As Pip, Iris, and Fly weigh the precariousness of their lives at Thistle Hill against the uncertainty of life on the outside, they simultaneously grapple with the secrets that make their situation all the more tenuous. Pip’s vow to never leave someone behind may have made survival more difficult for her, but this promise could also be the key to finding meaning in the ashes of what came before.
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|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
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Purple gondolas hung above the river like a cluster of grapes at the end of the growing season. Just downstream, a froth of mist boiled from rapids cascading under the concrete span of the Monroe Street Bridge. Even the second floor of the library vibrated with the water’s thunder. Pip rested against a bookshelf and admired the ferocity. She could remember swinging over the falls in a gondola when she was little, laughing at the idea of danger.
Now she knew better.
Danger was the feeling of hunger eating you from the inside out: a tickle in the back of the throat, a virus racking the body with coughs. She trembled at the memory of people hacking their lives away in overfilled hospital rooms.
It was quiet as death in the library and Pip relaxed into the silence with a sigh.
Quiet meant safety.
She tucked a thick book into her backpack and cinched the top. It had been a year since One Mile Cough killed her old life. One year since she’d read anything other than instructions: how to use a camp stove, how to reheat a pack of freeze-dried food, how to clean a wound. Her hands trembled at the thought of reading an honest-to-God book.
Now her pack was full of them. A belated seventeenth birthday present to herself in the middle of May. Pip flopped her pack onto the floor and used it like a pillow. Pressing her ear against a hardback book inside the pack, she looked over the city of Spokane. Rising above basalt columns and piles of rock lining the shore, a pall of black smoke dropped the ashes of the houses that burned onto those that hadn’t. Ash filled the air with black flecks; they floated like birds in the up-currents over the river.
The Spokane River split the downtown down the middle. Half a dozen bridges spanned rolling waters. Paths wound through a vast park where Pip used to hide and sleep at night. A large mall and the swankier shops were on the same side of the river as the library. They hugged tight to the riverfront.
Going north or south from downtown meant heading uphill. The South Hill neighborhoods and expensive homes built in the 1800s watched over this side of the river. On the other side, older businesses and rougher neighborhoods crawled down to the water. Divided by geography, no one survived the virus. Rich or poor, they’d all died.
She looked back at the water.
Keep your eye on the river, she thought. Pretend it’s just an ordinary day. A regular day of living on the streets and coming in to use the bathroom to clean up. Not the nightmare of surviving One Mile Cough.
Metal rattled against stone. Pip sat up. It sounded like someone was on the first floor.
Footsteps echoed up a long set of stairs and she instantly regretted agreeing to Whistler’s idea ‘to do something fun for once.’ Crawling to the end of a curved bookshelf, she dragged her pack along the floor and peered around the corner.
Too many shelves in the way.
The metal security gate, dropped by the last of the library staff after the library closed to the public for good, rattled. Loose chunks of the grid dangled to the floor, making hollow clunks against the tile as someone pushed through the gap.
“You’re too fat for the hole,” a woman chuckled.
“Shut it, Navvy,” a deep voice grunted.
A chorus of mean laughter bounced around the open spaces of the second floor, snapping at Pip like little dogs. She used the noise to cover the rustle of her backpack straps slipping over her shoulders. Palms sweating, she chanced a look and saw a pale woman and two white men carrying plastic milk crates into the how-to section.
Literary fiction took up most of the right side of the library. How-to and self-help was farthest from the entrance, all the way in the back. She counted herself lucky as they disappeared into the stacks. The young adult area was filled with a maze of chest-high bookshelves used to enclose a reading nook. It made for tons of places to hide. And the newcomers were noisy.
She slipped between two close-together shelves and moved at a steady creep, hunched over to keep her pack from peeking over the stacks. What she wouldn’t give for the protection of Whistler’s automatic rifle. But no, she thought and massaged a cramp forming in her calf, today just had to be his day to start an art project.
Another laugh came from the how-to stacks and Pip belly-crawled to the end of the last shelf for a clearer view. Between her and the ragged hole in the security gate was a stretch of open floor past the check-out desk. The crash of a milk crate full of books hitting the floor almost sent her bursting into a run, flushed like a hunted bird.
She gasped, covering her mouth with a hand smelling like the dusty calm of books. She inhaled long and slow.
“How many of these do you want?” the young guy who’d dropped the overfilled crate shouted.
Indistinct mumbles answered his question. The bigger man, the brunt of the fat joke, set his half-filled crate down and took some books from the other crate, evening the load.
“Damn it, Curtis. If it shifts in the truck and makes a mess, Navvy’ll beat your ass.”
The big guy wore a greasy camouflage jacket unzipped over a rounded gut. Even though his clothes were dirty, he looked cleaner than most. Like he’d bathed recently. Pip’s nose wrinkled in disgust. He was probably a trader, someone with resources and access to things like bathing water. Which meant he wasn’t a good guy. Anybody with anything worth having after the devastation of One Mile Cough probably took it from someone else. They were here to take, and wouldn’t care who they hurt in the process.
At least one of these three was armed. Most people carried weapons now, or they didn’t survive long. The distance to the exit suddenly felt a lot farther. She settled onto the floor and hoped for invisibility.
“This is stupid. Who’d want to learn about bees?” Curtis’s voice had a nasal quality, probably from the giant kink in his nose. It took a hard right on his face. Somebody’d punched him and really put their effort into it.
“We’re taking anything people might want to trade.” The big guy in the jacket, Camo, waved a book about gardening in Curtis’s face. “If you think you’re going to leave The Skins and start working for me, you’d best learn to start using your brain.”
Pip gave Curtis a once-over. The Skins were a loose group of ragged boys running wild through Spokane, terrorizing everyone. Curtis looked like he’d fit right in. He wore their signature haircut. He’d buzzed his hair so the pink of his sunburnt scalp gleamed through blond stubble.
Curtis hocked and spat on the library carpet. “The house wasn’t my fault.”
The teasing smile melted off Camo’s face. “Setting the fire was stupid.” He waved towards the wall of windows behind Pip. “Half the town’s burnt up.”
“We got three kids”
“You girls done with your tea?” A lanky woman with bleached blonde hair poked her head out of the stacks. She was much closer than Pip would’ve liked. “Hurry up, this place gives me the creeps.”
“Watch out, Navvy, the books, they’re comin’ for ya,” Camo taunted.
She flipped him off.
Pip rose up to her knees, preparing to run. She couldn’t risk being seen. It would be three against one. Who knew what they’d have in mind.
Curtis tripped over his feet and the bleached blonde shoulder-checked him. Pip closed her eyes, gathering courage while books tumbled off shelves.
“Better shape up, Curtis,” Navvy said. “I might send you along.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Nav,” Camo muttered.
She crossed her arms, sticking a bony hip out to the side. “Thistle Hill wants mostly women and kids. Only a few men.” She sized up Curtis. “Men. Know what they are?”
Camo snorted and slapped Curtis on the chest, knocking him against the metal shelves. “Tell The Skins we need a few more before we leave. You do that and you can join up.”
What are they talking about? Are they stealing people?
Adrenaline buzzed along Pip’s nerves. The sour tang of fear coated her mouth. Muscles screamed for her to run. Trembling, on the verge of breaking, she forced herself to wait until all three of them turned their backs.
Now or never. She stood and sprinted to the gate. Grabbing the edges of the hole, she tore through the gap. A strap on her pack caught on the raw cuts made through the metal. Yelping in panic, she yanked her pack out of the ragged tear in the security gate and raced for the stairs. She caught the railing with one hand, sliding onto the first stair.
She was so busy watching her footing she didn’t see the man standing open-mouthed with shock at the avalanche of girl coming down the stairs. They hit the floor in a tangle. Her pack hit him square in the chest; the stink of him blowing across her face. Pip left him gasping like a fish as she dove through the broken glass of the library’s front door.
Where she’d left an empty street, a yellow moving truck and a motorcycle now waited at the curb. She skipped around the truck, sprinted toward the river, and slid to a stop behind a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The statue rose above the ground on a wide concrete pillar, standing watch over the Monroe Street Bridge from across an intersection.
Pip looked up at the vague smile on Abe’s metal face. The remains of a knit scarf hung around his neck. Knitting. That’s what had gotten her into this mess: Whistler and his stupid urge to scavenge through the yarn store a few blocks north of their home.
Wind tossed her short hair and lifted the faded tassels of Abe’s scarf. The tassels waved like flags, the ends snarled from months of snapping in the wind. A ratcheting sound, unfamiliar and almost forgotten in a year of mostly quiet streets, caught her ear. There was another clank and then the stuttery, almost lawn-mower rattle of an engine barking to life. The buzz of cylinders increased in tempo as the motorcycle’s engine got a little more gas.
The guy she’d clobbered coming out of the library raced past on the motorcycle. Shifting gears, he accelerated into a left turn away from the river and tore down the next block with a roar. Pip exhaled relief. He hadn’t seen her.
Pip studied the bridge crossing the Spokane River as she unloaded a few handfuls of books from her pack. The bridge stood four lanes wide, its stone and cement aged to a soft gray. Upstream, waterfalls threw off a haze of fog, knocking down the smoke from the burning houses.
Buckling the much lighter pack into place, Pip took a wary step out of cover onto the open road. Her stomach clenched as she moved to the hip-high railing bordering the bridge’s pedestrian path. She was too vulnerable out here. She had to move quick. She broke into a jog, but ducked low to be on the safe side. The traders from the library could be anywhere.
Two prominent concrete alcoves separated the bridge-span into thirds, standing like sentinels on guard against the river’s spray. Each alcove was a concrete enclosure the size of a small bedroom, arching over the pedestrian walkway to hide people inside from view. She had to keep moving until she reached the shelter of the first alcove. Being this exposed in broad daylight had all her nerves on high alert. Her back muscles jerked as she ran, anticipating the stinging slap of a bullet.
Inside the protection of the first alcove, she slid to a stop next to a concrete bench built into the wall and crouched there. Trembling with adrenaline, she forced herself to calm down and see if she’d been discovered.
This close to the waterfall, she couldn’t hear the rev of a nearby engine. She’d have to make a dash for it anyway. Trusting the way was clear, she burst from the other side and raced over the middle span of the bridge.
The pavement was waterfall-spray slick, but Pip didn’t hesitate. Her feet flew over damp gravel and trash. Even as she ran, she cast a frantic look behindshe might actually make it to the other side of the bridge. Up ahead was the second alcove. Pip slid to a stop inside it, hissing in pain as the books shifted in her pack. She huddled as close to the second alcove wall as she could get, wishing she could vanish into the concrete.
Sweat prickled along her scalp. She brushed at it distractedly and inhaled a deep breath of smoke. It tasted like ash and felt gritty in her lungs. She scooted forward to peer around the front of the second alcove. To her left were the newest apartments in town, completed right before the virus’s outbreak. Now they were ruled by the people who once lived in tent camps on the banks of the river. Their number was small, maybe thirty people, but residents of Kendall Yards wouldn’t bother with her when she stepped off the bridge. They kept to themselves. Even The Skins seemed to avoid the swanky apartments with their artsy sculptures and stunning views. The ex-homeless were an army united under a flag of “leave us the hell alone.”
To the right, on the other side of the road, a YMCA and a funeral home were the biggest buildings on the hill. That hill led to her music store home and to Whistler. Home was only a little over a mile up the road. It was just a matter of getting across the bridge and leaving the motorcyclist and the traders far behind. Only a little over a mile up the road to safety.
After she reamed out Whist for his stupid idea to take a day off, they’d celebrate another day of not dying with cans of soup and pie filling. Cheered by the thought, she took one last look behind her and choked on a startled scream. The dirt-smudged face of a kid stared out from a pile of blankets on the bench.
Pip lurched away from the mummy-blanket-kid and tripped over her own feet, landing in a heap on the bridge path.
“Wait!” a high-pitched voice croaked.
Pip whirled around for a second look. The kid’s face was covered with red welts and a thick layer of soot.
Mind reeling with surprise, Pip almost shouted. “What are you doing here?”
The child cringed.
“It isn’t safe. There’s a guy out there on a motorcycle trying to catch me.”
The kid stared back at her with traumatized eyes. Reaching for any excuse to look away, Pip checked over the low guardrail. She swore as the roar of an oncoming motorcycle pierced the thunderous torrent of the falls. The sound was too close.
“Time to move.” She grabbed a handful of blanket and tugged. “Can you run?”
The kid blinked, teeth chattering with shock. Pip knew they were paralyzed with fear. Hating herself, she delivered a quick slap to the kid’s cheek. Their brimming eyes only stared. Tears tracked through the soot on their face, making rivers of clean on their blackened cheeks.
“Can. You. Run?” Pip asked again. She leaned close, speaking through clenched teeth. “If you won’t, they might take you.”
The kid nodded. Pip took a double handful of blanket and dragged the kid off the bench. They came off in a heap. She quickly pushed them against the wall of the alcove and ripped the smelly blankets away. The kid’s clothes reeked of campfire. Pip dumped the blankets onto the bench and pulled the kid to the far end of the alcove; away from the approaching motorcycle.
“Stay down,” Pip instructed.
Roaring onto the bridge, the man swung his bike in a tight circle midway over the span, spraying trash over the side-railings. He revved the engine, the sound ringing in Pip’s ears like a warning. She crossed her fingers as he looked around. The bridge’s curve hid her and the kid, but it was almost two blocks of open space to cover. If they bolted, he’d be sure to run them down.
She grabbed the kid’s shirt between their bony shoulder blades, clenching her fist tight on the slippery fabric. With her free hand she drew an aluminum bat from a pocket on her backpack.
“When I say go you’re gonna run. Understand?”
Tears wound their way down the kid’s face as they nodded.
The man on the bridge popped the kickstand and jumped off his bike. Pip held her breath while he walked to the guardrail on the far side of the bridge. He looked back the way he’d come before hopping over the rail. He walked toward the first alcove and vanished inside.
“Shit,” Pip groaned.
He was checking the bridge. She grimaced and did a quick calculation. At this rate, he’d find her in no time. He was at least a hundred feet from his bike and out of sight.
Now or never, she decided. Time to make a run for it.