Life is full of decision points—those key moments when what we decide can change everything for better or for worse. These 20 tales describe such instances in young people's lives, ranging from tragic to triumphant, from horror to fantasy to science fiction. Written by authors new and old, those known for Young Adult writing and those known for Adult novels, a few new and barely known at all, these stories will make you think, make you laugh, make you feel angry, sad, determined, etc. as you examine choices and consequences and consider the many paths a life might take and think about your own.
Edited by Hugo-nominated editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Decision Points includes both brand new and reprint stories by award winners and bestsellers such as Orson Scott Card, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert Silverberg, Robert J. Sawyer, Kevin J. Anderson, Jody Lynn Nye, Cory Doctorow, Alethea Kontis, Jonathan Maberry, Nnedi Okorafor, Steven Gould, Mike Resnick, and more. Top authors telling great stories about life changing decisions that may well change yours.
Kevin J. Anderson is one of those authors who consistently writes good stuff, and this anthology of young adult fantasy contains a short story of his, as well as short stories by quite a number of other authors whose works I consistently like. Good fit for the bundle! – Emily Martha Sorensen
"A strong, well-written, fascinating selection—this was the most solid-in-quality anthology I've ever read!"– Tamora Pierce, NYT Bestselling Author, The Song of The Lioness, Circle of Magic
"Interesting and unexpected work."– Rich Horton, Locus Magazine
It rained the day the world ended.
That's how she remembered it.
The rain fell cold and hard. That day and every time the world ended. For Lilah there wasn't just one apocalypse. They kept happening to her.
And each time it was raining.
The first time was when she was little. Too little to really understand what was happening. She was just learning to speak, barely able to walk, hardly able to form the kind of memories that could be taken out later and looked at. She remembered a woman's face. Her mother's, but Lilah didn't really understand what that meant. George had to explain it to her later.
Lilah remembered her mother holding her, and running. And other people holding her. And running.
And the monsters chasing.
Grabbing. Tearing. Taking. Biting. Eating.
One of them had bitten Mom. Lilah had seen it happen but did not know what the bright colors and loud shrieks meant. Not then. Not until later.
She remembered the house where her mother and the other grownups had hidden. She remembered her mother screaming. Mommy, with her big, swollen belly. Screaming.
That's when Annie was born.
Lilah did not understand birth, either.
Or the death that followed.
Or what happened when Mom woke up.
She saw what the others did, though. She understood it on some level that ran so deep age didn't matter. She screamed louder than the newborn Annie. She screamed louder than the people who swung clubs and pipes as Mom tried to bite them.
She screamed so loud it made her spit red.
After that Lilah didn't have much of a voice. A whisper. The first words she learned to speak were said in that whisper, and every word since then. Every single word.
It had been raining that night, the drops thudding on the roof and tapping on the windows and knocking on the door. The rain hissed in the trees outside. Lilah recorded it without having labels for any of those things. Despite the rain, those memories were burned into her. She was too young for any of it, but the world ended anyway.
It rained the day George went away.
Lilah never knew his last name. Last names didn't seem to matter much. People in books had last names, and people in the stories George told. And maybe he even told her his last name, but she forgot because there was no need to remember it.
George was the last of the grownups. The one who didn't die.
The others did. They went out of the house, one by one, over the weeks. Looking for help. Looking for answers. Finding nothing, it seemed, except the end of their own stories.
George stayed with Lilah and the baby. He named her Annie. After that it was Lilah, and Annie, and George for years.
Sometimes George did go out, but never too far and never for too long. He waited for times when the biters weren't so thick around the house and then he'd slip away, quiet as a mouse and vanish in the tall grass. Those were bad times. At first. Lilah would try hard not to cry because it scared Annie when she cried. So Lilah forced her raspy voice to be still, blinked her tears away, held the screams in, and waited.
George always came back. He was the only one who ever did. Pushing a wheelbarrow full of cans from someone else's kitchen. Bringing clothes and toilet paper and toys and books. Always books.
Bringing weapons, too.
Never bringing other people. There were none. They were all sure of that. No one but George, Lilah, and little Annie.
Childhood was learning to be quiet, learning to hide, learning to trick the dead. George taught them to fight as soon as they could hold tools. They spent long nights together turning wood and duct tape and kitchen knives into weapons. Quiet weapons. George wasn't a fighter. He told the girls that he used to sell shoes. He wasn't a hero like the princes and champions in the books he taught them to read. He wasn't big and full of muscle. He wasn't as handsome as Prince Charming or Aladdin or Captain America. He never took karate or anything like that. Everything he taught them was what he could make up, and some stuff he learned from books he found that weren't Disney books or comics. They all read as much as they could. They read everything. It was how George taught them about the world that was. A world Lilah and Annie would never know. Could never know because the dead rose and ate it all up.
Eight years. Just the three of them.
When Lilah was ten and Annie was eight, George met a man in the woods. Not another biter. A living man. He was dressed like a hunter from pictures they'd seen. Camouflage clothes. But he smelled like one of the biters because he smeared something on his clothes that made the monsters think he was like them, and they didn't eat each other.
George almost killed the man because at first he couldn't believe that he was alive. He couldn't be alive because the world had ended and everyone died. Every single person except the three of them.
But the man was alive. Really and truly alive.
When George realized that, he went running from cover and grabbed the man and embraced him, weeping, kissing his face and hands, sobbing out loud.
The hunter was happy to see him, too, but unlike George he hadn't believed the world was destroyed. Not completely.
"There's a lot of us left," he said. "We're taking the world back from these zoms."
Zoms. He called them zoms. Short for zombies. A strange word that Lilah had read in books and which didn't seem to fit. Zombies were dead people brought back to life to be slaves. These dead people ate the living. George usually called them biters or ghouls. Zoms was a new word.
George was so happy that he brought the hunter back to the house to meet the girls.
Lilah remembered that. She was absolutely terrified of the big man with all the guns and knives who smelled like a biter. And he was strange looking. The man had the palest skin, almost as white as a corpse, and he had one blue eye and the other was as red as blood. He had lots of scars and he smiled all the time.
Lilah hated him and tried to stab him with a spear. Annie threw stones at him. It took George a long time to convince them it was safe.
For Lilah "safe" meant the three of them inside the house with the doors and windows shut. That was safe. It was the only safety she'd ever known.
After a long, long time of talk and promises and even some yelling on George's part—something he almost never did—Lilah stopped fighting. It took Annie a little longer to settle down. Unlike her big sister, Annie had never seen any adults other than George. They'd all died when she was a baby.
They all sat in the living room, and the big hunter with the red eye sat on the floor. He'd taken off all of his weapons and given them to George to hold, just to prove that he wasn't going to hurt them. Lilah and Annie crouched like dogs on either side of George, ready to run, ready to bite.
"It didn't all fall down," said the big man. "We lost a lot of land, sure, but we're taking it back. This is one of the last areas that hadn't been cleared out yet, but my guys are out here doing just that."
"Your guys…?" asked George, and as she squatted next to him, Lilah could feel him tremble with excitement.
The hunter took a couple of candy bars from his pocket and reached over to offer them to the girls, but Lilah recoiled. Annie hissed at him. The man's smile flickered and he placed the candy on the floor and shifted back away from them.
"They haven't had much candy," said George. "And I trained them to be careful."
"Stranger-danger," laughed the big man. "I get it. It's cool, and that's smart. Big ol' dangerous world and you can never be too careful."
The candy bars lay there, untouched.
"You said you have people out here?"
"Sure. Part rescue team and part hunters. We're quieting the last of the zoms as we go."
George repeated the word, "Quieting."
"Yeah, it's what we call it when we put the zoms down. Bullet in the motor cortex or a blade through the brain stem. Only way to get 'er done."
"Quieting," murmured Lilah, and then Annie repeated it.
"Look," said the big hunter, "these woods are still pretty thick with zoms. Not safe for you to be here. My camp's a few hours walk, but we have food, a stockade, horses, and a hell of—oops, I mean a heck of a lot of guns. We could go there and get oriented, then I can have a team take you and the kids to the closest town."
"Town…" said George and he swayed as if he was going to faint.
"Yeah. Towns all over. Closest is Mountainside, which they set up just after the problems started. Built around a reservoir and backed up against a mountain. And it's up high because the zoms won't walk uphill unless they're chasing something. Big fence and a lot of people. That's one of the places I hang out, but there are other towns. Like I said, we're taking it all back."
George began crying again. Annie, always so sensitive, wrapped her little arms around him and started crying, too. Lilah did not. She read a lot of fairy stories that had happy endings, but she never believed that any of those stories ever really happened. There were no happy endings.
In the morning, George agreed to go with the big hunter. He filled his wheelbarrow with food, the girls' favorite toys, some of their precious books, and lots of weapons. The hunter seemed to be impressed with the handmade weapons. "You some kind of ninja?" he asked, bending to inspect the spears and other deadly tools.
George laughed. "Not even close. I figured it out as we went. Try something on a biter and if it works you try it on another one. You don't need to know a lot, but you need to be good at what you do know."
"Ain't that the honest truth," agreed the hunter.
"George says we're not supposed to say 'ain't'," said Annie, and that made the Hunter laugh out loud.
"Well, I guess Mr. George is one-hundred percent correct, little sweet pea," he told her. "I never did have much schooling, but it looks like you learned your lessons."
"I taught them as best I could," said George, his face flushing with embarrassment.
The hunter nodded and then turned sharply to Lilah who was reaching for her favorite spear. "Whoa, now, kiddo, you shouldn't play with grown up toys."
Lilah snatched the spear up, spun the shaft faster than the eye could see and passed the tip of the blade through a loose fold of the big man's shirt. Then she held the spear ready, feet wide and braced, weight on the balls of her toes. Ready.
The hunter's smile vanished to be replaced with a snarl that was as cold and mean as a hungry bear. "I can see you learned more than your ABCs from ol' George. That's mighty interesting. Now put that toothpick down before I—"
George, greatly alarmed, stepped between them. "Oh, god, I'm so sorry! She doesn't know any better. You're the first adult she's met since… since…"
The smile came back slowly. "Hey, it's all good," said the hunter. Then he chuckled. "Truth to tell I'm pretty impressed with little spitfire here. She's something to see, yes she is. How old is she? Ten? My, my, pretty as a Georgia peach and mean as a snake. Got to love that combination. Yes, sir, Miss Lilah, you can go far in this world. Even in a world as big and bad as what we got."
"What we have," said Annie.
The big hunter guffawed. "Got me again. Haw! Not too many people pull a fast one on ol' Charlie Matthias," he said. "No sirree bob, and here I am having a ten-year-old kid cut her mark on me and her little sister correct my grammar. I am humbled. I truly am."
He laughed until tears ran down his cheeks. He was still chuckling when they opened the back door and stepped out. There were biters out there because there were always biters. Seven of them. George edged up with his own spear, but Charlie waved him back. "Don't get your panties in a bunch," he said. "I got this."
He had a thick leather gauntlet on his left arm that covered him from fingers to shoulder, and with his less heavily padded right he drew a broad-bladed machete. Because he still smelled of rot the biters didn't swarm him, and even seemed bemused while Charlie waded into them. The big hunter used his armored left to grab the zoms and hold them still for the whistling blade of the machete. He moved with the effortless efficiency of someone who'd done exactly this a thousand times. Or ten thousand. In seconds the zoms were cut to pieces. Most were still alive, but none were whole. None were a threat.
George looked down at the twitching torsos and snapping jaws and raised his spear to finish them.
"What for?" asked Charlie, annoyed.
"To give them peace."
Charlie laughed as George, Lilah and Annie quieted the dead. Killing the dead was important, almost a ritual for their family. George told them that ever since the plague started everyone who died, no matter how they died, came back as a biter. Every single person. It was important to give everyone who needed it a chance at real peace. Even the biters, whom they all feared. After all, it wasn't their fault they'd become monsters.
George looked uneasy because of Charlie's laughter, but he shook it off. Then they took their wheelbarrow and followed the big man through the woods. His camp was five miles away and it was starting to drizzle by the time they got there. Even with the rain Lilah could smell the smoke from cooking fires, and soon they saw the plumes of smoke rising into the cloudy sky.
There were forty men in the camp.
All of them tough-looking, big, brutal, and smiling. They milled around George and the girls, laughing, slapping Charlie on the back, staring at the little girls, appraising George.
One man, a massive man with immensely broad shoulders and a badly scarred face pushed his way through the crowd. He had matched automatic pistols at his hips and had a long length of bloodstained black pipe swinging from his belt. He stopped next to Charlie, one hand on the big hunter's shoulder and studied the girls.
"What've you got here, Charlie?"
"A couple of fighters."
"The tall one's quick as lightning," said Charlie and he showed the cut on his shirt. "Never even saw that blade coming. Rattlesnake quick."
"Nice," said the other man, who some of the others called "the Motor City Hammer," or just "the Hammer." "You thinking of training her some more or putting her right into the games?"
"Oh, the games, no doubt," said Charlie. "Raw talent like that? Shoot. She's ready to rock and roll."
Lilah had no idea what they were talking about. These men didn't seem to be the kind who would want to play games. Not Monopoly or dolls or Legos. And, besides, what did that have to do with fighting?
George caught it, too. His smile faded. "What are you talking about? Games? What's that mean?"
Charlie squinted up into the rain, which was beginning to fall heavier now, fat drops popping on the leaves of the trees around the camp. "Storm's coming," he said. "Could be bad."
As if to emphasize his observation lightning forked across the sky and thunder rumbled like laughter behind the trees. Lilah glanced up, too. She'd rarely been outside during the rain because it was hard to hear the biters during a storm. Because she was looking up she never saw who it was that hit George.
She heard the sound. Heavy and wet and wrong, and then George fell against her, slumping, collapsing, his weapon falling away, his flopping hands knocking the spear from Lilah's hands. His improbably heavy weight dragged her down into the mud. Lilah hit her head the ground, jolting her neck, making stars explode in her eyes. She heard Annie scream.
Then there were hands on her, grabbing her wrists and elbows and ankles. Someone forced a thick pillowcase over her head. She caught one last glimpse of George, his face wet with rainwater and blood, sprawled on the ground.
That's when the world ended again.
And it was raining.
Because it always rained when the world ended.
It was starting to rain.
"We have to try," said Annie. "He'll be back soon."
"Shhh," Lilah said, "let me think."
The girls knelt by the door and looked out through the bars. The hall was empty. The guard's chair stood against the hall wall, a magazine opened face down on it, a beer bottle half-empty on the crate he used as a table. Lilah knew the routine. This guard, Henry, drank too much and he went out to the bathroom at least six times during his shift. Lilah had no watch, but she'd learned to count time. After all these months here she'd learned the feel of seconds and minutes and hours. They crawled like worms over her skin. Familiar and yet hateful. Another of the prisoners here—one of the few adults who lived in a cage down the hall—called it stacking time. You took those increments of time and built walls around you. Lilah understood it. The more time here in the cages the more she understood this world and what it was. In a way it was like reading a book because she learned something new every day.
Not just the rules of the games, but other stuff. How to watch. How to understand what she saw. How to understand the guards and what they wanted and what they thought. Knowing what the guards would do if Charlie and the Hammer let them. Knowing which ones might even have let them go if the world was a different world. Knowing which ones would do bad things to them if they could. Lilah and Annie knew all about those bad things. They'd seen them happen, and it had torn holes in the version of the world they'd always understood. Some of that stuff wasn't even in the books George let them read. It was sick stuff. Bad stuff. Awful stuff.
It was stuff that might happen to Annie and her if they started losing their fights down in the pits. Charlie told them that. So did the Hammer. They knew it made them want to fight harder. They knew it made them cooperative. It was simple math, too. Go into the pits and fight the zoms with whatever weapons they let the girls have, or get beaten up and handed over to the guards. No third choice.
Annie was nine now and Lilah was eleven, at least by Lilah's reckoning. As best she could estimate they had been here in Gameland for eleven months. Maybe a full year. It was cold again and the rains had started the way they usually did in January and February. It had been three weeks after New Year's Day when George had met Charlie and decided to bring him back to the house.
There had been two weeks of travel with Charlie's hunting party. Terrible days marked by beatings and starvation to teach manners. Then Charlie had learned that if he threatened Annie then Lilah would do anything, follow any order. After that there were fewer beatings but a lot of threats.
Except for the escape attempts. There had been savage beatings after those. Twice Lilah peed blood, and that scared her and Annie so bad they couldn't speak for days.
Experience is a great teacher. That's one of the things George had said a long time ago. Lilah made sure she learned from everything they experienced. Every single thing.
Like the timetable of the guards posted here in the Fighters' House. That's what they called it. From what Lilah had been told by other prisoners, the Fighters House used to be the Funhouse of an amusement park. Those were things the girls had read about. Places where people went to be shocked and scared for fun. How weird was that?
"He's going to be back soon," whined Annie.
"I know," said Lilah, keeping her voice low. "It's still early. He hasn't had that much to drink."
"We have to wait until he goes for a long bathroom break."
"He doesn't always do that," protested her sister.
Lilah wrapped her arm around Annie's thin shoulders. "He does most of the time. He will tonight."
"How do you know?"
"I know," lied Lilah. Actually, she hoped she was right. Most nights Henry went out for a longer break, and when he did, he took his magazine or a book with him. Pee breaks were too quick. If he took something to read he'd be gone for at least twenty minutes, sometimes more. This was a new magazine for him, one Lilah hadn't seen. Maybe he'd settle down on the toilet and read it for a while.
The rain pinged against the plywood walls of the Fighters House. In the other cages she could hear kids crying or talking or snoring. One of them, a boy who had nearly lost the last couple of fights in the pits, kept talking to himself in a language of made up words. Lilah almost envied him. His mind was broken and he'd escaped into a nonsense world. Maybe he thought he was dreaming.
There was a fourteen-year-old girl in the cage next to them who was shivering in her sleep. The guards thought she'd gotten through her two-on-one pit fight without getting hurt, but Lilah knew better. The girl had been bitten and the fever was taking her. Maybe the guards would come for her tomorrow and open the cage without checking first. That would be nice. It would be even nicer if it was Charlie or the Hammer, but Lilah didn't think they'd be fooled. Not them. They were smart. Not book smart like George had been, but animal smart.
She glanced at the shivering girl in the next cage. Her name was Christine and she'd been hiding with a group of nuns in a building in the hills. Lilah heard rumors of what had happened to the nuns. She really hoped Christine got to bite someone after she turned.
A sound made Annie tense and Lilah looked up to see the door at the far end of the hall open and Henry come back in. He was whistling a song that Lilah didn't know. It was a happy song, and that made Lilah really hate him.
Henry walked down the hall to the T-junction where the two sisters were caged. He looked up and down the side halls, nodded to himself, and walked back to his chair.
Annie hung her head and clenched her fists. "We should have gone."
Lilah kissed her on the head. "We will, I promise."
Lilah studied Henry and listened to the rain. If the storm got heavier the noise would help them. She usually hated the rain, but not tonight. She waited until Henry was concentrating on what he was reading and then she pushed lightly on the door. They'd spent hours and hours very quietly filing at the metal, and all they needed to do was give it one or two good kicks to pop it open. It would make noise. The rain whispered to her that it was going to help her this time. It promised that it was her friend this time.
"Yes," she said.
Henry did not move for over three hours. By then the rain was hammering on the walls and ceiling and the noise was deafening inside.
When he finally got up, he folded his magazine and tucked it under his arm, gave the cages a quick inspection, then walked toward the exit, once more whistling that song. The door banged shut behind him.
"Now!" hissed Lilah. She and Annie lay on their backs near the door and bent their knees. "Three, two—go!"
They kicked out with all their strength.
And the door shuddered but did not open.
"Hey!" yelled someone else. The adult in the cage down the row. "Keep it down… some of us are trying to sleep."
"Again," growled Lilah, and they kicked once more.
A third time. A fourth.
"Yo! What the heck are you doing down there?"
Five. Six. Seven.
"You're going get us all in trouble."
Eight. Nine. Annie was crying, her kicks becoming wild, desperate, sloppy. But Lilah was getting mad. She ground her teeth together and kicked, kicked, kicked.
The door flew open so hard it slammed against the outside wall and whipped back to crunch against their feet. Annie cried out in pain, but Lilah just snarled. She grabbed her sister, pushed her up and shoved her out of the cage, then swarmed out after her. The thunder outside was a continuous bellow and the rain hammered down. Even so, Lilah crouched for a moment and listened for Henry's footsteps, listened for him to yell.
The kids in the other cages stared at her. A few reached out between the bars with desperate fingers, clawing at the air as if they could pull themselves out. Annie and Lilah stared at them.
"Can we get them out?" whispered Annie, her words nearly washed away by the storm.
"No," said Lilah.
Saying that word hurt as bad as getting punched in the chest. It hurt her heart to say it. It hurt worse to know that it was true. They had no tools other than the small metal rasp they'd used on their own bar and it would take as many days to free even one of them as it had to cut their own lock. There was no time and no way. Lilah grabbed Annie's hand and pulled her away.
Annie's cry was as sharp and high as a gull's call. The kids in the other cages began to scream. Not yell. Scream.
Those screams chased the girls down the hall. They rose like the cries of storybook banshees to fill the night and howl louder than the storm itself.
"Hey!" came the muffled voice of Henry from the other side of the building. Even with all of the rain and thunder he'd heard those screams. "Hey, what's happening in there?"
Lilah pushed Annie toward the outside door. There was a fire axe hung on the wall held by metal clips. Lilah paused and tore it free. It was far too heavy for her, clumsy and awkward. But it was a weapon. She stared for a moment at the wickedly sharp edge of the blade. Then she whirled and ran after her sister who was already out in the rain.
Gameland was a massive sprawl of buildings, disused rides, concession stands, and other buildings whose nature Lilah didn't know or understand. There were big tents near the center of the park and the girls ran away from them as fast as they could. Those tents had not been part of the amusement park but had instead been erected later. Scavenged, Lilah had been told, from a circus where everything—human and animal—had been consumed by the biters. Now the big tents rose above the trees, enclosing bleachers for paying customers who would sit and hoot, cry, call, boo, and cheer at the action. And that action took place inside any one of a dozen wide, shallow pits. Fighting pits. Kids—almost always kids—would be lowered down into the pits and zoms would be shoved over the edge. Sometimes the kids were given weapons, but not always. Sometimes all they had were their hands, their fear and whatever skills they had managed to learn.
Lilah and Annie had survived those pits for months. Even little Annie had killed down there. Killed and killed and killed. There were times she would be pulled out of the pit covered from head to toe in black blood, madness boiling in her eyes but a killer's grin on her mouth. Lilah worried about her sister. She knew that ever since George had agreed to leave the house with Charlie, Annie had become strange. Scared at nights in the cage but fierce and maybe crazy down in the pits.
Lilah wondered if she, too, had gone mad. She did not come grinning from the pits, but she fought with a savagery that surprised even herself. With blades or hammers, with golf clubs or a tennis racket, with a screwdriver or her own bare hands, she had fought the biters and killed them.
One hundred and nineteen so far.
More than anyone else in Gameland.
With each kill she felt herself grow stronger and felt herself grow colder. Meaner. Stranger.
She wondered what it would do to her when she killed her first living person. She thought of Charlie and the Hammer. She wanted to use the axe on them so badly that it made her sick. It also made her excited in ways that she had never felt before. She was free. They were free, she and Annie, and Lilah had a weapon.
They ran through the rain, which pounded down in sheets. It turned the ground to mud that was as cold and which clung to their feet, slowing them, trying to stop and hold them.
"Keep going," cried Lilah every time Annie slowed down or stumbled. "Don't stop."
The best path out of Gameland was to the north, but it was a long slope uphill to the trees. Hard-packed dirt and lots of rocks. Annie fell over and over again, and Lilah had to haul her up time and again until finally they staggered forward at little more than a slow walk. Water ran downhill like a small river, chilling them to the bone.
Suddenly the air above them flashed white and they looked up to see something rise into the night sky. A flare. It cast everything into a glow of ghostly white, and painted them like black bugs against the slope. Off in the distance, Lilah heard someone yell. Henry? No. The Hammer.
"Run, Annie… run!"
"I… can't.…" Annie cried, but she tried. And fell. Got up. And fell again. Lilah hooked her under the arm and dragged her to her feet every time.
They ran, but Annie was slipping too much. Lilah finally realized that they weren't going to make it. The men were coming. They would catch them and they would do every bad thing they'd promised to do.
"God," cried Lilah, begging the rainy sky for mercy. "Please."
Lighting flashed again and again, the bolts coming one after another, and in their glow Lilah saw something off to the left hand side of the road. It was an old abandoned car, choked with weeds, rusted, sitting on rotted tires. Beyond it were others. Fifty, maybe a hundred of them. Without a moment's hesitation she pushed Annie toward them.
Back on the road there were big shapes moving their way. She saw the distinctive bulk of the Hammer leading them. No time, no time.
"W-what—?" asked Annie, her teeth chattering from cold and fear. "What are you doing?"
"Get in there," snapped Lilah, pushing her toward one of the cars. It lay on its side, crushed up against a tree. The trunk hung open. Lilah shoved Annie inside and then tore wet shrubs and branches to cover her. "Stay here and be quiet."
"Wait!" cried the little girl. "Don't leave me. You can't!"
Lilah knelt quickly by her sister. She caressed her cheek and kissed her forehead. "Shhh, you have to be quiet. I'm not leaving you, Annie. I'm going to play a trick on the men."
"I've got to lead them away, like George used to lead the biters away from the house. Only instead of using noise, I'm going to leave a fake trail. You understand?"
Annie clung to her. "Please don't leave me alone. I'll go with you. I can help."
"No. You know I'm faster alone. You need to stay here and be quiet. The biters can't find you here and the men will follow me," Lilah said, having to lean close to be heard with the noise of the storm. "I'll lead them way up the road and then cut back through the forest like George taught us."
"Trust me, Annie. I'll be back for you," Lilah said. "You'll be safe here."
Annie stared at her with terrified eyes. "You won't let them get me?"
"I promise, Annie. I swear to God and cross my heart."
"You won't leave me ever?"
"I won't. You know I won't."
"Say it, Lilah," begged Annie. "Say you promise."
"God, I promise to never ever leave you. I'll keep you safe always and forever." She kissed Annie's cheeks. "But I have to go do this now. I promise I'll be right back. Just stay here and wait for me."
Annie promised her, but she was crying when she made that promise. And Lilah was crying when she closed the trunk lid and moved off. The sobs hurt her so deeply. But they also made her clutch the axe with greater strength. The thought of what would happen to Annie if she did this wrong turned the cold of the rain into fire. It filled her chest and burned in the back of her throat.
She ran through the rain.
George had taught the girls a lot about the woods. About the forest, and about tracking. As he learned it from books and firsthand, he shared it with his adopted daughters, rediscovering the ancient sciences of tracking and woodcraft, of stealth and deception. Lilah used everything she'd learned and she put her own thoughts into it. She was a natural at it because she had been born into a world of hunting and killing, and of thwarting hunters and not being killed.
She let herself be seen on the road, waiting for lightning flashes so they could spot her. And then when the darkness fell, she ran off the path and circled back and laid false trails and broke branches so they could see the path of her flight. The Hammer led the chase, and he sent men along eight different false trails. Lilah could feel the seconds and minutes burning off, but she knew she was doing it right. The men would never give up, she knew that much. They hated her and Annie for making fools of them; and if they didn't drag them back to the cages it would be harder to control the others. They had to win. And some of them probably ached to be part of the punishments. Not all of the men were that evil, but enough of them were.
Lilah encountered two biters in the woods, but they were no problem. She had the axe and she had her rage. She left the bodies where they could be found and where they would mark false escape routes.
The storm got heavier still, as if the universe itself was an audience at a new kind of Gameland, cheering on the winners and the losers with equal mad intensity.
Finally, when the storm was at its wildest, Lilah left the road and went into the forest, working a long, random path back to the abandoned cars. Back to Annie. She had already worked out their real escape route. It was risky but the men would never expect the girls to circle around Gameland and head south. That way was filled with biters and the slopes down the hill were difficult. For them, definitely, but for two girls willing to take risks and who were as strong as life could make them… maybe not. Lilah thought they could make it. Down south there was a river, and if they crossed that then not even a pack of dogs could track them. There would be houses and buildings where they could hide, and animals to hunt in the woods. They would survive. She believed that with all her heart.
Lightning whitewashed the forest and she saw it gleam off the curved corpses of the cars. Her heart lifted because there were no men around. Except for the rain it was quiet and still. Gripping the axe, Lilah crept forward, moving between the automobiles and trucks, moving as silently through the mud as she could until she saw the overturned car.
Then her heart seemed to tear itself loose from the inside of her chest.
The trunk lid was open.
And Annie was not there.
Lilah ran forward and tore at the debris in the trunk, but there was no trace of her sister. The mud at her feet was a confusion of puddles that told her nothing.
She reeled, feeling the ground under her tilt like one of those ancient amusement rides. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to die.
She tried to scream.
But as she opened her mouth, she heard Annie.
She heard Annie scream.
And she heard the harsh, grating laugh of the Motor City Hammer.
Lilah ran through the rain, tripping twice in deep puddles. The second time she fell so hard that the axe went flying from her hands and vanished into the mud. She gagged, coughing rain and dirty water from her mouth, and when she looked for the axe, she couldn't find it. The mud and puddles had swallowed it whole.
There was another scream. High and terrible. It rose and rose and then…
Lilah rose screeching from the puddle and ran for a dozen feet on hands and feet, scampering like a dog. The storm winds stole her memory of where the screams had come from and she lost her way in the dark. Then she found the road and realized that this is where Annie must have been.
The rain fell like sharp needles as Lilah staggered out of the woods and onto the muddy road. Gameland was back there, the tent and rusted rides painted white with each burst of lightning. In the distance, down the slope, she saw the Motor City Hammer walking slowly away, his black pipe club loose in one hand, swinging as he walked.
He was alone. Annie was not with him.
Because Annie was there on the road.
Lilah stood on trembling legs, staring at the scene. Reading the truth of it because it was there to be read. Annie had waited too long and gotten scared, had doubted that Lilah was going to keep her promise and come back. In her fear she'd crept to the road to take a look. And there she'd met the Motor City Hammer.
There were footprints and skid marks from scuffling feet, and as Lilah watched the rain filled them in, softened their edges, and melted them away.
Annie was there. The scuff marks showed where she'd tried to run. It showed where she'd slipped and fell.
She lay there in the rain.
She looked like she was asleep. Eyes closed, lashes brushing her beautiful cheeks, head resting in a pillow.
Except that it wasn't a pillow.
It was a rock.
Lilah felt herself fall. Her knees buckled and she dropped down beside the little body. Annie's pale hair was darker where it curled around the rock, and when the lightning flashed, the red was too red.
Lilah gathered her sister up in her arms and held her gently. So gently. As if afraid to wake her up from a nap. She pulled her close and rocked her, crooning a little lullaby that George used to sing to both of them. The fires in Lilah's chest burned out and the rain turned the ashes to ice, and still she held her sister.
Lightning burst above them and the thunder roared.
And still she held little Annie.
It was raining and the world had ended.
She knew what would happen next. What had to happen. George had schooled them on it. And Lilah's earliest memories confirmed it. When Mommy had died the other survivors—George included—had known, and they had used sticks and clubs. You couldn't call it "quieting" Mommy. There had been too many screams. But it was the same thing.
Tears burned on Lilah's face. They were the only heat in the world.
Annie was going to wake up soon. And she would wake up hungry. Of course she would. There were no fairy tale endings to make this all right. Annie would wake up as one of them—a biter. Then she would want to bite.
She would want to bite Lilah.
Annie wouldn't be able to help herself.
That was how the world was.
The rain fell and Annie twitched again. And again. The rock onto which Annie had fallen was right there within easy reach.
But, no. That was an impossible choice.
Lilah turned her face up to the rain and wondered what to do. Her heart was so badly broken that she could not bear to think of moving away from this place. Annie was here and when she woke up she would want to eat. No… she would need to eat. She would be a small ghost, a tiny monster. What chance would she have of ever catching food? She would wander, lost and hungry forever.
I promise to never ever leave you. I'll keep you safe always and forever.
That's what Lilah had told her, and she'd sworn to God and crossed her heart.
Annie's fingers opened and closed, but Lilah kept her pressed against her. She didn't want to see her sister open her eyes and not find Annie in there.
I promise to never ever leave you.
The rain washed over her face and stole her tears.
It would be so easy to do nothing. To let Annie wake up. To let Annie have what she needed. To be there for her sister. And, afterward, if there was enough left of her, maybe Lilah would rise, too, and they would go off together. Two sisters. They were already strange and they were already killers. Why shouldn't they be monsters together?
God, it was better than the unbearable thought of being alone. Without Annie. Without George or anyone. Alone.
Annie began to struggle now. She was awake. Her fingers clawed at Lilah, grabbing at cloth, at hair. Her mouth opened, but Lilah held her with crushing force, not allowing her to bite.
Not unless that was the right thing to do.
"Please," she said, begging the night and the storm. "Please."
I promise to never ever leave you.
"I love you, Annie," she said in her raspy, ghostly voice. "I will always, always love you."
Annie thrashed in her arms. All Lilah had to do was ease the pressure just a little. Just an inch. Make the decision and join her sister. It was the only choice that made sense. Every other choice was completely insane. She could not live without Annie. She didn't want to.
I promise to never ever leave you.
Lilah held her sister with one arm, holding on with all of the love she had left in the cold furnace of her soul.
And with the other hand she reached for the rock.
It rained the day the world ended.