Seventeen-year-old Cardinal has escaped the virus that ravaged his town, leaving its victims alive but without their memories. He chooses to remain in the quarantined zone, caring for a group of orphaned kids in a mountain camp with the help of the former brutal school bully, now transformed by the virus into his best friend. But then a strong-willed and mysterious young woman appears, and the closed-off world Cardinal has created begins to crumble.
A thrilling, fast-paced work of speculative fiction for teens, from a bestselling author, Black River Falls is an unforgettable story about survival, identity, and family.
About the Author
Jeff Hirsch is the bestselling author of The Eleventh Plague and The Darkest Path. He lives in Beacon, New York. www.jeff-hirsch.com
Read an Excerpt
THE FORGOTTEN CITY
IT’S FUNNY the things that get stuck in your head. Little things, I mean. Like the woman who gave me this notebook. I never knew her name, barely even saw her face, but I remember her so clearly it’s like she’s sitting across from me as I write this. She wasn’t National Guard or CDC. Red Cross is a possibility, but the cut-rate hazmat suit she was wearing makes me think she was from one of the smalltime charities that flooded the Quarantine Zone right after the outbreak. The October Sixteenth Fund, maybe, or Remember Black River. They’d show up in Monument Park with backpacks stuffed full of clean socks, toothbrushes, and soap. Some candy for the kids. Others, like the Remember people, brought Facebook profiles, old yearbooks, and printouts from the DMV, promising to “help reunite you with you.” This woman was different. All she had was notebooks. “We thought some of you might want one,” she said. “So you can record things about yourself or your family, or what’s been happening here since the quarantine. That way if you get, you know, infected, it could be like your memory.” That was almost a year ago. I’ve been carrying one of her notebooks around in my backpack this whole time, but I’ve never even opened it until tonight. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what made me do it now. The last thing I need is help remembering. I remember everything, it’s just that it’s all so jumbled up in my head. Maybe I’m hoping that if I spill it out in front of me like this, it’ll finally line up in a way that makes some kind of sense. Maybe then I’ll know what to do. Dad told me once that when he knew a story was going to be hard to write, he’d pretend he was telling it to just one person, like he was writing them a letter. That way, no matter how tough it got, he’d never feel alone. The only trick, he said, was choosing the right person. For me, that part’s easy. I choose you.
IT ALL STARTED with a fight Greer and I had one morning up on Lucy’s Promise. This was eight months after the outbreak. I was walking through the woods, gathering branches for a project I had in mind. Once the quarantine cut Black River off from the rest of the world, we had to rely on the National Guard for just about everything—food, clothes, medicine, mail deliveries—so every other week they brought in a shipment and handed it out in Monument Park. In one of the last ones there were a few packets of seeds, and they got me thinking I could start a small garden in this clearing not far from my tent. The only problem was the hundreds of deer and squirrels that lived on the mountain with us. They’d devour anything I planted as soon as it came out of the ground. I’d been about to ditch the whole idea until Gonzalez—that’s Hector Gonzalez, the National Guard lieutenant who checks on us every once in a while—figured out how I could make an enclosure for it. He sketched it out and even hauled a roll of chicken wire all the way up the mountain for me. So that’s what I was doing that morning. Looking for branches I could use as a framework to hang the fence on. I’d collected about half of what I needed when I heard Greer’s voice coming along the trail that ran up the mountain from his camp. “Yo! Cardinal Cassidy! Where you at?” “Over here!” Snow Cone and Hershey Bar came bounding through the woods just ahead of Greer and plowed into me. Hershey Bar was a black and tan German shepherd, and Snow Cone was this huge white pit bull, terrifying-looking if you didn’t know she was a total pushover. They’d limped up to Lucy’s Promise a few months earlier, half starved and bitten bloody by fleas. The fleas were gone, and the dogs had filled out a little, but there was still this red, hairless patch on Snow Cone’s side. I’d hoped it would clear up on its own without a trip to town to see the doc, but that wasn’t looking very likely. There was a rustle out in the trees. Greer was getting closer. I left the dogs and went to my backpack to grab my mask and gloves. “It’s okay, man. I’ll keep my distance.” Greer kneeled down by an old tree stump and started petting the dogs. I gauged the space between us. It was something I’d gotten pretty good at over the last few months. He was five feet away, maybe six. The virus—technically, it was called Lassiter’s Viral Amnesia, but most of us just called it Lassiter’s—worked like an especially contagious strain of the flu, and you caught it the same way. Once you did, you had maybe ten hours before it took effect. You know how if you put a really big magnet against a computer’s hard drive it’ll delete everything on it? Well Lassiter’s does the same thing, only to people. Who you are, where you’re from, your family, your friends, your whole history—wiped out. Anyway. Like I said, it spreads like the flu. Even without any protection, staying four or five feet away from someone who was infected was generally considered safe. But I hadn’t stayed uninfected as long as I had by taking chances. I took a last breath of the woodsy air, then pulled my mask down over my mouth and nose, cinching the rubber straps tight to make sure I had a good seal. The air that made it through the charcoal filters tasted like hot rubber and sweat. I put on my gloves and started gathering up the branches I’d dropped. “Did I ever tell you I’m pretty sure I was a professional golfer before the outbreak?” Greer was sitting at the edge of the clearing now, a blade of grass stuck between his teeth. “Nope,” I said. “Don’t think you mentioned that.” Luckily, Gonzalez had been able to score me one of the newer masks, so I didn’t sound like Darth Vader with a mouth full of cotton balls when I talked. “Oh yeah,” Greer said. “Isaac found this old set of clubs in the supply shed. All we had for a ball was a walnut, but—man, when I hit that thing? It just felt right, you know? Like I’ve been doing it my whole life. Do pro golfers make good money?” “Yeah, but they have to wear weird pants. I thought you were getting the kids ready to go on the supply run.” Greer picked up an acorn and chucked it into the woods. “Yeah, but I had to get out of there. Breakfast time? Those kids turn into a bunch of piranhas. I try to tell them that I’m, like, their savior. That we both are. That if it wasn’t for us, they’d all be fending off the gropers in that Guard shelter in town.” “Please tell me you don’t let Benny and DeShaun hear you say things like that.” He waved me off. “Ah, they’re fine. All I’m saying is you’d think after all we’ve done for them, I’d rate an extra helping of reconstituted powdered egg product in the morning.” “World’s not a fair place, I guess.” “Amen, brother. A-men. But don’t worry. Your old buddy Greer hasn’t forgotten you. Despite being weak with hunger, I managed to score you some grub before I left.” He pulled something out of the pocket of his sweatshirt and pitched it to me. Two biscuits wrapped up in a red bandanna. They were craggy and golden brown. I tossed them back and returned to my work. “Nah, you go ahead.” “Dude, these are Tomiko’s biscuits we’re talking about here. If the gods had biscuits, they would be these very biscuits. What? Are you sick?” “Not hungry.” “You ate already?” “Yep.” “Are you lying to me?” Those piranhas Greer was talking about? They were this group of infected kids who had been orphaned by the outbreak. Usually the only choice for kids like that was to stay in this crappy shelter the Guard built, but Greer hated the place so much he grabbed a bunch of them and brought them up to Lucy’s Promise instead. Their time together had turned him into a total mother hen. Usually all it took to make him back off was a good hard glare. I gave him one, and he threw up his hands in surrender. “Hey, it’s your loss. I’ll just have to eat them myself.” He slipped the bundle back into his pocket. “So what’s going on, anyway? You starting up the Farmer Cardinal project?” “Gathering branches to make the fence.” Greer dug around in the leaves and presented a branch the size of his pinkie. “Little bigger than that.” He jumped to his feet. “Good thing I also used to be an expert finder of branches! Come on, fellas!” The dogs dashed along beside us as we went tromping through the woods. “So, for real,” I said. “How’s everybody doing this morning?” He tossed aside a half-rotten log. “Fine. It’s the usual chaos. You stole my hairbrush. That’s my shirt. You’re stupid. No you’re stupid!” “You make sure everyone took their meds?” “Yeah, right,” he said. “Like I’d go anywhere with those kids if half of them weren’t hopped up on happy pills.” “Oh, hey. I fixed Crystal’s backpack and sewed that button on Ren’s shirt. Left them by their cabins last night. Tell Eliot his shoes are probably a lost cause, though.” “We’ll try to find him a new pair today.” Greer held up another branch. “How’s this?” “That’ll work. DeShaun and Benny doing okay?” He shrugged. “Better, maybe? I don’t know. They’re still not talking much, but they ate breakfast with everybody this morning, so—you know, baby steps.” “If you think they can’t handle going to town—” “They’ll be all right. Hell, it’ll probably be good for them.” He kicked through a pile of brush, sending Snow Cone into a frenzy. She jumped into the air and did a 360, chomping at the flying leaves. “I think it’s time to go talk to the doc about her,” I said. “Her side’s not getting better.” “Ugh. Seriously, dude? That guy hates me.” “He doesn’t hate you.” “He does too! You remember that time I asked him to get us that flea stuff for Hershey Bar? He said I should try using some on myself.” I laughed. “Send one of the kids to talk to him, then. Send Makela!” “Ha! Yeah, right. By the time she’s done with him, he’ll be so terrified he’ll hand over the entire pharmacy.” “And maybe a Guard helicopter.” Greer shook his head. “Nah, the poor guy doesn’t deserve that. I’ll take care of it. I’ll just add it to Greer’s eternal to-do list, won’t I, Snow Cone?” The dog gave an excited woof. Greer dropped the branch he was carrying, and they started to wrestle. As soon as Greer got the upper hand, Hershey Bar joined in, flattening him onto his back. “Help! I’m being attacked by a rabid bear! Help!” Hershey Bar pawed at Greer’s shoulder, pulling the collar of his shirt down enough to expose the corner of one of his tattoos. A chill crept up my spine. This is probably a good time to mention that, yes, when I say Greer, I mean that Greer. Trust me, I find the amount of time I spent hanging out with Greer Larson just as strange as I’m sure you would. Even after all those months, whenever I looked at him, it was like I was seeing two Greers at the same time: the Greer of Lucy’s Promise and that scowling kid at the bus stop with the shaved head and the grubby denim jacket. The one whose big brother gave him his first tattoos in the seventh grade with a ballpoint pen and a sharpened paper clip. What happened to that Greer? Same thing that happened to all of us, I guess. October Sixteenth.
Once we got the branches I needed, we headed over to the clearing. Greer and the dogs flopped down by a stand of mountain laurel while I started digging four holes for the main posts that would hold up the fence. It was sweaty work, made sweatier by the leather gloves and the rubber and plastic mask. “So I was talking to Eliot this morning.” I muscled out a shovelful of dirt and rock. “Oh yeah? He decided whose heart he’s going to break yet? Astrid’s or Makela’s?” “Jury’s still out on that one,” Greer said. “No, you know Jen and Marty? They have that cabin over near Mantel Rock? Eliot was talking to them the other day, and they said they’d heard about a couple kids living on their own out on Joseph’s Point.” “Why would anybody live on Joseph’s Point?” I asked. “The place is nothing but a swamp.” “Marty says they’ve been there since the outbreak.” I stopped digging. “You serious?” Greer shrugged. “That’s what he said.” “How old?” “He says six. A boy and a girl.” I pushed the blade of the shovel back into the hole. “No way. Two kids that age couldn’t make it alone on Joseph’s Point all this time.” “Word is they come out for the supply drop, grab what they need, and then go right back. Marty said he even saw them once. Looked pretty bad off.” I thought about that for a second, then tossed the shovel aside and grabbed one of the larger branches. “Okay, well, find Gonzalez when you get to the supply line. He’ll get his guys to look into it.” “Absolutely. Good plan. Or I could just go down to Joseph’s Point and get them myself.” “Seems like a waste of time, going to get them just to hand them over to Gonzalez.” When Greer didn’t say anything, I turned around to find him grinning at me in that slightly maniacal way of his. “No way, man,” I said. “You know the deal.” “But—” “We don’t bring anyone else up here, and the Guard leaves us alone.” “Oh, come on,” Greer said. “Gonzalez was totally winking when he said that.” “He was not winking! The only reason we even got to make that deal—” “Is because Gonzalez is a comic book nerd who’s obsessed with your dad.” “—is because we keep to ourselves and the Guard’s got bigger things to deal with. Bringing more people up here changes that.” “How?” Greer asked. “It’s two kids. Little ones. They’re probably adorable.” “If you want to go look for them, fine. But if you find them, you have to hand them over to Gonzalez.” “And what’s he going to do with them?” “He’ll find their families or something.” “Dude!” Greer said. “They’ve been out there for eight months. That means no one’s looking for them. So what’re Gonzalez and his guys going to do? Stick them in that stupid shelter of theirs? How do you think that’s going to turn out?” “Greer, I promised him.” He jumped to his feet. “Well, what the hell did you do that for? It’s not like you talked to me about it. Like you talked to any of us about it. These are two little kids! Alone!” “What did you want me to do? Go to war with the National Guard? Take the chance of screwing over everybody here just because you want to play superhero again?” “I’m not trying to play—” “You think they’ll just ignore this? Why? Because we’re a bunch of kids?” “We’re supposed to be helping!” “We are helping!” “Card!” “The answer is no!” Suddenly Makela called out from down in the camp. “Greer, come on! It’s time to go!” I snapped back to reality, surprised to find Greer and me squaring off with each other, panting as if we’d just run a mile flat out. His gray eyes had gone stormy and were locked on mine. My throat ached from shouting I didn’t really remember doing. “Gre-er!” she called again. “I’ll be right there!” he yelled back over his shoulder. But he didn’t move. He stared at the ground, fists clenched, shoulders hunched. The silence between us was heavy and strange. It was like when a storm tears through a summer day and then retreats so fast it’s hard to believe it ever really happened. I took a shaky step toward him. “Greer, listen . . .” He turned away and started down the trail. “Forget it, man. Good luck with your gardening.” The dogs followed him as he headed back to camp. Soon their footsteps faded, and I was alone again. I tore off my mask and dropped it. My hands were ice-cold and shaking bad, so I curled them into fists and squeezed until I felt as if a bone was about to pop. There was an angry buzz in the back of my skull. Everything was so damn simple to Greer. A couple kids might be in trouble? Go get them! Who cares that there might be a price to pay? Who cares that one wrong move could lead to everything we’d built being taken away? And the thing was, it wasn’t just Greer. All the infected lived in a world that, as far as they knew, was unbreakable. Every betrayal they’d ever felt? Every disappointment? Every failure? Every disaster? Gone. That’s why they needed me. I remembered how fast the world could fall apart, and I remembered what it was like when it did. I kicked at one of the branches and started back to my tent. I wasn’t going to be able to get any more work done that morning. As I stepped through the woods, a flash of red caught my eye. Greer’s bandanna. He’d left it sitting on a rock by the trail. Right where he knew I wouldn’t miss it. I knelt and untied the bundle. The two biscuits were still there. Golden. Untouched. When had I eaten last? Not that morning. The night before? Sometime earlier the previous day? That was the thing about Greer. He was never more annoying than when he was right. Kind of like you. I took the biscuits off the rock and devoured them.