3 - The Aching Page

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It had been three weeks. Twenty-one days exactly since Maria had started her search, and she greatly missed having a clean cot and water for a shower. She dug at the mud stuck in her hair, wondering how on earth she'd lived like this, nested like this, for nearly half a year before finding President and Hailey. But she'd done it, she knew. She remembered it all, just not the itching. Not the bug bites that didn't seem to bother any of the other Virals she crossed paths with. They seemed content to hide in holes, happier to live in cellars than in the abandoned family homes, to sleep on the cracked concrete than in a bed or on a couch.

And so she followed suit—all in the hopes of blending in. She needed to blend. That is if she wanted a nest to stay in, food to eat—no matter how rotted—and the breadcrumb trail that would lead her back home.

That was her mission. To find home. Not really, though. No. She shook her head and dug harder at her scalp. That's not what Hailey had said. Her mission wasn't home. It was Mikie. That's what Hailey wanted. The other runner. But Maria knew one thing. She remembered one thing. Not one thing, several things. But the one thing she remembered, the one thing she knew was that Mikie would never leave West. Which meant finding Mikie would bring Maria home. And that's what she missed most—home.

And it had taken her three weeks of moving. Falling into a nest for two nights at the most before taking the next several nights and scaling the countryside. The start of her journey was easy with the empty auto-trains. She climbed onto a car and rode to the end of the southern track. The rest had been the hard part. The running. She wasn't as used to it anymore. She wasn't as strong anymore. She wasn't as clean anymore. And dirt was a surprising weight to carry.

But she'd made it to Lawton. That's what she'd guessed. That's what she'd heard whispers off in the strange click-tongue that had become her own. The hive-mind of the virus was like a built in....Radio. That's what it was. A radio with a million different voices talking at the same time. A constant buzzing.

She tried, buried in the thin strip of trees between fields, to tune it out. It didn't work, but she was getting better at it.

She never spoke to the hive though. Not while she was out. Not for twenty-one days. And she could tell she was starting to lose that voice too, to hollow out.

It was whispered that anyone who left the hive would lose the hive. She was starting to believe it was true. There were more hissing sounds than words lately. Only little tidbits she could barely pick up. Most of it still held, simple signals like "food," or "den," or "pack," or "mate," but the rest of it was fuzzier. She was starting to lose the weather, "warm," got confused with "cool" and "rain" with "snow," and given that the weather was turning, she couldn't exactly predict which direction it would head anymore.

But she made it to Lawton following the word for "girl" and "camp" the last forty miles north from the middle of what she thought was Texas but only appeared to be a long stretch of dirt. And now, buried in the bushes, she didn't want to lose the hive.

So when a member of the pack screeched "chase" she perked up. Another chimed in with "food," a third with "new," which, from Maria's little exposure to the hive word for "new" meant they'd found a survivor and were after the fresh meat. And then she saw their prey skitter into the field. So she chimed, "new" with the others.

It was an instant flood of relief, the hissing chatter she'd been trying to both decipher and block out flooded back in with new clarity and she felt herself slip, just a little. Her shoulders rolled back, muscles coiled for the pounce, the ambush that she'd join the other hive in. But she dug her nails into the dirt.

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