CHAPTER ONE -
I’m not a mother. I never will be.
But today, I sit on the ground and teach Mo letters with a stick. We carve the shapes into the hard-packed sand. She’s useless at it, and, frankly, so am I. The only reading I know I learned from Clay during the quiet nights we lie together in our hovel while Mo whimpers quietly in her sleep. I know the letters okay, and their sounds. Enough to teach a half-human, half-animal baby to scratch shapes in the dirt.
She grabs the stick in her dirty fist and digs it into the hard-pack, spooling up mounds on either side of her scraggly line that could be an I or an L or really any other damn letter.
“Good,” I say, swatting a fly away from her. “Can I have the stick? I want to show you another one.” I hold out my hand.
With large dark eyes, she looks at my hand and the brittle piece of wood. Her first move is to pull it protectively to her bare chest and grunt at me, her beautiful and dirty face challenging.
“No,” I say calmly. “Give it to Mommy.”
“Mo mo,” she vocalizes, still clutching the stick.
I jut my chin and hold my hand out. She’s so damn cute it’s hard to be firm; big brown eyes and a tiny pink mouth. She has this way of pursing her lips that I know means, What are you thinking, woman? Her hair is tangled in brown dreadlocks down her back, and she spends most of her time naked, running around our compound chasing bugs and getting into trouble.
“Mo, give me the stick,” I say, reaching for it.
Finally, she agrees, thrusting her arm out palm down. She releases the stick with a sigh.
“That’s good,” I say, smoothing back her tangled hair. “This one is called a G.”
“Mo mo,” she mutters, watching me, but I can tell she isn’t interested in letters, and I’m a fool to think she’ll learn to read. She has one word, and she uses it for everything.
I realize I’ve stopped drawing when Mo begins creeping toward me, climbing into my lap to pick at my scalp. It’s an old habit, likely something she did with her real mother before she died, and I don’t have nits, but her little fingers are deft. I hug her small body. She probably only weighs thirty pounds, even when we’ve had our fill of meat from Clay and tough veggies from Auntie’s garden.
Still, she’s my baby. The only one I’ll ever have thanks to that idiot’s knife.
She stops picking and looks up at me. Her smile, all brown teeth and gums, turns something inside me, a key in a rusty lock, creaking and shifting, unlocking a cobwebbed door I thought would be bolted forever.
This warmth blooming in my chest, this feeling must be what motherhood feels like.
And if it isn’t, I’ll never know.
“Nap time,” I say, gazing up at the blazing sun just outside the shade of our crumbling building wall. She seems to be slowing down, the heat of the day getting to her, to all of us. Sure, we have shade, but it’s New Mexico.
I lift her sagging body and walk to our hovel. She’s limp in my arms, tired from the heat and her crazy scampering. I get to our hole and set her on the ground as I maneuver toward the ladder that angles down. It’s hard getting her limp form down the six-foot ladder, but I manage. She doesn’t stir. And after carrying her dead weight, the exhaustion hits me, too.
I lay her on the straw-filled mattress, smoothing out her tangled hair and adjusting her hands. She’s making small moaning sounds behind her lips. I press a kiss to them.
“Sleep tight, love.”
But as I move away, her body begins to twitch. At first I think she’s waking, fighting the nap she clearly needs, but the twitching turns into seizing, her whole body shaking against the mattress.
She’s having a seizure.
My heart rips open. “Oh God.”
I stare for awful heartbeats as she jerks and vibrates. Her eyes are open, her mouth, too. The whites of her eyes roll up until the warm brown pupils are gone.
She looks like a demon, a monster.
“Clay!” I shriek, grabbing her taut body. I smell the stink and feel the wetness of her bowls releasing. “Clay!”
Above, Clay’s face appears, a shadow ringed by sunshine. “What is it?” he asks, dropping down the ladder.
I hold the twitching child in my arms, my tears already wetting her face. “Mo. She’s . . . She . . .”
One look is all it takes, and he’s back up the ladder, hollering. “Doc! Hurry!”
As I wait for help, I cry and rock her. White irises peer up at me. Eyelids flutter nonstop. Her sweet, dirty face twitching, a low moan starting in the back of her throat.
Strange thoughts swirl in my head. How old is she? A few months? A year? When we met she was brand new but already the size of a large toddler. Mo was bred to age at an accelerated rate by scientists trying to solve the dwindling female population. If they could speed up human maturation, that meant more females. Only, they didn’t count on brains not maturing as fast as bodies. Physically, Mo looks like a scrawny five-year-old. Mentally, she’s a baby.
Hot tears splash on her face and meander through the dirt. I can’t keep her clean. I can’t even keep her alive. We had insulin that we stole from Corra. But it’s running out. I’ve been rationing it. And now the seizures. I’m killing her.
A shadow passes over, and then Doc is climbing down. One hand holds his doctor’s bag.
“Doc, help!” I moan, offering her.
He helps me set her twitching body on the earth and presses his stethoscope to her chest.
“She was taking a nap. I heard her moving. When I looked . . . This.” My words are clipped. I’m crying too hard. I clutch trembling hands together and watch him examine her.
“We have to just let it pass,” he says, sinking back on his heels.
“I know you want to fix this, but there’s nothing we can do but let it run its course. I’m sure it’ll be over soon.” He frowns and looks down at her little body. “I’m sorry.”
I don’t want his sorry. Biting back my protests, I watch her breathe. Each intake of air takes effort. She could die. She could die right here in the dirt.
Another shadow crosses the doorway above. “Puddin’, is everything okay?” Auntie asks.
Doc answers for me. “We’re waiting it out. Should be over any minute.”
Thundering feet announce another as Ethan tumbles down, almost landing on Doc. The hovel is small, and four bodies is pushing it. Doc shoves at Ethan. “No room. Go up. We’ll call you if we need you.”
My little brother peers down at Mo, worry on his young face. “She okay?”
Doc pushes Ethan toward the ladder. “Yes. Go. Wait up top with Auntie.”
His eyes flit around until they land on me. He gives me a look. We used to be inseparable, but now I’m so busy with Mo.
“Go, Ethan,” I repeat. “We’ll call you if we need you.”
Grumbling, he climbs the ladder slowly so we know he isn’t happy about it.
I can’t worry about him now. How long has this seizure gone on? It seems like hours.
But when I look down, her little body has stopped twitching. She lays breathing shallowly, her closed eyes making her look like she’s peacefully sleeping.
“It’s over,” I say, pulling Doc’s arm.
He listens to her chest again and takes her pulse. I watch as he opens up both eyes and looks at each. “Whew, okay. When she wakes up, we’ll be able to tell what toll that had on her body. For now, let her rest. I’ll help you clean up.” He nods to my soiled clothes from where I held her.
“I need to stay with her in case she wakes up.”
Doc takes my arm gently and squeezes. “You need to take care of yourself, too, Riley.”
I pull my arm away. “I’m fine. She’s the one who needs taking care of.”
From up above, a face appears again. “He’s right, Ri,” Clay says. “Auntie will sit with Mo. Let’s you and me walk down to the stream.”
I start to protest, but Auntie cuts me off. “Get your ass up here and quit being so damn stubborn.”
They’re all against me. I burn Doc with a hard stare. “A half an hour and then I’m back down here with her. Got it?”
Doc holds up his hands. “Talk to your boyfriend and your aunt. I’m just the doctor. What do I know?” He mutters the last part into his doctor’s bag.
Shakily, I stand, still eying Mo for signs of the seizure’s long-term effects. I climb the ladder and pull myself out into the open.
Our home for the last few months isn’t much. Whatever structure this building used to be, it’s now a pile of crumbled concrete, splintered metal, and twisted pipe. To the east, two-thirds of the walls still stand with no roof and no windows, but the wall gives shade, so that’s where we dug. It took us a few weeks to carve out our little holes and secure them with beams so the dirt wouldn’t collapse on us, create airways. They’re small and dusty, but it makes us real hard to spot if anyone comes looking. And we have good reason to think someone might come looking—Nessa and her army, Corra and her scientists . . . Hell, anyone who’s not us should not be trusted. And that’s fine by me.
Clay, Mo, and me sleep in our bigger hovel, Auntie and Ethan in theirs, and Doc in his own. With them uncovered for daytime ventilation, it looks like giant gophers have set up residence inside this abandoned shell of a building. Ethan will even pop his head up out of the entry hole, look around, and pop down, making me giggle.
But the real reason we can stay is the river. Auntie says people used to call it the Rio Grande. Now it’s less grand and more a small trickle that keeps us alive, but alive is what we need.
Clay takes my hand and helps me up out of the hole. I climb out and squint into the midday sun beating down on everything. The air shimmers in waves as the crunchy earth and scrub plants bake in the sun.
“Don’t look at me ’til I’m clean. I must smell like a barnyard,” I say to Clay.
He smiles sweetly, reaching out to touch my cheek. “Whether you believe it or not, I have smelled shit before.”
“True story.” When I lean into his hand he rubs his thumb gently down my cheek. “Least it’s not on your face. That’s my favorite part.”
“Not my brain?”
“Of course your brain,” he says, kissing me. “And your ass.”
I shove him, smiling despite myself.
We walk side by side through the remains of the buildings, an old school or municipal office, though it’s too picked over to tell. The only supplies we found when we arrived were some rusted staplers, disintegrating books, and a couple of dented file cabinets. Everything else found a new home long ago. Clay and I walk through one of the crumpled walls and across the path we’ve cleared to the river.
Here, the debris disappears and the land starts to reclaim its beauty. Strong scrub bushes and trees crop up through the sidewalks and run-to-riot flower beds. The land begins to stretch out, yawning in either direction with browns and yellows and greens. Birds call and insects buzz. Clay’s game hunting has never been better. And Auntie’s been able to coax a few edible plants to life beside the riverbed, though the rabbits keep stealing her profits.
I squint up at the blazing sun and blue stretch of sky. The heat doesn’t bother me much and the dry season will soon be over. Our life here is meager, but satisfying if you don’t think about Mo’s health.
When we get to the riverbed, I start to strip.
Clay gives a low whistle, watching me. “Do a little twirl.”
I bat a hand at him. “At least wait until I’ve got the shit off me.”
He shrugs. “It’s not fair to other women, you bein’ ten times more beautiful than they are, even with shit on ya.”
I smirk. “What other women?”
He looks around, in mock consideration. “Auntie doesn’t count?”
I shake my head.
He runs a hand down his five o’clock shadow. “Does Doc?”
“Stop,” I say, throwing a boot at him. “You know Doc prefers to be male.”
“Right,” he says, drawing out the word. “Male. Got it.”
When I’m dressed in just my chest binding and underwear, I step gingerly over the rocks and begin to wade in the water, my filthy clothes in my hand. The cool water tripping over my feet and shins feels damn good. When I’m hip deep, I turn and look back at Clay. “You comin’ in?”
He hunkers, watching me. “Just enjoyin’ the show.”
I shake my head and begin scrubbing the dirty clothes and then my body. We don’t have soap, but a good handful of mud from the bottom does the lion’s share of getting me clean. I crouch down and dip my shoulders in, then my head, letting the water rush over me and the silence swallow me up. Eyes closed as the water washes me clean, I try to think of nothing—no worry, no pain.
It’s a losing battle.
When I push my feet into the silt and stand, water dripping from my body and hair, Clay’s still there on the bank, waiting for me. I was without him for so long, sometimes I still can’t believe he’s here. His memory is still full of holes, but he knows me. He knows Ethan and Auntie. He doesn’t remember how we met or the first time we made love, but we’re making new memories. Lots.
“Come in,” I say, splashing toward the shore.
He looks at me and then his dry clothes. “You’re just tryin’ to see me naked.”
“Maybe,” I say, splashing again. “It’ll cool you down.”
He stands up, slowly taking off his shirt and then unbuckling the belted gun holster around his hips. No one takes better care of his guns than Clay, so when he sits them gingerly on his frayed T-shirt and then adjusts them so they’re out of the direct sun, I’m not surprised. Nine nights out of ten I find him taking those revolvers apart and putting them back together again, rubbing them until they shine. I have Mo; he has his guns. But then we still have each other.
His pants fall to his ankles. Boxer briefs from his days with Nessa at Kirtland. He walks into the river and toward me. The river parts around his strong thighs, one scarred deeply from his bullet wound and then Rayburn’s cauterization. I’ve got my own scars. A bullet wound in my calf, more cuts than I can say, and the new pink scar where that bastard cut me.
Where he took away our baby and any chance I could ever be a mother.
I touch it now, and it’s like it’s fresh, brand new.
Clay slips through the water toward me and takes me in his arms. I wrap mine around his strong back, letting my wet body cool his. When he’s close like this, the heat between us can’t be denied. His lips find the side of my neck, kissing the tender skin there. A yearning stirs in my chest as I run my hands down his back, taking in the scent of him. With one hand he grips the ring he gave me resting on the chain around my neck. And then he’s taking my chin in his hand and lifting my face to meet his. When his lips touch mine, I pull him close so there is nothing between us, just skin on skin, hands and fingers, mouth and tongue. We could kiss a thousand times, a million, and this passion I feel right now, exploding through my body, would never diminish. I want him like I want nothing else in this world.
When he stops kissing me, we are both breathless. He chuckles. “You clean up mighty fine.”
I push wet hair out of my eyes and look up at him. “I know we haven’t had much alone time since Mo.”
He runs his fingers down my back. “We’re alone now.”
I look up, realizing that even though we’re out in the open, there isn’t another soul to see. “Aren’t you worried someone will come by?”
He takes me in his arms, lifting me up until he’s carrying me toward the shore. When he lays me in the soft sand, he gazes down on me like he could worship every inch of my body. “Riley, in this moment, just this one moment right here, I ain’t worried ’bout a thing.”
RELEASING ON DECEMBER 20th. MAKE SURE YOU ARE ON MY NEWSLETTER FOR PRE-RELEASE SALES AND NOTIFICATIONS.