4 - The Wandering Black (V-VI)

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6132 Beech was a nice house—once. Too long ago to be remembered. What Mikie could imagine was once a childhood home now sat half-sunken into the earth, the roof threatening to cave in with the slightest change in the wind. There used to be a type of picket fence along the yard, only a few posts remained, split and broken. She thought about using a remnant as a weapon. But she wasn't hunting vampires like in Garrett's movies. She was hunting something entirely different.

Maria was supposed to be dead, a ghost. Gone. She should have caved to her wilder half, given into the disease like all the others. Why hadn't she? How had she found the group? Mikie had questions and goring the girl wasn't going to answer them. So she left the fence-piece behind, ignoring the still-standing gate and striding across the lawn.

6132 Beech would have been easier to find if the house numbers still existed. The only way Mikie could make them out was through the ghost of ivy climbing the walls. There was a slight patch that looked slightly less infested than the rest—meaning the numbers sat there. Once. Before. Before the world exploded and life tore away at one's spirit like shrapnel shredded against her spine. She could feel them—all the little cuts of her past—twitching and burning with each step. She wasn't sure which wounds would flare the most as she led Reem around the side of the house.

"Really, Mike, I love a surprise as much as anyone," he said, tromping behind her, "but asking me to follow you all the way out here and bring my gun...I don't know what gets you off, but..."

"Shut up." She waved at him, letting his words slide off her back. She was used to it. Not the innuendos. Not the assumptions, just the arrogance of it. Garrett was the same. West was the same. Always treating her like she was something small. Something breakable. She'd show them just how tough she was. She'd show all of them. She thought she'd proved that when she made it home without Maria. When she made it home without crying. When she told the entire camp what she'd witnessed. She thought she'd proved it when she knew exactly what had happened that night. When she knew she was the reason Maria never made it home. When it was her hesitation that killed her best friend. She thought she proved her strength by carrying the weight of that, the guilt. It was that guilt that pushed her to run for the fields without a second thought. It was that guilt that left her unflinching as Viral teeth pressed against her neck. It's what kept her from breaking down at the false fire of a sniper. It was that guilt that drove her to write Maria back in a book.

But it was also that guilt that made her hope that if Maria was in that monster somewhere, that she could pull her out again. She owed her that much after everything.

"I mean, I'm all up for some kinky things, but—"

The crack that followed was so satisfying Mikie barely noticed the throbbing in her hand after smashing it into his jaw. "I said shut up. That's not why we're here." She pressed a finger to her lips and pointed toward the garage that sat away from the house. "I need you to watch my back. Can you do that?"

Reem eyed her, obviously curious. But nodded. He kept both hands on his gun, sinking a little lower as they approached the rusted door. Through the streaked windows, Mikie could barely see inside. But it was enough. On the floor was an ancient mattress—probably pulled from the house. And on it, curled like a stray pup, was the body of a girl. It was a silhouette she knew too well and yet there was something different about it. Something strange. And that's why she needed Reem. Because Garrett would recognize his sister. She couldn't tell West—she wouldn't. Because she couldn't predict if either of them would let Maria speak long enough for her to listen or if they'd simply kill her outright.

"Oh," Reem whispered, understanding in his voice.

Mikie merely nodded, hand on her own knife. Close contact was always a favorite of Maria's, and so it became a favorite of hers. She wondered if her friend was still as good at sparring—if she still played just as dirty as she had when they were growing up. There was a small part of her that hoped Maria's love for the blades survived. "Don't shoot her unless she turns on me, okay?"

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