Retribution: An Excerpt
Eli lay still, curled in a tight ball under the thin cover of his coat. He was awake, as he had been off and on for most of the night, and he hurt all over. His bones felt as if they’d been pulled out, rearranged, and jammed back in all wrong. His shoulder, where he’d been shot, throbbed mercilessly. The bullet was still in there but the pain was less today, or perhaps he’d just gotten better at ignoring it.
He was too stiff to get up just yet. It was a week into spring, but the ground was still cold and unforgivingly hard and he’d had nothing to sleep on and only what he wore for warmth. There were a few blankets among the survivors, but Eli wouldn’t ask for one, not when so many of the others were injured far worse than he. Aside from the bullet wound he was okay, although his skin felt tight, as if bloated by the effort of pushing rebellious blood through frigid veins. His fingers were swollen and chaffed, his lips so cracked they were bloody and numb.
He closed his eyes again, slipping into a delirious half-sleep induced as much by cold as by fatigue. The nightmares didn’t need to actually begin, per se . . . they were always in full swing, a gauntlet waiting for him whenever he slept: the bombs, the bodies, the blood and fire of the massacre they’d left behind.
Through the murky darkness of the nightmares Eli felt a sudden, familiar warmth nuzzling his hand. He woke, but did not open his eyes. He squeezed them shut tighter, willing the sensation to be real and not a dream. When he dared open his eyes he was elated to find see he hadn’t imagined it. It was Bullet!
The survivors had been travelling for three long days, but his dog had tracked Eli anyway. Eli put his hand to the silver medallion that his grandfather had made, one each for him, Seth, and Sabine. He shut his eyes again, turned his face skyward, and promptly offered a prayer of thanks to his highers.
Although he wasn’t one to pray typically, the instinct had been swift and powerful and had caught him off guard. But times were strange, and stranger still, Bullet had found him. Perhaps his highers had led the dog to him?
Eli shook off his confusion and gave Bullet a long, hearty belly rub. The dog grumbled happily and then curled up in the crook of Eli’s knees as if nothing was amiss. As if the world was normal. As if they hadn’t left the ruins of a massacre behind, as if they were back home in the warmth of Triskelia and not fleeing its wreckage, sleeping only when they could go on no more.
And where were they going? Eli had asked but no one would tell him. All his grandmother would say was that it was best if few knew. She assured him it was somewhere safe, where they could rest, and grieve, and ready themselves.
Ready themselves for what, though? Would they finally take up arms and begin the revolution Eli had been so anxious for? If this is what they needed to finally revolt, it was wretched and cruel and brutally unfair. If this is what revolution required, Eli wanted to give it back. And so much violence! There had to be a better way. If fighting meant this much pain and death and suffering he’d forgo the freedom of the millions of Droughtlanders they were supposed to be releasing from Keyland apartheid.
Before he’d left the Eastern Key so long ago, any single aspect of this horrible situation would’ve sent Eli into a tailspin of panic. But now he was merely numb with hunger and pain and hopelessness. He couldn’t see forward and there was no turning back. He was a reluctant prisoner of the moment, and he hated that. He wanted to know what was going to happen next and how they’d manage. Would Triskelia be rebuilt? Were there plans? For anything? But it was just too overwhelming when really all that mattered was keeping themselves alive, even just long enough to get somewhere other than here—a cold, desolate forest with little to eat and nowhere soft to rest their weary souls and aching bones and exhausted hearts.
Eli stood with difficulty, his knees creaking. He put his fingers to the rag covering his wound. No fresh blood. That was good. He rolled his shoulder back a little, testing it. He couldn’t move it much, but he had full feeling down to his fingers and was grateful for that. He eased on his coat and stepped carefully around the others who were still asleep.
Bullet gave himself a shake and a wag and then trotted proudly beside Eli as if he’d found a prize. Eli knelt to check him over. The dog was skinnier and had a chunk missing out of one ear, but other than that Eli found no bumps or other obvious wounds. He tried to remember where he’d seen Bullet last on the night it all happened, but he couldn’t. In the bunkroom? On the stairs? No matter; wherever Bullet had been when the barrage of blasts began it was a miracle he’d escaped unscathed.
It was still dark. No sign of sunrise on the horizon, and Eli wouldn’t be surprised if it never rose again. Why would it bother to shine down on this wretched world? And yet it had. It’d risen three times now. The survivors had walked each day without rest, pushing distance between them and the horrors they’d left behind.
Not all the horrors had been left behind, though. Eli’s glance fell to Anya, finally asleep at the base of a tree, lifeless little Charis clutched in her arms. On the first day rigor mortis had set in, Charis taking on the waxy stiffness of a doll, and still Anya had refused to believe she was dead. And when the rigor slowly left and Charis’s limbs relaxed, Anya took it as a sign that Charis was getting better. She wouldn’t listen to anyone no matter how they approached the subject, with compassion or anger or disgust. And when the bravest among them tried to take Charis from her—for everyone’s sake, for the preservation of what little humanity remained to them—Anya went wild with protest, lashing out and screaming to be left alone.
She got her wish. No one could bear to look at her, let alone speak to her or even come near her. Everyone turned away from the macabre tableau of mother and child. Beyond sad and deeply unsettling, it was also a terrible reminder of the monumental loss they’d all suffered.
Celeste, in her makeshift position as leader until Zenith’s whereabouts and safety could be confirmed, was the only one who felt obliged to persevere with Anya. Over and over she tried to make Anya understand, tried to take Charis from her, until soon, even if she spotted Celeste in the distance, Anya would shriek and run in the other direction, little Charis flopping lifelessly in her arms.
It could not go on. Celeste knew that Charis had to be put to rest, not only for Anya but for them all. The presence of the dead child rattled emotions and strained already beleaguered hearts, but soon the rot would worsen and it would be too horrible for any of them to endure. Already there was a smell no one wanted to acknowledge. Anya vowed not to sleep so that Celeste couldn’t take Charis from her. Exhaustion now added to her grief. She stumbled around, mumbling to herself, frightening the children even more with her blank stares and gaunt cheeks.
As much as Celeste wished Anya could take all the time she needed, it just wasn’t fair to make the others bear witness to such primal grieving on top of their own private and collective anguish. The night before, as they set up camp, Eli and Sabine had watched their grandmother sneak up on Anya as she finally succumbed to slumber. But as she’d gently lifted the baby’s body out of her arms Anya had awakened with a violent start and staggered into action.
“Don’t you touch my baby!” She’d shoved Celeste to the ground and grabbed Charis back.
“C’est la mienne! I won’t let you take her.”
“Nana!” Sabine and Eli rushed to help Celeste.
“I’m all right.” Celeste took their hands and eased herself up.
“What are you doing, Anya?” Sabine turned her eyes to Anya, despite having to see poor Charis so desecrated, the smell worse this close. “This is insane! You have to realize that she’s dead. Can’t you see it? Charis is dead!”
“What a terrible, cruel thing to say.” Anya glowered at her. “Why I was ever kind to you, je ne sais pas. Your maman would be ashamed of you, treating me like this.”
“Oh, Anya. Why can’t you realize what’s happening?” Sabine felt tears coming. Tired, frustrated, sad tears.
Eli put his arm across his sister’s shoulders. “It’s okay, Sabine.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sabine twisted away. “It’s not okay. None of this is okay! Nothing will ever be okay again. Not ever.” She turned to Celeste. “We have to do something, Nana. The others can’t even stand to look at her! She’s making all of this that much worse!”
“Leave her be.” Celeste took Sabine’s hand as Anya fled into the dark forest. “One more night. I will take care of it tomorrow. I promise.”
Celeste left Eli with instructions to keep an eye on the edge of the clearing for Anya’s safe return. Sabine kept him company but eventually went to help settle the children for the night, leaving him alone. It was a grim task, waiting for the dishevelled pair to emerge from the dark woods like ghosts.
Would Anya ever be the spirited joy she’d been before? Not likely. Maybe she was crazy now. Maybe this was the end of the Anya who’d mothered them all, who’d brought Eli to Triskelia and kept watch over him. Something had to be done to break the spell, to bring Anya back, or she’d be lost to them. And where was Trace? Had he even survived? Was he dead? Or worse, dying slowly, trapped under rubble, bleeding out, gangrene setting in like an evil army? Either way, it was the end of that beautiful little family. But now was the end of so many things, so what was one more loss amid an endless sea of grief? What was left, really?
Hours passed before Anya emerged from the forest. Eli squinted. Her arms hung at her sides and for a brief moment he thought maybe she’d left Charis behind, buried her in the woods, sparing the others any more gruesome chores. But no. She’d only tucked the toddler into the folds of her knotted shawl, carrying her as if Charis were merely sleeping. She walked past Eli without so much as a glance, found herself a tree to settle under, and shifted Charis around to her front so that she could cradle her in her arms. All was lost, Eli was sure of it. Everything that was ever good would never be theirs again.
Excerpted from Retribution by Carrie Mac. Copyright © 2007 by Carrie Mac. Excerpted by permission of Puffin Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.