one 

Bernie

The first and only thing Bernie felt was pain. The agonizing burn in her left thigh was the first sensation that broke through her haze of sleep. It crawled sluglike from the muscle and spread like poison down the back of her knee and up her hip, where it joined the aches and pains emanating from her arms, back, and shoulders.

The pain grew and grew until she couldn’t fall back to sleep, but she didn’t want to open her eyes and see what had become of her. The horrible pain in her limbs and back gave the impression that she’d been knocked to the ground, hog-tied, and dragged behind a truck over a winding gravel road.

She wanted to run. She wanted to scream. She wanted to scratch off her skin, yank out her hair, and then find some inane reality TV star to kick in the shins and push into a vat of hot baby diarrhea.

But she couldn’t do any of those things floating in the dark, and soon the effort of ignoring the pain became too much. Slowly, apprehensively, she opened her eyes.

She was lying on a thin foam mattress in a dreary cinderblock room. It looked like the inside of a middle school janitorial closet, except that it was full of medical equipment rather than cleaning supplies.

Fancy-looking monitors behind her beeped and flashed intermittently, and the top of her bed had been raised to a ninety-degree angle. It had hard plastic sides like a crib and a clear bladder of IV fluids hanging beside it.

There were no windows or wall hangings to tell her where she was, but based on the fact that her left wrist was secured to the bed with handcuffs, she guessed she hadn’t made it out of San Judas. Her frayed T-shirt and cargo pants had been replaced by a flimsy blue smock, her long blond waves were tangled and matted, and she had the icky feeling that she wasn’t wearing any underwear.

Bernie lifted the thin white sheet and stared down at her legs. Her right leg looked completely normal, but there was a fat gauze sausage resting where her left leg should have been.

Upon closer inspection, she saw that her thigh was heavily bandaged. Something was horribly, horribly wrong.

Suddenly the door burst open, and a smug-looking man stepped inside. Bernie tried to catch a glimpse of the hallway beyond, but the man snapped the door closed at once and pulled up a plastic swivel chair.

“Morning, sunshine,” he said in a brisk, fake-cheerful voice.

Bernie didn’t speak.

The man was bald except for a ring of very short hair. He had thick black eyebrows, a large bump in the center of his nose, and the sort of face that made Bernie want to punch him. He was wearing a pair of ill-fitting brown slacks and a matching bomber jacket with the word “Security” embroidered on the left shoulder.

“Calvin Bishop,” he said, extending a hand. “Head of Security at San Judas.”

Bernie’s mind was racing with questions, but she just glared at him.

“Glad to see you’re back with us,” he said, dropping his hand and resting his right ankle over his knee.

Bernie bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. She desperately wanted to freeze this man out, but she was in dire need of information.

“How long was I out?” she asked. Her voice came out low and croaky.

“A while.”

Bernie’s gaze flickered from the four bare walls of her room to Calvin Bishop’s hairy hand, which was resting on his thigh. He was wearing a cheap silver wristwatch with shiny Roman numerals, but she couldn’t read the time.

“Where am I?” she asked.

“Does it matter?”

Bernie could tell that the man was making a real effort to keep his tone pleasant, but he couldn’t quite shake his inner smugness. She scowled. If he wasn’t going to tell her anything, she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of asking what had become of Lark and the others.

“Why am I here?” asked Bernie.

Calvin Bishop scrunched his eyebrows together. “Come on, Miss Mitchell. You’re a smart girl. What did you think was going to happen? You pull a sloppy-ass stunt like that —”

“I meant why am I here?” snapped Bernie, glancing around at the drab institutional walls. “What happened to my leg?”

“You were shot.”

Bernie sucked in a burst of air, fighting a sudden tidal wave of shock and panic.

“You’re welcome,” said Bishop.

Excuse me?”

“Our medical team was able to extract most of the bullet fragments . . . You lost a lot of blood, but two transfusions later . . . Our doc said there likely won’t be any permanent damage. You’ll be as good as new.”

“Good as new?” Bernie growled.

“Nearly.”

Bernie’s blood was boiling. She longed to hurl one of the fancy monitors at Calvin Bishop and then pin him down and pluck out all the stupid little hairs on the back of his hands.

“Get — me — out of here,” she whispered.

Bishop looked taken aback. “Out?” He let out a harsh bark of laughter. “Oh no. You’re not going anywhere. At least not until you tell us what happened to your little friends.” He reached into his breast pocket and extracted a small notebook and a pen. “Well, I guess if you can really call them ‘friends’ after what they did to you.”

“What they did to me?”

Bishop looked up, infuriatingly casual with his slack jaw and smug dark eyes. “You know . . . Leaving you for dead while they ran for the hills?”

Bernie didn’t say anything, but inside she was screaming. She wanted to knock over all the machinery and throw the bag of IV fluids against the wall, but she knew on some very basic level that she had to remain calm.

If she lost control, there was a good chance she might let something slip, and she had no intention of helping the San Judas jackasses track down Lark and the others. They’d put a bullet in her leg, blown a boy to smithereens, and were at that moment scrambling to put Lark and Soren back behind bars. She would not and could not cooperate.

“Listen,” said Bishop. “We already have their names. We know which way they went, and we’re closing in on them as we speak. But it’s been about twelve hours, and my superiors are growing impatient. One boy is already dead thanks to your friends’ recklessness and stupidity. Let’s not add to the body count.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Bishop tilted his head to the side. “You don’t want to see your friends get killed do you?”

“You can’t do that.”

Bishop blinked in polite confusion. “Can’t do what?”

“You can’t just . . . kill them,” Bernie stammered. “You have to give them a chance to turn themselves in.”

Bishop let slip a pseudo-uncomfortable smile and shook his head at her apparent naiveté. “Four dangerous fugitives are on the loose, Miss Mitchell. They assaulted a security guard with a copper pipe and opened fire on a dozen men and women. One of my men caught a bullet to the chest and is now in critical condition.”

He leaned forward in his seat so that Bernie could smell the coffee on his breath. “Let me be clear . . . I have the authority to bring them in by any means necessary.”

Bernie swallowed.

Calvin Bishop seemed satisfied with her reaction and sat back in his chair. “Now . . . We know you escaped due to a malfunction with the electric fence. We know the make, model, and license number of the vehicle your friends stole. We know they were headed south. I have my men setting up road blocks and coordinating with the U.S. Marshals Service. They won’t get far.”

Bernie gritted her back teeth, curiosity overcoming her crippling rage. “So what do you need me for?”

“I need you to tell me where they’re headed so we can end this quickly and cleanly.”

“What’s in it for me?” asked Bernie. She had no intention of telling Calvin Bishop anything, but she was curious as to why he thought she would be willing to help him.

He cocked his head to the side. “What do you want?”

Bernie thought about it for a moment. “I want out.”

Bishop cracked a smirk and pulled the clipboard off the little metal hook attached to the foot of her bed. He flipped through the first few sheets until he found what he was looking for.

“Beradette Mitchell,” he read aloud, skimming her rap sheet as if it were a mildly amusing article. “Serving five years for arson, blah, blah, blah.”

He continued reading in a breathy half-whisper and then raised his voice for the part that included, “intended to kill a prominent Fortune 500 CEO and his family . . .” He returned to the annoying mutter-whisper. Bernie caught the words “ecoterrorist” and “delusions of grandeur” before he paused and looked up at her.

“You’re a coo-coo bird earth muffin who went postal and tried to burn a prominent businessman alive with his wife and two children.” He let out a short, harsh laugh. “These sorts of charges don’t just go away, sweetheart.”

“No one was in the house,” Bernie muttered. “And his kids were away at college, so . . .”

“Not to mention that you attempted to escape while being held for a felony . . . That’s another one to five years automatically. Now if they decide to stick you with aggravated assault . . .”

“That wasn’t me!” Bernie cried. “I never even saw that security guard, and I never touched a gun!”

Bishop shrugged. “You’ll find that hard to prove, and somebody’s gonna hang for that no matter what. Are you sure you wanna take the fall for one of your low-life friends?”

“Check that pipe for prints,” said Bernie, crossing her arms over her chest and jerking her chin up in defiance. “They won’t match mine. You don’t have a case.”

Calvin Bishop stared at her for a second, as though sizing up his opponent. “I’m not sure you understand how these things work, so let me put it to you this way: When one of you pieces of human garbage goes after one of our own, nobody stops to skim the rule book. Now your so-called friends may not give a shit about you, but we take care of our boys in blue.”

“Whatever,” muttered Bernie, averting her gaze so he wouldn’t see how rattled she was. “You’re not even a real cop.”

“Why are you protecting them?” asked Bishop. “They sure didn’t go out of their way to protect you.”

“You don’t know anything about them.”

“No?” Bishop’s voice was casual, but Bernie could detect an undercurrent of excitement in his tone.

He flipped back a few pages in his notebook and began to read aloud. “Lark Roland, serving twenty-five years without parole for first-degree murder. The man she killed was a volunteer firefighter, working as an organic farmer to make ends meet. While she was with us, she assaulted several fellow inmates, including a pregnant woman!”

Bernie blinked. She had no idea that the San Judas security officers kept tabs on what went on inside the prison. As far as she knew, no one had ever been punished for instigating a fight or even killing a fellow inmate, so she’d assumed that they hadn’t been watching that closely.

Bishop continued. “Her boyfriend, Soren Hensley . . . Serving ten years for kidnap and aggravated assault. He and his little gang of thugs apparently had a beef with the Aryan Brotherhood while they were with us. His friend Axel was a repeat offender who nearly killed a man in a barroom brawl.” Bishop flipped the page and squinted at his notes. “He severely injured three fellow inmates . . . and that was only last week.”

Bishop closed his notebook and tucked it back into his jacket pocket. “As for Simjay Kapoor and Finn McGregor — another psychopath — we’re not really sure why they were involved. They’re not exactly criminal masterminds, but they bunked with Hensley and Park, so who knows. We’re still putting the pieces together . . . That’s where you come in.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could use your input,” he said. “It would certainly help us understand their motives, create a list of friends and family . . . Anyone on the outside who might be willing to help them.”

“Why would I do that?”

Bishop shrugged. “It might motivate the DA to go easy on you.”

Bernie glared at him. “No.”

“Come on,” he said in a cajoling voice. “What have you got to lose?”

“They’re my friends.”

“Friends?” Bishop let out an incredulous laugh. “Come on, Miss Mitchell . . . You aren’t in the same league as them. Lark Roland, Axel Park . . . They might be the sort of people who helped you survive in prison, but they’re just a bunch of lowlife criminals who’ll use anyone they can.”

“I’m a criminal.”

Bishop laughed and shook his head. “No . . . You’re a college girl . . . a philanthropist. Your mother was a school teacher, for Christ’s sake. You had a full ride at NMSU for engineering. You don’t belong here . . . They do.”

“Is that supposed to convince me?”

“It should,” he said. “If you value your future.”

Bernie scowled. “You don’t give a shit about me.”

“Do you give a shit about yourself?” he asked. “Because cavorting with murderers and kidnappers . . . ruining your track record of good behavior and getting time tacked onto your sentence just so you can cover for a few selfish thugs?” He shook his head. “It just doesn’t seem like you’ve thought this through.”

Bernie swallowed and looked away. She didn’t want to show it, but she felt suddenly sick to her stomach. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know about Lark’s crimes. Frankly, Soren and Axel’s rap sheets didn’t surprise her either. But having them read to her like the police blotter made her insides curdle with dread.

From the outside looking in, they certainly sounded like bad people. And if she’d heard about them on the news three or four years ago, before her arrest, she would have agreed that they weren’t worth protecting.

Back then, she’d seen herself as separate from people like them, as though they existed on two different planes of reality: one universe where the law mattered, the other a Wild West where people would lie, cheat, and steal as easily as they breathed.

She didn’t feel that way anymore. Lark was her friend. She wasn’t some hardened criminal. Bernie felt confident that they could have been friends even if they’d never been sent to San Judas. Lark was a good person.

Bernie didn’t know Soren and the rest of them that well, but she still didn’t want to rat them out. Maybe it meant that she’d been on the inside for too long, but she felt a stronger affinity to Soren than the likes of Calvin Bishop.

Bernie’s memories of that night were foggy at best, but she remembered the chaos outside the administrative building. It was dark. Bullets had been flying, and her eyes had been on fire from the tear gas.

She remembered a sharp, penetrating burn in her leg, but not much else. That must have been when she was shot. She vaguely remembered writhing on the ground in pain, but she had no recollection of where Lark had been at the time.

Lark hadn’t abandoned her. She wouldn’t. If Lark hadn’t been at her side, there had to be a reason.

“Well?” prompted Bishop, looking satisfied. He probably thought he’d made her see her friends in a whole new light.

“Go fuck yourself,” growled Bernie.

For several seconds, she wasn’t sure if Bishop had heard her. The lower half of his face had turned to stone, but his eyes were still full of polite interest. Then he sighed and shook his head.

“Too bad,” said Bishop, slapping his leg and getting to his feet. “I hoped . . . Ah, well. I’ll give you some time . . . Maybe a few days strapped to that bed will help you see things more clearly.”

“And if I don’t?” growled Bernie.

“Then you’ll get what you have coming.”

Bishop turned on his heel and crossed to the door, and Bernie felt the full impact of his words hit her. She’d never known an inmate who’d attempted an escape to be allowed back inside San Judas, but it seemed odd that he wouldn’t threaten her with some horrible supermax facility.

Bernie couldn’t help it. “Am I going to max?” she blurted.

Bishop paused with his hand on the doorknob. “You’ll go wherever we decide. You’ve made it clear where your priorities lie . . .”

He opened the door, and Bernie felt a hot flash of rage.

“I have to say, though . . . I thought you were smarter than this.”

Bernie scowled and turned to stare at her feet. “You don’t know shit about me.”

***

two

Lark

By the time Lark and Soren emerged from the diner, the sun had turned the pavement into a concrete griddle. The bell hanging on the door banged against the glass, emitting a jarring tinkle that made Lark’s heart seize with panic. Every nerve in her body felt electrified, and her limbs seemed to move without consulting her brain.

They crossed the barren parking lot in ten feverish steps, climbed into the Ranger, and slammed the doors shut. The sun-faded hula dancer glued to the dashboard shuddered.

Denali sniffed around in the back seat before perching his front feet on the center console to pant in Lark’s ear. It was stiflingly hot inside the vehicle, but Lark didn’t move to roll down a window. She just stared out at the desolate street and shivered.

“I can’t believe this,” muttered Soren.

He was sitting in the passenger seat holding the palm-sized revolver Axel had stolen. He kept turning it over in his hands, as if looking for some confirmation that everything they’d heard hadn’t been a dream.

“You okay?” he asked.

Lark couldn’t seem to form a response. Her hands were shaking so badly that she didn’t know if she could drive. She was still breathing hard and fast, but she couldn’t quite fill her lungs.

“You think that woman was telling the truth?”

Lark shrugged.

“I mean, we saw the newspaper . . . She couldn’t have made that up, right?”

Lark nodded, finding the truck key and scraping it around the ignition as she groped for the key hole.

Everything the girl from the diner had said sounded crazy, but she’d struck Lark as a very capable person when she’d threatened them.

According to her, flooding along the East Coast and the Mississippi had displaced millions of people, and severe droughts in the Southwest and other parts of the world had triggered devastating food shortages. It was impossible to know how many had died in the famine, but the girl had seemed convinced that this was the end.

Under normal circumstances, Lark never would have believed her. Sure, the Southwest was dry. The so-called “mega-drought” had started long before she was born. She vaguely remembered a new inmate rattling on about a series of superstorms that had devastated the East Coast a year and a half ago, but it had never occurred to Lark that those things could have been related.

She certainly found it difficult to believe that there could ever be famine in the U.S., but the conspicuous lack of people in Loving, New Mexico, and the doomsday note they had found back at the market made Lark think that the girl might have been telling the truth.

“It’s not like we’d know if things did go sideways,” Soren continued. “I mean, we’ve been locked up. I was inside for two years before I came to San Judas . . . You’ve been away for five years.”

Lark opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was a muffled sort of “yuh.”

“They went through our mail . . . Shit went missing . . . And all this time, they were just covering it up.”

Lark dragged in a deep breath. Soren’s warm brown eyes found hers, and he gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

“Want me to drive?”

Lark nodded, and Soren got out to take her place. Lark climbed over to the passenger side, squinting back at the diner to see if the girl was still watching them.

The sunlight beating through the window seemed to hit her all at once, and she suddenly became aware that sweat was pouring off her. The hairs that had come loose from her braid were plastered to the side of her neck, and her gray prison T-shirt now felt heavy and damp.

Soren started the old truck after a few sputters and clicks, and they pulled out of the parking lot with a squeal of rubber on road. They still had just under a quarter tank of gas, but by the sound of things, those few gallons were a luxury. If the country had come to a grinding halt, things like food and fuel and clean water would be commodities worth killing for.

Soren turned back onto the highway, and they sped off to pick up Axel and Simjay. He and Lark had ventured out to look for gas earlier that morning and left them stranded on the side of the road with the stolen Suburban.

Lark glanced at the clock on the dashboard and gave a start. It was nearly ten.

World collapse or not, the four of them were still fugitives on the run. They had no way of knowing what lengths the police might go to in order to bring them back into custody, but they had to assume the worst.

As they sped down the desolate two-lane road, Lark realized that they hadn’t passed a single car since their escape. Their route wound through wide open fields of dirt and sagebrush, but there weren’t any houses, gas stations, or fast-food restaurants in sight.

Finally, they reached the spot where they’d left the stolen SUV and pulled off into the ditch. The Ranger groaned as they hit dirt and rock, but within seconds, they were blazing across the field as easily as if it were paved.

Soren pulled around behind the falling-down barn, and Lark’s stomach lurched. The Suburban was standing right where it had been when they’d run out of gas, but the driver’s side door had been thrown wide open. One of the back doors was open, too, but no one was inside the vehicle.

“Shit,” Soren breathed, backing up and scanning the landscape for any sign of law enforcement. “You see them?”

Lark shook her head, her heart beating in her throat. In the shelter of the old barn, it was impossible to see the Suburban from the road, but something was wrong. Axel and Simjay wouldn’t have left the area of their own volition. Lark and Soren had only been gone a few hours, and they had no way to stay in touch.

Had the police been canvasing the area, or had Axel and Simjay had a run-in with someone else?

Soren pulled the handbrake but left the engine running. “Stay here.”

What?”

“If you see anybody, you get the hell out of here,” he growled, reaching over and giving her leg a squeeze. “I’ll meet you back at the gas station in two hours.”

Lark shook her head, but she was too worked up to refuse. She could never turn around and leave Soren, but he seemed to take her silence for a tacit agreement. He shot her a bracing look and got out to investigate.

Denali instantly deduced that something was amiss. He was whining and scratching at the center console, trying to climb into the front seat to scan for threats.

Soren’s back was ramrod straight as he stepped through the sea of scraggy bushes. He was holding the revolver in a retention position, and she could see the muscles twitching under his coppery skin as he braced himself for an attack.

Lark watched with bated breath as he approached the Suburban. He circled the vehicle once before throwing all the doors open, checking under the SUV, and heading for the barn.

The ancient structure had been neglected for so long that part of the roof was completely caved in. The old boards were bowed and gray, and daylight streamed through the wide gaps.

Suddenly, a gunshot cracked the air, and Lark heard herself scream.

Soren threw himself to the ground, covering his head with his hands. The bullet had missed him by inches. “Mother — fucker!”

A surge of panic shot through Lark’s veins. She clambered over to the driver’s side and put her shaky hand on the clutch. She was just about to zip over to Soren and throw the door open when a familiar voice drifted from the barn.

“Hensley . . . S’at you?”

Soren raised his head a few inches, looking both furious and relieved. He let out a heavy sigh. “Of course it’s me, you stupid asshole.”

A low chuckle sounded from the rubble. Lark watched as a pile of debris shifted inside the barn and a large shadowy figure climbed out from the wreckage. He had a hideous bowl haircut, pale skin, and very small, beady eyes.

Je-man-eeeee-Christmas!” Axel chortled, tucking the stolen Glock into his waistband. “You don’ sneak up on a man unannounced like ’at . . . He’s liable to shootcha in the gonads.”

“You were waiting for us!” yelled Soren, pushing himself into an upright position and taking several quick strides toward Axel.

For a moment, Lark thought Soren was going to deck him. If he didn’t, she was going to do it herself.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she cried, climbing out of the vehicle and staggering toward them.

“Whoa, keep your panties on!” said Axel, raising his flabby arms in a gesture of surrender. “You two drive up in that ol’ rust bucket . . . Don’ announce yourselves . . . What was we suppos’ to do?”

“How about you see who it is before you start shooting?” shouted Lark.

“Only dead men hesitate, girly,” said Axel in a demeaning voice. “C’ain’t be too careful out here. You coulda just as easily been the Minutemen comin’ to round us up.”

“That’s at the Mexican border, you idiot,” Lark snarled.

There was a flurry of activity from inside the barn, followed by the loud clang of boards. A tall Indian guy emerged a second later looking shaken. Simjay had a narrow face, handsome features, and a swoop of silky black hair. At the moment he was covered in dirt and seemed to be shivering off spiderwebs while he picked splinters out of his fingers.

“Just so you know, this wasn’t my idea.”

Axel rolled his eyes and cracked a grin. “Ya’ll shoulda seen this one when we was hunkerin’ down in there. There was this ’coon skeleton buried in the rubble, and I swear to gawd I thought he was gonna piss his pants.” Axel screwed up his face and put on a high, girlish voice. “‘What are we gonna do, Axel? Don’t shoot! What if the vibrations cause the barn to collapse and we’re trapped forever?’” Axel rolled his eyes. “Pussy.”

Lark felt a strong surge of sympathy for Simjay, who was flushing a brilliant shade of red.

“What in the hell took you so long, anyway? Please tell me ya’ll didn’t waste four whole hours just to get that hunk of junk.” He gestured at the rusted-out Ranger, where Denali was watching nervously from the window.

Lark wanted to scream and strangle Axel, but instead she strode off to let Denali out of the truck. She knew they had to tell Axel and Simjay what the girl from the diner had said, but she couldn’t bring herself to put it into words. Saying it out loud made it seem more real somehow, and she didn’t want to accept that the girl might have been telling the truth.

The end of the world meant that everything she’d left behind was gone for good. For years all she’d dreamt about was getting out of San Judas, but she’d always imagined that the world would be waiting for her when she returned. Now they’d learned that there might not be anything left, and Lark wasn’t sure she could handle it.

When she opened the driver’s side door, Denali bounded toward Axel, barking ferociously.

Axel jumped back, and Denali latched onto his pant leg with a growl.

“Denali!” Lark yelled.

“Gittim off me!” yelled Axel, shaking his leg. “Ow! What’s your pro’lem?”

Denali clung on.

“Off!” yelled Lark.

There was a brief pause as Denali looked at Lark, as though he were deciding if Axel was still a threat. Finally, he released his jaw but continued to growl.

“Enough!” snapped Lark. Denali stopped, hackles still raised.

Axel let out a huff of relief and glared over at her. “Damn!”

“What? You shot at us. He’s just being protective.”

“Yeah, whatever. You jus’ keep your mangy mutt under control lil’ girl,” he said.

“Or what?” Lark snarled

Axel ignored her and turned to look at Soren. “So you’re sayin’ the place was deserted?”

“A ghost town. I’m telling you . . . There’s nothing left.”

“So what?” said Axel with a shrug. “Plenty of towns went belly-up when the railroad closed or when new highways —”

Soren shook his head. “It wasn’t like that. I’m telling you . . . People left recently . . . and we found out why.”

Soren took a deep breath and continued his story about their journey through town. He recounted everything the girl from the diner had told them, talking over Axel’s splutters of disbelief and Simjay’s annoying stream of questions.

When he’d finished, Lark’s stomach had wound itself into knots, and Simjay’s eyes were as round as dinner plates. Axel, on the other hand, was wearing a dubious smirk.

“Are you shittin’ me?” he asked after a long pause.

Soren shook his head.

“Ya’ll don’ really believe all that, do ya?”

There was a long pause as Axel stared at them. Then he let out a bark of derisive laughter. “Man, I’m tellin’ you . . . that bitch seen you comin’.”

Lark frowned.

“She was pullin’ your leg!” Axel cried.

“You didn’t see the town,” snapped Lark, feeling simultaneously annoyed and defensive.

“Yeah,” said Soren. “And the newspaper outside the diner confirms everything she said.”

Axel rolled his eyes and let out a scoff of disbelief.

“It sort of makes sense,” said Simjay.

Axel’s beady eyes swiveled in his direction.

“Well, think about it,” Simjay continued. “The guards disappearing from the prison . . . the disruption in supplies . . . Not to mention the mail just stopped coming with no explanation. And we haven’t seen a single car drive by since we’ve been here.”

“That don’ mean anything,” said Axel. But he only sounded half-convinced himself. “Why would the prison still be open if the fuckin’ U.S. Postal Service went under?”

“The girl at the diner said GreenSeed has patents for some drought-resistant supercrops,” said Lark. “They might be the only company that stands to make money from all of this.”

“Motherfucker,” breathed Axel, looking as though he’d just realized what they’d all been trying to tell him. “They been testin’ all their new seeds on us like we’s some fuckin’ guinea pigs.”

Lark crossed her arms and tried to keep her smugness in check. It seemed that Axel was starting to accept the reality of the situation.

Suddenly, Denali let out a short warning bark, and a low hum reached Lark’s ears. They all fell silent, listening intently for the source of the noise, and Lark’s stomach clenched.

“Shit,” said Axel.

“Someone’s coming,” muttered Soren.

In all the excitement, Lark kept forgetting that they were still on the run. If the people looking for them had heard the gunshot . . .

“We gotta go,” said Axel, grabbing Simjay by the scruff of the neck and dragging him toward the Ranger. He tossed him into the back and crammed himself into the driver’s seat.

Lark took shotgun, and Soren climbed into the back with Simjay and Denali.

“Here,” said Axel, handing the Glock back to Soren. “Give that little peashooter to her and shoot anyone who gets too close.”

Lark caught Soren’s look of irritation in the side mirror, but he handed the revolver up to her.

“What about me?” asked Simjay.

“Please . . . I seen what you’re like under pressure. Somethin’ tells me Bird Girl’s a better shot than you.”

Lark felt simultaneously flattered and annoyed, but she bit back the snide comment she longed to hurl at Axel and cocked the hammer.

“Shit, that’s her,” murmured Soren. He was twisted around in the back seat, watching the road from the window.

“Diner girl?” growled Axel.

“Uh-huh.”

“Shitcheah.”

Lark looked over, alarmed by Axel’s excitement. A second later, she heard the whoosh of a passing truck, and a wicked grin spread across Axel’s ugly mug.

He inched out toward the road, the truck groaning a little as they drove out of the ditch.

“What are you doing?” snapped Soren as Axel turned back in the direction of the prison.

He didn’t answer.

There was a long pause as Soren studied the side of Axel’s face. Lark thought her hammering heart might fight its way out of her chest and take off without her.

“Are you following her?” asked Soren incredulously.

“Seems like the quickest way to get some real answers,” said Axel with a shrug.

Lark’s mouth fell open.

Are you crazy?” Soren hissed.

“She nearly shot us just for walking into the diner,” said Lark. “What do you think she’s gonna do when we pull up behind her at her house?”

“Well, she’s gonna answer my questions, for a start,” said Axel matter-of-factly.

Soren let out a short burst of laughter. “That girl is gonna shoot you in the head.”

“You wanna see your brother again?” barked Axel, staring at Soren in the rearview mirror.

The truck fell silent.

“Huh?”

Soren didn’t say anything. Lark could practically see the steam coming off him and thought he was about to dive on top of Axel and choke him to death.

“It’s a simple question,” said Axel. “Do you or don’ you wanna see Micah again?”

Lark’s chest was tight with worry, but it was nothing compared to the tension radiating from the back seat.

“Of course I do,” mumbled Soren, running a hand through his short dark hair.

“All right,” said Axel in a reasonable voice. “Well we c’ain’t get to Texas on a quarter tank of gas with no supplies. An’ if that girl was tellin’ the truth, then the San Judas rent-a-cops are gonna be the least of our pro’lems.”

Soren didn’t say anything, so Axel continued.

“If she was tellin’ the truth — and I ain’t sayin’ she was — then there’s gotta be some reason she’s sittin’ pretty while the rest of the country’s shittin’ bricks. This girl ain’t no island. She’s got people. Where there’s people, there’s supplies.” He raised two bushy eyebrows. “An’ she’s gon’ lead us right to ’em.”

“You want to ambush this girl and her friends?” Lark breathed.

“You got a better idea?”

As the full weight of Axel’s plan hit her, they came to a halt at the first major junction they’d seen.

In the distance, Lark could just make out the purple truck disappearing down the road. They’d intentionally avoided 285 on their way to Loving, but Axel turned onto the road without hesitation, following the girl at a careful distance.

“We can’t do this,” said Soren.

“I’m open to suggestions.”

Simjay made a noise that was somewhere between a whimper and a groan.

“You come up with a bed’r plan, and I’ll turn this bitch around,” said Axel.

Lark caught Soren’s eye in the side mirror, and she could tell they were thinking the same thing: Axel was a loose cannon. Lark had sensed that about him from the start, but it seemed that even she had underestimated just how bat-shit crazy he was.

As she racked her brain for the best way to stage a hostile takeover of the vehicle and get them safely back on the road to Texas, they passed a sign for Carlsbad.

Lark’s breath hitched. Every minute that passed was a minute that carried them farther away from their goal. The San Judas security people were still after them. They were wasting fuel and time. Axel was determined to confront the girl from the diner, and every second it seemed less and less likely that he was going to abandon his plan.

Up ahead, Lark spotted a narrow road splitting off from the highway. The girl turned right, so Axel followed suit, and the pavement soon gave way to dirt and gravel.

They passed a sign that said East Fiesta Drive, but Lark didn’t think she’d ever seen a road that seemed less likely to lead to a fiesta. They were hemmed in on all sides by barren, dusty fields, and the only structures in sight were a few shabby-looking mobile homes baking in the sun.

“Turn back,” said Lark. This was all becoming too real, and she was about ready to dive into Axel’s lap and hijack the vehicle.

“No,” Axel laughed, veering left to follow the cloud of dust receding up ahead. He whipped the truck expertly around each bend, sliding over washboard skids with the ease of someone who’d been driving on back country roads his whole life.

The landscape became visibly greener as they crossed the Pecos River, and for several minutes it was silent except for the muted pop of gravel hitting the bottom of the truck. They passed a junk yard with several rusted-out cars that seemed to have sprouted tentacles of weeds, and the road narrowed as though they had just reached a private drive.

In that instant, Lark made a decision. The revolver was warm in her hand. Taking a deep breath, she turned and pointed the gun at Axel’s head.

“Stop,” she said in a raspy voice. “We’re not doing this.”

Axel’s exuberance seemed to fade, and he looked over at Lark with a mixture of annoyance and incredulity. “Girl, what the hell’re you doin’?”

Lark didn’t answer.

“You gonna shoot me?”

Lark raised an eyebrow, her finger thrumming beside the trigger.

He let out a low harrumph of laughter. “You ain’t gonna shoot me, Bird Girl.”

Lark swallowed. They both knew he’d called her bluff. Part of her was still surprised to find herself pointing the gun at his head to begin with.

“Put that thing down,” said Axel. “I don’ want you shootin’ me on accident if we hit a dead possum and your sweaty lady-hands slip.”

“Turn around,” Lark repeated, swallowing to wet her parched throat.

Axel rolled his eyes. “You ain’t gonna shoot me, darlin’.”

“Maybe not,” said Soren. “But I will.”

Lark’s heart thumped harder. In her peripheral vision, she saw the stolen Glock appear between the seats.

Axel gave a dismissive cluck. “You ain’t gonna shoot me, neither,” he said. “We’re like brothers, you an’ me. You know how many times my brothers waved a gun at me growin’ up?” He chuckled. “Shit.”

Lark was starting to sweat. The revolver was growing hot in her hand, but she couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger.

“Will you two lighten up?” said Axel, sounding suddenly annoyed. “We’re just —”

But what they were “just” doing, Lark never found out. The truck jolted hard to the right, as if one of their back tires had been slashed. They fishtailed dangerously on the mostly dirt road, and a hard bump caused Lark’s finger to slip.

The gun went off in her hand, and the driver’s side window shattered.

“Jesus Christ!” Axel yelled, ducking instinctively and causing the truck to swerve even harder. They veered off the road, and Lark’s head hit the ceiling as they bumped over a large, sharp rock.

She dropped the offending pistol on the floorboard, her hand throbbing as if it had been burned.

Lark had never shot a gun in her life. Her ears were ringing. Her pulse was racing. It felt as though her heart was stuck in her throat, and she desperately needed to throw up.

In that moment, everything slowed to half speed. She caught a glimpse of Simjay’s panic-stricken face and Axel’s wide eyes as they cruised to a halt. Denali barked from what seemed like very far away, and slowly Axel’s torrent of obscenities reached her ears.

“Holy shit — crazy — motherfuckin’ — blew my head off!”

“What the hell happened?” asked Soren, sounding strangely calm. He’d lowered the Glock and was staring out the window as if the shot hadn’t come from Lark’s gun at all.

Lark caught Axel’s look of disgust as he leaned over the center console to fish the revolver off the floorboard. She half-expected him to turn the gun on her, but instead he tucked it into his waistband and got out of the truck, muttering something about crazy chicks and PMS.

Soren got out, too, and Lark watched them cross to the back of the truck. Feeling anxious, she yanked on the door handle. They were parked at an odd sideways incline, so it took everything she had to wedge the door open and stumble outside.

By the time she joined them around the back of the truck, Axel and Soren were both bent at the waist, examining the rear tires. Lark stumbled across the road, surrendering to the bitter burn that was working its way up her throat.

She stopped beside the opposite ditch and heaved. Her stomach was empty, so all that came up was a hot stream of bile. She was covered in beads of cold sweat, and her hands were shaking so badly that she had to grip her thighs to steady them.

When the gagging stopped, she let out a ragged sigh and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She felt weak and clammy all over, as if she had been the one who almost got shot.

Finally, she felt steady enough to approach the truck. Axel was lying in the dirt examining a twisted piece of metal that seemed to be lodged in the back tire. Her eyes drifted back the way they came, and she registered the glint of several identical pieces of metal lying in the road.

Wordlessly, she staggered over to the nearest one and bent to pick it up. It looked like a piece of origami crafted from metal, with several nicks and scrapes from whatever piece of machinery had been used to shape it into a weapon.

As she studied the offending object, the realization hit her like a runaway train. She straightened up so fast that she gave herself whiplash. She opened her mouth to call out a warning, but not before a gunshot shattered the stillness.

***

Did you enjoy this sneak peek? Let me know in the comments below! 

Lifeless is coming April 17, and I’m including special bonus content for those who download the book in the first 48 hours. Don’t miss it!

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