About the Author
Rhiannon Frater is the author of the As the World Dies trilogy: The First Days, Fighting to Survive, and Siege. The First Days and Fighting to Survive each won the Dead Letter Award from Mail Order Zombie. Originally self-published, this award-winning, critically acclaimed trilogy has been comprehensively revised for Tor Books. Frater has written several other novels and has been active in the goth and horror communities in Texas, around the United States, and online. Join her active fan community at www.astheworlddies.com. Rhiannon Frater and her husband live in Austin, Texas.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
1. Return of the Tiny Fingers
The tiny fingers under the door were missing. Jenni stared down at the dark crack under the front door, waiting for her toddler’s tiny pink digits to appear. The gap beneath the door was far too big. She had told Lloyd that many times. It was too easy for a little hand to slip underneath.
Standing on the front porch of her home, she felt the cool morning air teasing her dark hair and ruffling her pink nightgown and robe.
“Benji?” she whispered.
The hard, steady thumping against the door was a terrifying reminder that her zombified husband, Lloyd, was just on the other side. She could barely discern the dim outline of his form through the blood-smeared, frosted glass panes set in the door.
Jenni waited, but the tiny fingers did not emerge. Slowly, she squatted until her shaking hands touched the cold cement of the front stoop. “Benji?”
The crack under the door, ominous in its promise, did not give birth to tiny bloody fingers.
Jenni rose swiftly to her feet. “Mikey?”
Her twelve-year-old son ran around the corner of the house, barefoot and in his pajamas, clutching his toddler brother in his arms.
“Mikey! Benji!” Jenni stumbled toward them.
“We got out the back door, Mom!”
Jenni embraced her sons, then lifted Benji onto her hip.
“Mommy! Daddy’s scary!” Benji thrust one tiny thumb into his mouth.
Crying and thanking God for their survival, she pulled them away from the house.
“Mom, we gotta get away! Dad’s crazy!” Mikey exclaimed.
“We’ll get away! I promise. In a minute or two, Katie will be here,” Jenni said, gripping his hand with all her strength.
“Katie’s coming to save us.” Jenni glanced warily at the house. Lloyd was now banging on the window next to the front door. “She’ll be here soon.”
Scowling, she tried not to think too hard about what had happened before.…
“Mom, where is Katie?”
Jenni cried out when the window shattered beneath Lloyd’s fists.
In his fear, Mikey was crushing her hand. Benji sobbed loudly, his wet face against her neck, his tiny fingers gripping the collar of her nightgown.
“She should be here!” Jenni ran into the street, feeling the cold asphalt under her bare feet. The road was empty. Jenni whirled around, her dark eyes searching desperately for the white truck that should be their salvation.
“Mom! Mom!” Mikey’s voice was high and terrified. He was pointing at Lloyd, who had crashed to the ground outside the house and was struggling to get up.
“Katie, where are you?” Jenni yelled.
Lloyd staggered to his feet. With an unholy screech, he began to race toward his wife and sons.
Jenni screamed and ran. Benji was a heavy weight in her arms and Mikey clung to the edge of her robe as they fled. Bare feet slapping hard against the pavement, Jenni ran for her life and the lives of her children. She could hear Lloyd gaining on them, his footfalls close behind her.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Benji sobbed while his warm urine soaked her robe as his fear unleashed his bladder.
“Katie! Hurry! Katie!” Jenni cried out.
The doors of her neighbors’ houses flew open. Bloody mutilated figures raced in Jenni’s direction, screeching, hands and teeth seeking human flesh.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Mikey and Benji chorused in terror.
The street filled with the hungry undead. Their horrible blood-stained teeth gnashed with hunger.
“Katie! Katie!” Jenni sobbed. “Katie, please come!”
The undead closed in around Jenni and her family.
2. Hitchhikers of the Living Dead
Jenni woke with a start, banging her head against the passenger-side window of the truck. “Ouch! Dammit!”
As she forced the nightmare from her waking mind, she looked up—and gasped. The badly mauled face of a zombie was pressed into the window, its tongue licking eagerly against the fogged glass, where her head had rested a few seconds before.
“Fuck,” she groaned. She was groggy from sleep and fumbled for her weapon. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Katarina’s blue wool coat as the woman moved around the parked truck, her pistol in her hand.
“I got him, Jenni,” she called out. The zombie, hearing Katarina’s voice, ambled away from the window and howled. The homely redhead aimed and fired. The zombie’s head burst, its body collapsing onto the road.
“Thanks!” Jenni said, rubbing her eyes. She had fallen asleep on the way back from a successful scavenging run with a large convoy from the fort. There had been no loss of life and they were returning with a lot of supplies.
Katarina climbed back into the truck’s cab, slammed the door, shutting out the freezing wind, and sighed. “I don’t know why Felix couldn’t wait to pee until we were back at the fort, away
from the zombies.”
“Couldn’t hold it, huh?”
“No. He said he was going to explode. I told him to hang it out the window. He laughed.” Katarina frowned. “I was serious.”
“I’m sure Ed loved bringing the convoy to a halt so Felix could pee.” Jenni glanced through the blood-splattered window at the side mirror and saw Felix’s reflection. He was just finishing. Another zombie lay dead not too far from him.
“He better finish the hell up so we can get home.” Katarina rubbed her hands over the steering wheel, her knuckles bright red from the cold weather. “I want some nice hot coffee.”
“I just want a nice warm bed with a nice warm Juan in it.”
Katarina’s deep blush, which almost matched her red hair, made Jenni giggle.
Texas winters were always unpredictable. Snow had fallen three times since Christmas. Barely a week into January, Jenni was already sick of the new year. It was so damn cold.
Felix wrenched open the back door and slid in. “I urinated on my shoes! Can’t a man relieve himself without those damn things showing up?”
Jenni slid around in her seat and grinned at him. “Should have held it, huh?”
“When a man has to go, he has to go!” Felix folded his arms across his muscled chest and glared. He wore several layers of clothing under his usual tracksuit, and his black skin looked beautiful against the whiteness of the fabric. Felix dressed like a gangster, but spoke with a sophisticated air most of the time. He was the adopted son of rich white parents from Houston and would have graduated with a master’s in literature if not for the zombie apocalypse. Jenni liked him a lot and they enjoyed teasing each other.
Despite her joking, Jenni could not get the final image of her nightmare out of her head. It had been so vivid. Her children had seemed so real. But Jenni knew that the boys never made it out of the house. Lloyd had killed them. And if Katie had not arrived when she did, Jenni would have perished as well.
Katarina lifted her walkie-talkie off the console and reported in. “Ed, he’s done. We’re moving back into position.”
Jenni laid her head against the backrest and stared at Katarina as she drove the truck back onto the country road to continue the journey home. The rest of the caravan was waiting ahead. As their truck drew near, those vehicles slowly accelerated. Soon the convoy was speeding toward the fort.
“My trainers are ruined.” Felix pulled a book from his backpack. “It will be difficult to find good replacements.”
“You could try to clean them,” Katarina suggested.
“I scrape zombie guts off my boots all the time,” Jenni added.
Felix just grumbled something that they couldn’t make out and began to read the words of Socrates.
“Boys are so moody,” Jenni decided.
“And they say we are,” Katarina scoffed.
Jenni felt odd riding shotgun with Katarina instead of Katie. Jenni suspected Travis, Katie’s husband, had something to do with Katie’s not being assigned to any of the scavenging or search-and-rescue groups lately. The announcement of Katie’s pregnancy had been a shock to everyone. Some of the survivors were happy to welcome a new life into their barren world, but others felt a pregnancy was irresponsible under the circumstances. Negative comments were never made around Katie or Travis, the first couple daring to bring a child into the undead world.
Jenni’s own feelings about the baby were mixed. On one hand, she was happy for her friend and ready to be an aunt, but on the other, she feared it was unwise to bring a new life into a world full of the hungry dead. How could she have raised her boys in this undead world? Her stepson, Jason, was almost an adult, but Mikey and Benji would have lost whatever remained of their childhood innocence. The children of the fort bore deep emotional scars from the horrors they had witnessed.
Tears burned in her eyes as she realized she would rather her boys were with her than dead. Juan would have been a good father, and they would have worked hard to give the boys a good life. Instead, her little ones were part of the undead hordes.
“Something is going on,” Katarina said, pulling Jenni away from her dark thoughts.
The caravan was slowing down.
“We got problems ahead,” Ed’s voice crackled over the CB.
Jenni snatched up the mouthpiece. “What’s up?”
“Bunch of zombies have a van surrounded. Looks like people are on top of it. Whole way is blocked.” Ed sounded peeved.
“We have to save them!” Curtis’s voice cut through the static. Jenni could imagine the grim expression on the young policeman’s face.
“Got any ideas on how to handle it?” Ed answered.
“Pull up,” Jenni said to Katarina.
With a nod, Katarina shifted gears and moved their truck to the front of the convoy, idling it next to Ed’s school bus. Jenni scowled as the scene below came into view.
The undead were busily consuming someone near the side of the road. The van’s side door was open and zombies were crowding to get inside. On top of the van, a group of people was huddled near an open sunroof.
Ed, the driver of the bus, leaned out his window. Beneath his battered hat, his sun-wrinkled face looked pissed. Jenni pushed the button for her window and it slid down. “What do you think, Ed?”
“Got at least three dozen trying to get to those folks. I figure we can drive close enough to try to get them to come for us, then flatten them.”
“They’ve got fresh food in front of them,” Jenni reminded him. “They’re not going to come after us. What if we thin out the outer edge with the guns, then clear the rest with machetes, spears, and my trusty ax?”
Curtis walked up between their vehicles, his weapon in hand. The slim young man with the golden blond hair and blue eyes was bundled into a thick leather jacket with a wool scarf wrapped around his neck, nearly obscuring his mouth. “We need to hurry, whatever the hell we’re doing. It’s getting bad down there.”
The van was rocking under the onslaught of the undead. Someone on top of the van spotted the convoy and dared to stand and wave to get their attention. Jenni gasped as he tumbled off. His screams tore through the cold air, then broke off abruptly. Zombies moaned with delight as they swarmed him.
“We gotta move now!” Jenni shoved her door open, nearly hitting Curtis. Yanking her ax out of the truck, she gestured for Felix and Katarina to follow. Shoving the ax into the specially made sheath on her back, she banged the door shut with her hip. Determined to bust some zombie heads, she headed down the hill.
“We don’t have a plan, Jenni!” Ed shouted after her.
Jenni stalked toward the undead swarm. “Kill the fuckers! That’s the plan!”
3. Sentries of the Dead
The zombie slammed its mangled hand against the fort wall again, growling.
Katie observed it from her sentry post, her blond curls flowing in the wind. Rubbing her cold-reddened hands together, she studied the creature’s distorted features. Most of its flesh had torn off. One eyeball rolled up toward her in a gouged socket. How it could see her, she could not imagine. It had no lips, so its bloodied, decaying teeth looked hideously large as they chomped together hungrily.
“I can’t even tell if you’re a boy or a girl,” Katie muttered, then blew on her fingers to warm them.
Stacey peered over the edge of the wall. The slim young woman leaned her elbows on the cement bricks and stared at the zombie. “I think it’s a boy.”
“That patch of hair on the back of its head is kinda long,” Katie pointed out.
“Yeah, but lots of redneck boys have long hair. There were a lot of guys back in my old town with ponytails longer than mine.” Stacey tugged on her short braid. When she and her boyfriend were first rescued, she had been terribly thin, her shoulder blades and collarbones sticking out of her tanned skin at sharp angles. Now she was fit and muscular.
Katie tilted her head as she studied the creature. “I think it’s a girl. Still ugly as sin.”
“Uglier. Guess we should put it down.”
“Yep,” Katie agreed.
She reached for the huge crossbow rigged on a sliding track that ran along the wall. It was one of Jason’s creations, and it made killing the close-in zombies a lot easier. Mirrors attached to the contraption helped Katie see her target.
“I’m not saying I miss the big crowds of them, but lone zombies just seem so sad,” Stacey said.
“Until they try to eat you.”
“Well, there is that.” Stacey watched Katie carefully use a lever to adjust her aim. “Jason is like a genius, huh?”
“Jenni says that he’s always tinkered with stuff. Once he took apart his Xbox and put it back together and it still worked. I don’t think she’s surprised at some of the things he’s come up with lately, but I’m pretty impressed.” Katie checked her mirrors and saw that she had the zombie perfectly lined up. She squeezed the trigger.
The bolt punctured the top of the zombie’s head and it fell, limbs askew.
“Penis! I see a penis! It’s a boy!”
“That is so disgusting!” Katie made a comical face.
Stacey giggled. “It flopped out!”
“It’s not funny! It’s a poor dead guy.” Despite herself, Katie was laughing. “My God, the gallows humor around here is thick.”
“Freud would have had a blast studying us,” Stacey agreed.
“Oh, well. Either we’re a little crazy and laugh at the absurdities of life or we just give in to despair and die.” Katie reset the crossbow, showing Stacey each step.
“I’ve done despair. It doesn’t help anything.” Stacey fell silent, obviously pondering a thought. “The fort hasn’t really had anyone go nuts and commit suicide or anything, has it?”
“Well, in the first days, a city councilman tried to save his zombie family and ended up eaten. And the Vigilante pitches people over the wall.” Katie slipped her hands into her jacket. Her swelling belly was straining the zipper.
“Who do you think the Vigilante is?” Stacey pulled the collar of her coat closer to her face and huddled down into it.
Katie bit her bottom lip, then shrugged. “No clue. I’m sure everyone has a theory.”
“I think it’s Nerit,” Stacey confided.
“She wasn’t here when the first guy was thrown over the wall.”
“The meth dealer?”
“Yeah. Ritchie.” Katie vividly remembered the young man’s disfigured body staring up at her, duct tape still over his mouth.
“Well, there goes my theory. You know, a few people think the Vigilante is doing the right thing.”
“I had no love for Phil or Shane, but what the Vigilante did to them was inhumane. Stranding them with gimped weapons in the middle of the zombie deadlands.”
“They deserved it.” Now Stacey shrugged. “I’m not gonna cry over them.”
“What if the Vigilante gets mad at you, or Eric, or someone you care...
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