Wow. Is the sun shining? I’ve been formatting books for the past few weeks…I might have come up for a few gulps of air.
Anyway, at long last, Wild, the second in the City of Light series is out today! Instead of just telling you about it, I’ll do better.
Our new life begins in a mass grave—one in which our parents’ bodies lie. Bones dried from the sun, voices silenced by the mud Luke smears over my skin. I catch his hand in mine, wishing the night wouldn’t hide his blue eyes. “Is this necessary?”
“Yes, quiet.” He points above us to where the sound of horse hooves approach. I escaped Titus to gain freedom, but suddenly I don’t feel free. Luke pours water from his flask to make more mud, then smears it over his face and hands, where his deer skin doesn’t cover him.
A heavy footstep above us splatters dirt clods into The Chasm, and we cover our heads and hug the wall. Mountain Men in hand-me-down boots line the cliff, casting a wicked glow from their torches.
When the light falls on the edge of a rib cage jutting from the earth between me and Luke I press my fist over my mouth.
It could have held the heart of someone I loved.
I squeeze my eyes shut, keeping still until I hear them leave. One by one, the Mountain Men grunt, spit or curse, then mount their horses and trot away. I raise my eyelids again and whisper, “How do we climb out of here?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“They roam the hills all night. It’ll be safer at dawn.” He unfolds himself from our hiding place and stretches—I hear the familiar pop in his back. “There’s a place farther down, without all the company.”
I try to step where he steps, but the moonlight shies away from the depths of The Chasm. My boot crunches down on something. I bite my lip and wipe my tread on the ground and shuffle behind Luke until we come to a hollow dug for two. “You’ve hidden here before?”
After we curl up on the damp ground, he pulls the deer skin over me. I try not to imagine the deer it might have belonged to and push it far enough away to where I smell more of Luke than the hide. I lie with my back to him, feeling awkward now that the lines between friendship and something more have gone unresolved. His voice comes to me, low and tired. “I’ve been here a week, trying to figure out how to get you out of The Seed. Mountain Men have been surrounding The City a few weeks now.”
The night has cooled the summer day into blanket weather. I scoot closer to Luke and let my own troubled week spill from my lips into his ears: imprisonment in my own home; surviving The Seed, where Preston and his father tormented me; fearing for Luke’s life. I suppose our parents and grandparents that were dumped here had lived similar stories. We rebelled against the laws and searched for God, discovering He existed after all. The artists, like Luke, tried communicating Him to the people of Titus, through various forms of art. Many who didn’t manage to escape into the Wild ended up in this pile of bones the city calls rehabilitation.
“Preston hunted me because I betrayed him to the Mountain Men—chased me through the orchards like it was a game. He’s just like his dad, and would have killed me if I hadn’t gone through the glass.”
“Don’t worry—I have plans for him.” There’s an edge to Luke’s voice—like a scar in the tone. He folds his arm around my waist. “I made contact with Galeo after Orca took you to The Seed. He told me how Preston treated you.” I jump when a few sets of hooves snap and crunch their way along The Chasm’s rim. Luke squeezes my arm. “Javelina. Can’t you smell them?”
“No. How can you possibly smell them from here?”
“It’s astonishing how living in the Wild sharpens the senses. We become like the animals.”
“Can you smell the jackfruit tree I hid in?”
“Sour onions…where you hid from Preston?”
“Then I smell the man I’m going to kill.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s dead. Didn’t you see us fall from The Seed?”
I turn my face to the stars above. “This doesn’t sound like you.”
“The City will fall soon. Unless The Triad—and Preston—is replaced, it won’t survive. The people won’t survive.”
The euphoria that filled me when I survived the fall from The Seed is steadily leaving me. We’re finally together. Despite the dangerous path we’re on, I think I can finally rest for the night. I turn over and bury my face in Luke’s shirt, both familiar and foreign. My eyes lose their focus as The Chasm swallows me into the deep of night.
It seems like all I did was blink and exhale, but the next time I open my eyes, our hollow is swallowing a spoonful of morning light. Luke sits across from me, stretched out in full sun, his face still dirtied by his mud disguise. He smiles.
I sit up to take it all in. His hair still lifts away from his face, although it looks lighter than its darker city shades. Only a month separates us, but his eyes look five years removed from me. Wild. Wise and Wild. I touch my own face, wondering if trauma has done the same to me.
“You’ve never looked better. Here, put these on.”
He tosses a pair of boots at my feet. They’re soft and pliable, surely too delicate for living outdoors. Laces crisscross all the way up the sides. Caressing the smooth material, I pull it to my cheek until I catch the scent and throw them back down. “Skin?”
“From the same skin you slept under last night.” He scoots close to me. “It doesn’t take long to get used to wearing it. It’s like air—we need it.”
“They don’t look like they could handle a hike.”
“Their durability won’t be your first surprise, and the Watchdogs won’t find your tracks as easily. Put them on; it’s time to go.”
“And these?” I pull off my old boots, staring at the sturdy rubber tread, dropping them when I see shards of bone pressed into the tread.
I do so without arguing, quickly lacing my new boots when Luke grips his shoulder and groans.
“Let me see it.” I step behind him, pushing his vest aside. A deep red scar runs from mid-back to his right shoulder blade: Preston’s parting gift. “How deep does it run?”
“Down to misery some days.”
I look at him leaning over, catching his breath against the pain. Luke rarely complains of pain—the only time I’ve seen him like this was when he burned his arms trying to pull his mother from the museum fire. I stare in the direction of Titus. “Surely he’s dead.”
Luke says nothing more until we’ve left The Chasm three miles behind. Collapsing in the shade of several oak trees, we drink from his flask. My hip aches from the explosion in The Seed, but walking is more bearable than it was yesterday. Still, I lay on my stronger side, wipe my forehead with my tattered sleeve and stare at Luke, trying to become familiar with him again. His eyes roam our surroundings as we rest, eventually falling on me. His mouth curves into a slight smile, then falls again. “How bad did he hurt you?”
“He tried to break my foot to keep me from escaping.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
A wave of heat surges across my face and neck. I look down, remembering how Preston stared at me with a brazen appetite. “Surprisingly, no.”
Tension melts from his face as he leans against a mound of leaves and other forest debris. “We get a new life, Monet.” His face is set in bold lines; no smile lifts his mouth, but his eyes gleam when I meet them. “You and I.”
“Tell me. How do families fare in the Wild?” I swallow and lean hard against the ground. He moves so close to me I feel his warmth, then lowers his eyes to mine, capturing me in a decision. “They live on courage, not fear.”
“I can do that.”
He smiles and curls his hands around my arms. “The weeks have changed you.”
“And you.” I touch his jaw, so tight. He looks away.
We jerks our heads toward a sharp snap in the woods west of us. Before any words register in my mind, Luke pulls me from daylight toward the mound he leaned against moments ago. He grabs a branch at the base of the heap, and lifts it up with the entire blanket of forest debris attached and pushes me inside the manmade nook.
“Don’t make a sound.” He pulls the lid of leaves over us and we wait. Inside our hideaway, the darkness assaults me; I’m not claustrophobic, but the thought of living like prey, dressed in the skin of prey, wraps around my chest like a vice. I take a deep breath to calm myself and wonder if the Wild Ones are civilized at all.
As we lie within the droppings of trees and animals, I realize I’m letting absolute logic take hold again, as if the smell of Titus still clings to me. I know better. I breathe in and out, slowing my lungs and let myself enjoy being stuffed next to Luke. His shoulder firm against mine, his fearless nature strength for my fearful one. I am free. I am free.
Luke lifts a corner of our roof, edging his face near the opening.
That’s when I smell it. A Mountain man. I scoot close to warn Luke, but again, he reacts faster. Whipping his legs in front of him, he catches a pair of battered boots and sweeps the intruder to his back.
Our cover flies back and Luke bolts outside and grabs the man by the shirt, pulling him close enough to see every granule of filth on his face. “What do you want?”
“What we all want.” The man coughs and turns his head toward me, grinning. “Her.”
Luke spares a second to glance at me, eyebrows lifted—just long enough for the man to break from Luke’s hold and sidestep far enough to pull a long knife from the sheath strapped to his leg.
“Preston said he killed you. Kid’s a liar just like his Dad was.”
“Was?” I stand near Luke, pluck a branch from the ground. I grip it with both hands, trying to look like I know what to do with it.
The man grins, wide and yellow. “We disposed of’m. Threw him in the Chasm ‘bout an hour ago. Right about where you two cuddled up last night.”
His eyes cling to me, bees to honey. I wave the branch across my body as if to disengage his train of thought, but they adhere to me, sliding down my neck, my waist. Luke seizes the man’s wrist and slams it against the tree until he drops his knife. Like an angry sting, the man brings his opposite arm down on Luke’s, breaking free. Backing away, they circle each other. Luke’s shoulder stiffens ever so slightly, and I see his left hand flex to cradle the pain, but he keeps it down—I see it because I know Luke so well, but the Mountain Man’s eyes have been trained for survival because as soon as he reads Luke’s body language, he pounces.
The branch is heavy in my struggle to swing it high, but I do it anyway, thrashing it against a leg, an arm. But my clumsy attempts don’t help Luke. Finally, they separate enough for me to attempt a blow to the man’s chest. I lift the branch to gain momentum, but it catches on the tree behind me. I lose my balance and fall between them.
The Mountain Man grabs me by the hair, pulling me to my feet. The shock of it makes me gasp, and I fling my hands to his to pry them from my hair. I accidentally poke his eye and then do it again after I hear him cry out. My hair goes slack.
Luke brushes me aside and grips the man by the back of his neck and arm, shoving him headfirst into the tree. The man doesn’t even grunt when he falls. His mouth hangs open, catching the last red stream of life trickling from his forehead.
“You killed him.” I gape at Luke, only three weeks in the Wild like he breathed it in to his very cells.
He gives his deed no mind, but asks, “What did he mean?”
I stare at the man, dead on the ground, wondering why it bothers me after spending the night in The Chasm. Perhaps a life in the process of leaving is less definite than a pile of broken bones.
“Tell me,” Luke says.
I find Luke’s face, hard again. “Didn’t you hear Hep when you came through the quad to get me?”
He shakes his head.
“He leads the Mountain Men. They took over The Seed right before I escaped. He…” I feel my face flush and look away. “He wants me. He offered the city a reward for bringing me to him.”
“We need to get home.”
“What about him?” I tilt my head toward the Mountain Man.
“The cats will take care of it.”
He stops underneath an oak and looks at me. The words catch in my throat when I see the hard set of his jaw relax. He puts his hands on my shoulders, pulling me into his embrace. We take a minute to stay there, locked in the bond we used to keep the fear away when we were citizens of Titus. It is then, in the worn folds of his cotton shirt peeking from his vest, that I catch his old familiar scent. Metal. “You’re sculpting out here?”
He pulls away, grins and starts walking. “Peter found my welder when he was watching for you at the old house. Not much metal out here, but a few scavenged scraps keep me busy.”
“What will you make now that you’re free?”
He runs a hand over my hair and I fall in step beside him. “Maybe a door handle for a new home?”
“There are houses?”
“No. No houses. Just home.”
Home. Is it more than shelter then?
The sun is aimed deadly high when we get there, and if it wasn’t for a merciful breeze it would have baked us long before we reached our haven. When Luke stops and raises his arm in front of us, all I see is a cliff at our feet and a creek beyond. But just beyond the tip of Luke’s fingers, right where he points at the canopy of trees inside the walls of the cliff below us, something’s not quite right.