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Authors: Susanne Winnacker

The Life Beyond

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The Life Beyond

Book Two in the Other Life Saga

Susanne Winnacker

Copyright © 2013, Susanne Winnacker

Glass crunched.

I froze.

Someone was coming into the store. Dad clasped my arm hard and pulled me behind his back.

Crunch.

I pressed myself closer to him. A low grumble came from the aisle to our left and the huge shelf above us tipped over.

Dad’s grip tightened. We ran down the aisle, stumbling over cans. Sweat broke out all over my body.

A roar echoed in the store, feral and angry. “Run, Sherry!” Dad shouted. “Run!”

So I ran. The sun blinded me as I rounded the building and crossed the parking lot. Our car came into view, finally.

I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to see Dad. There was no one.

“Dad?”

Gunshots rang out in the silence.

“Dad!” I screamed and ran back. The store lay in shadows.

I took a deep breath, then I walked inside. My gun hand was shaking.

A rack of cotton nightgowns spun very slowly.

I slipped on something. My right leg gave away and I landed with a heavy thud on my backside. I scrambled to my knees and reached for the gun I’d dropped.

I froze.

The gun lay in a puddle of blood. With shaky fingers, I grabbed it. The blood was still warm.

Something rushed past the end of the aisle.

Clicking, not unlike the sound of Grandma’s knitting needles, came from nearby. Clicking – like claws on tiles.

Something appeared at the end of the aisle. I could just make out a silhouette. It looked like a human, but was hunched over and partly covered with grey hair.

Our eyes met. There was a flicker of yellow there, like a spark of madness. Or raw hunger. I took a step back.

The creature hurled itself toward me.

Chapter 1

14 days, 17 hours and 22 minutes since Joshua had saved me from the Weepers. The memory replayed like a nightmare, a constant echo in my head that I couldn’t shake off. So much had happened since then that it seemed so much longer to me. How could only 14 days, 19 hours and 31 minutes have passed since Dad and I left the bunker our family had spent 1141 days in? The number felt too marginal, almost mocking.

Only 21,331 minutes in this new, devasted world, though it felt like too much already.

I ran my hands through Joshua’s blond hair – it looked almost silver in the moonlight. His lashes fluttered but he stayed asleep, his head in my lap, and I didn’t have the heart to wake him, even though officially it was his turn to keep watch. I stared up at the sky. From where I sat on the roof of the main building, I could see for miles. Up here, everything looked calm, but we knew better. Since Weepers had attacked our Safe-haven and killed my grandmother ten days ago, Joshua hadn’t allowed himself more than a few hours of sleep. He was exhausted; all of us were. We should have left Safe-haven by now. It was too dangerous to stay.

Joshua stirred and raised his head. He looked disoriented for a moment before he remembered that we were on the roof. I shifted. The tiles of the roof had dug into my backside. Joshua ran a hand over his face before he blinked at me. “What time is it?”

“Maybe around five.” The sun hadn’t risen yet but the moon already stood lower in the sky.

Guilt flashed on Joshua’s face. “You should’ve woken me.”

I kissed his lips and he wrapped his arm around my waist. His warmth always felt so good. “It’s okay. You needed the sleep and it was peaceful.”

I regretted the word when I felt Joshua stiffen. This world was many things but peaceful wasn’t one of them, not since the rabies had broken out more than three years ago. My eyes wandered over the sloping hills overgrown with vine that spread around the vineyard.

14 days and 15 hours since I’d arrived here and found out my family and I weren’t the only survivors. This place already felt like home and now I was losing that too.

The rows between the vines were held in darkness. Anything could hide there. We’d killed all the Weepers that had attacked us but that didn’t mean more wouldn’t come.

“Do you think your Dad will feel well enough so we can leave today?” Joshua asked. He’d asked me yesterday too and I had to stifle my worry. I’d been wondering about it as well.

“I don’t know. He looked better last night.”

I’d visited Dad in the infirmary cottage before watch duty. He’d smiled and Mom had looked hopeful but sweat had glistened on his skin. Karen said it was to be expected and that it would take time for him to heal. But I wasn’t sure if she only said it to appease me.

Dad had been captured by Weepers, until Joshua and I had rescued him twelve days ago from their nest. There had been a huge gash in Dad’s leg that was filled with pus and though Karen, one of the survivors at Safe haven, had used her nursing skills, the wound was still giving him trouble. Now we were all beginning to fear the worst; what if the fever and weakness were not the result of an infection? What if Dad had caught the virus? What if Dad was gradually, painfully, turning into a Weeper?

“It’ll be alright,” Joshua said, putting his arm around me.

“You don’t know that,” I said. “What if Dad gets worse? What if it really is the rabies? If we can’t help him, no one else will.”

Joshua said nothing. He knew I was right.

The West Coast was now just deserted wasteland. The government had built a fence across America to keep the rabies contained, condemning all of us, the survivors, to a life of terror, always waiting for the next Weeper attack. It was still hard to believe that people were living a normal life a few hundred miles from here; a life beyond constant fear and death. The rest of the country didn’t even know about us. If Dad had really contracted the rabies there was nobody who could help him here. Our only hope would be to cross the fence.

After sunrise, Joshua and I left the roof and prepared breakfast in the kitchen. The smell of coffee (our last packet) and biscuits carried through the house and lured every member of Safe-haven out of their beds. Soon most of us had gathered around the long wooden table. It was so big, it would be impossible to take it with us when we moved. I was going to miss eating around that table, altogether, our strange patchwork family.

Mia was clutching Bobby’s hand but she stormed toward me and wrapped her arms around my waist as soon as she spotted me. I ran my hands through her red tangles and gave Bobby a smile. He’d been taking care of our little sister more and more over the last few days, trying to stand in for Dad while he was sick. Every time I saw Bobby I was surprised at how tall he’d got – taller than me – though he was two years younger. With a nod toward me, Bobby sank down on a chair.

“Done!” Marie said as she pulled the sheet with biscuits out of the oven, while her daughter Emma clung to her left leg like a spider monkey.

I handed the coffee pot to Karen; she poured her husband’s first before she filled her own cup. Larry was rubbing his stiff leg absentmindly. It obviously still hurt him sometimes. When he felt my eyes on him, he stopped and righted his glasses with an embarrassed smile. I wasn’t sure why he was ashamed – his leg marked him out as a survivor and that was something to be proud of. Not many people got out of an encounter with Weepers alive.

Rachel and Tyler sat beside each other. They’d been inseparable ever since Rachel arrived. Joshua and I had rescued her from the same nest where we had found Dad. Mom and Dad were the last to join us and relief flooded me when I saw them. Dad was pale and he had to lean on Mom, but he wasn’t sweating. Every pair of eyes in the room followed him as he sank down on a chair. I could almost hear their thoughts. “
Can we finally leave today?”

I knew they had every right to worry but I hated how their eyes bristled with resentment at Dad. It wasn’t his fault.

Larry patted Dad’s shoulder. “You look good.”

Dad let out a raspy laugh. “I think you need new glasses.” They laughed and the tension left the table.

Joshua squeezed my thigh and I finally allowed myself to relax in my chair.

We munched on the biscuits Marie had baked. I forced a few gulps of coffee down my throat, too. Though I hated the taste, I needed the caffeine to carry me through the day.

“So will we leave Safe-haven tomorrow?” Bobby blurted.

I could have kicked him. Dad looked down at his plate.

Karen froze with the cup inches from her lips. Slowly she set it down. “I think we might. We can say for sure tonight. If everything stays as it is, I don’t see why we shouldn’t set out in the morning.”

I tried to squash the hope that rose in me. We still had the whole day to get through. Until Dad was in the car, leaving Safe-haven with us, I couldn’t allow myself to feel any kind of relief or happiness. The disappointment if the situation changed would be too much to bear.

After breakfast I volunteered to wash the dishes. Though tiredness made my muscles ache, I preferred to stay busy. The thud-thud of Dad’s walking stick sounded behind me. He leaned against the counter. “Do you need help?”

My first instinct was to say “no” but he looked pleading. It must’ve been hard for him to feel so helpless –
useless
in his mind. He’d worked all his life, and even in the bunker when mom had broken down under the pressure, he’d helped me run the household as well as he could.

I handed him a tea towel and resisted the urge to steady him when he let go of his stick to take it from me. With the back of my hand I brushed away a few red strands of hair that had fallen into my eyes before I continued my work.

Dad began humming a song he’d sung to me before bed when I was little and after a moment I joined in. The sound of our voices together reminded me of another time, of another life. A life full of campfires and laughter, silly worries and school crushes, friends and a hopeful future.

That life was over. It had been for 1155 days.

Dad’s help slowed me down but I found myself not caring, even wishing that I could extend our dishwashing further.

Maybe tomorrow we really could set off for a new beginning.

It was almost noon when I crossed the courtyard toward the infirmary. Pebbles crunched under my feet and the smell of overripe grapes was heavy in the air. I’d fallen asleep in the living room after breakfast and now I wanted to find out if Dad’s health had improved further.

I opened the door with a creak. Dad sat on his bed with Geoffrey hunched over him, taking a blood sample. Once he was done he picked up the two other vials with red liquid and gave me a distracted smile. His eyes focused on the vials as he slipped out and closed the door with a soft click.

“Why did he take your blood?” I walked up to the bed and helped Dad to his feet. He was much steadier than the days before but his skin was still hot.

“He wants to do tests,” Dad said, letting go of me to stand on his own.

“Tests?” Why would Geoffrey be doing tests on Dad’s blood?

My mind immediately flew back to four days ago when a military helicopter had flown over Safe-haven. Earlier that day, Geoffrey had finally managed to get the old radio receiver going. It had been amazing – we’d heard voices, crackling down the airwaves to us. So when the helicopter arrived, we thought someone had finally come to save us. It had been flying so low, we even saw the soldiers inside, and we
knew
they’d seen us. But it just flew right past, leaving us for dead.

That’s when Tyler finally spoke out; he told us about the fence. Tyler had been kept trapped in a lab on the other side, where the government was testing the rabies virus on humans. But he had escaped, back to this side, via a secret underground tunnel beneath the fence.

Then Geoffrey told us the truth about
his
other life, working as a scientist for the government. And then later, in secret, he told me and Joshua about the rumors he had heard, about the development of a cure for the virus. But we hadn’t told anyone about the rumors, much less Dad. If there was a cure, it was beyond the fence. Far from our reach.

There was a knock and Mia and Bobby entered. “We wanted to see if you’re feeling better,” Bobby said – he looked so much like dad in that moment, only with blonde instead of red hair. Mia dashed past him and flung herself into Dad’s arms. He stumbled back but didn’t fall.

I grabbed her shoulder. “Careful, Mia.”

“No, it’s okay,” Dad said softly, stroking her mane of red hair. “It’s been a while since we all spent time together. Where’s your mom?”

“She’s helping Marie in the garden. The carrots have sprouted over the last few days. They want to cook them for dinner,” Bobby said.

Dad smiled. “Let’s take a walk, so we can say hi to them.”

Bobby’s and Mia’s faces lit up but I wasn’t so sure leaving the infirmary was a good thing. Dad needed all the rest he could get. He squeezed my shoulder as he walked outside. “Don’t worry,” he whispered.

I’d been doing nothing else since Joshua and I found him. He seldom talked about his time spent captured by the Weepers, but Mom told me he woke screaming every night.

“Can we walk through the vineyard?” Mia asked, her huge eyes pleading with Dad. He looked at me.

“Just let me get … something.” I hurried into the house to pick up the gun from my nightstand before I returned to them. After the Weeper attack, I wasn’t taking them into the vineyard without a weapon.

I drank down the cool, fresh air as we walked toward the vines. Mom and Marie were bent over the vegetable patch, or what was left of it, ripping out earth-crusted carrots. Most of our vegetables were already pickled or stored in wooden boxes for our departure. They’d been waiting for days.

Mom looked up, her blonde hair a tangled mass atop her head and wiped her face with the back of her hand, smudging dirt across her skin. She said something to Marie before she came toward us.

“What are you doing outside?” she asked. Her cheeks had filled out a little in the last few days. She almost looked like I remembered her from our other life – our life before the rabies. Before the steel door had sealed us in the bunker. 1,663,200 minutes since I’d stopped being a child and had to take my place as a resposible adult.

“The kids wanted to show me around the vineyard,” Dad said. He leaned forward on his walking stick and wiped a streak of dirt from Mom’s cheek. “There. That’s better.” A tender look passed between them.

“Why don’t you come with us?” Dad said.

“Marie needs my help. I’ll join you in a minute, okay?” She kissed each of us on the cheek before she continued picking vegetables.

It was a sunny and windless day. It made picking up on noises easy. We walked slowly and I could see how heavily Dad leaned on his walking stick. It kept sinking into the soil of the vineyard, making it more difficult for him. But it was good that he was finally able to leave the house. I felt the hope rise in my chest; then reminded myself to squash it back down.

“Do you remember when we went camping in Yosemite?” Dad asked.

The lines of Bobby’s forehead smoothed. “Yeah, a bug snuck into Sherry’s sleeping bag and she screamed like a baby.” His laughter sounded strange like he wasn’t used to it anymore.

“Very funny,” I said, forcing a smile.

Mia rushed up and down between the vines, arms extended so she could graze the fat grapes with her fingertips.

Dad wrapped his arm around Bobby and me. “I miss that time.” His words hung in the air.

Mia sprinted down the aisle until she was nothing but a dot of red hair and yellow dress.

“Come back! Don’t go so far!” I shouted and touched the gun at my waist. Dad followed the movement and his smile turned sad.

I dropped my hand, feeling bad for ruining the atmosphere. Mia raced toward us, hair flying around like flames.

Suddenly, Dad stopped, his arms falling from our shoulders, his fingers clenching. He began shaking and the walking stick tumbled to the ground. Before I could grab him, he crumpled and his limbs began to flail.

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