Katie is driving to work one beautiful day when a dead man jumps into her car and tries to eat her. That same morning, Jenni opens a bedroom door to find her husband devouring their toddler son.
Fate puts Jenni and Katie—total strangers—together in a pickup, fleeing the suddenly zombie-filled streets of the Texas city in which they live. Before the sun has set, they have become more than just friends and allies—they are bonded as tightly as any two people who have been to war together.
During their cross-Texas odyssey to find and rescue Jenni’s oldest son, Jenni discovers the joy of watching a zombie’s head explode when she shoots its brains out. Katie learns that she’s a terrific tactician—and a pretty good shot.
A chance encounter puts them on the road to an isolated, fortified town, besieged by zombies, where fewer than one hundred people cling to the shreds of civilization.
It looks like the end of the world. But Katie and Jenni and many others will do whatever they have to to stay alive. Run, fight, pick each other up when they stumble, fall in love...anything is possible at the end of the world.
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Rhiannon Frater is the author of The First Days: As the World Dies and two sequels, Fighting to Survive and Siege. Originally self-published, this award-winning, critically acclaimed trilogy has been substantially revised for the Tor editions. Frater has written several other novels and been active in the Goth and horror communities in Texas, around the US, and online. Rhiannon Frater and her husband live in Austin, TX.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
So very, very small.
The fingers pressed under the front door of her home were so very small. She could not stop staring at those baby fingers straining frantically to reach her as she stood shivering on the porch. The cool morning air lightly puffed out her pink nightgown as her own pale fingers clutched the thin bathrobe closed at her throat. Texas weather could change so fast, and this early March morning was crisp.
I knew we needed weather stripping, she thought vaguely.
The gap under the front door was far too large. These new modern homes looked so fancy, but were actually not very well built. If they had bought the nice Victorian she wanted, there wouldn’t be a gap under the front door. A gap large enough for that little hand to slide underneath.
The tiny fingers clawed under the edge of the door.
The banging from inside the house had become a steady staccato. It had a rhythm now, as did the grunts and groans. The sounds terrified her. But what was truly horrible were those tiny, desperate fingers.
Her voice caught in her throat when blood began to trickle out from beneath the door. Of course the blood would eventually flow out. There was so much. It had been everywhere when she stood in the doorway of Benjamin’s bedroom. The walls had been splashed red.
She covered her mouth with her hand. Another wave of chills flowed over her as her knees knocked together.
The rhythm changed to a new beat as a second set of fists banged against the door.
Through the lead glass of the door, she could see the dim outline of her husband’s body. It was distorted by the thick smears of blood on the inside of the panes. She stared long enough to make out Lloyd’s misshapen hands battering against the glass before her gaze was inexorably drawn down to those tiny fingers scrabbling so frenziedly toward her.
She really should have insisted on Lloyd putting in weather stripping.
An angry howl from the other side of the door made her jump, and her thick raven hair fell into her face. With trembling hands, she pushed back her tresses. Her gaze did not waver from those tiny fingers.
The pool of blood was slowly spreading toward her bare feet.
She should move.
The tiny fingers were now raw, with tips of bone showing. Yet they still sought her out.
There was a loud thunk to her left, and her attention shot over to the window. Mikey stood there, hissing as he beat on the window with clenched fists. His torn lips were drawn back in a grimace as his dead eyes latched on to her hungrily.
“Why, Mikey, why?” Her voice was a plaintive whisper.
Why had her twelve-year-old son rushed back to try to fight his father? Why hadn’t he run when she screamed at him to follow her?
Clutching her head, she swayed slightly. She felt something cold touch her toe and looked down to see blood welling around her foot. Stepping back, she returned her focus to the fingers pressed under the front door. The tips of the tiny fingers were skinless.
“Benjamin, please stop,” she whispered.
He always followed her everywhere. Every time she went to the bathroom, the persistent three-year-old would be on her heels. She could never relax and just go. She would have to talk to him as he lay outside the bathroom, one eye pressed against the crack, his tiny, chubby fingers pressed under the door.
Was one eye pressed against the crack under the front door now?
How had he managed to get downstairs? There was so little left of him. Lloyd always was a big eater.…
She almost vomitted as both hands flew up to cover her mouth. Gagging, she stepped away from the door. Her body was shaking violently. She heard a clattering sound now, painfully loud. Covering her ears with her hands, she took another step back.
Why wouldn’t it just all stop?
The rattling noise was louder and her jaw hurt.
Oh, her teeth were chattering.
She closed her eyes, swaying.
Those tiny fingers … those tiny fingers …
Glass shattered and growls filled the cool morning air. Her eyes snapped open to see Mikey trying to shove his way through the broken window.
“No, no, no…” She stumbled backwards down the front steps and fell when her bare foot slipped on the slick dew-drenched grass.
The glass shards ripped away Mikey’s flesh as he scrambled through the window, but the twelve-year-old didn’t seem to notice. He kept pushing forward, growling and snarling.
It was then that she screamed. Screamed louder than she ever thought possible. Screamed as she should have when she found Lloyd hunched over Benjamin, eating away her baby’s tender flesh. Screamed as she should have when Lloyd pursued her and Mikey down the stairs. Screamed as she should have when Mikey turned back to try to defend her. Screamed as she should have when the front door slammed behind her and she realized she was alone.
She screamed until her voice died in her throat.
And still Mikey grunted and hissed as he slowly dragged his torn body through the shattered window. Lloyd, blood drenched and crazed, came up behind Mikey and fastened his vicious gaze on her. Determined, he crawled over his son, breaking the remaining glass out of the window frame.
Slowly, she stood. Her gaze strayed to the door.
Tiny fingers still searched for her.
She pressed her hands against her face as she watched Lloyd and Mikey wiggle and jerk their way through the narrow window.
“Get in the truck now!”
“Get in the truck now!”
She turned slowly. An old, battered white truck sat on her perfectly manicured lawn. The engine was hot and grumbling.
Where had it come from?
She raised her eyes to see a tall, slim, blond woman in a business suit and hunting jacket standing next to the truck with a shotgun in one hand.
“Get in now!”
Looking back, she saw Mikey slip from the window, wet, bloody, and battered. For a moment, she remembered how he looked when he had just been born. Her shriveled-up little monkey boy.
After struggling to his feet, Mikey leaped forward.
It was time to leave her family. The money she had carefully squirreled away to provide for her and the kids in a new life would have to stay hidden in the closet. The suitcase she had packed for when they finally ran away to the women’s shelter would have to remain in its hiding place in the attic.
Lloyd had destroyed what remained of their life together.
It was time to go.
Wrenching the passenger door open, she looked back to see Mikey hurtling toward her. She jumped in and slammed the door shut just as he impacted with the side of the truck. His battered, chewed-up face pressed against the glass as he bared his teeth and his growls ripped at her ears.
“Mikey,” she whispered. She pressed her hand against the glass, blocking his gruesome face from her view.
She looked away.
The blond woman slammed her door shut and shifted gears. The truck roared into reverse as Lloyd rushed toward them, hissing loudly.
The blond shifted again and the pickup truck rolled forward and accelerated down the quiet suburban street just as the sun rose over the tops of the houses.
She dared to look back, dared to see what followed. Falling behind were Lloyd and Mikey: her husband and her son. And they were not alone. Others, bloodied and crazed, were racing out of houses, screaming in either terror or hunger.
She tore her gaze away from the things running behind her.
And the tiny fingers she knew were still pressed under the door.
The battered pickup swerved around a corner and nearly sideswiped an SUV that was stopped dead in the middle of the road. Forced to slow down, the driver slammed the flat of her hand against the steering wheel, cursing under her breath.
The blond woman’s green eyes glanced into the parked vehicle. She immediately wished she hadn’t. A man sat in the driver seat, staring straight ahead. His eyes were wide, unblinking, his mouth moving in words that were too easy to make out.
“Stop, please, stop.”
Despite his plea, the female passenger hunched over him, covered in blood and gore, continued to pull ropes of intestine up to her greedy mouth. As the truck passed by, the woman looked up and hissed, slamming her hand against the SUV’s windshield.
The driver mashed her foot down on the accelerator, and the truck lurched ahead. She stole a glance at the pale, fragile creature beside her. The woman she had rescued sat silently with one hand pressed against the bloody smear on the passenger-side window.
“Hey,” the driver said, reaching over and tapping the stranger’s knee. “Hey.”
The woman slowly turned her head, and the driver saw that her eyes were glassy and distant.
Great, she was in shock.
“Hey, my name is Katie. I need your help, okay?”
“The man,” the woman said in response.
Katie turned her attention to the road just in time to see a man trying to wave them down. He was drenched in blood and sobbing violently. She started to slow the truck, but two small children suddenly leaped onto the man, their baby teeth ripping into his throat.
“Just go,” the passenger said in a dead voice. “Just go.”
Katie drew in a shivering breath. “Yeah. You’re right.”
She drove on, leaving the man wailing as blood spurted into the air and the children rode him to the ground. Katie swallowed hard as she forced her gaze from the rearview mirror and concentrated on maneuvering through the suburban hell they were caught in.
The rescued woman drew her pale pink bathrobe tighter around her shivering body and stared straight ahead. Her eyes were as dark as her black hair.
Katie slowed down just a tad to a quick but more reasonable pace. The street they were on appeared to be peaceful. She needed to get her thoughts together. She forced herself to take several deep breaths. She had to keep calm. She knew that much.
“Listen, I need you to take my cell phone and call the first number in the speed dial. Nine-one-one is not working right now, but hopefully we can get through to the police department. I can’t pay attention to driving and call.”
She had to swerve again, this time to avoid a pack of rabid humans racing toward them from a side street. Chaos was spreading quickly. The pack tried to pursue the truck for a few seconds, but was drawn off by another car tearing out of a garage in an attempt to escape.
The dark-haired woman nodded as she took the phone from Katie. She flipped it open and stared at the tiny screen. On it was a picture of a lovely woman with short-cropped brown hair and amber eyes.
“She’s pretty,” the woman whispered.
Katie choked back a sob and fought the hot tears suddenly stinging her eyes. “Yes, she is.” She brushed her mouth with her hand and tried not to cry. She couldn’t think of Lydia right now. She just couldn’t. She had to find her way out of this hellish neighborhood and to safety.
The woman worked easily through the menu and dialed.
Even Katie could hear the busy signal.
“Keep trying, okay?”
Katie drove past a school bus. It was empty and the open door was smeared with blood. The rest of the block looked calm, but she knew it was not. Whatever was happening in the rest of the city was happening here. They had to be very careful. Katie had seen too many horrors this morning to think they could be safe.
“I’m Jenni. With an I, not a Y. I like it spelled that way,” the woman said softly.
Katie smiled despite everything. “Hi, Jenni with an I. I’d say I’m happy to meet you, but under the circum—”
“The little boy, that was my son, Mikey. His dad … he … my husband … Lloyd … did something to him. To him and Benji…”
Katie shuddered slightly at the harsh, brutal memory of seeing Jenni pursued by the ravaged little boy and his blood-splattered father.
“I’m so sorry.” It was all Katie could think of to say.
“It’s still busy,” Jenni said.
“Please, keep trying.”
Jenni nodded as she pushed the button again.
Katie spun the steering wheel, and the pickup headed around a corner, barely avoiding two cars. She saw frightened families inside and whispered a silent prayer for them. She was hopelessly lost, not sure how to get out of the neighborhood. She and Lydia lived miles from this new, modern, cookie-cutter suburb. Lydia had designed their custom-built home. It was tucked into a hillside overlooking the lake and the city. It should have been safe there. It should have been, but the terror of this morning had reached even their quiet street.
Her feet were aching in her high heels and she wished she had found shoes in the truck. The old man’s hunting coat was comforting, warm, and smelled of fresh tobacco. It reminded her of her grandfather.
How had this happened? What did it mean? One minute, she had been sitting in her brand-new convertible, top down despite the cool morning, enjoying a cup of coffee and readying herself for a long day at her job as a prosecutor. The next, she had been fighting off a man who had reached across the passenger seat, grabbed the jacket of her Ann Taylor suit, and tried to drag her out of the car. She had slipped out of her jacket, grabbed her briefcase, and smashed it into her attacker. She’d struck him so hard, she heard his skull crack.
She’d leaped from the car, ready to fight … and then saw that his throat was torn out and that a long train of intestines trailed behind him. But none of that stopped him from trying to climb over the car to get to her.
To her growing horror, she saw more mutilated people rushing straight for her through the early rush hour traffic that always snarled up the narrow road leading down into the city. She had turned and started to run blindly, past honking cars, vehicles with music so loud, her teeth throbbed, and SUVs packed with children going to school. All of them seemed oblivious of the danger quickly running toward them.
An old man stood outside his white truck, waving at her, a shotgun clutched in his hand. “Get in my truck! We’ll off-road it! Hurry!”
She hadn’t needed to look behind her to know she was pursued. She heard the slap of their feet against the pavement.
Katie had almost been to the truck when suddenly the old man was grabbed from behind. A woman bit into his throat and viciously dragged him down to the ground. Katie almost stopped, but the old man had waved her on.
“Get in the truck! Take the gun! Get out of here! Go! Go!” He fought with the woman that had assaulted him, but his blood was already a fountain against the pavement and he faded fast.
Pausing for the barest of moments, she had grabbed the shotgun from his quivering hand and jumped into the pickup on the driver’s side. After slamming the door shut, she reached for the ignition, only to realize the engine was already on.
The old man’s gurgling voice had shouted, “Go! Go! Go!”
She obeyed: shifted gears and went. In the rearview mirror, as she drove down the shoulder and past the stopped cars that honked at her, she had seen the small pack of mutilated humans reach the old man and dive onto him.
“Don’t turn here!”
Kate shook herself out of her memories and slammed on the brakes. “Shit!” It was a cul-de-sac. She quickly started to turn around when she saw a nightmarish vision. Around fifteen of the things erupted into the street and ...
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