Chapter 63

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As the flash consumes the interior of the gas station convenience store, the stranger embraces Eva, lifts the child off her feet and runs. They enter a rear storage room. Blinding white light races after them, its wake delivering death. The exit door slams open and they dash through, hurled through the air by a concussive force.

Eva lies atop the stranger, who is motionless. "Mommy!" the frightened girl calls. The store is mostly intact, but the parking lot is littered with debris.

"Shh." The stranger, a woman, Eva can tell by the voice. "They're gone, Eva. Your mother and father."

The stranger gets to her feet and takes the girl by the hand, leading her off into nearby pine trees.

CRACK!

A chunk from the bark of the tree in front of them rips free.

THWACK!

A tree to the right shreds, splinters landing in the girl's hair. Someone shooting at them.

They arrive at a thicket of scrub-brush, behind it a motorcycle. It is unlike any motorcycle the girl has ever seen; smooth, sleek.

"Hold on tight, Eva!" the stranger yells as she lifts the girl up onto the cycle. The stranger climbs on and presses a button. The vehicle hums to life.

WHOOMP!

A shot misses, into the sand at their feet. They speed off.

THWUP!

The woman cries out and the cycle wobbles. Eva sees the ground rising toward her, but then the cycle steadies and they're upright again. Before she knows it, they're far away. The stranger's tattered clothing features a deep red blotch. It begins to spread.

*********

There was a fire set when Eva woke. Shadows flitted about on the trunks of nearby trees, chasing one another through the lowest branches. It was dusk, the last evidence of day a streak of pale amber sky brushed with violet clouds. There was a chill in the air, and she was grateful for the warmth from the lashing flames.

She was lying on her left side. Beyond the fire there was never-ending forest. She rolled onto her right side. Here, far beyond the licking flames but still subtly lit by their glow was Gray, his back to her. He was enormous, even when seated.

"There is food...if you're hungry," he said.

Eva said nothing. She remembered him, but she couldn't help just staring, still taken aback by his existence. From her position, he looked like little more than a large boulder, partially concealed by shadow. But upon further study, he seemed more like the thick, sturdy trunk of an old oak tree. His skin – if that's what it could be called – had the uncanny resemblance of heavily grooved bark. Eva found herself wondering what it might be like to move about with a hide composed of such matter. It must be terribly restrictive, although Gray gave no indication of such limitations.

"You should try to eat."

She was hungry. Starved, in fact. It was then that she noticed the shape propped above the fire. Skewered on a long stick was the roasting flesh of some small animal. "What is it?"

"Rabbit."

Eva had never tasted rabbit before, but the aroma of charred meat made her mouth water. Her stomach growled. "How do you know it's safe to eat?"

"It is."

"But how do you-" she began, turning toward her behemoth guest. Gray loomed over her from a mere five feet away now. She hadn't even heard him walk over.

"Your head," he grumbled, tapping his right temple. "Does it hurt?"

"Just a little."

"Do you...remember?"

She sat up. "Remember what?"

"Anything...everything. Community? Alex?" He cocked his head, as if listening for something.

Eva caressed the right side of her head, feeling for the bump that no longer existed by her temple. The skin was flat, except for what felt like a few stitches. "Community...yes, I remember it. I'm still there – I mean, here. Aren't I?"

Gray turned his attention to her and blinked. His eyes, reflecting the fire, seemed aglow. "Yes and no."

Eva frowned. Yes and no...what the hell did that mean?

Gray cocked his head again. The body language reminded Eva of a dog who's heard a strange noise. Part of him sort of looked doggish, too. A dog-human-tree-rock amalgamation.

Gazing skyward, off in the distance, he said, "Get up. Time to go."

Some thundering boom stirred the evening and Eva bolted to her feet. "What's that?"

"They're coming."

Her mind combed the recesses of her memory and understanding washed over Eva like a tossed bedsheet settling across a mattress. "Gray?"

Another rumble in the no so distant landscape. Gray gave her his attention.

"This – right now, you and I, here – hasn't happened yet, has it?"

The giant shook his head. "No."

A burst of wonder electrified her very being. How is this possible?

"You have to go," he added. "Find Alex."

Alex!

This time the deep thrum shook the ground and was accompanied by a dazzling flare of red light that briefly blazed the low clouds. "Where!" she cried out over the intensifying vibrations.

Gray turned away from her. "The small farmhouse. Community's epicenter. He needs you." He began to walk toward the approaching rumble. Toward violence, Eva knew. Stopping, Gray snapped his head in her direction and this time, she saw that his eyes – too far from the flickering fire to reflect its light – were glowing on their own. "Hurry!" He spun and sprinted into the night, brimming with death.

*********

Leaping out of the bed, urged by both Gray's words and a mega rush of adrenaline, Eva almost took a header into a chest of drawers. She caught herself with both hands, rocking the piece of furniture on its legs. It took a moment, but then realized she wasn't in her farmhouse.

Alex. He must've taken me to his.

She recalled their fight. In the pickup truck. Thinking that had all been a dream, she rubbed the side of her head and felt the stitches, just like in her dream.

No, not a dream. That was a goddamned vision. Gray has spoken to her from...well, from somewhere. How he discovered to do that, she couldn't begin to fathom.

She began to dress, and it hit her like a slap in the face – she was in her underwear. Alex had removed her clothing when he'd put her into bed. A miniscule matter in the grand scheme of things, but it still rattled her slightly.

Racing downstairs, Eva turned right and shot down the short hall and entered the kitchen. The keys to the pickup truck weren't on the peg next to the back door.

It's not your farmhouse, dummy!

Shit.

She patted down her pockets and found the pair belonging to her truck. Thank God Alex hadn't taken them. The problem, however, was that her truck was back in her fields. Christ, that was maybe a good three-hundred yards or more from here.

"Hurry!" Gray had said. She recalled his glowing eyes.

Don't dawdle, Alex. Eva thought she remembered Alex quoting his father with that phrase. Good advice.

She yanked the kitchen door open. Mitchell stood in the doorway. 

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