Read on for a sneak peek at the first chapter from The Becoming: Bloodlines, the next book in the critically applauded The Becoming Series, from author Jessica Meigs!
The Becoming: Bloodlines
Ethan Bennett’s stomach heaved, his abdominal muscles tightening painfully and his fingertips digging into and scratching against the coarse bark of the tree next to him. The muscles in his sides, over his ribs, felt like they’d been stretched to their breaking point, like a rubber band pulled taut, and his throat was as rough as sandpaper from coughing. But nothing came up. Not that he’d really expected anything to, once he took all the other mornings from the past few months into consideration.
It was a miserable thing, being one of the “cured” infected.
The abdominal spasms subsided after the requisite four or five minutes that they usually lasted. He hoped the coughs and groans that had slipped from his throat—no matter how much he tried to suppress them—hadn’t carried back to their little camp. He didn’t want the two women he traveled with to worry over him. He had neither the time nor the patience for the inevitable coddling and fussing over him that he knew would result if they realized he was sick; he had a job to do.
He swiped a strand of saliva off his bottom lip, brushed a hand over his beard to check for more, and willed himself to stand up straight. His head hurt—nothing new about that, really, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it, either. He leaned against the tree, watching his breath cloud in the air in front of his face, and took a few moments to collect himself.
It was early morning, somewhere around five-thirty—a guesstimate, since he’d left his watch back at the camp—and still mostly dark, though the landscape was beginning to take on that soft, somewhat sickly blue tinge to it that heralded an impending sunrise. The air smelled frosty, and the forest’s undergrowth was covered with a thin layer of frozen-over snow, creating a distinctly wintry smell that reminded him of Christmases long past, back when he used to live in an actual house and celebrated that sort of thing. Home, for him, meant Memphis, and he hadn’t been back there since the second month of the outbreak, since he’d rescued Nikola Klein and verified that, yes, his wife was dead, and—
“No,” Ethan said out loud. “Stop it. It’s over and done with. It’s been almost three years. It’s time to move the fuck on.”
Talking to himself now. He was pretty sure that meant he was tilting into the “certifiable” range of insanity. Now wouldn’t thatbe something?
He pushed off the tree and out of the pity party he’d immersed himself in and started walking toward the camp. He wanted to get back before Kimberly or Sadie found him missing and their tiny campground devoid of a guard. If they woke up and found him missing, he would never hear the end of it.
The soft snap of a stick breaking cracked through the otherwise silent forest around him. Reflexively, he looked down at his feet, expecting to see a broken or cracked stick underneath his leading foot, but there was nothing there. Tearing his eyes away from the ground and back to his general surroundings, he breathed out a swear as he realized what that meant.
There was something else in the woods with him. He was pretty sure he knew what it was. And it definitely wasn’t friendly.
After only a moment’s hesitation between the weapons on his person, trying to decide which would be best to use—projectile or bladed—he opted for bladed in the interest of keeping the work he was about to perform quiet. Assuming it wasn’t a massive crowd—a herd, as Cade tended to call them, like they were a form of grotesque cattle—he could take care of the situation himself. There was no need to unnecessarily alarm Kimberly or Sadie.
Besides, it wasn’t like they posed a real threat to him. The infected didn’t attack their own kind.
Gripping the black-bladed, military-issued KA-BAR knife he’d been given before his journey south, Ethan turned in a slow circle, eyeing the trees around him, searching for the source of the sound. There was nothing in his immediate line of sight. That didn’t mean there was nothing there.
Another crunch of underbrush brought him around to his right, and nodding in satisfaction that he’d pinpointed the source of the sound, Ethan charged into the trees, letting his instincts guide him.
As usual, they didn’t steer him wrong. Then again, he supposed it was a situation of like attracting like; he’d seen how the infected drifted towards each other almost reflexively, and he himself had felt that almost irresistible pull anytime there were other infected nearby.
This time, there were only three of them, dramatically below his threshold of what he could handle.
It almost looked like a little family coming toward him, a man, an older woman, and a much younger woman, and if it wasn’t for the fact they looked to have been infected at dramatically different times, he would have thought they actually werefrom the same family. But the man looked like he was already dead and had been for some time, and the two women didn’t look dead yet, just infected, though the older woman was very much emaciated.
The younger woman noticed him first, and a predatory gleam entered her eyes as she sped up, putting a bloodied hand out toward him, like she was prepared to claw his face or try to scratch his eyes out. Ethan cocked his head to the side a little, watching her approach, not moving from the spot he’d stopped on moments before when he’d first seen them. It took less than ten seconds for her to close the distance, and even as she slowed in obvious confusion when she drew close—likely because her sense of whateverwas telling her he was infected—he flipped the knife around in his fist and stepped forward. His free hand shot out, grasping her filthy, greasy blond hair, yanking her in closer. She flailed in his grasp, pawing at his clothes, but he didn’t look at her, just focused on the trees around him and how lovely the frost looked on their branches as he put her in a headlock, twisted her around, and buried the knife in her neck, angled upwards so it entered her skull at the base of her spine. Her flailing body went limp and heavy against his arm, and he let go, allowing the body to fall to the frozen snow at his feet.
Ethan glanced down at the body long enough to make sure he wouldn’t trip as he stepped over it, and he approached the older woman, who had made more headway than the man, dispatching her with a quick blow of the knife blade into her temple.
She hadn’t even finished crumpling to the ground when he moved on to the last infected standing, the man that still shuffled toward him with single-minded determination. The stench coming off the man was almost overpowering, and the strength of it made Ethan’s eyes water. He swiped the sleeve of his jacket over his nose like that would make the smell go away, then squared up his shoulders, stopped, and waited for the infected man’s inevitable hesitation. When it came—and it always did; he had yet to meet another infected person that didn’t recognize him as one once they got close enough—Ethan put down the infected man just as easily as he had the other two, with a rapid stab of his knife to the man’s brain. He hit the dirt and didn’t move again.
Ethan stood still for a long minute, waiting, testing to see if anyone else was going to come at him from the trees surrounding him. When nothing else emerged, he went to a fallen tree nearby and sat down on it heavily, pulling out a towel from his back pocket and starting to clean his gore-covered knife.
His hands were shaking. Why the hellwere his hands shaking?
It wasn’t like he’d never done this before. He couldn’t count the number of infected he’d eliminated over the past three years. Hell, he’d killed more than he could count in the past three months. It was just a fact of life when living south of the wall. So why today, of all days, was he having a problem with it?
Maybe it was all the nostalgia. Yeah, that seemed like the most likely cause of it. He hadbeen particularly melancholy and reminiscent today, and he wasn’t quite sure why. Today wasn’t any day special, just a mostly frozen day in December in middle-of-nowhere Alabama. It wasn’t an anniversary or anything.
Maybe he’d just put off thinking about things for too long.
He sighed, finished cleaning his knife, and returned it to its sheath. After tucking the cleaning cloth back into his back pocket, he stood, stretched, and headed back towards camp, hoping—again—that Kimberly or Sadie hadn’t realized he’d been gone.
Luck, unfortunately, wasn’t with him, if the arrow that flew past his head and embedded into a tree behind him was any indication. He flinched, shying to the side out of instinct, and glared at the young woman who perched on a tree branch above the deer trail he was walking along; she was balancing on the branch in a perfect crouch, not a wobble in sight. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a tight braid, and the expression on her face was so self-assured and confident that he felt like he was looking at—
“No,” he muttered under his breath. “Stop it.” Then he raised his voice and said, “What the hell are you doing up there?”
“Looking for you,” she said brightly.
“I’m not a monkey, so you’re not going to find me in a tree,” he retorted. “Get down from there. You’re making my neck hurt.”
Sadie O’Dell gave him a sarcastic salute and stashed the compound bow she held into the backpack she wore. She took everything she did seriously, almost militaristically—shockingly so for an eighteen-year-old—but that was no surprise, considering her father had been Special Forces and a survivalist and had taught both Sadie and her twin brother how to handle themselves in a variety of shitty situations. There was no twin brother anymore, though; he’d died three months before, in a useless, meaningless death, and no matter how many times Sadie insisted she was okay, Ethan could still see the shadows in her eyes.
Sadie was asking him a question, but he’d been so focused on the past that he hadn’t caught it. He blinked, probably a little too rapidly, and scrubbed a hand through his too-long blond hair. “Sorry, what?”
Sadie rolled her eyes. “I said, where were you?”
Ethan debated telling her about the three infected he’d killed but instead simply jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Taking a leak,” he lied. “Where else?”
“And you couldn’t be bothered to wake me up before you went?” she asked pointedly.
“I was just going to be a minute,” he said. He had no idea why he was allowing himself to be lectured by an eighteen-year-old. He was almost forty-two. This girl was young enough to be his daughter, and in a way, he felt like she sort of was. Maybe that was why he tolerated the fussing, the admonishments, the worrying over his health. He, Sadie, and Kimberly had only been out on their own for a few months, but because of their general isolation, they were now already so close they might as well have been family.
“But you were supposed to wake me up,” Sadie said, “even if it was just for a minute.” She brushed past him to retrieve the arrow from the tree trunk. “These are your rules, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember,” he said. “I’m sorry.” Sadie yanked the arrow out of the tree, examined the arrowhead and fletching for damage, and returned it to the quiver attached to her backpack with the rest. “Is Kim awake?”
“You’re in luck,” she said. “Not yet. At least, not when I went looking for you.”
“Good.” He paused, then added with a pained grimace, “Don’t tell her I said that.”
Sadie laughed and offered him her hand; it was covered with a black leather glove that left her fingers exposed. He grasped her hand, and they made their way along the deer trail he’d followed to his secluded spot, heading back to camp.
The camp was still, though not completely quiet. A small campfire crackled merrily in the center of the camp; near it, in a semi-circle that ringed half of their makeshift campsite, were three tents, sturdy, well made, and obviously military. That was probably because they’d gotten all their supplies from the U.S. military, save for the few personal objects they couldn’t bear to part with. For Kimberly, that was her notebook, a tattered five-subject thing that he was sure was a diary of some sort, though he’d never asked. Sadie’s was her compound bow—not the one she currently carried in her backpack, but an older, more worn one stashed in a case that she lugged from campsite to Humvee and back every day.
Ethan didn’t have any personal items. Over the past three years, he’d shed everything that had made him him, like a snake shaking off its skin, until all that was left of him was a raw, quivering, infected mess. Every memento, every piece of his life from before, was gone. He still hadn’t decided if the choice to abandon every piece of his former self was a good thing.
Just over the crackle of the fire, he heard someone singing, and while he recognized the voice, he didn’t know the song. Apparently, Sadie had been incorrect in her assessment that Kimberly was still sleeping. He glanced at Sadie and said, “Why don’t you get breakfast started?” Without waiting for her acknowledgment, he made for the middle tent, hesitating only a second before calling out, “Knock, knock.”
There was a rustle, and then the woman inside replied, “Come in.”
Ethan brushed the tent flap aside and ducked into the tent. It was surprisingly warm inside, or maybe it only felt that way because of the winter air outside. The tent’s interior was as neat as the inside of a tent could be, with everything ordered just so, clearly for ease of packing within the next hour. The tent’s occupant sat on top of the folded sleeping bag, slowly braiding her blond hair into two short pigtails, a tired look on her face that suggested lack of sleep. She looked up as he entered, and the tired smile brightened with her smile.
“Ethan,” she greeted, pushing off the tent’s floor. “Morning. What are you doing in here?”
“I just thought I’d, you know, come check in, see if you were ready for breakfast,” he said with a shrug.
Well, that wasn’t awkward or anything. It seemed like, ever since his months-long illness—what a perfectly euphemistic way to put that—every bit of his ability to act like a normal, sociable person had gone out the window. Usually, he muddled on by, but in the quiet moments, especially around Kimberly, he’d lose it a little bit and say something absurdly stupid.
Kimberly didn’t seem to notice. Thank God. “I will be as soon as I finish putting my hair up,” she promised. She started wrapping a hair band around the end of a braid, then cursed as the band snapped. “Damn it, that was my last one,” she said, throwing the remains of the band across the tent. “Do you by any chance happen to have a spare something I can use?”
“A shoelace?” he suggested. “I think I have a spare. We can pick up a new one today when we pass through…” He trailed off and fished a small notepad from his pocket, squinting at his messy handwriting. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have thought he was drunk when he wrote it. “Demopolis, Alabama,” he finally said.
“Where the hell is that?” she asked.
“In Alabama,” he deadpanned.
He gave her the cheekiest grin he could manage in response.
“How are you feeling today, anyway?” Kimberly asked, standing and picking up her coat.
Ethan wrinkled his nose. “Are you going to ask me that every morning?”
“Yep,” she quipped cheerfully. “And if I could, I’d still be checking your vitals three times a day.”
Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. He’d shut that shit down on their second day in the field; out in the wilderness wasn’t a good place to be getting one’s arm squeezed by a blood pressure cuff. Three times a day. It wasn’t like it would make any difference; his vitals were always the exact same, regardless of anything he did. It was like he’d entered some sort of physical stasis with the virus, a delicate balance that allowed the virus to coexist within his body without turning him into a homicidal maniac. At least, as far as he’d been able to tell. Besides, the constant vital sign checks made him feel too much like a guinea pig.
“Hey, you guys got a minute?” Sadie called from outside the tent. “Or are you too busy making out in there to come eat breakfast?”
Kimberly’s cheeks flushed red at Sadie’s comment, and Ethan resisted the urge to duck his own head in near-embarrassment. This was ridiculous. He was an adult; so was Kimberly. If they wanted to strip down and get laid, there was nothing wrong with that. Not that he’d actually allow that—he was too worried that he wasn’t just infected but infectious, and the last thing he wanted was to give Kimberly what was unquestionably the worst STD a person could possibly get. They’d only slipped once, not long after he’d been semi-cured, when they’d kissed on the front porch at the Woodside compound, but there hadn’t been anything since.
Thank God,he thought. …I think?
Kimberly gave his arm a little shake, jostling him out of his thoughts. “Come on,” she goaded. “I think Sadie’s cracked open the fridge unit. I smell bacon.”