Authors: Katie French
Table of Contents
Text copyright © 2012 by Katie French All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher. For information visit www.katiefrenchbooks.com
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarities to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
August, 2012 Edition
Cover Design by Andrew Pavlik
Edited by Catherine Adams of
To my parents, who always believed I could
When the dust cloud appears, we know they are coming.
My mama and I spy the cloud churning up the road at the same time. Her potato peeler clatters to the porch floor, sending goose flesh over my arms. I stare at the cloud kicked up by dozens of approaching tires and then back to my mother. There’s no mistaking it. The fear is written on her face.
She grips my shoulder, hand already shaking. “Get in the cellar.” Her face tightens. “Now.”
Her rocking chair scrapes against the porch floorboards. She yanks open the screen door and runs into the house, yelling for my brother.
I stand up, my own hands trembling now. The advance of the dust cloud has me riveted, like an animal caught in headlights. It’s what we’ve drilled for, prepared for, whispered about at night. And now they’re coming.
My mama’s frantic screams pierce my thoughts. “Riley, the storm cellar! Hurry!”
I shake myself out of my stupor and force my jellied legs to move. Running into the house, I spy my stepfather, Arn, at the pitted kitchen table. He slips round after round into his hunting rifle, his calloused fingers fumbling for more in the box that holds too few. He drops one. It hits on the floor and rolls under the table.
“Gawddammit!” he swears. His leathery forehead wrinkles as he searches frantically.
I run over, grab it and hand it to him. The bullet feels cold against my hot palm.
His eyes latch onto mine and a sadness creeps over his face. This frightens me more than anything. He grabs our pistol off the table and thrusts it forward. “You’ll need this.” His eyes say one gun won’t be enough.
The revolver is heavy and solid in my trembling hand. I curl my fingers over the wooden grip, worn smooth with use. I let my index finger stray to the trigger, place my other hand under the grip like he taught me and aim at the dust cloud. I look up at him, unable to ask what I need to know.
In this moment Arn looks old. His sun-beaten face is carved by wrinkles and his forehead is dotted with sweat. The patched overalls sag on his too-thin body. Before this he was out milking the cow or mucking out the barn, mundane, boring tasks that I wish he could go back to now. Arn grabs both my shoulders and fixes me with frightened blue eyes. “You ’member what I taught you?”
“Is it the Breeders? It is, isn’t it?” My voice breaks with the terror that’s sticking to my insides and knotting my stomach. Arn says nothing. He doesn’t have to. His face tells me everything I need to know.
“I can fight.” The gun trembles, but I lock my elbows and grit my teeth. I want this chance to face the people who’ve been hunting us our whole lives.
Arn shakes his head, the lines around his mouth deepening. “Soon’s they see you, they’d kill the men and take the women. Get in the cellar. I’ll handle this.” His weathered hand squeezes mine. It’s the most affection he’s shown me in months. I savor the roughness of his palm. Then, quick as it came, he drops my hand and goes back to slipping bullets into his rifle, his eyes marking the approach of our enemies.
From behind me: “Riley?!” My mama is near hysterics.
“Coming!” I sprint through the old farmhouse, the boards moaning beneath my feet. I skid to a stop at our bedroom and scan it for my brother. Both beds lie empty. Ethan’s boots lie on their sides under his bed. His comic book is forgotten on the floor. He’d never leave it there on a normal day. But this isn’t a normal day. Angry motors growl closer. How soon before they get here? Minutes? Seconds?
I burst through the back door. The storm cellar sits fifteen paces from the house, dug deep in the ground. When we moved in six months ago, my mama showed us the cellar that, when shut, folds neatly into the dusty landscape. We’ve taken pains to camouflage the doors, but will it be enough?
The cellar doors yawn wide, revealing the dark earthen hole. My mama crouches at the cellar’s mouth, her hand-sewn cotton dress gathering around her knees. My little brother, Ethan, descends the ladder. His hand clutches her scarred one for a moment before he disappears into shadow. He’s gone. An urge to sob washes over me. I bite it back and run over.
My mama turns, searching for me. From this angle she is breathtaking in her loveliness. Her shoulder-length black hair shines in the hazy sunlight, and her left cheek is supple and pink. She’s a beauty queen, a
as Auntie says. It’s the other side of her face that marks the horrors she’s seen. Red angry burn scars travel her neck and face. Her skin bunches and grooves like a pitted dirt road. Her left ear is only a ragged, red hole. Yet, I rarely notice her burned face. This is the way she’s looked as long as I can remember.
I step to the edge of the cellar and peer at my brother. From the bottom of the hole, his eyes are wide as a jackrabbit’s caught in my snare. His lower lip trembles. He looks five instead of eight. “It’s okay,” I lie.
My mother grips my shoulder and presses down. “Get in.” Her voice is a choked whisper. She glances back at the dust plume. The gray cloud hangs huge, blocking out the horizon, a tornado set to tear our world apart.
I take a step back and narrow my eyes. “You first.”
“I have to get Bell.” She looks towards the upstairs window.
I grip her arm. “No! They won’t take Auntie. She’s too old.”
My mama pulls me to her chest in a brief hug. Then she scrambles out of my clutches. I claw for her dress, but she’s gone. “Don’t go!”
“I love you!” she yells over her shoulder, her voice full of tears. The back door thwacks as she disappears inside it.
“Come back!” I yell, but it’s too late.
I stare at the door, wondering if I’ll ever see her again. I take a step toward the house, but the truck motors rumble so close they rattle my molars. They will be here in seconds. And what my stepfather says is true. If they see me, they will stop at nothing to have me and I can’t put my family in danger.
Ethan whines, “Riley?”
I lower myself into the ground as tears streak the dirt on my cheeks. I draw the wooden shutters and the storm cellar plunges into darkness. Strings of light stream through the cracks of the rotting boards. This earthen hole reeks of damp soil and musty wood. A cobweb brushes my face. I cringe and bat at it as I step carefully to the bench where my brother is a small, dark shadow. Ethan crawls on my lap. He’s all arms and legs now, too big to curl onto his sister’s lap. His hands claw into my clothing, holding me so close I feel his heart flutter like a baby bird caught in his shirt. On a normal day I wouldn’t put up with baby stuff, but today is different. Today we might lose everything.
“Shh. Shh,” I murmur, until I remember we need to be silent. I grip Ethan to me with one hand and the gun with the other.
The engines shake the ground so hard I wonder if their trucks are parked on top of us. Dirt sifts through the cracks above. Brakes whine. Doors slam. Ethan trembles.
Husky voices raise the hair on my arms. They call out. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I can guess the tone, which right now is friendly enough. Where’s my mama and Auntie Bell? I can’t just sit here. I slip Ethan off my lap. He moans in protest, his fingers grasping at my clothes, pleading. I pry them off and slip up the ladder. A rung creaks under my weight, but the men are too far off and their voices too loud to hear me. I climb up and press my eye against the knothole.
From this angle I can see the road and our front porch. Three trucks idle in our driveway. They’re road gang trucks with big all-terrain tires and grates attached to the front for smashing everyone out of their way. A rusty blue F150 is pocked with bullet holes. A dark green Chevy has hooks welded to the bed rails and handcuffs slung through them. The handcuffs make me sick to my stomach.
A half-dozen men lean out of cabs. They wear leather road gear, buzzed haircuts and grimy goggles. A few have big crude tattoos. They glare forward, spit dust from their mouths and let their rifles drape loosely over their shoulders. They aren’t aiming at my house. Yet.
“Riley,” Ethan whispers behind me.
I wave one hand at him to be quiet, despite the dark. Then I turn back to the scene.
This gang’s leader, a meaty man with a bald head and worn leather jacket, stands on the porch with Arn. The thug has his boot up on the seat of Auntie’s rocker and he’s leaning on his knee as if he were shootin’ the breeze with a friend, but then there’s the nine-inch serrated blade on his hip. He smiles crookedly, and even from here I can see he’s missing half the teeth. His shaved head sports a crescent-shaped scar trailing from the corner of his mouth to his ear. His lapel winks in the sunlight. A gold star rests over his heart.
“Sheriff Tate,” I mouth. This is bad. Real bad. He’s the local arm of the Breeders. He delivers them girls and they keep him stocked in guns and ammo.
Sheriff Tate talks to Arn, though I can’t hear. He steps off the porch and clomps toward us, with Arn at his heels. I drop back down the ladder, stand in front of Ethan and point the gun toward the cellar door. Their footsteps crunch closer. I can’t breathe.
Ethan’s hand tightens around my arm, a vice grip.
Please, God, don’t let them find us,
Their boots crunch to a stop and veer right. Arn must be showing him our water pump. If the Sheriff takes another few steps this way, he’ll be able to see the hidden cellar. I listen in the darkness, hoping against hope that he’ll get a drink and go on his way.
The old pump creaks up and down as my stepfather draws water. This old farmhouse has its own windmill and well, which remarkably still produces fresh drinking water. It is why we can live out in this wasteland and not in town.
The Sheriff drinks and sighs in satisfaction. His heavy voice drifts through the cracks. “That’s fresh. Didn’t think clean wells still pumped ’round these parts. You shore got lucky.” His voice is resonant, like a roll of thunder. Beside me, Ethan squeezes my arm until it goes numb.
“Yep. Yep. Lucky.” My stepfather’s worn voice catches in his throat. Let him hold it together a few more minutes. Please.
“So, just yer lonesome on the homestead?”
I hold my breath. Ethan shifts nervously beside me.
“Yes, sir. The boy I took in died a few years ago. Rancher’s flu. Had a renter, but he cleared out some months back. Don’t mind the quiet.”
The men pause for an eternity. I glance down at Ethan. Even in this dim light I can see his face twisted with terror. If we get out of this, I’ll give him the caramel I’ve been saving since Christmas to lift that look off his face.
“Awful big house for a stiff such as yerself. Mind if we give ’er a look? Couple crim’nals we hoping to strap in irons.”
They’re looking for girls. Everyone’s looking for girls.
Arn blows out his breath. “Rather you boys be on your way. Got more milking to do.”
The Sheriff clucks his tongue. “Uh—uh. Milking’s a morning chore. Hiding something, are ya? We’ll jist take a peek.”
Sheriff Tate pushes a shrill whistle through his teeth. Boots thunk to the hard-packed dirt.
“Now hold on!” Arn yells.
I scramble up the ladder and press my shoulder to the cellar door. I steady my trembling hands. Ethan, the dull shadow beneath me, begins to cry. I flick my eyes away and swallow hard. I don’t care what happens to me, but nothing can happen to him. I couldn’t stand it.