I left the farmhouse in the darkest hour of the night to make a weapon. The light from my oil lamp drew a pitiful circle of gray against the snow around my feet. Other lamps and torches shone here and there amid the ramshackle refugee encampment surrounding Uncle Paul’s farm, fading pockets of humanity in the chaotic dark. People huddled within the lights, cleaning guns and sharpening knives.
By sunrise I’d reached the dead forest behind the farm and cut a jahng bong. A staff was a ridiculous weapon for the coming fight, but it was the best I could do.
The eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano had plunged Iowa and Illinois into chaos. Communications went down. Air travel ended. Roads became impassable due to the ashfall and brutal winter it triggered. Towns were on their own. And now, eleven months after the eruption, the towns of northwest Illinois had begun waging war on each other.
Almost two weeks before, a few hundred men from Stockton had attacked Warren. A short, sad battle ensued. The Warrenites lost their stored food and their homes. Many lost their lives. The survivors fled to my Uncle Paul’s farm. Mom, Darla, Alyssa, Ben, and I had arrived yesterday, finding the farm transformed into a rough refugee camp.
Today Warren’s mayor, Bob Petty, planned to lead a counterattack. The adult refugees would attempt to retake Warren and reclaim their food. Everyone was hungry. Replacing the stockpile of frozen pork stolen by the Stocktonites would be impossible. All the slaughterhouses and nearly all the farms had been shut down for months. If the counterattack failed, most of us would starve to death.
Apparently the term adults didn’t include me, despite the fact that I was sixteen. Our family had three decent weapons: the two AR-15 rifles I’d brought back from Iowa and a bolt-action hunting rifle. Mom, Aunt Caroline, and Uncle Paul would carry those. I was under strict orders to stay behind with Darla; Ben; Alyssa; my sister, Rebecca; and my cousins, Max and Anna. Orders I planned to ignore.
My wild trip through Iowa had taught me one thing at least—if I wanted something, I’d better be willing to fight for it. By myself, when necessary. If I hadn’t gone after my parents, they’d still be stuck in the FEMA camp in Maquoketa. If I hadn’t gone after Darla, she’d be dead or a slave in a flenser gang. But my dad might still be alive. Instead, he had died helping the rest of us escape. I jammed my new staff into the snow beside me, ramming it against the frozen ground hard enough to jar my elbow.
I tried to blend into the throng of refugees preparing to march to Warren, but Aunt Caroline noticed me. Her mom-vision would put an eagle’s eyesight to shame. “Alex, you can’t go with—”
“Where’s Mom?” I said.
“We were wondering the same thing,” Uncle Paul said. “We’re supposed to move out any minute.”
“I thought you were heading out at dawn,” I said. “I figured I’d have to run to catch up.”
“We were supposed to.” Uncle Paul frowned.
“I’m going to find Mom.” I turned away.
“We’ll help,” Uncle Paul said, and the three of us jogged to the farmhouse.
As I stepped into the tiny foyer adjoining the living room, I noticed the smell. Sweat and a fecal stink blended with the stomach-turning stench of rotting wounds. The living room had been converted into a pitiful makeshift hospital. In the primitive conditions, Dr. McCarthy and his assistant, Belinda, were losing the battle to keep their patients clean and healthy.
They were an amazing team, working tirelessly in horrible conditions to try to save lives. They constantly came up with creative solutions to the lack of technology: scavenging Froot Loops to treat scurvy, creating a gravity-flow transfusion system, scrounging antibiotics, and more. They shared a mutual admiration that had clearly grown into a romance, even though they had yet to admit it publicly.
I glanced over the injured, unwilling to let my eyes linger lest I get sucked into the horror of missing limbs and oozing wounds. Alyssa and Max were helping Dr. McCarthy. Well, Alyssa was helping. Max was following her like a puppy and generally getting in the way. It was no different from high school—the new girl always attracts all the attention. I didn’t see any sign of Mom. I turned back to the foyer and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Mom?” I yelled in the hallway at the top of the stairs. No answer. Uncle Paul and Aunt Caroline joined me in the hall. Aunt Caroline had hung dozens of family photos in the stairway and hall. About a third of them were missing, which seemed odd—I could have sworn they had all been there the day before. The blank spaces in the walls seemed like empty eye sockets, staring at nothing.
I knocked once and opened the door to the first bedroom. Darla, Rebecca, and Anna were huddled together, wrapped in a faded bedspread. Since the hospital had displaced us from the living room and the comfort of its fireplace, we’d been forced into the icy cold upstairs. All the girls shared Anna’s room, and all the guys were in Max’s. It beat sleeping in the refugee encampment outside. “You guys seen Mom?” I asked.
They all shook their heads. Darla had been shot, and during her ordeal as a prisoner of a cannibal gang, the Dirty White Boys, her wound had become infected. Otherwise, she probably would have insisted on going with me to Warren. She was healing well and didn’t need a bed downstairs, but she was still weak.
Anna slid out from under the bedspread and ran to us, wrapping her arms around Aunt Caroline’s stomach in an awkward, sideways hug.
“Mom—” Anna said before a choked sob cut her off. Aunt Caroline stroked Anna’s hair. “Shh. It’s all right. I’ll be back tonight.”
Uncle Paul laid a hand on Anna’s shoulder, leaned in close to his wife, and whispered, “We really shouldn’t both—”
Aunt Caroline pressed her hands over Anna’s ears. “We already talked about this. I’m going. Those starving people camped outside are my neighbors too, not just yours. And besides, I’m better with a rifle than you are, and you know it.” “Yes, but—”
“If anyone should stay, it’s you.”
“But what if . . . who’ll take care of the kids?”
“We’re going to be fine,” Aunt Caroline said, lifting her hands from Anna’s ears to end the conversation.
Anna choked out a series of words too garbled for me to understand, and Aunt Caroline bent over, talking to her in a low voice.
I stepped up to the bed and leaned over, putting my face close to Darla’s. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” she whispered. “I should go with you.”
“I’ll be careful.”
Darla snorted. “Not sure you’d know careful if you tripped over it.”
“Tripping over careful? That’s ironic.”
“If anyone could do it, it’d be you. You’d probably break your nose in the process.”
I smiled. Somehow it didn’t bother me when Darla teased me—girlfriends get special privileges like that. Although “girlfriend” didn’t even begin to describe what Darla meant to me. “I’ll be back tonight. I promise.”
“I’ll still worry.” Darla reached one hand out from under the covers, wrapped it around the back of my neck, and pulled me closer for a kiss.
When the kiss broke, I pressed my lips together, savoring the warmth she’d left, trying to hold on to it. “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
“Do I need to leave?” Rebecca asked. “I do not want to be here while my sappy brother makes out with his girlfriend.”
“No. I have to go.” I kissed Darla’s forehead and left the room, stepping around Anna, Aunt Caroline, and Uncle Paul to continue searching for my mother.
I found Ben, Alyssa’s older brother, in the second upstairs bedroom. He sat under the window, wrapped in a blanket, reading a book. “You seen my mom?”
Ben didn’t reply. When he was interested in something, he had an amazing ability to block out all distractions— including me. It had something to do with his autism. I couldn’t imagine what book had drawn him in that deeply—he was gaga over all things military, and as far as I knew, there were no books on that subject in the farmhouse. I drew the door closed and moved on to the master bedroom. Yesterday Anna had asked Mom to share the girls’ room, but she’d refused, and Aunt Caroline had invited her to sleep in the master bedroom instead.
At first the master bedroom looked empty, but a noise from behind the bed prompted me to investigate further. Mom sat on the floor with her back wedged into the corner of the room. Empty picture frames were scattered to her left. She was sorting pictures of me, Rebecca, herself, and Dad, creating some kind of impromptu collage. As I watched, she swept all the photos up off the floor and started dealing them into a new pattern, as if they were cards in a bizarre game of solitaire.
Mom wore only jeans and a light sweater despite the subzero temperature in the house. Her face was flushed, and she trembled as though her muscles were composed of seething colonies of ants rather than flesh. She was sweating so profusely that droplets fell from her nose and chin, splatting onto the photographs. A rifle lay on the floor near the foot of the bed.
“Mom. You okay?” A stupid question. She most certainly was not okay. She looked terrible.
“Mom,” I said a little more urgently. She still didn’t answer. Her eyes were bloodshot. I waved my hand in front of her face, and she kept sorting photos. But when I went to put my hand on her shoulder, she grabbed my hand, clutching it with surprising strength.
“Mom,” I shouted, “what’s wrong?”
“We’ll stay here,” she hissed through her clenched jaw. “You’ll be safe here.” She tried to pull me down beside her.
I resisted. “We’ve got to go, Mom,” I said as gently as I could.
“What’s wrong? I heard a shout.” Darla was standing in the doorway, leaning against the jamb.
Mom raised a hand, her tense and crooked finger pointing at Darla. “Get away,” she hissed.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” It made no sense—she’d been fine yesterday. “Leave!” Mom screeched.
I twisted my arm free, turned, and ran from the room. My aunt and uncle were moving down the hall toward the commotion. I ran past them and leaped down the stairs three at a time. I stepped into the living room, where Dr. McCarthy was chatting with a patient.
“Dr. McCarthy,” I said, “something’s wrong with Mom.”
“I’ll be right back,” he said to his patient before he stood and followed me back up the stairs.
I hung back at the doorway with Darla when we reached the master bedroom. Dr. McCarthy knelt beside Mom, talking too quietly for me to hear. He placed his hand against her forehead.
Darla had slumped down, sitting on the floor with her back against the jamb. “What’s wrong with your mom?” she asked.
I knelt next to her. “You should get back to bed.”
“Whatever. You didn’t answer the question.”
“I don’t know.” I draped her arm over my shoulder and helped her up. As soon as we stood, Mom started screaming—high-pitched, unintelligible squawks like a parakeet on meth.
I wavered, unsure what to do. Uncle Paul and Aunt Caroline crossed the room toward Mom and Dr. McCarthy. As they reached my mother, a trumpet sounded outside— the call to move out.
“We have to go,” Aunt Caroline said.
“Take Darla back to bed, Alex,” Dr. McCarthy said. “Send your sister in, would you?”
“Is Mom okay?” I asked.
“I think so. Give us some space.”
I hefted the rifle Mom had left on the floor in my free hand and left the room behind Uncle Paul and Aunt Caroline. As I helped Darla get settled back into bed in the girls’ room, I told Rebecca, “Dr. McCarthy needs help. Something’s wrong with Mom. They’re in the master bedroom.”