Something is rotten in the state of California…
The dawning civil war has ended in a truce. Scavengers and traders all over the country are settling down for the long, hard winter to come. With their new camp outside the maze of New Angeles at the coast growing every day, Bree, Nate, and the gang have their hands full—yet something is not quite right. Maybe one last run before the winter is all that’s needed to cure that itch. What could possibly go wrong?
“You punch like a girl.”
And still, somehow, this girl had landed a pretty good uppercut, leaving a satisfyingly reddening patch on Nate’s jaw. The sting across my fingers was far less so.
Smirking, I ducked away from his counterattack, dancing out of reach. “Is that so? You didn’t complain about my state of girlishness as of, oh, this morning.”
Nate paused for a moment in trying to guess my next move to grin at my face—and completely surprised me with the kick that followed. I barely managed to shift my balance in time, catching his foot with the fleshy part of my thigh rather than letting him kick my knee right into a week of lazing around in the sunshine with Martinez. Why exactly I had opted for letting him pummel me around I couldn’t fathom. Ah, right—it was way better than what counted for entertainment these days, which was all about raiding, building up stores for the encroaching winter, or helping erect new housing. Getting the living shit kicked out of me, a little too literally for my liking, was still more fun.
And there was that little thing called pride… and—sparring with Nate—ego.
I tried the same move that had let me through his guard just seconds before, but of course he blocked me. Not just that, he went right through my defenses, got a good grip on me, and heaved me over his shoulder in what must have looked like the most perfectly executed throw in the world. To me, it was more of a jerk and fly, with a rather unpleasant end when I kissed Mother Earth not so fondly. I probably deserved that for my gloating, but it still sucked. I tried to roll right back onto my feet, but somehow managed to twist my ankle, ending up on my ass a second time.
Nate snorted, holding out a hand to me with all the condescension in the world plain on his face. “Looks like half of your brain is still in the sack.”
I considered not accepting, simply on the basis of “just because,” but then thought better of it. If, for once, he chose to be chivalrous, I should make the most of it.
The moment my full weight hung on his shoulder as he pulled me off the ground, I kicked, aiming for his ribs. My foot went wide, but my knee slammed nicely into the lower side of his back as he twisted, missing the kidney by inches. That move cost me, of course. Incapable of getting my feet under me, I fell right down once more, coughing when dust tickled the back of my throat. Nate stepped out of reach, not making the mistake of giving me the same opening once more.
“Five points for the idea, two for the execution,” Andrej grated out, laughing good-naturedly when I glared at him. “Seven for the banter. You can do better, girl!”
Martinez agreed with him. “At the very least, make it entertaining. If I want painful, I can watch Santos try to charm the pants off any of the New Angeles runners.”
Not much of a surprise that my illustrious husband agreed with the peanut gallery. “You are a bit slow today. No more morning nookie for you. Leaves you too relaxed and complacent.”
Enough was enough. “I’ll show you complacent!” I huffed as I took a running start to jump at him, hoping he’d fall for that feint. He didn’t, bringing my assault to a sudden halt with a well-placed elbow in the gut. I hunched over, because what would you do when all your air—and a little bit of liquefied stomach content—is forced right out of you? Rather than try again, I staggered back, blinking when my vision swam and there were suddenly a few too many versions of Nate in front of me to be sure which one to evade. I saw his hook coming and tried to throw up my arms, but somehow they were still busy regaining my balance. His knuckles bit into my jaw full-on, way harder than mine had connected with his before. Pain exploded through my entire head, not just the lower half of it, and I dropped like a stone.
It took me some wheezing to manage to breathe again, lack of air more than pain making my eyes water. Moving my jaw gingerly, I winced at the discomfort, then coughed when something hard went down my airway. With a gasp I spit it out, staring at the bloody object hitting the packed dirt in front of me.
“You got to be fucking kidding me,” I rasped, reaching for the tooth. Second molar from the back, lower left, as I gingerly verified with my tongue. Of course I couldn’t taste the coppery blood mixing with my saliva, but when I inhaled, I could smell it—or at least I thought I could.
“That must have been loose before if it took so little to knock it out,” Nate observed, ever the concerned husband.
“Wasn’t,” I grumbled back, this time ignoring his hand in favor of getting up on my own. “Least I didn’t feel it.”
Andrej had himself quite the laugh, and even Martinez had a hard time hiding a smile. I ignored them both, instead studying the tooth more closely, then bringing it up to my nose to smell it. More blood, but that acrid twang of decaying dental material I’d been looking for wasn’t present. The filling on the top looked intact, too, giving no hint as to why my tooth had decided to part ways with my jaw.
“Bree?” I glanced up at Nate, not expecting him to look apologetic, and not getting disappointed there, either. Yet concern was slowly spreading across his face, his quick examination over my shoulder obviously coming up with the same conclusions I had. Any sane person might have inquired about my state now, but Nate, not belonging to that demographic, grabbed my chin to pry my mouth open, trying to get a look at my gums. I was sorely tempted to bite down—and not gently, either—but let him, even tilting my head so that what little sunlight made it through the clouds might lend some illumination. “Not seeing anything. Besides the hole, of course. The bleeding is already stopping.”
Jerking my head out of his grasp, I gave him a pointed look. “And what, exactly, did you expect? Some festering ulcer the size of my fist? Would have spit out pus, too, if that were the case.” My, didn’t that paint a pretty picture?
Unimpressed by my snide comment, Nate continued to scrutinize my face. “We should head to the infirmary in New Angeles. You’ve been acting sluggish for days. Someone should check you out.”
I opened my mouth to tell him where to shove that idea, but snapped my jaws shut—gingerly—when I couldn’t think of anything to refute his claim. Sure, it wasn’t unusual that he bested me in hand-to-hand combat—heck, he regularly put Pia and Burns on their backs, and they had a lot on me that I simply couldn’t catch up on, mainly decades of experience, reach, and weight. But today’s exercise wasn’t quite the singular circumstance I would have loved it to be, I realized. The reason why I’d opted for sparring rather than running was that yesterday, Sadie had beat me on a three-mile run around the perimeter of our growing camp—at least on the last hundred-yard sprint she had—and I had felt rather wiped after helping chop wood earlier this week. I’d also slept in several times in the mornings although I was usually up with the rising sun, late as it crested the California coastal mountains this late in the year. I didn’t feel sick, but not quite at my best, either.
“Right now? Because I promised to help with baking bread, and you know how much I love doing kitchen chores.”
Nate’s mouth moved into a quick grin, but the concern didn’t quite leave his eyes. “For that alone we should go in the afternoon, but I feel like being merciful today. If we leave now, we can hit the noon ferry, and be back home with the last.”
Chuckling under my breath, I inclined my head. I was sure that the fishermen coming home from the second haul of the day wouldn’t like being referred to as that, but we had used that means of transportation pretty much as a scheduled service over the past few weeks.
“I’ll call ahead,” Andrej said, laboriously getting to his feet. He glared at his crutches that Martinez held out to him, but grudgingly accepted them.
“Don’t bother,” Nate shot back. “Just me and the missus. If we miss the boats going out for the night, I don’t want to be stuck down there with half of our group getting in the way.”
“You don’t seriously expect me to put out after you just knocked out one of my teeth?” I grumbled.
Nate ignored my scorn, as usual. “I likely did you a favor,” he insisted. “Must have gotten infected.” He turned back to Andrej and Martinez. “Hold down the fort while we’re gone.”
“Will do,” Martinez replied, giving himself a good shove forward in his wheelchair. “And bring back that exoskeleton you promised me. This is getting old.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I assured him. “Will pickles do in the meantime? I saw an entire shelf last time we raided their storerooms. A little vinegar to tone down your sweetness.”
Martinez’s succinct suggestion where I could shove my pickles followed us across the yard as we made for the general quarters. We still hadn’t gotten round to erecting smaller huts that might lend some privacy. Honestly, even with the growing defenses I wasn’t sure I’d feel safe sleeping with only Nate around.
Sadie was already waiting for us, a bunch of papers in hand, as if she’d known we were about to hit the road. Not that much of a stretch since Nate used any excuse to get out of the settlement. “You heading out?”
Nate nodded. “Down to New Angeles. Phone ahead and we’ll pick up any crates they pack for us.”
“Will do,” she agreed. “Oh, and here’s a small list of things that might not be readily available in the storerooms. Just if you happen to come across anything.”
I couldn’t help but scowl, while Nate didn’t bat an eyelash. I knew that it was borderline hypocritical to feel weird about trading on the black market after practically living off anything we could scavenge for so long, but it felt wrong. It had only taken a single trip for me to realize that all the many things we could easily trade for the tech stuff in particular that we pulled out of abandoned malls and homes were daily necessities that the residents couldn’t afford. Maybe I’d been naive to think that New Angeles would be different—a new utopian society on the rise—but that bubble had burst pretty quickly. Knowing that, it made a lot more sense that in the weeks since we’d set out to build our little colony, five others had sprung up along the coastline as well. Then again, what good did such creature comforts do if you couldn’t use them because you spent all your energy on construction and guard duty?
While I grabbed our packs, Nate picked up the loot set aside for trading. We met again at the back of the central yard, by the armory. I briefly debated what to take with me, but stuck with the M4. It was slowly growing on me. I certainly didn’t mind that, unlike my beloved shotguns, it didn’t kick like a mule. Nate smirked slightly as he watched me grab some extra magazines but didn’t comment. The day he’d scold me for being paranoid was the day I’d divorce him. That much was for sure.
There were a few cars ambling into the lot just inside the south gate while we loaded the Jeep. Ever petty—and with my heart still bleeding over the loss of the Rover—I made sure to rearrange the seat exactly to my likings, not missing a single mirror to adjust. Nate’s exasperated sigh was easy to ignore. Yet when the gate had cleared, I didn’t start the engine right away.
“Care to explain why we’re really heading down to the city? Because while I find it touching that you care for the damage you’ve done to my dental health—“
“I told you—“
I cut him off with a huff. “Yeah, it must have been infected, else you wouldn’t have been able to knock it loose. Not the point here. Last winter I sprained my ankle, dislocated my shoulder, even broke two toes and a finger in training, and all you did was tell me to get over it once Martinez had put me back together. So why the concern now?”
While I talked, I angled the rearview mirror so I could study my jaw. There was some swelling going on, but I looked a long shot from the abusive relationship PSA I’d expected. It certainly felt worse as I gingerly prodded the puffiest part of it. The fact that Nate was neither looking at me nor my reaction only added to my suspicion that this wasn’t about the tooth—or at least, not just about it.
He was still considering his answer—never a good sign with him—but ended up shrugging. “Just a hunch.”
He snorted. “Am I not allowed to have hunches?”
“You’re usually not that vague,” I retorted. “Besides, what kind of hunch could you possibly have—“
His grunt cut me off. “You taste funny.”
Now that wasn’t anything I’d expected. “I do what? Exactly what do you mean by, ‘I taste funny’? Don’t tell me you licked the blood off your knuckles after busting my lip along with ruining my perfect smile.”
I just loved drawing that exasperated sigh from him, but it was his fault. He could have cut right to the chase minutes ago. “First off, it was a molar. Last time I looked, even your brightest fake smile you reserve for the people on your kill list isn’t bright enough to flash it.”
“If you say so,” I quipped. “You must know, intimately familiar as you are with said smile.”
“And second,” he talked right over me, only raising his voice slightly. “Is your memory already that shoddy that you forgot said activities you referred to during what ended up being a very sorry excuse for a sparring session? About me, appreciating your womanly wiles?” When he was still met with a frown, Nate laughed. “When I went down on you? That taste? Ring a bell?”
I wondered briefly if that was meant as thinly veiled reproach, but that wasn’t the kind of opportunity Nate would miss. “I washed up last night. If you can’t handle that, maybe you should just, I don’t know, screw yourself? Literally?”
“Figuratively,” he grumbled, but there was a sudden strain in his voice as he went back on topic. “Trust me when I say that this has never been an issue, and you very well know it. It’s you who’s prone to complaining about ball sweat and beans.”
Could this conversation become any more mature? Certainly made me glad I hadn’t started it with Martinez and Andrej still in earshot. The entire camp would have heard every single detail within the hour.
“What, no witty retort?” Nate teased. “Not even something along the lines of what a cunning linguist I am?”
That got the blank stare it deserved. “You really think you can one-up me there?” I scoffed. “Hate to break it to you, but I’m pretty sure I’ve clocked more hours than you orally satisfying women.”
He obviously didn’t agree with me—and that smirk definitely didn’t help—but he left it at a, “Too bad that’s one competition neither of us can really win, right?”
Maybe him being the reason why half of my face was doing weird things was screwing with my head, but I didn’t care for that insinuation at all. “What, you really want to have a threesome? And with whom? Hate to break it to you, but I think my former girlfriend would only get close enough to you so she could gut you.” And me as well, I figured.
“Like you could stand seeing me do anything even remotely sexual with another woman.”
“Would you want to?” If he thought he could make me act all defensive, he’d bet on the wrong horse.
Not surprising, his return question was a simple, “Would you?”
“Didn’t think that was anything I’d ever need to consider. You know, with that whole ‘until death do us part’ thing going on between us?”
Why Nate felt the need to look satisfied at my retort, I didn’t know, but it was just as well. Until I remembered what we’d been discussing before going off on yet another tangent. I hated when he managed to almost make me forget things like that. Even more so, how often it worked.
“So, define funny. It’s not like I can just shove my hand down my pants and see for myself.”
He grimaced, but did me the courtesy of replying. “If I could define it, I would have, and consequently, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But it wasn’t on the ‘so good I need fucking more of this’ side of the spectrum.”
“There is such a thing?” I quipped, but mostly to suppress the shudder wanting to run through me. Nate didn’t reply, just making things worse. “That bad, huh? Why not tell me right away? And, far as I remember, you did spend some considerable time down there.”
“So she doth remember,” he mumbled, flashing me a quick grin. “Mostly because I figured it wasn’t worth the trouble. You’d just get annoyed and self-conscious, which in turn would mean I’m not getting any, and on top of that have to deal with you being insufferable for the rest of the week. And don’t you dare tell me that’s not an accurate assessment.”
It was, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to turn this around on him. “Let me get this straight. My health is less important to you than you getting your rocks off? You do realize that if I get something like toxic shock syndrome, I’ll die, and then you’ll never get laid again.”
“Last time I looked—“
“But I’m the only woman who can put up with you for more than the five minutes it takes you to come, so unless you want to spend a lot of time in a lot of silence, don’t finish that sentence.”
I didn’t care for the considering look he taxed me with, but he ended up shaking his head, chuckling under his breath. “Never thought I’d say this, but I’d miss these conversations more than the act you so love to get annoyed about. Happy now? If we don’t leave soon, we’ll miss the ships, and I’m not particularly looking forward to having to wait until tomorrow with you growing more antsy by the minute.”
Grumbling that I would show him “antsy” if he didn’t shut up soon, I started the car, briefly waving at the gate guards. The drive wasn’t a long one—just over three miles along a dirt track that was easy to traverse except in bad weather, and then it was a winding road along the coast for another thirty minutes. A quick call ahead was all it took. By the time we reached the makeshift dock, two small ships were bobbing up and down, waiting for their cargo. The very idea of scaling that cliff would have given me a heart attack two years ago, but it was only a minor nuisance now. Of course it would have been easier to use one of the many already existing docks along the coast, but they usually came attached to towns that were still heavily infested with the undead, and last I looked, they still had a hard time with height differential obstacles. Once or twice a few had stumbled down the cliff, but the approaching boats made them too eager, and consequently they’d ended up in the ocean, the problem having taken care of itself.
The crates we’d brought were soon winched down and stored on one boat, with the other accepting the human cargo. As the boats cast off, I looked up at where we’d hidden the Jeep under a tarp close to some trees, hoping it would still be there when we got back. Andrej would so have my ass if I lost it.
I never would have guessed that, very soon, the state of our vehicles would be the last thing on my mind.
Ready for more? Get Green Fields #7: Affliction now! Also available in paperback and audio (October 2017).
*contains affiliate links