A Selina Elliot novel
~Chapter One ~
A drop in the temperature alerted Arryn that dusk was upon her now. Her legs hurt, and her stomach was a knot of pain from the hunger she could do nothing about. She needed a rest, but she wouldn’t reach the next town until sometime tomorrow unless she were able to catch a ride to the next town from a passing motorist. If not, she’d be forced to sleep under the stars again. That was only romantic in books. If only a little bit of luck would come her way. She snorted in derision; the very last thing she should be relying on was luck. The highway was deserted and had been for hours.
Though it was a delay, Arryn stopped to cast her hazel eyes up to the sky above. At least it was still clear. That was some bit of luck, she supposed. She sighed and felt a stinging burn behind her eyes that meant she was about to cry. She was tired and clearly starting to become irrational. But being alone still bothered her. She pulled her long, red hair out of the ponytail and shook her head, running her fingers through her hair. Forcing the tears down, she continued walking down the side of the highway. She wasn’t going to indulge in a bout of self-pity. So, she was on her on. So, what? Plenty of people were. And she was managing just fine.
It had taken a while for her to get to a point where she was managing. The past years had been a nightmare where she had slept in abandoned cars, eaten out of dumpsters, and even stolen just to survive. The lessons had been hard and there was no room for pride, but she had learned that she was stronger than she’d ever realized. Though in large part, it was the generosity of strangers that had seen her through the toughest times.
But their generosity had to have limits for they had families of their own to care for, or they had other problems. Like the crime world that was growing with every breath it seemed. The world had changed, or so the older generations kept saying. According to them things had always been difficult but there had been law and order that wasn’t corrupt. She had never known anything other than corruption from law enforcement. Even that term, peacekeepers, was antiquated; police were owned by whichever criminal force was in residence. Sometimes that meant the mob. Sometimes it was local gangs. And sometimes those gangs grew into cartels. No matter what name they went by the agendas were always selfish and never in favor of the people. The police enforced whatever was in the best interest of whoever lined their pockets. And the only protection people had was protection from an outside force looking to muscle into the territory; local criminals hated that. And Heaven help you if you were unlucky enough to be in the way when ‘justice’ was being dealt out.
She sighed, knowing that wasn’t the whole story. There were some cops that weren’t corrupt. They still stood for law and justice. And for all she knew there were more of these officers than there were of the corrupt. Sometimes it was just easier to paint someone as the bad guy than it was to admit there was more to the story.
There certainly was more to her story than what appeared on the surface. Once upon a time she was a Gater; slang for someone who lived within a gated community. She’d been a good daughter, a good student, a good friend, a good Christian; all the things she was meant to be. But then she made a mistake. A bad one that cost her every one of the titles she’d taken on with pride. And that wasn’t even the worst part.
But one depressing thought at a time. She didn’t have the strength tonight. The memory of what used to be was depressing enough. Gated communities did not prepare their kids for life in the real world. The gated believed it was hard, cold, and ruthless out here. But she learned that it wasn’t that way, not really. What it is, is simply big! She hadn’t been prepared for that. America still stood, as did Canada and Mexico and most of the world as it had been for ages. But the world was limping along now, crippled by a severely damaged economy. The human population, though still explosive, was taking a hit and finding others who were both willing and able to help was an uncommon event.
History said it wasn’t one single event that brought the economy to its knees. It was a series of natural and manmade disasters that the world just couldn’t recover from. Or at least not any time soon. When Arryn’s oldest sibling had been conceived, another deep-sea oil rig had collapsed due to some faulty equipment. Massive amounts of crude oil dumped into the ocean killing huge colonies of aquatic life. Though the world fought together to cap off the leak their efforts weren’t enough. There was too much oil and life couldn’t cope. Birds, whales, seals, fish, crabs, and all sorts of life turned up dead on every shoreline coated in oil. Any fishing within the ocean was strictly forbidden after that. No one could take the chance, knowing that the animals brought in would be poisoned. Oil was still showing up on shorelines to this day. The hold on seafood meant that people had to turn almost exclusively to livestock. It didn’t take long for the prices of livestock to dramatically increase. Ranchers saw their opportunity to make some profit. And with the economy going the direction it was, everyone was looking to line their pockets. From there, fruits and vegetables went up in price because the land was infertile due to the waste of massive livestock operations. Dried goods soon followed suit until a three-course meal was something of legend. People were struggling to get food on the table, regardless of nutritional value.
Then four massive earthquakes happened in a very short sequence. That created tsunamis which in turn changed the climate and increased the humidity in many areas which turned out hurricanes and massive storms. Land became a real commodity for a growing population that needed more of it to handle the increased need for livestock… it just went on from there and was generally just a headache to consider. What it meant though was that working all day provided a meager meal or a small amount of cash. She hadn’t ever seen more than thirty dollars at one time. Most often people exchanged things or their time for something that they needed. Poverty reached an all-time high and there was no funding for social services and outreach programs. There were volunteer organizations, but they were reduced to well meaning, small groups of citizens with very little to offer. Sometimes all they had was a roof and a spot on the floor for a night. If you were lucky, they had food to share. These people and the groups were heroes. Those meager offerings got her through many nights, and she had no doubt that she was alive because of it.
It was a testament to the human spirit that they could continue to give even when they had nothing for themselves. That certainly wasn’t what she had been expecting. Growing up, her community taught her that people outside their walls were selfish and desperate beings capable of great evil.
She had left her community with just the clothes on her back. The first three days and nights she had suffered out in the elements with no experience to help her through. She would walk for hours until she collapsed and could go no further. Then she would crawl into the ditches and sleep within the brush where the bug bites and the muscle spasms would keep her awake. While she laid there, she would chew grass roots like she had as a child. And one night she had crawled to a bush with a few scant berries that were barely ripe enough to eat. That night it had rained, adding to her luck. She had kept her mouth open to drink of the fresh water.
On the fourth morning a traveling family of four had stumbled onto her. They had seen her in the ditch so had pulled over to see if she were still alive. They gave her food and water from their own meager rations. The daughter, who was about her age, massaged her seized muscles until she could once again move. The young boy and the father made room in the old van for her. Exhausted and weak she had broken down in the mother’s arms.
Arryn would have died within the first five days of leaving the community if it hadn’t been for the generous family. They were going up to live with the wife’s sister and her family in Canada. It would be a tight fit merging their families into one house, but they were confident that they could make it work. After all, family was supposed to be there for each other when things got tough. At least, that’s what they firmly told her.
The family dropped her off with friends in a small town further up the road. It was the only reason they had turned down the near deserted highway. The friends were a lovely older couple that had a tiny farm with some goats and chickens. They were making it by well enough and were incredibly kind. They gave her food, shelter, clean clothes, and information about the world she now found herself in. She stayed there for weeks but eventually had to move on. They wanted her to stay, and she had no doubt that they truly wanted her to, but she could see she was a strain on their meager rations. Eventually she had to leave. She would never forget them and every night she prayed for them. Perhaps one day she would visit them again.
Lights on the rapidly darkening highway alerted her that someone was approaching, and it snapped her out of the reflective thoughts. Silently she thanked whoever was in the car for breaking her chain of thought. They approached and slowed in speed. They were going to stop. A bit unusual, but then she didn’t exactly make a particularly imposing figure alone on the highway. Arryn stepped back a pace as she stopped and turned around. The car, a dark colored station wagon, pulled up next to her. She wasn’t surprised to see a lone man sitting in the front seat. He smiled at her as he reached over to manually roll down the passenger window. Short dirty-blonde hair, sharp brown eyes, and a defined jaw line peered out at her. He was much older than a boy, and older than she by at least ten years, but she felt the term pretty boy fit him anyway. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to reveal lean arms with pleasant muscle definition and tattoos that didn’t quite fit his plain clothing. Normally she would have found him attractive but there was something that led her to feel otherwise. And the past years had taught her to trust her intuition. She smiled but kept her distance. Her instincts were telling her that she should send this man on his way. Her hunger and weariness were just going to remain unattended.
“Need a lift?” he asked in a voice meant to be friendly.
“I’m alright, thank you,” she replied with a nod and then moved to continue on. She hoped he would give up and move along.
“Nonsense, you’re miles from any town. Get in?” he tried to persuade her. His voice was pleasant enough but there was a demanding hint in his tone that deepened her intuition to stay away.
“I’m okay,” she waved him away. She knew this route. She wasn’t all that far off from another town. She wouldn’t reach it tonight, and a ride would get her there that much quicker, but she was not trusting this man.
As she moved away, she heard the man open his door. Her concern changed to fear. It was a futile gesture on her part to keep walking, but she didn’t know what else to do. She placed her hand on her knife. She’d never learned how to use it properly and her unfamiliarity with the weapon showed. Still she hung onto it praying that he would turn away and leave her alone. He called out to stop her. She pulled the knife out of her bag and held it to her stomach.
“Why don’t you stop?” he called out to her.
She didn’t respond to his statements, only kept on walking away in a smooth stride. He was closing in behind her. He wasn’t rushing though, he seemed content to slowly chase her down. Without looking she knew exactly when he was within touching distance. She fought the urge to run. Instinctually she knew that it would only drive him on further. She was trapped!
“Wait,” he said as he grabbed a hold of her wrist. Whirling back on him Arryn fought down her fear.
“Go away,” she had said the words with calm force as she brandished the large knife.
Nothing happened. He didn’t release her wrist, he didn’t look surprised or fearful, he didn’t back off. He wasn’t even acknowledging the knife. He was amused though. Arryn stared into his cold, soulless eyes and realized that she was screwed. She was not strong enough physically to fight him off. Whatever he planned to do to her, she wasn’t going to be able to stop him.
“Do I scare you?” he asked quietly.
The knife in her hand shook, revealing her terror. Quicker than she could move away he reached out and grabbed her other wrist. He pulled her forward so that the blade ran right next to his lean muscled torso. She leaned back, wanting desperately to be free of his cold grip.
“Thin little piggies cry the loudest,” he stated with mild anger, as though she were letting him down. Or would. He wrenched her hand around so that the knife was between their bodies. The blade touched her stomach and the world came to a stop.