and branches tested the Jeep’s shock absorbers.
“You sure you know where you’re going?” Bo asked.
“Yes! Quit worrying!” When the road straightened out a bit, Kenzi reached forward and fumbled at the stereo with her gloved hands. Somebody had left an ancient compact disc in the player - how old was this thing? - and a classic rock song played. Kenzi shrieked with glee and cranked up the volume.
“That’s stupid,” Bo yelled, even though she liked the song.
“It’s hours until sundown, and it’s just a short run. One song on eleven won’t kill us.”
Another side road, and change in terrain. The road sloped up, winding its way through the trees, and the ditch to the side of the road turned into a ravine with an ever increasing drop. Through the trees, Bo could see they’d switched back against the old two-lane highway, and the wider valley stretched beyond.
The Jeep wobbled over another obstacle. Kenzi navigated with skill, but Bo's nerves twitched with unease as she looked at the road ahead.
A huge brown blur sped across the road in front of the Jeep. Kenzi slammed on the brakes, and Bo felt the Jeep skid before she was knocked against the door and the dash several times. Pain bloomed in her head while Kenzi screamed.
Darkness came with the pain.
Something moved, taking Bo with it and waking her up. Pounding through her head with every heartbeat, the song’s verse blended into a chorus she’d sung countless times in days gone by. Then she remembered those days were over.
Bo opened her eyes.
The Jeep lurched again, and Bo gasped at her situation. The vehicle was sliding slowly down a ravine that ended in jagged rocks below. Kenzi wasn’t in the Jeep, but Bo was held in place by her lap belt, though her door had been flung open. When she shifted her weight to loosen the belt, the vehicle slipped again. She wasn’t sure she’d survive that drop and hastened to undo the latch.
It hurt to move, but she freed herself from the belt and climbed out of the jeep, falling to the snow-frosted ground and scraping her knees through her clothes on the underbrush. The Jeep picked up speed, bashing into several trees before it slammed nose-first into the rocks below. Instead of stopping, the disc player continued, but now the song had been aborted, and half a line from the chorus played on a loop.
With a hiss, she tried to stand. She wanted to yell for Kenzi, but that would make a sound. She wasn’t supposed to make noise in the woods - that’s why it’d had been stupid to play the music. Sound would draw attention, and attention meant a bloody death.
She looked around, though it hurt her head and worsened the ringing in her ears, but didn’t see Kenzi.
Up the ravine she climbed, trying to test each step before putting weight on it, worried she’d roll an ankle or worse before she got to the top. Finally, she made it back to the road, but with gut-wrenching clarity, she realized the headache was no longer her biggest problem.
A splash of color on the far side of the road made her look in that direction, and tears blocked her vision before she blinked them away. A large doe lay unmoving in the snow. Nearby, Kenzi had been thrown from the Jeep in the collision, and was sprawled across a fallen pine.
Bo stumbled across the road.
Kenzi was unconscious, a branch thick as a thumb sticking through one thigh, and her blood spilled over her jeans and into the snow.
In seconds, Bo assessed the horror of the situation. They were stranded outside the perimeter. Their transportation was shot. The sound of the loud music would attract the bloodsuckers the minute the sun went down, and the scent of the doe’s blood would bring them here. Kenzi was wounded, but even if they ran…
Bo was too terrified to curse. She checked her watch, an old wind-up her grandfather had given her years before.
It was five hours until sundown. Once the sun set, the bloodsuckers would come, and when they smelled blood, nothing but a bullet to the skull would keep them from following the trail.
Down in the ravine, the song skipped, echoing across the valley.
More to come...and thanks for reading! ~VB