Sixteen year old Wendy never knew the world before the Starvation. She's learned to put her trust in her knives and her confidence in her fighting ability. When the Skinnies attack her compound, she's the lone survivor.
Injured and near death, Wendy is rescued and nursed back to health by mysterious strangers. Her saviors offer her a place among them, but trust has never been one of Wendy's strengths, and suspicion soon leads to evidence that these people might be the group who killed her family.
The decision to take the settlement down from the inside out is easy, keeping her distance from the first friends she has ever cared about proves to be much more difficult.
"This is a story about trust, betrayal, survival, relationships, and finding laughs when you are literally living in hell on earth."– Amazon Review
"I ended up falling in love with not only the main character but also her friends because of how well the author developed the characters."– Amazon Review
"Schneider does a fabulous job not only world building the apocalypse, but showing Wendy's growth as she learns to cope with losing everyone she knows (and suffers from PTSD) and after being thrust with strangers she cannot trust."– Amazon Review
"So surprised to be so interested in this story of agonizing loss and growing up amidst unimaginable violence and terror. Will definitely read the rest of this series."– Amazon Review
"There's a great line-up of characters and each one comes to life with their very own personality, giving the story a lot of depth and dimension. Even the good vs. evil lines are blurred enough to make it difficult to know what side some of the characters are on."– Amazon Review
"My daughter and I both read this book in a day. Wonderfully written and masterfully weaved. The author has a way of drawing in her audience and keeping us on the edge of our seats as we tumble down this rabbit hole she has created. Highly recommend this series for anyone who loves YA fantasy and action/adventure!"– Amazon Review
The blue sky contrasted beautifully against the jagged tops of the mountains. Evergreen trees stretched toward the sun. A crisp breeze rustled the leaves of the other trees, and a bird chirped nearby.
If not for the three children in the medical cabin, it might have been a promising day.
Wendy's boots crunched on the gravel path as she made her way between cabins toward the front gate. The watch to the west had sent up a signal. It could be Pelton and his scavengers returning with supplies, or it could be Skinnies.
Wendy had been hoping to avoid more questions from frantic parents. The person who found her was worse.
"There you are," Kenzie said with her usual excitement. Wendy's older sister stood a head taller than Wendy and sported the body of a woman, unlike Wendy who still looked like she was twelve. Kenzie's dark hair spiked out everywhere—she called it fashionable. It took Kenzie as much time to do her hair as it did for Wendy to run and check on the nearest guard posts outside the compound—or the Den as most people called it. Wendy preferred to pull her own long, dark hair into a ponytail.
"The west watch sent up a signal," Wendy said, hoping to distract Kenzie.
The two sisters walked next to one another, Wendy's shorter legs working harder to keep up. Fifteen log buildings—cobbled together from old-style carpentry and bits and pieces of scavenged goods—stood in a checkerboard pattern with dirt paths between them. Sizes varied from a small cabin, which could only hold two bunk beds, to the mess hall that doubled as the meeting point for the Den, which could hold two hundred people if they got cozy.
"I know. I figured you would be headed this way. You were supposed to meet me for breakfast. Did you forget?"
Wendy resisted the urge to sigh. "I was checking on the kids."
Kenzie's face fell into an expression of concern. "How are they?"
"Not good. I spoke with the doctor, and he says the little girl has maybe a day. The boys have three days left at the most."
The sisters took a right, past the last set of buildings and entered the clearing in front of the wall.
Kenzie cleared her throat. "Ronald."
Wendy shot Kenzie a scowl.
"The doctor's name is Ronald."
Wendy didn't respond.
"He's been with us for over a year. Don't you think you should learn his name?"
Wendy's hands balled into fists, and she spoke through clenched teeth. "His name is Ronald Taylor. We found him, his wife Janice and their two-year-old daughter Sarah, wandering around in the woods, mostly dead. You brought them in yourself. Janice died a month later from complications of her pregnancy, and Sarah died of the flu four months after that." Wendy turned her head to glare up into Kenzie's eyes. "The sick little girl is Charlene. She's six and loves to draw. Rick and Hob are brothers, just two years apart. Their mom died last year." Even though Wendy knew everyone's names, she hadn't taken the time to build relationships since her mother had died. It hurt too much when people left.
Kenzie held Wendy's gaze. "I'm just saying he has a name. He's not just the doctor."
"He's the doctor because that's what he does."
Kenzie's eyes lost a little of their enthusiasm before she swallowed and looked away.
The two girls crossed the twenty feet between the outer buildings and the massive log wall separating the Den from the surrounding forest. The wall stood three times as tall as Wendy and could withstand an assault by a hoard of Skinnies. Wendy knew from personal experience.
A small ledge ringed the wall on the inside so guards could walk around and defenders could have a place to hide. Three men were gathered on the west side of the gate, all looking out.
"Has there been a follow-up signal?" Wendy asked.
One of the men, Grant, turned to look down at Wendy. "Not yet."
Kenzie glanced over her shoulder. "Where's Dad?"
Wendy climbed up the nearest ladder. Kenzie followed.
"How long has it been?" Wendy asked.
"Four minutes," Grant said after he checked his watch.
"Too long," Wendy said under her breath. Members of the watch were supposed to send a second signal within two minutes. Was it friend or foe? She had to stand on tiptoe to see over the sharpened ends of the logs.
"Who's out there?" Kenzie asked Wendy, who organized the watch and patrol rosters.
"Liz and Hector." Both were reliable. Both had been here for over a year. They knew the protocols. Why hadn't they signaled?
"Five minutes," Grant said.
Wendy shifted her weight from foot to foot. She glanced over her shoulder to search for her dad. This should be his call. A handful of faces looked up from below, but none of them were Ed's.
Kenzie leaned over and whispered, "We should send someone."
For all of Kenzie's girlie manners and emotional tendencies, she was a good tactician. Better than Wendy.
Wendy studied the woods with the eye of a hawk, looking for small movements contrary to the wind, rustles of bushes that normally stayed still or foreign sounds.
"Six minutes," Grant said.
The group continued to watch. The sun, which only a few moments before had brought warmth and cheer into the world, now beat down on Wendy like a hammer. The breeze disrupted any sounds they might have heard, and the clear sky caused dark shadows deep enough that anything could be lurking.
It only took five minutes to get from the Den to the watch point, and that was if you were walking. Wendy could run it in three.
Which meant something was wrong.
Wendy swallowed. Skinnies usually came in large groups, moaning and yelling.
Starving to death was painful.
Wendy turned to Grant. "Grant and Rhett, come with me."
Kenzie's hand shot out and grabbed Wendy by the elbow. Her usual smile had turned into a hard frown. "What are you doing? Send someone else."
"I'm the fastest."
"Dad will kill you."
"Dad isn't here," Wendy said.
Kenzie didn't let go.
The three men—none of them much older than Kenzie—shuffled their feet and tried to ignore the sibling squabble.
"Seven minutes, Kenzie," Wendy said. "We can get there and back in six more. If there's anything out there, we'll send up a flare." Wendy's eyes bore into her sister's. Their green eyes and high cheekbones were the only familial resemblance they shared beyond their bull-headed stubbornness.
Kenzie held her ground.
So Wendy pulled out her final stop. "I'm in charge of security. This is my call."
Before Kenzie could argue, Wendy twisted her arm and stepped away. Kenzie's fingers slipped off Wendy's elbow.
"Come on," Wendy said to Grant and Rhett. She didn't give anyone the chance to argue as she slid down the ladder and jogged toward the door.
"Open the man door," Wendy yelled to the guards.
The two men scrambled to pop the small hatch near the ground—just big enough for a single person to get through.
Grant and Rhett caught up just as Wendy reached the wall. They grabbed weapons from the stash in a hollow log near the door. She pulled out a bandolier with two long knives and buckled it around her waist. Grant snatched up the flares.
"If anyone but us, the guards or Pelton and his crew come into the clearing, seal this," Wendy said, pointing at the hatch.
The guards nodded.
Wendy squirmed through first, her shoulders not touching the wood on either side of the hole.
The others followed, and Wendy wasn't surprised when Kenzie brought up the rear. Hector, the guy on watch, was Kenzie's boyfriend.
The four of them ran to the trees and started down the path. As soon as they reached the woods, they slowed to a jog. Kenzie moved to the front—she and Hector were the best trackers in the Den. If there were something in the woods, Kenzie would find it.
Wendy took up the rear, her eyes roaming the area around them for threats. This was Wendy's world. She dealt with problems, she kept everyone safe, and she made sure others didn't have to worry.
The familiar trail was thin, but easy to follow. Bushes became hiding spots, and shadows became enemies. Branches snatched at their clothes. The light from above cast irregular shadows that twisted and shook in the breeze.
Grant, who was right in front of Wendy, held the flare ready. One sign of a Skinny or person they didn't know, and he would send it up. The compound would go on lock-down. Those who couldn't fight would be sent into the tunnels, and the rest of them would go to the walls. The evacuation routes were clear—Wendy had checked them herself the night before—and the leaders of each group knew how to get to the rendezvous point.
Everything would be fine, even if their world came crashing down around them. They would survive.
The snap of a twig brought everyone to a halt. Kenzie held up her hand and they all crouched down.
Wendy's senses expanded. Every shift of a shadow caught her attention, and every noise was suspect.
Skinnies weren't quiet. Other people were quiet. And other people were just as dangerous as Skinnies. Skinnies relied on sheer numbers to get what they wanted—raw meat. Other people employed strategy. They would take what they wanted and kill anyone who got in their way.
Wendy cleared her thoughts. Her body readied itself for a fight. Another noise sounded, this one behind her. They were surrounded, which meant it was her responsibility to make a hole for their retreat.
At some point she had drawn both knives. The light coat of sweat on her palms slicked the leather on the handles.
More wind, more shadows moving, more noises that didn't belong. Wendy's hands clenched around her knives, and she turned to walk with her back to the others.
A rock arched through the trees, hitting the ground a few feet away from Wendy. She turned toward it, then back as fast as she could.
But it was too late. A man jumped out of the shadows and came straight at her.
Wendy didn't hesitate; she shot forward, knives out.
But the accompanying roar of laughter caused her to falter.
The light moved, and she recognized Pelton's tall, thick frame. His customary baseball cap covered shaggy blond hair. Lumps protruded from his vest and new blood stains covered his jeans.
Wendy didn't bother to stop her attack. She landed close and crossed her knives in front of his neck.
Pelton, who stood a head-and-a-half taller than Wendy, looked down at her with a grin. "Boo," he said.
A range of emotions rushed through Wendy. Pelton was her fighting instructor—the best fighter she'd ever seen—but he was never serious about anything. They'd sent him out to get medicine for the kids. He should have been back three days ago, so why the charade?
Before she could move, he reached out and grabbed one of her wrists. His hands were strong, but he never managed to keep her trapped for long. Wendy twisted and kicked at his groin. Pelton jumped back but kept hold of Wendy's wrist.
Wendy moved with him, going under his arm and coming up on the other side. He finally let go, but not before Wendy punched him hard in the kidney. Maybe a little harder than she needed to.
Pelton didn't even grunt; instead he came straight at her, fists flying. He didn't have a weapon; he didn't need one. Wendy had to give ground, and in the tightly packed trees she didn't have much of a chance to leap to the side.
"Can't tiger a tiger," Pelton said as he tried to overwhelm her with his size and strength.
Wendy ducked and tried to dart around his left side. He blocked her knives with a lazy slap and grabbed her around the neck, holding her fast.
They'd done this move a hundred times, and nothing Wendy could do short of chopping his arm off would let her out of it.
The others stood watching and laughing.
"Nice try, baby girl," Pelton said. "You almost had me."
"Let me go," Wendy said. This was not the time for games.
Pelton released her and looked down, his brown eyes twinkling. "You almost got around that time."
Wendy ground her teeth together.
He smiled. "Come on, wasn't that fun?"
Wendy put her knives away and opened her mouth to rebuke him, but Kenzie jumped between them before she could. With a huge grin Kenzie said, "Surprise!"
Everyone said, "Happy Birthday!"
Birthday? Wendy looked around and found her dad emerging from the woods. His tall, thin frame moved almost as smoothly as Kenzie's. He wore his usual brown pants and blue shirt with a green leather jacket. His once black hair was now a salt and pepper gray.
"I told you she would fall for it," Hector said as he put an arm around Kenzie.
Wendy's dad, Ed, stepped toward her. The two of them had an interesting relationship. Ever since Wendy's mom had died, they had both immersed themselves in the compound, each taking on as much responsibility as possible to keep from letting grief overwhelm them. They could talk about business for hours, but personal conversations never went very far. They loved one another, but Wendy wasn't sure how it actually worked.
"You forgot, didn't you?" Ed asked. His dark eyes tried to smile, but failed.
How could Wendy forget? Sure, this was her birthday, but it was also the fourth anniversary of her mother's death. No, she hadn't forgotten—she had hoped everyone would ignore it.
"Turning sixteen used to be a big deal," Ed said. "You'd get your driver's license."
Her dad was trying, so Wendy said, "We ran out of power cells for the hover bikes two years ago."
A genuine smile cracked Ed's face. He pulled a small bundle wrapped in a red bandana out of his pocket and handed it to her. At the same time, Pelton fished a book out of his vest.
Wendy took both. The book was the third in a series she'd been reading. He must have found it in the city.
An unexpected lump rose in Wendy's throat. She swallowed it down and smiled at her dad.
"Open it," he said.
Wendy gave Pelton a quick smile before she shoved the book into her pocket and pulled the leather band that held the red bundle shut.
The cloth fell away. The lump in Wendy's throat returned.
"I thought you might want something special," her dad said.
Wendy reached out a trembling hand and stroked the top sugar cookie. How in the world had he managed to make these? And who had gone without rations?
"Do you like it?" Kenzie asked.
Wendy managed a nod. She didn't deserve the cookies, or anything else anyone might give her, but she knew it would be futile to try to refuse them. They all expected a response, so she said, "I love them."
Before Wendy became more uncomfortable, she turned to Pelton. "Do you have the medicine?"
Pelton looked her over, pity in his eyes. "You know it's okay to smile. Maybe even laugh sometimes."
"Did you find it?" Wendy asked. She was finished with this game. Those kids were going to die.
"Hmmm," Pelton said as he poked her shoulder. "You do have an impressively hard shell. If you tried to squeeze some happiness into it, it might burst, and the rest of us would get caught in the shrapnel."
Wendy turned away from him and addressed the others. "Today is my birthday. Thank you, everyone, for coming, but we have three little kids that won't live to see the end of the week if Pelton didn't get the medicine." Wendy held out her hand.
He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small case. "I have it here."
Wendy snatched it from him and turned away. Kenzie tried to catch her eye, probably to rebuke her for being rude, but Wendy didn't care. She took off at a run back toward the compound.
The woods fell beneath her feet, leaving the hollow place in her heart behind. She burst into the clearing a minute later. She waved the door open, crawled through and started for the medical cabin.
She was halfway there when the alarm sounded.
"Red flare!" someone yelled.
"East watch!" another voice yelled.
A red flare meant Skinnies.
A girl her own age, Rene, was jogging past. Wendy grabbed her. "Hey, go give this to the doctor."
Rene took the box. "But I have to get to my post."
"The kids need that," Wendy said. "Your sister needs that."
The world they lived in made people hard fast. Wendy hadn't cried since her mother had died. Rene was tough, but tears sprung to her eyes as she nodded and ran off, clutching the box to her.
Wendy ran toward the east wall and scaled the ladder.
"How many?" Wendy asked the man on watch.
Wendy looked hard at him. He nodded.
That meant at least a hundred and fifty Skinnies. Another flare went up from a different direction. How many of them were there?
Wendy glanced over at the clearing and saw everyone from the woods running in. She yelled down at the gate guards, "Get my dad and the rest in here, and then seal it up."
She turned away, already searching the forest for the oncoming hoard.