The light of freedom. That is all Jennifer remembers before she escapes a secret compound deep in the wooded terrain of Arkansas. Eluding her captors, she finds a world in ruins.
Abandoned cars on the interstate act as tombs for the dead, and many of those left living have been mentally altered by what the survivors call the SA8 virus.
When Jennifer comes across a group of survivors, she thinks she’s saved, until her blood is tested for the virus and the results are inconclusive. Will the survivors allow her into their community? What about the one man who is willing to sacrifice everything to help her find the truth behind her diagnosis? Is she resistant to the virus? Does she hold the cure for human survival?
BUY THE BOOK
There’s something about a skull leering at you in the morning that brings a shiver down your spine. I thought I had moved the remains enough so it didn’t seem to be staring at me. But now, across the seat from me, there it was, with two gaping holes and a jagged mouth of white alabaster, grinning at me like it had no care in the world. I guess, for the most part, all of its worries were behind it. The rest of the skeleton was covered with the remnants of ripped blue jeans and a torn green sweater.
I had gotten all too accustomed to them on the road, going wherever I was going, southwest, following what used to be an interstate, but now was just a parking lot full of abandoned vehicles. There were just as many mangled, human remains as cars. Hundreds of bodies, just like this one, were dead in their cars or along the road, all eternally posed trying desperately to escape something.
Searching the car one last time for anything useful, I found a half-empty bottle of water next to the skeleton’s feet, probably his, but of no use to him now. I stuffed it in my backpack, another item I had found in some vehicle miles behind me. Everything I carried now I’d taken from cars along my journey, even my clothing. I’d helped myself to it from a skeleton’s duffel bag; a girl like me, I suppose. It was better than the hospital gown I had escaped in.
The anxiety of my escape made it seem like only yesterday, but it had to be more than a week now since I had been running; my memory was fraught with shattered scenes. I remember the sound of animals—cows, chickens, and horses. They all seemed to cry in bellowing pain from some unknown terror, but it might have been just my imagination.
* * * *
Light was the first thing I clearly remembered and I ran toward it as fast as I could. There was something, someone, I was running from, but I couldn’t remember who or what it was. I could hear other noises behind me, but I couldn’t make them out completely as my mind raced too fast, jumbled by the dark halls and the light at its end—a chance of freedom. I had to get to the light, and when I did, there were sheltering, dense trees. There was no way to tell where I was or what I was doing there. All I could do was run. The foliage was thick, but I fought my way through as I heard voices behind me. They were calling for someone, me, but I couldn’t hear the name they used. I wish I had heard my name.
The deep, haunting voices coaxed me to come back, but I couldn’t. In coarse words, they told each other to find me and bring me back. I’m not sure why, but I sensed I shouldn’t have been there, knowing these people were holding me against my will. I was sure I had to get away and could only run through the woods, hoping they wouldn’t recapture me.
Thorny vines scraped my legs, the soles of my feet were cut when I stepped on sharp twigs and jagged rocks. Still, I managed to move forward and got far enough away I couldn’t hear anyone around me. Just when I thought I couldn’t go any farther, I slipped down a murky slope and landed waist-deep in mud. I tried to remain quiet and catch my breath when I heard the roar of engines above the tree canopy. Helicopter blades chopped through the air as they flew over my head searching for me, but soon the noise died away and I was alone—tired, hungry, and filthy.
Not knowing where I was going, I climbed out of the muddy swamp and walked as quietly as possible through the woods. Darkness accompanied a steady downpour, and I found a rocky ledge to shiver under, the cold being a constant reminder I was still alive. When I awoke, I was grasping at the rocks under the ledge, hoping the sun would come out soon. I found a shallow creek nearby that had accumulated rainwater from the night and I drank it quickly and used the remainder to clean my cuts and scrapes.
I was lost in the woods with no food and my only access to water was wherever I could find it. Hoping I wasn’t walking in circles, I continued forward. As I did, I persevered as long as I could, resting when I was exhausted and hiding in creeks or tall brush when I thought I heard someone. Not knowing where the woods might end or where they would lead me, all I could do was continue moving, anything to avoid recapture.
I slept half way through the third day in the woods. My body was telling me it could go no further, but I fought off the feeling and continued as long as I could before my body forced me to rest again. My stomach growled at me, empty, and hurting. The rest of me was sore and every footstep forward made me grimace as shooting pains ran through my feet and legs.
Having pushed my body to its limits, I finally collapsed, and when I tried to get up, I fell again. If I died here, how much would it really matter? I couldn’t remember anything anyway. Did I have family who might be looking for me or was I alone in the world? Face down in the moist dirt, exhausted and afraid, tears swelled in my eyes and cascaded down the brim of my nose, but somehow I managed to muffle my whimpers. It wasn’t the painful wounds to my body causing my anguish, but the reality that I was all alone and afraid. I was terrified of the unknown; not just the woods surrounding me, but the haunting question of why I was being held there in the first place. What did they want with me, and why couldn’t I remember anything before the light?
I must have fallen asleep, because a helicopter engine suddenly woke me. Leaping up, I ran as hard as I could through the darkness, away from my captors, only my hands and senses guiding me through the woods. I pushed myself from one tree to the next, but the sounds only got closer. Light came from above and behind me, and I saw my shadow glance off a tree ahead of me, the light catching me a brief moment before I dove to the ground.
“There she is!”
I heard someone yell in a muffled, digitized voice. My heart jumped from my chest. I had to hide. This was my only chance to escape their clutches, but the surrounding trees were not big enough to conceal me. I fought back my pain and crawled forward, pushing myself upward to run again.
Passing tree after tree, looking ahead of me, over me, behind me, I felt like my pursuers were hunting me from all different directions. Slipping again, I grabbed some pointy vines, which kept me from falling, but they cut into my palms at the same time. Yet, it was lucky I did, because on the other side of the tree the ground dropped off. This time it wasn’t a ditch though; it was an entire river now blocking my path.
Voices and the thundering sounds of movement behind me forced me to sacrifice precious time as I looked over my shoulder. They couldn’t be too far away. I panicked, sensing they were surrounding me. My only choice was to jump, not knowing how deep the water might be or how much more I might be injured. Taking a few steps back, I gritted my teeth as I ran forward and pushed hard off of the ground, experiencing the sensation I was flying for a second before I hit the water.
The hospital gown I escaped in twisted all around me, and for a moment I thought I would have to take off my only clothing before it drowned me, but I managed to straighten it out and swim underwater. I went as far as my breath would take me, surfacing only when my lungs felt as if they were going to catch on fire. The helicopters still hovered overhead so I went under again, swimming down river, hoping my trail might be lost by whoever was chasing me. I continued to surface with only my face coming out of the water to draw a lungful of air before I went back under. My insides felt like they could explode at any moment, joining my muscles in their agony.
The last time I surfaced, the early morning light became blocked by a large obstruction. I shook the water out of my eyes then noticed heavy, metal bars intertwining above me. The bridge was like the light, which told me to run in the first place. At least it was a road and I could only hope it would take me back to civilization and back to recovery, both physically and mentally. I fought the current of the river, pushing myself to swim to the opposite bank. Crawling through the weeds, I was finally able to make my way into a drainage ditch that ran along the side of the bridge. Crumpling into a ball, my stomach flexed, and I leaned over, vomiting river water. I didn’t even bother to move away from it, feeling just as disgusting as anything that came out of me.
I stared at the dingy-blue sky, trying to find any sense of why I was here and why I couldn’t remember anything. The light, the animal sounds, were my first full memory, but there had to be more. I didn’t know my name, but I knew a language. I spoke English; I knew I lived in the United States. Apparently, I knew how to swim well enough to get away from whomever was chasing me. But, there had to be more than that. Where had all the details of me, of my life gone?
It only felt like a few minutes had passed when I heard the blades of another helicopter approaching. People on the ground wouldn’t be far behind. I pulled myself up, standing once again, but wobbly on my feet. My eyesight was blurry and my head was spinning. I didn’t know if it was the running or the swim, the exhaustion, hunger, or dehydration, but my body was rejecting what I knew I had to do. Lifting my hand, I tried to focus on it, but it looked like three different hands. The trees in front of me jumbled into a mixture of greens and browns all in one large mass. Still, I managed to put one foot in front of the other, walking up the ditch until I ascended from it.
Pulling myself up, I ran into a large, flat surface that blocked my path. It was an eggshell color, off-white, and nothing I had seen in the woods. For a moment, I ran my hand down the metal bolts holding it together, wondering if this was only a mirage, as though I was experiencing a dream, or a nightmare. Still, I worked my way down the side of metal and soon discovered an eighteen-wheeler lying on its side. Finding my way to the back of the truck, I pulled the door open and jumped inside. Using all of my strength, I heaved the door shut and crawled through the darkness, over the jumbled boxes strewn around inside the truck. I wrapped myself into a small, wet ball and listened to the sound of yet another helicopter approaching from above.
Breathing heavily, I waited, hoping I wouldn’t be found. My body wouldn’t take me any farther. I took my chances and stayed where I was, but every minute felt like an hour. When the door slammed open, I jumped, but didn’t make a sound. I ducked my head and held my breath as a light searched for any sign of me. It passed over three times, but the assailant made no progress farther into the truck. All I could hear was a muffled breath, which seemed to take all of the searcher’s energy to pull and to extract. I peeked over a box, just for a moment when the light passed by, only to see a figure dressed in white from head to toe, a hood and mask covering his face. He had no eyes, only a dark, flat lens that made him look less human and more alien to me. The word HAZMAT was written upon his chest, but I didn’t know what it meant. There was also a symbol, a circle with a lightning bolt inside of it on his shoulder. Ducking back down before the light hit me, I waited until the man disappeared. I heard footsteps and voices trail away from me, but I was too afraid to move.
“No sign of her, sir.”
“She’s got to be close. Keep looking,” said another voice, which sounded older and more determined. Those voices soon died away and I began to cry.
I spent the night in the truck. It was the first good night’s sleep since my escape and better than the forest floor or in a creek bottom. It seemed that I had dreamed, but I couldn’t remember anything. The early morning light peered into the truck, shining in my eyes. I mentally pulled myself out of my groggy state and crept out, finding I was standing in the bottom of a steep roadside ditch. Looking around, I checked my surroundings. Once I felt secure about my solitude, I deemed it safe to move away from the truck.
A red car sat on the road in front of me, parked sideways with its front end against a concrete barrier. I crept up behind it, working my way around the side. I grabbed the handle of the passenger side door and opened it, only to see a skeleton staring right back at me. The disgusting odor of death bellowing from within met my face. There was another rotting corpse on the driver’s side still clutching the steering wheel. In shock, I placed a hand over my mouth to stifle a scream and I backed away from the scene, slipping on the wet pavement. My body tried to force me to vomit again, but nothing came out, and the dry heave only tore at my abdomen.
What had happened to these people and who was responsible for abandoning them, only to rot in their cars? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I stared at the car and the ghastly sight inside of it, trying to make sense of it all. Then, my gaze slowly stretched down the road, taking in the next car and then the next. Tens, if not hundreds, of vehicles were scattered down the road, turned in every direction, some on the road, some in ditches, some upright, some on their sides or flipped over. Not far away more skeletons were scattered along the roadside, bodies left behind long ago.