20 - The Flames and the Fury (III)

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Reem threw himself to the right, firing as he dove for the cover of a bush. They'd made it three blocks, then four. Every few steps seemed to bring more Virals out of the shadows. But that was the thing, the thing he'd been training for since the damn infection took over the country. This was the moment they'd all be trained for—their own escape.

The Viral fell back onto the street, a hole running from his right cheek.

Garrett flew passed his spot, teeth bared, blood soaking his hands as he threw himself at another Viral. Reem let loose a breath. It was clear Garrett had turned, and he was fascinated by how quickly. But one thing was clear—he was doing everything he could to attack his own kind to protect Mikie. Not Reem. Garrett couldn't give a damn about Reem, he knew that. This was all for Mikie.

Maria was the same. As he hauled himself to his feet to run again, he spotted her sparring between two other wild Virals. No nest to call home by any stretch, given the rags that clung to them and how sunken their stomachs were. They were hungry, and the blaze from the land mines meant food. Reem didn't blame them for trying to stake out what they could. But he did pity them once Maria got her hands on them.

Mikie's shout echoed over his shoulder. He turned, his heart in his throat for an instant at the thought of her cornered by her own posse. But there she was, guns raised, barrels smoking with the fires around them, and the two Virals headed toward her fell back onto the ground. She shot him a look and smiled as he got to his feet. Time to move another block.

They worked like this, Viral and human moving in tandem, a team, to make their way up the street. The movement was slow-going. But still, he reminded himself. With every shot fired, that was one less Viral they'd have to fight off later.

It was about eight blocks in when he noticed Garrett starting to shake. The boy kept his head low, jaw locked against some inner thing. It was just a breath at first, so fast that he hardly noticed it. But by block twelve it seemed as if Garrett was vibrating on pure energy alone. He looked at Maria, his ears ringing. He couldn't hear much over the snarls and hissing and gunfire. He wasn't sure if she'd hear him if he called out about it. He wasn't sure if he should as Mikie shifted to cover Garrett's back, shooting in the direction they'd come as she reached for the walkie at her hip with her free hand. She called something into the mic and shoved it back onto her belt.

They were moving, ducking beneath a grateful pop-pop of gunfire from the roofs.

"Mike!" Reem shouted, motioning for her to join them as the gunfire grew heavier. But she remained, twenty yards behind him, watching the street at their backs. He squinted, searching for the thing she'd spotted in the shadows, and ever so slowly it appeared.

It started as a silhouette, a body moving in slow motion. But they stood upright as if they could walk through the rainfall of bullets unscathed. And then he realized, she could. Hailey could do anything she wanted—especially with the team of slinking Virals at her back.

"Call them off!" Mikie shouted. Somehow, her voice seemed to carry, and slowly the gunfire ebbed.

A few more feet and the night stood silent around them, save for the hissing. The walkie crackled through the air, but Reem couldn't make out the voice.

Mikie drew it to her lips and replaced it. Movement caught his eye from the shadows up the street and Reem twisted to watch West appear between the houses, gun to the ground, but ready for a fight none the less. He met Reem's gaze and nodded. He'd have their back. With a glance at the roof, he realized they all did. The entire camp had come to help them.

"Mom!" Mikie's voice was harsh over the flames. "Call. Them. Off."

Hailey's silhouette shook in a laugh, her smile highlighted in an orange glow. Only it wasn't sinister, it was sad. "Why?" she called in response.

Reem moved forward. He didn't like how close she was to Mikie, how close those Virals were getting, wild and hungry, but an arm of steel blocked his way—Maria. She leveled her gaze at the other Virals, not at him though. She'd move first if anything was about to happen. And in a way, he knew this was smart. She was faster, stronger, than he was. But something didn't feel right. Something was amiss.

"Because this is insane!" Mikie shouted back. "All of this!" She threw her free hand into the air as her mother continued to creep forward. And then her gun was raised and ready. "Don't come any closer."

There was a beat of silence where the gun cocked, a shot ready. And it seemed in a blink that Hailey had crossed the distance between them and now stood ten feet from her daughter. Slowly, the hair on his arms started to rise. There was something happening. Something was wrong. But Hailey had stopped. For a step.

Then she took another.

A different shot rang out, not from Mikie but behind them, and Reem's head whipped to the right to find West had stepped from around the edge of a house. Hailey went down with a wretched scream, both hands around her left leg. But her head snapped up a breath later as she leveled her gaze at West.

"She told you not to come closer." West's voice shook. It sounded like rage, on the surface but beneath it was fear. He could see it in the old man's hands as they shook, his gun still aimed at Hailey.

But something else had changed. When he looked at Mikie again, something seemed out of place, different, as Garrett inched ever closer. It was then he noticed how he held himself, low, careful. Garrett was no longer protecting. He was hunting.

"I'm leaving." Mikie shouted, not seeming to notice. Not seeing just how close Garrett was, how his hands still shook, how his nails seemed longer, darker. More like claws, how his head hung low, waiting for the right moment to pounce. And in an instant, Reem knew he'd be too slow to warn her. "I'm going home."

And Hailey lifted her head at the same time Maria's arm shifted out of his way. "No, you're not." The world seemed to go in slow motion. Maria shifted, moving to charge at Garrett at the same time he wrapped an arm around Mikie's waist. Hailey rose to her feet, slowly, shakily, at the same time Mikie raised her gun just a little higher.

And then, in a breath, about ten things happened. The explosions of the world returned, screams from the roof ricochet off the walls, West threw himself at his son at the same time Maria leapt forward, the two reaching for nothing but air. And then Garrett was pressed to Mikie, her body locked against his chest. His eyes were wide and glowing, hungry, as the world seemed to rock. And Reem was moving but he was too slow. Everything was too fast or too slow as he raised his own gun, West's falling to the pavement.

Mikie let out a shriek as Garrett bent his head to her neck. "Momma!" And there she was. The girl Reem had only caught glimpses of throughout the last month of knowing her. The girl who was vulnerable and alone and utterly terrified of the world around her. The fight had left her shoulders as they curled inward, her neck arching to try and avoid the teeth that chased her. And Reem realized this was her nightmare. This was why she didn't want to trust people. Because she'd lose them, or worse, they'd turn on her and she'd lose her trust in herself.

He swallowed, leveling the barrel of his gun.

"Momma! Make him stop!" It was the only thing he could hear, Mikie screaming. Mikie fighting to keep as far away from Garrett in every way she could. "Momma, please!"

But her mother simply shook her head, tears staining the woman's cheeks as the stars gazed down on them. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm just trying to protect you." Her mouth formed words, but she never said them. From what? From West? From the Virals? From the world? From her role in the camp? From him? Reem wasn't sure. But he'd made Mikie a promise. And even when the world seemed to betray her, she still had him. Even if he might be slower or weaker than Maria or the other Virals, she still had him. And so he took a breath to aim and pulled the trigger.

Because he made a promise. And he intended to keep it.

Mikie's body jerked backward, her head slamming back into Garrett's chin. At the same time, Hailey sank further onto the pavement. And Reem could only hope he wasn't too late.

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