11 - The Ruins (I)

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September 2019 UPDATE: Hello. Due to the third issue with plagiarism since posting my work to Wattpad, this chapter will be removed as of January 1, 2020. It's not what I wanted to do, and I hate pulling my work from my readers' hands. However, I cannot have my art and writing plagiarized if I hope to have the chance of publishing these works in the future.

Thank you for your understanding and support. - Hannah

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I

The marshes smelled like home. Maria could sense it edging nearer with each mile the tires of the Jeep ate up. She could feel the hive growing stronger. What was once whispers was now chatter. She could hear it clearly. She sighed, leaning closer toward the open window. The sun was high. It stung her cheeks. She didn't care. The wince, the pain, was worth it. If only to hear the chatter of home. It was familiar, a tongue she'd spent the last year learning. And yet she could hear it all. Loud and clear across the air. She glanced at her brother, a boy she'd left behind. That's what he'd been a year before. Now he was hard, chiseled. Like rock. He acted as if he was unbreakable. She wondered if that also meant he was unfeeling. Or if he could sense it too, the old home. Not the marshes or the chatter but the smell of steel and grasses and humid summer heat.

Could he feel it in the air?

It was so close. So close. So close. If they drove too far it would be there and gone and they would find the big water.

No not the big water. There was another word. She knew that. Another. Another. Another. What was it? It started with an 'O', round and pretty. There were many songs about it. She knew Hailey liked the songs about the big water. She played them constantly. Looked at the big water out the window and then north toward the mountains, as if she was torn between staying and going. Diving into the deep to see what she would find there. Or running for the cover of the trees.

She wondered if Hailey knew President would follow her anywhere? That they all would. It was all in the chatter, in the hive. She was there to save them. They would return the favor. And she felt it, the loyalty, swell in her chest as the miles grew shorter. They seemed to stretch on despite the distance. The highways were different from the trains. The view was not as splendid. It all seemed endless, unlike the tracks. She could spot the ends and the switches miles away.

There was a hum beneath the palm trees as they started to creep closer and closer to the cement barricades. They lined the streets of home. Maria knew it. It was always how she found her way back. She'd never gone so far before. And as they neared closer her chest swelled with pride. No one had gone so far before. And she was returning. She was returning home.

She shook Garrett's shoulder and pointed at a sign as they passed. There were three numbers on, three large symbols that didn't spell home but meant it anyway. A 4. A 0. And a 5. She pointed, hoping he'd understand.

He swallowed. "I see."

And they took the turn. Home meant family. Home meant President and Octavia and Philip. Home meant something. Home felt good, familiar, safe. Home held all the things she missed. And she forgot about the dangers, about the other wild Virals. About the sun and the moon. About everything. All she could think was home until they were tracing their way down a too-narrow street, winding between abandoned cars and squat homes shaped like little boxes. She used to want to climb them, but now she only wanted to curl up within one. She wanted the chatter in her ears to feel too close. She wanted to be home.

And then she caught it, the sign. Deep within the hive, someone called her name.

Her heart shot into her throat and she couldn't stand the containment of the Jeep. She needed to find them, go to them. They were hers. They were calling her.

She stuck her head out the window, facing the full sun. She didn't wince. She didn't cringe. Instead, she pulled herself higher, sitting in the window as she searched for the source beneath the shrubs and scraggly trees. An alligator meandered through a yard. That wasn't it. That wasn't her voice. That wasn't them. But the beast was still a comfort to see—something as equally vicious as the virals that surrounded it, but that left them all in peace for a little sunbath.

Maria.

The voice came again, and then others began the call, the echo. They chanted her name like a champion. She wondered if this was how President felt every time he returned to the nest. Full of sun to bursting. Because she loved it. She loved that feeling more than anything.

She beamed into the sun, feeling the hellos ripple through her. They kissed her skin, forcing all her hair to stand on end.

And then the Jeep stopped.

Maria jerked, her eyes flashing open, slit and feral for an instant. And then they widened.

Before her stood the woman she spent her entire trip trying to forget. A goddess in the flesh. Her face was slender and tan, her dark hair pulled up high onto her head. Though it wasn't nearly as dark as Mikie's. It was like watching a human sun, bright and burning. If one got too close they'd go up in flames. The hive knew that. You never got too close. But they would die anyway. They would die for Hailey Jameson.

The woman's eyes swept over their small convoy once, cool, calculating. They were the only thing not bright about Hailey. Instead, they were pinched and cold. Maria's chest tightened. Had she done something wrong? Had she forgotten something? Someone? She said she would bring them back, back home. Here was home. What had she done?

And then Hailey stepped forward. The eyes were not for Maria but for Mikie as she stepped out of the truck. It had been two days since the marshes. Since Maria caught the whiff of Mikie's blood. The wound was healing, but still, she could smell it. Warm and ripe in the humid air.

Food. The hive chattered.

Maria sent a glare to the trees. Friend. It was a single word. But it was a world of corrections. Instantly the buzz of a hunt died. Maria relaxed her shoulders and swung out of the Jeep. She was home. But she was far from safe. She would know for sure tonight if there was something she'd forgotten. She spied Hailey wrap her thin arms around her girls. Mikie kept her head down. Wouldn't meet Maria's gaze. Couldn't see the warning on her lips not to get too close to their sun. Because Hailey burned hot and fast and when she went up it was in flames. And she didn't want their world to end.

Maria.

She turned involuntarily at the deep call. It thrummed through her. She knew that voice anywhere. With a breath, she darted toward the trees.

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