Nickolas yelped as his favorite aide fell to the floor. Blood gushed from his nose.
“Mr. Forrest, are you okay?”
The middle-aged man grasped his throat with both hands, his face turning red with white blotches. “Get help.”
Nickolas ran from his room and down the hall. All around him, people in white uniforms like Mr. Forrest were sprawled across the floor. Most of them had been there for weeks. Most of them were dead.
The sickness worked faster in some than others. He dodged a pair of hands that tried to catch the leg of his pants as he went by. Flies buzzed around his face. His eyes watered and his stomach clenched. The doorway used to be his favorite place. There, he could watch the people who would come to visit his friends. Now it gave him nightmares.
Mr. Forrest had assured Nickolas that he wasn’t going to get sick like the others, but now there wasn’t anyone else left to take care of him and that brought on a panic that shook his whole body. He tried to breathe like they’d taught him to, but it was hard. All he wanted to do was curl up in a dark corner and close his eyes. But Mr. Forrest needed help.
Wrapping his arms across his chest, his habitual rhythmic nod took up a silent beat as he forced himself to keep walking.
Amanda sat at the desk by the courtyard where Mr. Sam, who kept them safe inside the home, used to sit. He’d left days ago and he’d taken the keys with him.
Mr. Forrest wanted to go home to his wife and two boys. He hadn’t been happy about getting locked in. None of them were. But Mr. Sam said it was for their own good. The television showed riots in the streets, buildings burning, bodies outside in piles. Inside might be safer, but Nickolas longed for the fresh air and sunshine of the courtyard.
“He’s dead. Like everyone else.” She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Her big blue eyes looked up at him through blonde bangs that hung almost to the top of her nose.
“Jackson said so.” Tears welled in her eyes.
“Where is he? Mr. Forrest needs help.”
“How? The doors are all locked.”
There was only one body in the hallway to the day room. Most of the staff had gone to the doors. A few had made it out before Mr. Sam had locked them inside. Some of Nickolas’s friends had too, their families coming for them soon after the first people started to get sick.
Father Frederick brought them to the parking lot where he opened the back door of a big white van. Four other people sat inside, young like the three of them. One of them wore a hospital robe, the others had real clothes. They all looked tired and worried.
“Hop in,” Father Frederick said. “We’ve got a little over an hour drive ahead of us. Not too long and we’ll be there.”
They watched as he spoke with two of the soldiers, pointing to the van now and then. One of the men in camouflage came over and poked his head inside. When he saw them, he smiled.
Jackson noticed too. He slowed and turned to female soldier beside them. “Why isn’t he coming with us?”
If you have read this far and you haven't yet read the novel itself, I urge you to pick up a copy before reading on.
Lucas approached the pale form on his father’s bed, his sweating palms held firmly at his sides. He hoped his mother didn’t notice. “Papa?”
“I’m okay, Lucas, don’t be scared.” The big man struggled to set up and settled for bunching the pillows behind his head. “They tell me I’ll be fine.” He smiled the same smile that had always warmed Lucas inside.
His father might be odd, some called him slow, the ones at the fortress whispered the word Simple, but no one dared say those things to his face. Joshua was a legend, that’s what the others called him, the stragglers they traded with. That word he didn’t mind, though he would shake his head and tell them that wasn’t true. But Lucas had grown up hearing stories from the others who had followed his father from the life they’d known, both those who had lived in the fortress and the ones who had once been known as Wildmen. It was hard having a legend for a father.
And his father had been ill for weeks. Now the trading time was upon them and his shoulders stiffened with what he knew his father was about to ask.
“You know I can’t go to watch over the trades. Your mother won’t let me. I need you to go for me, Lucas.” He held out his hand.
Lucas crept closer and took it, his own fingers engulfed in the giant hand. No matter that he was sixteen and near full grown himself, his father had always been a big man. He always would be, Lucas assured himself. Men like his father couldn’t die from getting sick. Most of his hair wasn’t even all grey yet.
He glanced at his mother. The lines on her face grew deeper every day and white strands sparkled among the dark on her head. She gave him a reassuring smile.
He’d done his best to help her since his father had fallen ill, watching over his three sisters and working with the others to keep the town running as Joshua would have. But he wasn’t his father. He was thin like his mother. No matter how much he ate, his shoulders didn’t widen to fill the doorway like his father’s. He might be strong, but his body didn’t show it. Now he was going to have to go to the trade and watch over the giant men who managed the fortress, men like his father, but they could be cunning, and their smiles, on lips much like the ones he knew, didn’t make him warm inside. They were hard men.
The clammy grasp of his father’s hand reminded him that he should answer. “I’ll go.”
“Don’t worry,” his mother said, joining them by the bedside. “I’ll keep order here while you’re gone.”
Lucas had no doubt of that. The people of the town might think that his father was in charge, but behind closed doors, it was his mother that put the wise words in the mouth of the man who was built to enforce them. She’d been working with Isaac and a few of the other men for the past couple weeks. They would have to do in his absence.
His father let go to cover his mouth during a round of hacking coughs. Tears ran down his face and the muscles in his neck stood out. The entire bed shook. When his throat was clear again, he said, “Don’t let those Jack’s take advantage of anyone.”
“I won’t.” He’d been going to the trade since he could walk. He knew his father’s role just fine. But his father wouldn’t be there. He would. And he wasn’t supposed to call them Jacks. Only his father could get away with that.
“Good. Ask after Emma and send along the treats your mother set aside for her children.”
He started to cough again. “Don’t take your sisters. Your mother needs them here.”
His mother’s thinned lips and a pointed look at Lucas let him know she’d reached her limit. “I’ll be going as soon as we load up the last of the supplies then. Be well, Papa.”
His father started to try to say something else but the coughing took over again. “Joshua,” his mother said. “Enough. Get some rest. You’ve trained Lucas well. He’ll handle it.” She looked to him. “And you take care of yourself, Lucas.”
He considered giving his mother a hug, but she was already bent over his father, holding him while he caught his breath. Maybe this year he’d find someone at trade that would take care of him like his mother took care of his father.
It was time for him to move out on his own. He’d had his eye on a place for the past year, but one thing after another had come up − storm, searching for livestock in the wilds, building a new enclosure for the animals they found, helping with the farming, and then helping to build a home for a family of scavengers that had decided to settle down.
With every new person that joined their growing town, Lucas was a little more in awe of his father. He sat at the table with them, sharing the same meal, listening to the conversation as it unfolded−each time a little differently, no two people were the same−but he could never quite put his finger on the moment where his father would sell them on staying. He would ask plain questions, explain the rules, tell them what the town had to offer and what was expected of each tenant, and almost all of them said yes. The ones that didn’t, never quite said no either, they just weren’t ready to settle yet. And every now and then, they would show back up, sometimes months, sometimes years later, but they would, ready to join the town.
He knew his father wasn’t like many of the other men, that he saw things differently, more plainly, but while his mother helped with more intricate plans, it was his father that drew people in. They trusted him. Like Lucas hoped they would trust him someday.
Lucas gathered up his sack of extra clothes and food for the road and left his parents in the home they’d built at the center of the town.
Two boys held the horses, feeding them apples while the last of the trade goods were loaded onto the long wagon. He surveyed the crowd, many of whom were also carrying travel sacks bulging with supplies. He might not be going with his father, but he certainly wasn’t going alone.
Two small bodies plowed into him with giggles. One wrapped scrawny arms around his thighs, the other his waist.
Teresa waited until they let go before swooping in to half strangle him with her iron-grip hug. “You better be careful.”
“I will. Take care of everyone while I’m gone.”
She nodded solemnly then wavered into a grin. “Bring me back a cute boy. A smart one.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He poked her in the ribs and swung the pack over his shoulder.
Taking one look back at the house next to the library and the handful of others that marked the original settlers, he took hold of rope and led the horses out of town. They passed the tenants working the gardens that were sprinkled about on both sides of the main street. The foundations of some of the ancient homes that had been harvested to build new ones, now served as pens for the animals they found. The flock of sheep was nearly in need of a second pen. Chickens roamed free, scattering as the wagon passed with its crowd of followers. Some were coming to look for possible mates, others to trade their own goods or visit with friends who either remained with the scavengers or lived in the fortress. Some had simply come, as they always did, to assist with the town’s trade goods.
He glanced at the park the children had claimed, an expanse of green grass with trees overhead, the leaves just beginning to turn yellow. And there, next to it was the lot where he wanted to build his own place someday soon, pulling supplies from the ancient houses, and cutting new lumber from the trees at the edge of town.
He’d traveled this way so many times that he was surprised that he wasn’t nervous. When he was little, before his father would take him along, the trade land was much farther away, days of travel.
But now, the town wasn’t a secret. Travelers stopped in, traded and moved on throughout the year. The road was clearly a road, traveled with ruts and footsteps, not something one could hide any longer. Now, the trade was done a day’s walk from town, requiring the scavengers and the fortress dwellers to do the bulk of the traveling.
They stopped along the way for a midday meal and to fill their water jugs at the stream that ran near the curve of the road. Then they continued on, reaching the field by evening.
The field wasn’t much of a field anymore, it had been set up with lean-to shelters over the years, more and more were added as more people came. Those that had traveled days stayed the night after the day of trade, and occasionally the day turned into two when the deals were trickier, as was often the case of swapping potential mates between groups. This year, Lucas was fully ready to stay three days if needed. He just hoped a suitable girl would be there. Teresa might want a boy, but she was only fourteen. She could wait a couple years. He was more than ready to do his part for the community right now.
Several of the shelters were already occupied. Some were scavengers, but the fortress dwellers were already in attendance too, the hulking forms of three Jacks shadowed three of the shelters, with more average-sized people filling the rest.
One of the large forms rose and headed over toward him. He was the youngest of the men his father still called Jacks, the one who called himself Jack Sutton. Lucas never quite understood why the big men hadn’t shed their assigned names, but his father just smiled and called them stubborn. He said it was part of what made them Jacks. They’d adopted surnames from the book that had once been sacred to the men who had ruled the fortress.
As it was proper, Lucas addressed him by his surname and not as his father would have. He made sure his hand was dry and held it out, praying his voice didn’t waver. “Greetings, Sutton.”
“Greetings, Lucas. How fares your father?”
“He is ill. A cold, he says.” Though this cold seemed to linger far longer than any cold Lucas had seen and the coughing was painful to even watch.
“His illness worries you. You think it’s not a cold?”
Lucas’s shoulders slumped. He didn’t want Sutton to think him weak. The fortress dwellers would take advantage of him. But he’d seen the truth, nothing he could do about that now.
“It’s held on too long.”
Sutton surprised him by patting his shoulder. “I’ll send Ingrid along with you when we’re done here. She’s been studying the medicine book we got at the very first trade since she could read.”
He gestured to the shelter where he’d come from. A tall girl with dark hair made her way over to her father’s side. Lucas couldn’t help but notice her limp. She glanced at his face for a moment, her blue eyes meeting his, before dropping shyly to the grass. Ingrid held out her right hand, keeping her left with its curled fingers, tucked against her waist.
Lucas took her hand, shaking it firmly but gently.
“His father is ill, Ingrid. I’d like you to go with him tomorrow and see what can be done for Joshua.”
Lucas gulped, if he was to leave already tomorrow, and he should if Ingrid could truly be of help, he’d have to trade fast and furiously in the morning.
Her face broke out into a wide grin. She glanced at her father. “I get to meet Joshua? Then she turned her beaming smile on Lucas. “He’s your father?”
“He brought my mother out of the vault.” She held her hands up, spreading her arms wide. “I’ve lived under the sky since my first breath because of him. What’s it like, living with him?”
Sutton gave his daughter a quick hug. “I have to finish unpacking. Stay close by, will you?”
She nodded, pulling away from his arms and taking hold of one of Lucas’s instead, leading him away as she started walking. Once they were walking together, he didn’t notice her limp, or maybe he just adjusted for it without thinking. Many of the tenants in town had similar gaits, including his youngest sister.
“You’ve not come to trade before?” he asked, interrupting her flow of excited questions about the town and his father.
“I’m usually helping mother or one of the others with birthing. Just happened no one was near their time, and I’ve been begging to go for years. I think father said yes just to shut me up.” She giggled. “You’ve been here before?”
“Every year since I could walk. My father claims I rode on his shoulders the first year. I think he was trying to get me to shut up, too.”
Ingrid laughed. Her arm around his, her warm hand resting on his skin. They passed other shelters on their walk. The occupants waved to Lucas as they passed. Many stopped them to ask after Joshua and all sent wishes for his recovery.
He couldn’t help but notice the thick raised brow of Jack Orrington as they passed by. He did ask after Joshua like the others, but when they spotted him again over at Sutton’s shelter, it was clear he wasn’t happy.
His raised voice carried in the open field. “Of all the underhanded schemes. You know full well, I was going to propose a match with my Jenny.”
“He’s not here, is he?” Sutton remained calm, sitting on his stool, sipping something steaming in a cup. A young boy sat by his side. He was far more affected by Orrington’s tirade that his father. The boy blanched, his hand shaking, causing his cup to jiggle.
“So you toss Ingrid at his son.” His fists were clenched at his side and his neck flushed red.
“I did no such thing. Joshua is ill. I merely offered the services of my daughter.”
Ingrid had gone quiet by his side, a state he’d come to suspect was unusual for her. Her grip on his arm tightened. She whispered, “You have to say something. Orrington has a terrible temper.”
From what his father had said, all the Jacks did, but he could see her cause for concern. Lucas untangled himself from Ingrid, wished fervently that his father was beside him, and then entered the arena.
Lucas forced himself to look Orrington in the eye. “Is Jenny here?”
Orrington halted whatever he was going to throw at Sutton next. “Yes, yes, she is.”
“Might I meet her? I, by no means have made and decisions on a match, but I intend to before I leave.”
Sutton looked concerned. He may have offered Ingrid with the intention of helping his father, but Lucas could clearly see that a match had also been on his mind.
Ingrid took the lapse in the conversation as an invitation to rejoin her father. He didn’t look particularly pleased with her. She cast Lucas a pleading glance.
“Yes, of course,” said Orrington. “She’s helping unload the cart.” Appeased, the red faded from his neck as he led Lucas away from Sutton and Ingrid.
“Jenny is a handy girl. You’ll find her very useful.”
Lucas remained silent, not wanting to commit himself to anything inadvertently. The swaths of matted down grass around the carts and shelters the fortress dwellers had commandeered indicated they’d been there since morning, or maybe even the night before.
He knew Jenny before Orrington said a word. A young girl, probably the same age as Teresa stood beside the cart, hefting bags of corn with ease. Her broad shoulders and square face matched her father’s.
“I’ll give you two some time to get acquainted,” said Orrington, taking a bag under each arm and heading back to the shelter.
“Hello, Jenny,” he said offering to take the next bag from her.
“Lucas.” She nodded, tossing the bag to him.
He staggered under the weight, not expecting it from the way she easily lifted the bags. His father would have skipped the small talk and asked the obvious question. So that’s what he did.
“Your father has proposed a match between us. What are your thoughts?”
“I can help build things, hammer, lift, carry, you know?”
He nodded. “But what are you looking for in a match?”
She gave him a blank look. “A place to live?”
“You have that.”
Jenny jumped down from the cart and took a quick look around for her father. Lucas joined her, spotting Orrington watching them with a determined gleam in his blue eyes from where he stood, arms crossed over his chest, just outside his shelter.
“Help me with the goat, will you?” Jenny asked.
“You have an extra goat?”
“No, but we can spare one if we have too. If you have something we really need, you know?” she said quietly.
Excited by the prospect of learning what trade goods he might ask more for, he took the rope for the goat. “What kind of things do you really need?”
“Less mouths. The soil is tired.”
Cursed, from what Lucas knew of that horrors that had happened there, but he kept his opinions to himself. “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
“Living? Two. An older brother and a younger.”
“Your older brother, has he found a match yet?”
Jenny shook her head.
“How much older?”
“Fifteen. Year older than me.”
“If you go back home, will your father be angry with you?”
She shook her head again. “He expected Joshua. He wanted to make a match. He was pretty sure he could convince him to take the deal. But you’re not him. He has no history with you. Can’t hold anything over your head, you know?”
“Your brother, he like you?”
“Whole and strong, you mean?”
And blunt, apparently. “Yes, I suppose that’s what I mean.”
She nodded, hair brushing her shoulders as she did so.
“Then I have a deal for your father. I’m sorry, but I need Ingrid. My father is sick, and she might be able to help him.”
Jenny let out a long sigh what sounded more like relief than despair. “And she’s pretty. Even if she’s not entirely whole.”
“That wasn’t the deciding factor,” he said quickly. Given a couple more years to grow into her body, Jenny might be quite a sight. And he certainly didn’t want to be on her bad side, regardless. He’d need the favor of all the fortress dwellers in the future if he was to continue helping his father.
Jenny nudged him with her hip. “It’s okay, really. I like home. Not that I mind you,” she added with a downcast smile.
“Same here.” He nudged her back. “Shall we break the news to your father?”
“I suppose we should. He’s probably got all sorts of plans already lined up in his head. Better he doesn’t get too far with them. That will just make him angrier.”
Lucas nodded, striding back to Orrington with Jenny right behind. At least he had a few inches of stride on her.
“Well?” asked Orrington, looking more at Jenny than Lucas.
“I am prepared to propose a match, but not for Jenny.”
“You’re not getting the goat if you don’t want my daughter.”
His disgruntled leap of conversation took Lucas by surprise. “As much as I’d like your goat, that’s not what I mean. I would like to propose that your eldest son visit my father. My sister is interested in making a match. If your son is anything like Jenny, I’m sure she’ll like him. However, I’d rather she meet him herself before anything is agreed upon.
Orrington rubbed his stubbled chin. “I wouldn’t be opposed to that. I can have George to town in two weeks. Will that suit you?”
Lucas nodded. “And by then my father might be ready to take visitors again, and you can deal with him yourself.”
Orrington’s face brightened considerably. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Lucas.”
Lucas said his farewells to Jenny and her father and then returned to the camp his people had set up during his absence. Most were already finishing their evening meal. He was impressed to see that his efficient crew had unloaded the wagon and had all the trade goods lined up to remove from their packaging at first light. He hadn’t even had to supervise. His father had trained them all well.
As the sun sunk nearer to the horizon, those that had finished eating slipped through camp, visiting others, and surveying the possible matches as he’d done.
With some time alone, Lucas located an unoccupied shelter and sorted through his sack to find something to eat. He’d just finished the chicken pie that Teresa had packed for him, when he heard hesitant footsteps approaching.
The wooden structure was completely open on one long side and enclosed on the other three. The roof overhead, though aged, was still in good shape and watertight. Not that he’d hoped to have an occasion to test that. The sky looked clear above Ingrid’s head. She’d braided her hair, and was now playing with the end of the braid, wrapping the blonde hair around her finger.
“Sutton send you?” he asked after taking a deep drink from his canteen.
“No. I couldn’t sleep until I knew. Have you decided?”
“I have to talk to your father first, but yes.”
“Orrington was looking quite pleased. My father is concerned.”
“So he did send you.”
She shook her head. “No, but I need to know.”
Lucas decided that he shouldn’t torture her, even if he hadn’t talked to her father first. “He has no reason to be concerned.”
“Really?” She dropped her braid, clasping her hands together.
“Yes, really. Do you really think you can help my father?”
“From what you’ve told me, I’ve helped a woman with the same symptoms. I’ll need to find a few things, but I’m guessing you have them, carrots, garlic and ginger?”
Feeling a weight lift off his shoulders, Lucas nodded.
“There are a few other things we can try too if those don’t help him enough, but we can start there.”
“Thank you. You should get back before it gets too dark to see.”
“I’ll see you in the morning then.” She leaned over to give him a peck on the cheek before leaving.
The sounds of the others settling in around him for the night filled the air. The chill of nightfall fell upon him as the last remnants of the day faded from the sky. Lucas shook out the blanket from his sack and wrapped it around himself as he settled down against the rear wall of the shelter. It was then he missed his father most. His warmth, his shoulder that was both pillow and assurance that all was well with the world. The steady breathing that lulled him to sleep. Tonight, for the first time, he was truly alone. But tomorrow, he wouldn’t be ever again. Lucas drifted off to sleep with the chirping of the night bugs and the memory of Ingrid’s kiss.
Morning brought a flurry of activity, readying the wares for trade and surveying what the scavengers and fortress dwellers had brought. After his initial round of the trade tables, Lucas sent off some of his people with offers. Meanwhile, he supervised the transactions at the town table, nodding or shaking his head when his people came to him for approval on questionable offers. Once the main flurry of trading was complete, the more serious business of matches began.
He’d already dealt with Orrington and would address Sutton shortly, but it was adding his approval to the proposed matches of the townspeople that was required of him first. His father had instructed him to build the town, not let his people be convinced to leave any more than necessary, but sometimes it was necessary to keep populations in balance. Since they’d left the confines of the fortress and mingled with the scavengers, the bloodlines had slowly begun to improve. His father suspected the food they grew far from the cursed ground of the fortress also had something to do with the improvement.
Two scavenger families, after concluding their trades, had requested to become tenants. Three other families had asked to take up temporary residence at the trade land through winter, fortifying several of the simple shelters as payment. Someday, Lucas thought, the trade land might become another town, one more place where those who straggled in from the wildlands to settle down and learn to become civilized again. More came every year as stories of Joshua’s town were traded around fires.
“So,” said Sutton, approaching him at last.
Lucas stood tall before the giant man. “I would like to take Ingrid for my wife if you would find our match agreeable.”
Sutton grinned. “I would. And in trade?”
Lucas surveyed the goods that were left on the wagon and ran though those in his bag that he’d packed for this occasion. But nothing struck him as quite right. “I would invite you and your family to join us as tenants. We will build you a house of your own.”
“I have a house of my own,” stated Sutton, looking from Lucas to Ingrid.
“You also have a family to feed, and if you have more children, your wife will want Ingrid around.”
Sutton’s lips curled into the slightest smile. “You are your father’s son.”
“We could use your strong back,” Lucas said gamily. “I had to let Jenny go, her strength would have been an asset to the town.”
Sutton actually laughed. Lucas couldn’t remember hearing a Jack laugh before. “She would have. That’s one solid girl. I suppose I’ll have to do. When will you have a place ready for us?”
Lucas surveyed those that had pledged to become tenants. In addition to the two scavenger families, there were three couples, one with a baby, from the fortress. Most of them had an impairment of some sort but seemed overall, to be healthy and eager.
“We have enough temporary housing to get all of you through winter. Your own home might have to wait until spring. But you’ll eat well until then.”
He sighed inwardly, realizing his own home would have to wait longer, but there was room in his father’s house for one more.
“I heard a rumor Orrington was to visit your father in two week’s time.”
“It will take some time to conclude my business in the fortress. Perhaps we will travel with him.”
“I’m glad you’re coming too.” Ingrid hugged her father and then returned to Lucas’s side.
With business concluded, Lucas signaled for the horses to be hitched up to the wagons and all the goods they’d traded for to be loaded. He also found room for the mother and her baby to ride among the sacks of corn.
Lucas took the rope for the horses. Ingrid walked at his side. As they departed, he looked over his shoulder at the next wave of immigrants. The satisfied feeling of a job well done along with the giddiness of his new future bounced around in his stomach. He wondered if his father had felt the same way, traveling this same road sixteen years before. Knowing his father and mother, they had both been too busy smiling at one another to pay much attention to the uncertain future that had lain before them.
Ingrid slipped her hand into his. He turned to her and grinned.