A plague has swept over the Earth, killing the majority of the population and every female. Except one. Ara witnessed the horror and destruction, but for the last three years has somehow survived.
Now desperation and hunger force Ara out of the mountains and onto a dangerous path; she must return to her home city. Across the flooded downtown and through the gangs of survivors Ara believes there is hope, one small leftover clue, that could save her. But when she is taken captive by a group of men, she must decide where her loyalty truly lies; with humanity or with herself?
This is the story of The Last She.
An excerpt from The Last She
by H.J. Nelson
The match flared to life with an intrepid burst. I held it tenderly, a small light next to the coarse tepee of wood; the springy moss covered by fragile twigs, then sticks, with small branches on the outermost.
How my father had taught me.
Darkness pushed in all around, but I ignored the whisper of the wind, shielding the flame with my body. Rocks bit into my knees and my back ached. The flame slithered down the match, curling and blackening the wood as it reached for my fingers. I refused to let go.
The flame caught.
I breathed on the glowing embers until they grew, then added branches from the thick surrounding pine. Soon the comforting smell of smoke filled the area.
A thick bluff sheltered my camp from the wind that whistled through the trees and made the fire dance. I added more branches, and the flames reached higher, hungry as I. But even without looking, I knew exactly what my faded backpack held. A sleeping bag with burnt holes from sleeping too close to the fire, an empty box of matches, a dull Swiss Army pocket knife, some twine, a tin pot, a water bottle. No pictures. No food. When the fire roared, I took the water bottle and left the camp behind.
My footsteps were muffled on the needles beneath the pines, but even so, the faint crunch seemed loud. I listened closely, but tonight I heard only an owl’s soft flight, the sigh of the trees, and soon, the distance murmur of the stream. I scrambled across a fallen aspen and dipped my feet into the water, cooling the blisters on my feet while I filled my water bottle. The stream snaked through the hills and towards the city, but unlike the city of my childhood, there was no lights in the distance, no roar of traffic. It was no longer the city of my childhood.
I slept as close to the fire as I dared. The nights grew colder, but I also worried the sleeping pad would catch fire, and I would become a blazing torch. When morning came I wasn’t sure if I’d ever truly slept. A fine dew covered me. I stretched, trying to warm my stiff, aching muscles and the ache that never left anymore. The sun wasn’t yet over the horizon but already the land awakened. Lilting bird songs wove together and I wished for the bow I had lost. The fire was now only a pile of flickering embers; I didn’t bother to put it out.
Let the world burn.
A game trail wove through the trees and I followed it. Soon the path snaked out of the forest and into the foothills. Trees faded into small bushes. The noise of birds and life grew as I walked. Two rabbits crossed my path and I launched a rock at them for their unnecessary happiness. I missed, but it cheered me slightly.
I found a steady rhythm following the path that cut a zigzag through the land but always found its way back to a stream that widened the further I walked. After a few hours I waded in to my knees to refill my water bottle. The current was strong even for such a shallow stream, the rocks at the bottom smooth and worn. I sucked in the cold water, my insides aching from hunger.
A flash of movement.
I looked up at the frozen body of a doe.
Her ears pointed towards me, alert, her brown eyes wide. Her body was graceful, yet full. I saw myself through her eyes, dirty and thin, a stream’s current almost enough to wash me away. Then, as if to insult me, she picked through the brush and lowered her neck to the stream. I reached up on instinct; to pull out the arrow, to draw the bow, but they were gone. Gone like my father.
I walked again.
At noon I began to pass houses, mansions built on hilltops that stared listlessly at the city below. Red X’s covered the doors and despite my hunger I pressed on, trying to ignore the unpleasant sensation of cold water on an empty stomach. I came across a herd of cattle grazing the long, unkempt grass that had once been someone’s front yard. The sharp, earthy smell of manure cut through the scent of sagebrush. The cows all grouped together so that their heads faced me, curious but not afraid.
“It’s your lucky day,” I muttered as I passed them, picturing each as a greasy hamburger.
The old penitentiary rose up from the hills, and I crossed to the side of the prison draped in shadow. “FORGIVE US” had been spray-painted in red on the brick wall, some of the paint running down the side like blood. If the bold words were meant to scare me, they didn’t.
No forgiveness had been given, and I would not ask.
Houses cropped up, yards unkempt, some with doors and windows flung open like broken teeth in a gaping skull, others closed tight, a bleeding X marking the door. I avoided the houses with the red X. Instead I found a small house off the main road with no car in the driveway and a small porch with two rocking chairs. How quaint.
I picked up a pot with shriveled flowers, then smashed the front window. Inside it smelled musty, and the wood floor groaned with every step. Quilts hung from the walls and faded doilies lined every table. Good. Old people hoarded. The kitchen smelled like something had died in it, so I opened every cabinet warily, jumping back when the hinges screeched. Finally, in one of the side pantries, I found three cans of refried beans. I was too hungry to bother to heat them up, and the kitchen table lay in pieces, so I squatted on the ground as soon as I’d found a can opener. I lined the cans up in front of me and began to work through them, using my grimy fingers to shovel the food into my mouth.
A sharp crack tore through the air.
I froze, a handful of beans halfway to my mouth.
The silence thickened.
Could that have been a gunshot? Or an airship? I didn’t think they worked anymore.
I stood slowly, food forgotten. There was a back door leading to a small yard, but the noise had come from the front. I scrambled to gather my backpack, stuffed as much food as I could into my mouth, then kicked the cans under a cabinet. I crept through the house and peeked through the front windows. Nothing but a deserted street.
Then I saw them.
A group of men sauntered down the street. I pulled back, holding the curtain open as narrowly as possible. There were six of them. Two held the long, thin form. A rifle. Old weapons were the only kind that worked anymore. The men wore sturdy tan boots, the kind people once used for hiking.
They were now only two houses away and coming fast. My breath caught, hitting the window pane and creating a brief fog. The curtain was a faded mulberry red, with tiny rivets in it. Such a thin barrier.
Could I outrun them? If I left now I would at least have a chance.
But they hadn’t stopped at the other houses, why should they stop here? Their feet hit the pavement, and I imagined the faint thuds and voices; heavy, course, and hollow.
I had broken it.
Terror seized me and I fought to control it. Would they notice the window had been broken? It seemed like such a small detail, but would I gamble everything on it?
Their footsteps were like a staccato drumbeat matching my heart.
My breath came shallow and fast. I watched through the tiny gap in the curtains. The light cut through the room like a knife, slicing across my body. I wondered if I should crouch down on the floor, but the sliver was so thin, and I couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to see them. I probably couldn’t have moved even if I wanted. The men seemed to be holding their course, walking straight down the faded yellow dashes in the road. They drew level with the house, and I trembled, trying to force the air into my tightened chest. Be brave. How many times had I escaped by an inch? But then, I had always had my father at my side. Father… I remembered his wrinkled hands, laughing eyes, the way he was always humming or whistling off-key.
What would I do if they found me? Attack first? It had the element of surprise, but I was small and skinny, with only one small, dull blade. No. Hide and run, stay low and fast. A memory of running track flashed through my mind. I remembered the tingling nerves and tightened muscles as I poised, ready to run, waiting for the gun.
Like I waited now.