Ten months had passed since I’d last seen the sun. The rich blue of that final August sky was fading from my memory. Colors are slippery: If you cover your eyes and try to remember blue, you see black. Now we had a yellowish gray sky, dark as a heavily overcast day. Darla said Yellowstone’s eruption had hurled billions of tons of fine ash and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, and it might be years before the sky returned to normal. I said the dim light was depressing.
In April, we prayed for a break in the winter, a warm spell to melt the four-foot blanket of snow smothering my uncle’s farm. But April was colder than March, May colder still. In June, the mercury in the Farmall tractor thermometer hanging outside the kitchen window fell below zero and stayed there. Every day we watched the thin red line try to claw its way to zero. Every day it failed.
No more snow fell, but none melted, either. We’d run out of Chapstick months before. For a while we all wore my Aunt Caroline’s lipstick, but now that was gone, too, and our lips were cracked and bloody from the dry winter air. The storms that had followed the eruption had spent their fury, and drought clutched us in its dry fist. My world was frozen, desiccated, and dead.
I was always cold. Cold as I worked during the day—cutting wood, hauling snow to melt for water, or digging for the corn buried under the snow and ash. Cold when I went to bed. Cold when I got up in the morning despite Darla snuggled against my side.
Before the volcano, if you’d told me that I’d be sleeping every night beside a girl I loved, I’d have said you were crazy. Mom would’ve filleted me and served the choice bits as hors d’oeuvres if I’d ever so much as closed the door with a girl in my room. Not that any girls would’ve wanted to be alone with me. Before I met Darla, I’d had a total of one real girlfriend, and she dumped me before we’d done much more than make out.
I still didn’t think of myself as having a girlfriend. That word was too trivial for what Darla meant to me. When I met her on the road last year, I was bleeding, starving, and ready to give up. Ready to die. Without each other, we wouldn’t have escaped from Iowa, from the devastation and chaos Yellowstone had caused. Now I wouldn’t want to survive—to endure the desperate labor and daily frostbite—without Darla.
But if Mom showed up now, fillet knife in hand, to scold me for sleeping next to Darla, I’d hug her and savor every second of the scolding. She and Dad had left my uncle’s farm near Warren, Illinois, leaving my younger sister Rebecca there with my aunt and uncle. Darla and I had arrived at the farm in early October, five weeks after my parents had left to look for me. No one had seen or heard from them since.
And Mom wouldn’t find me sleeping alone with Darla, anyway. In April, the falling temperature had forced us to abandon the upstairs bedrooms at my uncle’s. Now Darla and I slept in a clump with my aunt, uncle, two cousins, and sister on the living room floor near the fire. A night spent spooning with your girlfriend isn’t nearly so exciting when your uncle is curled up against your other side.
We got the idea to sleep together from the ducks—they’d been doing it all winter. But a few days after we started imitating them, one of the ducks on the outside of their pile in the barn froze to death. So we cleared everything out of the main floor guest room, adjacent to the living room, and started keeping the ducks and goats inside at night. Our sleep was occasionally interrupted by quacks and bleats. And I never got used to the stench of the billies. Male goats stink worse than skunks.
“Earth to Alex,” Darla said, drawing my attention back to the barn where we were working. “Would the former planet known as Alex please come in?”
“Former planet?” I asked.
“Yeah. I demoted you.”
“Like Pluto? What am I now?”
“Um, a dwarf planet, I think?”
“Hey! I’m not that short.”
“Whatever. Hold this wedge.”
I took one of the wooden wedges we’d just cut and held it against the crack between the runner and bedstones of our grain mill. Darla softly tapped the wedge in my hand with a hammer, barely inserting its tip between the stones. I picked up another wedge, and we worked our way around the mill, trying to pry the runner stone free with careful, even pressure.
Darla had built this bicycle-powered gristmill not long after we arrived at the farm. In the bitter cold the night before, the stones had frozen together. Now we were trying to separate them without cracking the runner stone. Replacing it would take more than a week’s labor.
Holding wedges for Darla left a lot of time to think. We were planning a birthday party for my cousin Max that night. He was turning thirteen. Everyone but Aunt Caroline and I had celebrated a birthday since I arrived on the farm. Darla had turned eighteen—two years older than I. Well, really just a year and a half.
While Darla and I worked on the gristmill, Max, Anna, and Rebecca were in the greenhouses caring for our crop of kale. It was worth its weight in gold now—more, actually, since gold was almost worthless. You couldn’t eat gold or build anything useful with it, after all. Kale, by contrast, would grow even if the temperature in the greenhouses got close to freezing. And kale has tons of vitamin C, the only cure for scurvy, which had become an epidemic since the eruption.
When the weather had grown so cold that even the kale started to die, Darla designed a wood-fired heating system for the greenhouses. She found a description of a similar system, a hypocaust, in one of my cousin Anna’s books, Built to Last. It had taken almost a month of back-breaking labor to build. A frozen dirt ramp led down to an enclosed oven-like space where we built a fire every night. A metal door with a small air intake covered the fire shelf. Smoke and hot air from the fire flowed up into a winding series of ducts buried under all three greenhouses, eventually escaping at the far side. That way, the fire heated the ground under our kale without filling the greenhouses with smoke. On the downside, we had to keep the fire outside the greenhouses burning every night.
So we had to cut more wood. Luckily, my uncle’s farm backed up against Apple River Canyon State Park. We never would have cut its trees in normal times, but now we had no choice.
That’s where Uncle Paul and Aunt Caroline had gone that day—to the edge of the leafless forest to cut firewood. Darla said they were going out there to get some “alone” time, but that didn’t seem likely to me. It was way too cold to expose any more skin than you absolutely had to.
A crack of gunfire brought me crashing back to earth.
Darla froze and locked eyes with me. Then we heard Anna scream.
Darla dropped her hammer, and we dashed to the side door of the barn—the one that faced the greenhouses. I eased it ajar and peered out.
Four men wearing ski masks and ragged forest camouflage were clustered around the door to one of our greenhouses. Max lay face down, a wide arc of blood staining the snow beside him. One of the men was prodding Max with his toe, his handgun trained on Max’s head. A man wearing a bright blue scarf had Anna on the ground, his knee in the small of her back. He was tying a gag around her head. The third seemed to be supervising everything—holding a shotgun at the ready. The last had a machine pistol trained on Rebecca. Even from a distance, I could see her shaking.
I held my clenched fists against my roiling stomach, as if to hold it in, to hold myself together. Max. Was he dead? He wasn’t moving.
“I’m going for help,” Darla said, and she was gone, racing for the main barn door, which faced away from the greenhouses.
Get it together, Alex, I told myself. Darla’s getting help. Maybe there’s something you can do in the meantime.
The bandits were preoccupied with their task—none of them were looking my way. I opened the side door wider, dropped to my belly, and slithered through. Immediately I wormed off the trodden path into the deep snow. The snow slowed me down, but it also hid me.
When I thought I was close, I cautiously raised my head above the level of the snow. The bandits had a homemade toboggan, laden with lumpy canvas bags. They’d gagged and bound Anna and Rebecca, stacking them on the toboggan like cordwood. Machine Pistol was leaving one of the greenhouses with a plastic sack overflowing with kale. He’d harvested it so fast that he’d pulled up the roots. Blue Scarf stepped over to Max’s body, hefted it, and tossed it on top of the load. Blood pulsed from Max’s temple.
I blinked repeatedly, but my eyelids couldn’t clear the gruesome scene. My body was coiled tight, caught on a knife edge between two fears: I needed to help Max, to see if he was even alive, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t approach the sled without being seen.
The four bandits grabbed a knotted rope and started hauling the toboggan away. Max’s blood drew an erratic pink streak in the snow. I couldn’t let them abduct my sister and cousins. Rebecca was the only family I had left. I’d rather die than lie there in the snow and watch her being taken. I had a black belt in taekwondo. I’d been forced to use it during my flight from Iowa last year. But trying to fight four of them at once? Suicide.
Suddenly it struck me: All I had to do was slow them down until Darla came with help. If I could get them to talk . . . I stood up. “Stop!” I shouted.
All four of them turned. Three gun barrels swiveled toward me. I sent fruitless orders to my knees to be still.
“Leave the girls. Take me instead.” I was relieved my voice didn’t quaver. Much.
Handgun stalked toward me until he was less than thirty feet away. His mouth twisted in a cruel leer, and he raised his gun, aiming at my head.
I was dead. He was too far away for me to rush him, too close for the bullet to miss. Trying to talk was a stupid idea—the last stupid decision I’d get to make.
A gun barked. Handgun was thrown sideways, arms splayed, as blood bloomed at the side of his chest. I glanced left. Darla was about 100 feet off, kneeling in the snow, her eye sighting down the length of Uncle Paul’s hunting rifle.
Shotgun raised his weapon, business end pointed at me. Max, whom I’d feared was dead, punched at the bandit, aiming for his groin. He missed, hitting Shotgun in the hip. The gun wavered and boomed. My side felt like it had been stung by a dozen angry hornets, though most of the pellets flew wide, peppering the snow beside me.
Another rifle shot rang out. The bullet caught Shotgun square in the chest and threw him backward against the toboggan.
I was running forward without ever having made a conscious decision to charge. I had to get to Machine Pistol before he started spraying bullets everywhere.
Blue Scarf turned and ran. Machine Pistol hesitated, then stepped backward and raised his gun at me. Darla shot again but missed. I put everything I had into my insane charge, screaming at the top of my lungs. Maybe he’d just shoot me instead of spraying Max and the girls.
Instead, he lowered his gun and fled.
Darla fired again. Machine Pistol stumbled, but collected himself and kept running.
I staggered to Max, my body trembling with fear and adrenaline. A bullet had carved a narrow trough along his temple. Blood soaked the side of his hat, scarves, and coat.
“Get the hell out of my field of fire!” Darla screamed.
I ducked, hoping she could fire past both of us. Bright red blood poured from Max’s head, gushing in time with his heartbeat. I hesitated a moment, unsure what to do. A year ago I would have screamed for help and called 911. Now nobody but Darla would hear me scream. The phone wouldn’t work, and even if it did, there was no one to answer it.
I knew how to stop the bleeding—put a clean cloth over it and apply pressure. But what if his skull were cracked? Wouldn’t pushing on it make it worse, maybe kill him?
I stripped off my gloves and started probing the wound as gently as I could with my fingertips. Max moaned. He was shaking and sweating despite the cold. My hands dripped blood.
Darla was alongside the sled now, kneeling in the snow and firing at the fleeing bandits.