Eighteen-year-old Oli cannot remember life outside the barrier, a life before the oil spill that poisoned human kind, killing half the population and infecting the other half until they deteriorated from the inside out, forced to walk the earth as Screamers. It’s a dangerous new world in which barely anyone makes it past the age of twenty, and Oli’s time is running out.
Studying the Bible, Oli searches for words to help restore faith in a lost world, and when she receives a message from God telling her to leave the barrier, she knows what she must do. There’s only one problem: Her best friend, Coi, doesn’t believe her, and he’s showing the first signs of infection. But before she can convince him to leave with her, the Governor quarantines Coi and orders his execution.
Oli risks it all to rescue Coi, and they set out to find sanctuary away from the safety of the compound, not knowing who or what will get to them first: the Governor, the illness, or the Screamers. When they stumble upon a group of uninfected humans hidden among the rubble of an apartment building, they think they’ve found their salvation. But not everything is as it seems, and their enemies are closer than they thought.
Read the excerpt…
I’d worked in the garden all day, digging up dry, hard dirt in an attempt to thin out weeds that were indistinguishable from the edible plants. I sat back on my heels and looked around at the others digging with sticks and crude tools bent from scraps of metal. I thought back to a history book I’d found in the school across the street from where our tiny speck of civilization sat. The pictures of the cities were faded, but the grandeur couldn’t be dulled. The sun shone from the great heights of the buildings like stars guiding people through their lives. Lives that were full and held the hope of growth and diversity. Lives that were lost, and lives I would never know. I devoured news from the past. I’d read every book I could find until the day the Governor took over and sent the Guard in to gather them all and burn them in a huge bonfire to show us the past no longer mattered.Only the future mattered now. The future he would make for us.
I’d hidden a few of my favorite books and then ripped out pictures that spoke to me of what could be once more. I had them in my pockets until the day one fell out and the Guard, a group of empowered teenagers doing the dirty work for the Governor, found them. My arms were bound to a table in the middle of the compound, and my hands were hit with a switch twenty times before I was left as an example. My transgression—hope—was the first of the rules scratched on to the wall of rules. Of course, it said act of defiance.
Defiance of what?
Defiance of a rule that took the past and left it there?
I kneeled at the table until dusk when my friends, Bliss and Coi, were allowed to release me. I was expected to continue my duties in the garden the next day as if my hands weren’t sore, swollen, and bloody; as if nothing had transpired.
Take your punishment and step back into the predictable path of your life.
I was much more careful after that and folded the photographs until they were small squares and hid them among my possessions, only giving myself the luxury of carrying one hidden deep in my pocket. After more than ten years behind these fences, we had little to show other than a belief system that was the backbone to salvation slowing being taken from us. Even though I didn’t agree with rules outlined and constantly being revised without question or input from those living under them, this was the only home I’d known since arriving when I was nine.
It was desolate and dying a little more every day, but it was a refuge for those of us who refused to give up a chance of survival. We paid for our residence through tedious chores that never seemed to get us closer to breaking the barrier between survival and living. Every day we woke to the monotonous tasks, doing what needed to be done to earn our place and not be forsaken into the abyss of death waiting outside our fences.
Most days, I found my refuge in the skeleton of a school just outside the safety zone of the chain link. A place once filled with knowledge and guidance but now a shell of a world left far behind.
Dusk had settled, along with a light drizzle. I’d left my tools in the shed after my chores and had spent the last hours of daylight in the school with History books and the Bible I had hidden deep in the bowels of a dilapidated classroom. I’d found loose pages in a pile of trash that listed the nine things needed before a world was considered a civilization; a written language, a belief system, a stable food supply, government, art, ways to improve life, a social structure, lasting settlements, and a trade or economics. If this list was accurate, we had a long way to go before we were considered anything more than a group of young people camping in the middle of what used to be a sports field. I began to cross over the make-shift bridge the Guard had strung between the school and the rickety guard tower they’d erected. I usually slipped through the gate to walk the short distance across the road and through the doors of the school, but I’d waited too long and the path back to the barrier was filled with the infected, the screeching noise of their breathing, earning them the name Screamers, floated up from the road below. I stopped, daring to look down at the small space between my feet and the dozens of clawing fingers reaching up in the small chance they could snag my pants or a shoelace and bring me to my death. I inched forward, hearing the deep rasp of a cough before I saw the figure waiting on the other side of the bridge. I glanced up at the clouds, darkening as they filled with the poisoned rain they would tease us with. A wetness that wouldn’t bring life but instead kill the small plants we nurtured and damage the health of the young who eagerly drank from the barrels before the water was purified.
The cough came again, and as I neared the other side, the tall figure of my best friend, Coi, emerged.
“Bliss missed her work duty for the day,” his words came out quickly.
“I’ll find her.” I didn’t wait for an explanation, there wasn’t time. I needed to find her before Bliss’s punishment became a new revision on the wall of rules.
Coi grabbed my arm, stopping me. “I was sent after her. She’s at the fence but won’t come back with me. I can’t stall the Guard long.”
“I told you, I’ll get her.” I stomped down the stairs and took off at a run.
It was her first absence in months, so the punishment would more than likely be a warning. I prayed it would be a warning and nothing more, but I needed to make sure if she was doing anything more than missing work that I got to her before anyone else did. I needed to know she was okay and keep her that way. It didn’t take long to find her. The barrier wasn’t that big.
“Missed you at the garden today,” I said quietly, walking up behind her. Bliss was eleven, and I’d practically raised her even though I was a kid myself. She was sitting on the ground watching a small group of Screamers milling around a pile of… of something I didn’t want to know what it was. The barrier was surrounded by trees that, at one time, I was sure provided a cool shade from the sun. Now the needles were red with what looked to be the same fate as us. The school we’d settled in was away from a town I assumed lay out past the trees. I’d always thought it was why it was chosen in the early years… for its seclusion. No one alive today had ever gone farther than the school across the broken road. Very few buildings lay further, a long patch of runway from what use to be an airstrip, but legend had it the large metal buildings housed a mass of those who died from infection, and going that far from the barrier was listed on the wall of laws, so no one I knew ever ventured that way.
“There’s plenty of people to clean the gardens. You don’t need me,” she muttered. Her fingers were laced into the metal links of the fence, her eyes glued to the slumped figures across a small dirt patch.
“It’s best we leave them to…”
“To what?” Bliss questioned. Her mood concerned me. Bliss was the happy one. The one whose real name I couldn’t even remember. We all called her Bliss because of her never ending cheer.
I looked at the ground, the water collecting in rounded mounds over the caked earth, not yet soaking into the tightly pressed dirt, and wondered the same thing. It was best we let them be. It was best we left them to do whatever it was they did without anyone watching. “I don’t know, Bliss, but you don’t want to watch them.”
Bliss turned to me. “Our existence means nothing if we don’t honor the dead.”
I tried not to flinch at her words. “Honor the dead?”
“They were just like us until their luck changed. I don’t think they mean to hurt us. They want to survive… so do we.”
I looked at a woman who stood swaying slowly back and forth on the other side of the barrier. Her face was unrecognizable, but even with clothes in tattered strips and covered in mud, I knew who she was. This woman had been the last of what would be considered an adult in our small community of safety. I sighed again and understood what had kept Bliss from her work. The woman had been Bliss’s aunt.
I didn’t want to argue the fact that their need to survive was futile seeing as they were as good as dead, infected with a sickness that if there was a chance of a cure, we certainly didn’t have any way of finding it, but I also didn’t want to agree with her. The Governor had been in control for a few short years, and words used when discussing the methods he had for removing those who questioned him had to be chosen more carefully these days.
Bliss stared out into the growing darkness. “She didn’t do anything wrong.”
“She questioned,” I said quietly.
“And is that so wrong?”
I shook my head no, but in my heart I knew it was dangerous to question the Governor and his methods. I understood his need to control us. In the beginning, there was no organization and mistakes were made that we continue to pay for today.
“She told the guard she was too sick to work. She snuck out when they were watching the gate.” She glanced up at me. “She was with child.” Her big eyes blinked and a tear fell. “I would have had a cousin.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but words had left me. I wasn’t sure where to start on the list of disturbing questions her words put in my head. The biggest being why she thought her aunt had had a choice in her exile. Finally, I said, “I’m sorry.”
“It was her terms not theirs.” Bliss let out a long breath, releasing her negativity. “Tell me something good.” She wiped at her cheeks with one hand. Her knuckles whitened as she gripped the fence tighter with the other. I placed my hand over hers. When darkness fell completely and the Screamers became frenzied for food, they would come for something as small as a finger. Even the smallest scratch from their infected nails could cause the infection to spread.
“You’re here for a reason. If you weren’t supposed to be here, you wouldn’t be,” I said.
The rasps of the Screamers were getting louder as the sky became fully dark and the rain began.
“Please, Bliss,” I whispered. “Please. Come to dinner with me.”
One of the Screamers came to us, head cocked to the left, jaws chomping at nothing. Bliss took a step back, finally letting go of the fence.
The vacant eyes of the walking corpses drew me in. Many called them lost souls, but they weren’t. These were empty shells of people. People who’d been loved. I’d spent many hours looking into the weeping, yellow eyes of the sick, trying to understand. But when there is nothing in them, there’s nothing to find.
“Please,” I said again.
Bliss didn’t divert her eyes from where they stared. “You can go, Oli.”
“No. Come with me.”
She turned and met my stare. “I need her to know I’m here. I’ll survive for her, and I want her to get strength from that.”
I pressed my lips to her temple. “I love you, Bliss. But you can’t be found here. Illness is the only excuse for absence. You can’t stay.”
Reluctantly, she agreed and returned with me to the large building where dinner was waiting. The Screamers rarely returned to the barrier. Her aunt had slipped away in the morning. Escaped, we told ourselves. Trying to find others and then return with a great flourish to tell us the world had returned just a few miles down the road. It was best we kept those dreams alive. It was better than the alternative, the one where the Guard led her into the vacant world outside our walls without even a simple weapon. No one who left ever returned. The Guard made sure of that, and I highly doubted it was her aunt. This was just a woman wearing the same dress who happened upon us. I looked down at my own clothes and wondered if this was an outfit I wanted to wear while I walked the earth as a Screamer.