Out of the Badlands by Brian J. Jarrett by Brian J. Jarrett - Read Online

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Summary

Since the virus ended the civilized world, Ed Brady has searched for a safe haven for his children, a place outside the wastelands where they might have a chance at something resembling a normal life.

Now, with St. Louis and Kansas City lost, Ed looks to the West, toward the promise of a last safe haven beyond the coastline. To get there they’ll have to make their longest and most dangerous journey yet, through the worst parts of the ruined countryside.

But now a new threat awaits them; faster and more vicious than any before it, growing stronger with each passing day. The world no longer belongs to humans. It belongs to a new breed, a new apex predator that never gives up and is always close behind.

As they push to the coast, Ed must take his biggest risk yet. If he's wrong there'll be nowhere left for them to run.

Published: Elegy Publishing, LLC on
ISBN: 9781386782803
List price: $3.99
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Acknowledgements

Out of the Badlands

a novel

Brian J. Jarrett

Copyright © 2016 Brian J. Jarrett

Elegy Publishing, LLC

St. Louis, MO

Original cover image by Ryan Stevenson, Dreamstime.com

All rights reserved by the author. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted by any means without the written consent of the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Any names, people, locales, or events are purely a product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to any person (either living or dead), to any event, or to any locale is coincidental or used fictitiously.

Copy editing and proofreading by Sandi Powell.

2016.OOTB.1.3

Dedicated to Allyson Robben Dowell

Want more? Subscribe to Brian’s mailing list and receive a free ebook, just for signing up!

http://brianjjarrett.com/offer/

Chapter One

Twelve-year-old Sam Treiber watched the big oak fall as a jagged arc of white-hot lightning tore a hole in the sky, illuminating the land below. The tree lurched, the undersides of its leaves flashing white as its massive bulk came roaring down to the ground, felled by a wind gust as easily as a first year sapling.

Denise Treiber looked up from her tattered and yellowed copy of ‘Salem’s Lot. What the hell was that?

A tree just fell outside, Sam said, turning away from the scene outside the window. A big one.

This is a hell of a storm, Denise replied. She relaxed, her eyes back on the book. Bound to take down some trees.

I think it hit the fence, Sam said, turning to look at his mother.

Eyes wide, Denise looked up at her son. She closed the book without saving her place and swallowed hard. Are you sure?

Pretty sure.

"You need to be damn sure." She got to her feet and went to the window, gazing into the blackness. Another bolt of lightning arced, lighting up the landscape like the flash from a giant camera. Just as Sam described, the tree lay across a section of ruined fence.

Shit, Denise said, walking toward the door of the room they shared. We need to tell the others. Get your shoes on.

Sam sat, his eyes wide.

Come! Now!

Sam leapt to his feet. Outside, the lightning struck again, brightening the yard in a blinding flash of light. Sam caught sight of the gigantic tree’s bushy top. Three figures appeared through the leaves, their white skin nearly reflective in the brightness. Then the light vanished, replaced by inky darkness.

Sam rubbed his eyes, trying to get rid of the spots in his vision. He stared again, but could see nothing in the dark.

Those weren’t carriers, he thought. They weren’t people either.

They were something else.

Mom… he began.

Let’s go, Sam! his mother called.

Sam ran to the nightstand beside the room’s only bed and yanked open the top drawer, fumbling through the contents inside.

Sam!

Just a sec, he replied. A moment more of searching and he found was he was looking for. He retrieved the one possession he prized more than anything else: his camera. Fed by rechargeable batteries refreshed when the generators were turned on, Sam had been carrying the thing ever since Jonathan, the man who ran the camp and took Sam and his mother in, gave it to him.

Sam, move your ass!

Sam gripped the camera and stuffed it into his pocket before picking up the flashlight from the nightstand. He turned to see his mother place her pistol into her back pocket and open the door. He slipped his shoes on and the two of them bolted down the hall, flashlight in hand, the forgotten candle casting a pale yellow glow inside the empty room.

Chapter Two

They met Jonathan halfway to the cafeteria of the old school, the building’s largest room and their makeshift common area. Already a few familiar faces had begun to gather. Soft, worried murmurs echoed throughout the narrow corridor.

The fence, Denise said, catching her breath.

I know, Jonathan replied. He carried a rifle on his shoulder and a flashlight that cast a dim, yellow beam into the darkness of the hallway. Nick and Arkady are on their way. Billy and Dale too.

What’s the plan?

Nick and Arkady will have to chop through the thing. Billy and Dale will lay down cover, just in case.

We’ll need more than Nick and Arkady to get through a tree that size.

Don’t worry. We’re all hands on deck with this one.

Still, that’s only eleven people, Jonathan. And only two axes among all of us.

Jonathan shrugged. It’ll have to do. We haven’t seen any carriers for almost two weeks now. I’m sure it’ll be fine until we get the fence back up and the razor wire restrung.

Sam considered mentioning what he’d seen earlier outside but then thought better of it. He was a kid, after all, and the adults were talking. Besides, he wasn’t even sure he’d seen anything at all, lots of wind and rain out there, whipping things around. Combining that with all those lightning flashes could cause a person to see just about anything.

How can we help? Denise asked.

Jonathan smiled. Go back to your room. We’ll take care of this.

Sam can help.

He’s twelve.

Almost thirteen, Sam added.

He can help, Denise insisted.

If we need him, we’ll come get him, Jonathan answered.

Denise paused for a moment before nodding. Fine, but we want to earn our keep around here. We basically just arrived.

You’ve been here for two months and you’re earning it just fine, Jonathan replied. Go on back to the room and let us handle it. No sense in catching your death out there. He placed a hand on Denise’s cheek. Trust me. Everything will be okay.

Denise closed her eyes gently and nodded.

See you in a bit, Jonathan said, turning away and heading down the hallway. Denise watched him until he and his flashlight disappeared from sight.

You like him, don’t you, Mom? Sam asked.

Denise hesitated, pulling herself back into focus. What makes you say that?

A hunch.

What do you know? You’re just a kid, Denise said, grinning.

Maybe.

Besides, she continued. I don’t have time for boyfriends, even if I wanted one. Which I don’t, by the way.

Whatever you say.

Denise mocked frustration. Boy, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep that mouth—

Two gunshots echoed throughout the hallway.

Butterflies fluttered in Sam’s stomach. He looked at his mom.

Those came from inside the building, Denise said, a growing look of concern on her face.

A moment later a scream followed. Sam recognized the voice immediately.

Jonathan.

The look Sam saw on his mother’s face told him that she also recognized the owner of that scream.

Mom? he whispered.

She didn’t reply, but her lips pressed together into a straight line.

Another gunshot.

Mom?

Denise’s lower lip quivered.

Mom! Sam repeated.

A high-pitched shriek filled the hallway, echoing down the darkened chamber. Sam’s blood ran cold. He’d never heard such a sound before, even from a carrier. His mind raced back to the white figures he’d seen through the window of their room, slipping between the tree branches like pale ghosts.

Maybe they were real after all.

Lightning flashed, temporarily illuminating the entire length of the hallway. In that brief second, Sam saw a half-dozen of the white figures. They were naked, with large, muscled arms and thick tree trunks for legs. Black claws protruded from long, thick fingers like the talons of an ancient velociraptor. Their eyes glowed red with reflected light as they screeched in a horrific chorus, the sound of a thousand fingernails scraping on a gigantic chalkboard.

Then the entire hallway went dark again, blanketing Sam and his mother in suffocating darkness.

Kill that flashlight, Denise whispered.

Sam did as he was told. Mom, did you see those things?

I did. Denise reached into her back pocket, retrieved the 9mm pistol and racked a round into the chamber. Listen carefully to me, she said. We’re going back to our room. We’re going to get our packs and then we’re going to slip out the window.

What about the others?

They’re gone, Sammy.

Sam felt his stomach twist into knots. His mother never called him that unless things were bad. Really bad. Don’t say that.

Back to the room, Denise said.

What about Chloe?

No, Sam.

I’m not leaving without her, Mom.

We can’t go back for her. We don’t even know if she’s still… Denise trailed off.

Don’t say that.

Sammy, come with me right now. Denise’s whispers took on a nervous pitch. We don’t have time for this!

Sam paused. The creatures headed toward them…he didn’t know exactly what they were, but he knew they meant death. What he did know was that his mother was right; everyone else who’d been outside was probably dead, even Jonathan. But Chloe would almost definitely be in her room and an easy target for these new threats. Even though he was scared shitless, he knew there was no way he’d ever just walk away and leave her behind.

The lightning sparked again, so close now that Sam could feel a charge in the air, causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end. The creatures let out inhuman screeches as the light from the electric arc outside flared, illuminating the hallway like a strobe light.

Sam gasped. The white monsters had gotten to within only a dozen yards of where he and his mother now stood. Close enough for him to see blood on their mouths.

Sam! his mother called. It sounded more like a scream than a name. Four years ago she’d have simply yanked him away by the arm, but now he was much too large for that. He was as big as some of the adults in the camp.

Now it was his turn to lead. He leaped forward, gripped his mother by the arm and ran. She resisted slightly at first but complied quickly. As he dashed away, he formulated his plan, a plan that required knowledge of the building and a lot of luck. It also relied on his hunch about these new creatures being correct. If not, they were all dead.

They ran, the sound of the creatures’ long, black claws clicking against the cheap school linoleum like a psychotic typewriter. The monsters grunted and whined as they pursued their prey. Sam ignored them, focusing instead on the room doors as they passed them. Chloe’s room had a picture of a daisy taped to the outside. He shined the flashlight on the doors as he passed, scanning for the right one. The thick, oak doors streamed by until Chloe’s daisy came into view, lit dimly by the flashlight in the darkness.

Here! he cried. Stop!

Sam released his mother’s arm and reached into his front pocket, retrieving his camera. He hit the power button and watched as the little LED on the top of the camera blinked amber.

Cloaked in darkness, the creatures quickly approached, their presence detectable only by the sinister Morse code of black talons clicking on cheap tile flooring.

Come on…come on…

Seconds passed. Then the light turned green and Sam hit the shutter button. Instantly the flash lit up the hallway and the creatures in pursuit recoiled like demons doused with holy water. Placing their clawed, massive hands to their eyes, they screamed in a range so high Sam thought his ears might bleed.

He pounded on the door. Chloe! he bellowed. Open the door!

Precious seconds ticked by. Sammy! his mother cried. What are you doing?

Then the door opened and Chloe peered out.

Get your bag! We gotta go! Sam cried. Right now!

Chloe disappeared back into the room.

Sam held the camera up and faced the clicking darkness. The amber light on the device blinked…then turned green. He snapped another picture, dousing the small group of the creatures with a bath of bright, white light. They recoiled again and Sam had the surreal impression of vampires exposed to sunlight.

Then Chloe was back at the door, pack in hand. What’s going on, Sam?

Just follow me, he said, and she did.

The three of them sprinted toward a stairwell leading up to the school’s second floor. Sam’s hunch about the monsters’ sensitivity to light had been right; now he just needed to get them all back to their room.

They left the screaming monsters behind and barged through the heavy stairwell doors, Denise in the lead, followed by Chloe and then Sam. Using the thin beam of the flashlight, they ascended the stairs as quickly as they dared. A misstep could lead to a broken ankle—and that would be a death sentence.

At the top of the stairs, Denise exited through another metal door, allowing Chloe and Sam through before closing it firmly behind them. They stood for a moment in another darkened hallway, catching their breath while animalistic shrieks echoed up through the stairwell.

We need to get back to the room, Denise said between breaths.

There’s another set of stairs that leads back down to the first floor, Sam replied. Just down from our room, Mom.

How do you know?

Because I’ve used them before.

Denise looked at her son and then to Chloe. A look of realization passed over her face. I see.

I couldn’t leave without her, Mom, Sam said. I just—

I understand, baby. It’s okay. We need to figure out what to do next.

Can somebody tell me what’s happening? Chloe asked. What were those things downstairs?

We don’t know yet. But some of the others are dead. Maybe all of them, Denise said.

Chloe paused, her lips a thin line. She nodded. Okay then. Let’s get the hell out of here.

Chapter Three

Sam, Denise, and Chloe made their way slowly and carefully across the second floor of the school, dodging piles of debris and trash strewn haphazardly throughout the floor. Sam led the way, taking them through two defunct classrooms, some with skeletons still piled into corners, stacked like cordwood by people who were likely just as dead by now.

Below, the strange creatures shrieked and growled, the horrific clacking of their long talons echoing throughout the halls. Outside, a flash of lightning arced, flooding the upper floor with bright, white light. A chorus of screams erupted from below, melding with the crash of thunder.

The lightning blinds them, Sam said. That’s why the camera flash worked. It disoriented them.

After navigating through two classrooms, they found themselves on the other side of the school now, opposite where the attacks had occurred. Sam and his mother’s room awaited them below on the first floor. If they hurried, they had a fighting chance of making it in and out before the unknown predators took over the school completely.

Another door greeted them at the top of the steps. Sam pulled it open and let his mother and Chloe pass. They stepped slowly and carefully down the steps, in total darkness save for the tiny beam of Sam’s flashlight.

At the bottom, they met another solid door. Denise pushed it open and the rusty hinges screamed, slicing through the silence like a sharp knife. They were now on the other side of the school, with a set of classrooms separating them from the pale creatures. A quick glance up and down the hallway revealed no immediate threats.

Sam, you got that camera of yours ready? Denise asked.

Yes, Mom. He held the digital camera in his right hand, his finger poised on the shutter button like a trigger.

Good. Chloe, you still have your pistol?

Chloe shook her head. Jonathan took it away when I got here. He said I was too young for a gun.

Denise sighed. Figures. She paused for a moment but went on. We’ll just have to make do then. When we get to the bottom of these steps we go straight to the room. No bright ideas, she said, glancing toward Sam. We grab our packs and go out the window. In and out, got it?

Sam and Chloe both agreed.

Now! Denise whispered, stepping into the darkened corridor. Sam followed, lighting the way as best he could, Chloe in tow. They hurried through the darkness, pulses pounding. Sam hadn’t been this afraid in a while, not since before they found Jonathan and the school, back when he and his mom were still on the road. With every step, he could imagine one of those white nightmares appearing in the flashlight’s anemic beam, long talons tearing into his stomach, his guts running out like a bloody waterfall.

They made it to the room in less than a minute, encountering no predators along the way. The still-burning candle cast a pallid glow through the open door of their room and onto the hallway floor like a homing beacon. A dozen steps later they found themselves back inside their room. Sam glanced around, realizing keenly how much he’d miss this place.

Be quick, Denise said when they arrived in the room.

Sam nodded. He retrieved the backpack from the foot of the neatly-made bed while Chloe went to the window and lifted it open. Rain rushed in, riding on the heavy winds of the storm, pooling on the tile floor just inside the room.

Sam walked to the window, pack in hand and turned back toward his mother just as another lightning flash streaked across the sky. The glow from the flash lit the room, including the hallway just outside the door, revealing a hunched, pale figure creeping up behind his mother.

Mom! he screamed.

The flash blinded the creature as Denise turned. Recovering quickly, the creature pounced. Denise got off one random shot before striking the floor hard, the monster on top of her. Sam dropped his pack and began to run toward his mother. Quickly, Chloe reached out a hand and gripped him by the arm, pulling him back. Denise screamed one last time before the creature sank its sharp teeth into her throat and violently shook its head, leaving behind a cavernous hole in her throat. It lifted its head, bloody flesh dangling from the thing’s mouth as Denise’s body jerked. Blood quickly pooled beneath her as her eyes rolled back in her head.

Sam stood, horrified and unable to move. The creature slurped down the bloody chunk of Denise’s throat before opening its mouth wide in a terrifying scream. Eyeing more prey in the room, it hunkered down on its haunches, ready to attack.

Sam could only stand there, mouth agape, unable to move. Chloe tore the camera from Sam’s grasp and fired the flash toward the creature. Bright, white light filled the room, forcing the predator to shield its red eyes from the blinding glare. The creature shook its massive head, slamming itself into the wall, unable to see its prey and shrieking in frustration.

With their attacker stunned, Chloe yanked hard on Sam’s arm, shoving the upper half of his body through the open window. Another push and he fell through, tumbling the short distance to the muddy ground below.

Another set of glowing red eyes appeared behind the blinded creature. Chloe raised the camera again and pressed the shutter button.

Nothing happened.

Shit! she screamed. The flashing amber light taunted her from the top of the camera.

Come on, come on, come on!

The LED turned green. Chloe hit the shutter button as the second creature entered the room. It recoiled at the flash, covering its eyes and uttering a shrill, ear-piercing shriek.

Wasting no time, Chloe dove through the window, doing a quick tuck and roll before striking the ground below hard. The maneuver worked only partially, as she landed on one shoulder and the back of her head in the mud. Her backpack was the only thing that kept her from breaking her neck.

Ignoring the pain from the fall, she got to her feet quickly and found Sam. He stood, transfixed, staring at the open window.

Come on! she yelled, gripping him by the arm.

He didn’t budge.

She slapped him across the face as hard as she could, the sound of the impact audible above the torrential rain. That seemed to snap him out of his daze. With water running in rivulets down his face, he looked at her with an expression of sadness, a defeated and lonely look that nearly broke her heart.

Come with me, she said, her voice taking on a soothing tone.

Sam continued to stare at the window.

She touched his cheek and turned his face, looking him in the eye. Come.

He nodded and followed.

They ran. Behind them, the creatures fed on the bloody remains of Denise Treiber while her only son and his only friend escaped into the malevolent and stormy night.

Chapter Four

Ed Brady stood across from Dave Porter in the courtyard of Glenn Summerville’s former compound, a repurposed Kansas City university residence hall that had been a prison up until a month ago, until Dave and a group of prisoners liberated it, freeing nearly fifty captives.

I guess this is it, Ed said.

Dave nodded. I guess so.

You don’t have to go after him, you know, Trish Connor said, flanked by Ed’s sons, Zach and Jeremy.

We all have things we have to do, Dave said. This is mine.

I just…I just don’t want to see you go, Trish said. I feel like I’m never going to see you again.

Dave smiled and changed the subject. So how many are going north?

Twelve, Jasper Carter said.

So with the group of twenty-eight going to California that leaves, what…five or six people staying behind? Dave said.

Ed nodded.

Everyone should be going, Dave said. It’s reckless staying here.

And they say it’s suicide to go, Ed said. He shrugged. They’re going to do what they want and that’ll be that.

I suppose. Who’s leading your truck in the convoy?

John, Trish answered.

Dave chuckled. Good for you. Could’ve been worse. You could’ve gone with Alice.

Ed shook his head. I asked for John. There’s something about Alice…I don’t know. John is the lesser of two evils, I guess.

You should be leading this thing, Dave said. I told them so, but you know how these fucking committees operate. They put it to a vote, but they don’t know you like I do.

Ed grinned. Sounds like you’re the one who should be in charge. After what you did to Glenn and his crew, you’d be a shoo-in.

I had help.

Things have come a long way since Mitchell’s warehouse, eh? Ed said.

I guess so, Dave replied. I miss that guy.

We all do, Trish added. He was one of the good ones.

Dave nodded. We’ve lost a few of those along the way.

Silence passed between them before Dave broke it. Well, I’d better check on Johnny and see how far he’s gotten with the Jeep. He’ll be pissy if he has to do all the work himself.

Ed extended a hand. It’s been good knowing you.

Dave shook Ed’s hand with a tight grip. Same here. And thanks for not shooting me back there in Mitchell’s warehouse.

Ed laughed. I think we both have Mitchell to thank for us not shooting each other.

Dave turned to Trish. A tear streaked down her cheek as he reached out a hand. Instead, she pulled him in and gave him a hug.

Don’t go, she said. Please.

I’ll be okay, he replied.

No, you won’t.

You take care of these boys, Dave said, breaking the embrace.

Nodding, Trish quickly wiped another stray tear away.

You guys take care of each other, Dave said to Zach and Jeremy. They nodded in return.

Dave extended a hand to Jasper. Glad to have met you, if only for a short while.

Sometimes a short while is all we have, Jasper replied, shaking Dave’s hand. Every extra day is a bonus.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Dave said, releasing Jasper’s grip.

Dave took a deep breath and faced the group. See you on the other side, he said before walking away.

Ed watched as his friend departed, slightly limping from the healing ankle broken by Calvin Summerville before fleeing the compound. As much as Ed didn’t want to admit it, he knew Trish was right.

They’d never see their friend again.

Chapter Five

The bright morning sun cast its rays over the walls of the residence hall, basking the grounds below in a sparkling radiance that would have been beautiful were it not illuminating such a sad and desperate state of civilization below. In the days before the virus the grounds would have been teeming with young people, all living and studying together, gaining skills and wisdom to last them their entire lives, lives they could reasonably expect to last decades.

Now the sun’s blazing rays revealed an entirely different scene within the confines of the residence hall’s high walls. Dozens of ragged survivors hurried about in the summer heat carrying rifles, food, clothing and treated gasoline. Three distinct groups worked to box up and distribute the weapons and supplies. The largest group filled the two trucks headed to California. They’d need the most supplies. For them, California beckoned with an intercepted broadcast, promising a safe haven, free of the deadly virus and its just as deadly victims.

The second group took most of the remaining supplies. For them Canada promised cold and hinted at a respite from the teeming hordes of the infected.

Both groups left a small share for the group electing to stay behind. The third group hadn’t been happy about being left with so little, but as outnumbered as they were their arguments fell on deaf ears.

By noon, the trucks had been packed half-full. Evening found the trucks fully-stocked and gassed up, ready to roll out the following morning. A small celebration sprang up as night fell, complete with several bottles of whiskey, a large fire and an acoustic guitar retrieved from one of the derelict dorm rooms.

Ed Brady sat near the fire, accompanied by his sons, Zach and Jeremy. As the boys stoked the fire, Ed watched the exchange between the celebrating survivors, remarking on how well they seemed to get along. Ed didn’t particularly like crowds. After traveling for two years alone with his sons, he’d never planned on having any company.

Then they stumbled upon Trish Connor and everything changed.

Before he knew it, his group more than doubled in size. He found himself not only responsible for his own children but for the welfare of the entire group—and they almost didn’t survive.

Tomorrow morning he’d be traveling with more people than ever before. The idea overwhelmed him, but there really was no other option. Traveling alone with a single pistol between them and only as much food as they could carry on their backs wasn’t a viable option. Not anymore, if it ever had been. Strength lay in numbers and he had to bet on the best chance of getting Zach and Jeremy to a true safe haven. Their first attempt—St. Louis, Missouri—had only provided a year’s worth of sanctuary before dumping them back out into the wild. Kansas City ended up being a prison camp. Ed had his concerns that a safe place could even exist at all, but he had little other option left than to hope.

Where will we sleep? Jeremy asked, breaking Ed’s thoughts into pieces.

In the truck, he replied.

Will there be enough room? Zach asked.

Not really. It’ll be fourteen to a truck, plus all the supplies. We’ll all be on top of each other, Ed said.

Zach frowned. I don’t want sleep with all those people around. Can’t we just go by ourselves? Just us and Trish?

And Jasper, Jeremy added.

Zach nodded. Definitely Jasper. I wish Dave would’ve come too.

Though Dave had only left the prior day, it already seemed like years ago. It doesn’t make sense for us to travel alone anymore, Ed said. We have a truck, fuel, and supplies this way, plus guns. This trip is just way too long to take on foot.

What about bicycles? Zach asked.

Too long for bicycles too, buddy. He paused, glancing at the crowd as they milled about,