The Worlds We Make excerpt
We’d been on the road for three hours when the stolen SUV lurched over a piece of debris buried in the snow. Anika gave a squeak of surprise, but she held the steering wheel steady. Gav’s jaw bumped my shoulder where he was slumped unconscious against me. I tried to adjust my position, but I was jammed tight on both sides. With four of us in the back, Gav and I squished in beside Justin and Tobias, there wasn’t much room to maneuver.
Leo glanced around from his spot beside Anika. “Everything okay back there?” he said as if to all of us, but he looked at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re fine.”
As my gaze slid past him to the windshield, where the falling snow was shrouding the landscape, I realized I actually believed what I’d said. How crazy was that? We were on the run from a gang hungry for our blood, and the college girl at the wheel had tried to sell us out to that same gang just a couple days ago. My boyfriend was drugged up on sedatives to stop his virus-riddled brain from making him do anything dangerous. Tobias’s skills as a former soldier had helped get us this far, but it looked like he was infected now too. And while Justin was healthy, we’d already seen how much trouble a trigger-happy almost-fifteen-year-old could get us into.
But we were all still here. Leo, the best friend I’d thought I’d lost, was sitting a few feet away from me, alive and well. The vaccine samples that might pull the world out of its downward spiral were safely locked in the trunk. The snow made for rough driving, but it was covering our tracks. We had a tentative destination, and at least a little reason to hope we’d find scientists capable of replicating my dad’s vaccine when we got there.
So in those passing minutes, as I stroked Gav’s tawny hair and the SUV’s tires hissed down the freeway, life didn’t seem so bad. It wasn’t anywhere near good, but it was all right. Acceptable.
Then an indicator on the dashboard started to beep.
“I don’t know what that symbol is for,” Anika said, waving at it. Her soft voice sounded even more high-pitched than usual. Frazzled.
We should have her switch off with someone else, I thought. She’d been driving since she picked us up at the apartment we’d been squatting in, through the mad dash out of Toronto while the Wardens shot at us, and on into this nearly blinding weather.
Tobias leaned forward between the seats. “Tire pressure,” he said, his voice muffled by the scarves he was wearing double wrapped across his face in case he started coughing. His frown showed in his pale blue eyes. “One of them’s losing air.”
“Why?” Justin demanded. “What’s wrong with it?”
“There was that bump a little ways back,” Leo said, rubbing the side of his face. Exhaustion grayed his olive-gold skin. “Whatever we ran over, it must have been sharp.”
Gav muttered and stirred. My arm tightened around him. The sedatives I’d given him had been veterinary ones, so we didn’t know exactly how well they’d work for a person—or how quickly they’d wear off.
“We’d better deal with the tire before it goes completely flat,” I said. “Turn off at the next exit, okay?”
If we didn’t make it to an exit, if we ended up stranded on the freeway, we’d be sitting ducks for the Wardens. Michael, their leader, had ordered them to keep after us until they’d taken the vaccine. In one of our last encounters, Justin and Tobias had left three of them dead. Given the way they’d fired at us as we fled the city, they were obviously hoping to repay us in kind.
The windshield wipers rasped back and forth as Anika peered through the storm. The indicator kept beeping. Finally, Justin gave a shout, pointing to a sign emerging from the haze.
Anika slowed the SUV to take the curve of the ramp, but the car’s frame jolted. One wheel started to thump against the snowy asphalt, tugging the car to the left.
“Crap!” Anika said. Haltingly, we eased down the ramp and came to a stop outside a vacant service station. A few scattered houses stood farther down the road. The snow blotted out the rest of whatever tiny town we’d ended up in.
“Let’s see how bad it is,” I said with a sinking feeling in my stomach.
As Tobias opened the door, Gav groaned. He was definitely waking up. I shifted into the middle seat to give him more room as the others got out, feeling my coat pocket for the bottle of sedative orange drink mix I’d made for him. Hopefully I’d be able to talk him into swallowing a little more.
Leo paused by the door. “You need anything?” he asked.
“Not right now,” I said. “But I think I’d better stay with him while—”
Without warning, Gav pitched across my lap, clawing his scarves away from his mouth. A shudder rippled through his body, and with a sputtering gasp, he threw up. Orange-tinged liquid splattered the seat.
Leo had jumped back. Up front, Anika made a disgusted noise. Gav sagged against me, and I wrapped my arm around him, fighting the urge to gag at the sickly, sour smell already filling the SUV.
He’d refused to eat anything the last two days. Maybe the dissolved pills had been too potent on an empty stomach. Maybe I’d given him too much.
Or maybe, between the virus and the lack of food and our inability to give him even the most basic treatment, his body was giving up altogether.
I blinked hard and shoved that thought away. “Gav?” I said. “Here, let’s get some fresh air.”
I reached past him to open the other door. The breeze sprinkled snow over us, but it carried away the worst of the smell. Gav mumbled something I couldn’t make out.
“You want some water?” I asked him. He didn’t answer.
When I raised my head, the others were hovering in a semicircle by the back of the SUV. “The tire’s done for,” Tobias said. “And there’s no spare.”
“Okay,” I said, forcing myself to focus. “Can you check the garages around here for a car we can take a tire off? I’ll look after Gav. Just don’t go so far you can’t see the SUV anymore. We don’t want to lose anyone in the snow.”
As they hurried off, another wave of frigid air washed over us. Gav twisted toward it. He pushed himself partway out of the car, and then listed over the ditch, retching. Orange dribbles dotted the snow.
I rubbed his back, wishing there was more I could do. But we weren’t going to find any more doctors or medicine out here in the middle of nowhere than we had in the city.
His head swayed with the motion of my hand. Then he started to cough. I grabbed my bottle of regular water, and paused. It might help his cough, but I wasn’t sure his stomach could handle anything right now.
He reached back his hand, and I let him take the bottle. He sipped just a little before setting it down on the car floor.
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
“Gross. I feel so gross, Kae. And cold,” he muttered, in the rambling manner he’d taken on when he passed into the infection’s second stage, which caused people to blurt out every thought in their heads unedited. He shivered. “I want to go someplace warm. Back to the apartment. Let’s go back there, Kae. We can sit by the fire, just sit and be warm.”
“It’ll be warm when we get the car going again,” I said, trying to sound reassuring around the ache spreading through my chest. The Gav I’d known, the one who’d defended our town’s food supply, who’d protected the vaccine he didn’t even believe in and made me promise not to give up on this mission, he’d have cringed to hear himself like this. This wasn’t him. It was the virus talking.
If I closed the doors and turned on the heat, I’d be wearing down the battery and using up what little fuel we had. And the seat would really start to stink. I needed to clean it.
I straightened up, and Gav jerked around. “Where are you going?” he said, his hazel eyes wild.
“Hey,” I said, “I’m here. I’m just going to look in the trunk.”
He watched me as I leaned over the back of the seat. Then his strength waned and he slumped toward the open door. I pawed through the supplies in the hatch area: blankets, camping gear, food we’d scavenged in Toronto. Ripped pieces of sheet. I grabbed one, leaned past Gav to scoop up some snow, and started swiping at the mess beside me. Gav sneezed faintly. Even his symptoms were weakening.
I edged over to reach the farthest splatters, and caught sight of the others trudging back toward the car. “You’d better pull your scarves up,” I said to Gav, as lightly as I could manage. Those layers of fabric were all we had to prevent the virus from traveling on his coughs and sneezes and finding a new victim. He grumbled, but he did it.
Our four companions came empty-handed. “Nothing?” I said.
“Not nearby,” Tobias said. “Past those houses it looks like just farmland.”
“I checked the map,” Leo said. “There should be a real town about a mile farther down the freeway.”
A mile over uncertain ground, through a storm that could turn into an all-out blizzard at any moment. “I don’t think we should risk walking it in this weather,” I said.
“So what do we do, then?” Justin demanded, pushing his dark brown ponytail back when the wind whipped it over his shoulder. “We can’t drive there with a flat tire.”
Anika hugged herself, and it occurred to me that her wool coat was a lot thinner than the down-filled ones the rest of us wore. We’d have to find her a new one. After we found a tire.
“Let’s go inside,” Gav broke in. “Can’t we go inside somewhere? I hate being squashed in this godawful car.”
“I checked the houses from the windows,” Leo said. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s still around here. If we wanted to, we could warm up a bit and see if the snow’ll die down before we figure out what to do.”
Every part of me balked at the idea. We had to keep moving. The Wardens were behind us, tracking us down. The Centers for Disease Control, our goal, was still far off in Atlanta. But we couldn’t walk—even if I’d been willing to risk it, Gav wouldn’t make it more than a few steps—and we couldn’t drive, and I didn’t have a single other idea.
Gav staggered to his feet, and suddenly my decision was made for me. “Hey!” I said, scrambling after him. He wobbled around the SUV, supporting himself against it, until I caught his elbow.
“I just want a fire,” he said, swaying. “I just want to be warm. Why won’t you let me have that, Kae?”
My eyes teared up. “Okay,” I said. “We can do that.”
As I slid his arm over my shoulders, his legs buckled. Leo hurried over to support him on the other side. Together, we helped Gav walk to the nearest house. Tobias strode past us, tested the door, and slammed his foot against a spot beside the knob. After a few kicks, it burst open. He stalked inside, scanning the rooms.
Gav’s feet stumbled and dragged, and as we reached the front step, he lurched forward and threw up the little water he’d drunk into his scarves.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
He collapsed inside the hall, and I sank down next to him, cradling his head against my chest. The skin above his scarf radiated a feverish heat.
As I peeled the damp scarves away from his mouth, Gav launched into a volley of tiny sneezes, slouching closer to the floor. Justin and Anika, who’d just come in carrying the bags with our blankets, froze on threshold. One sneeze could mean they’d be just as sick as he was in a couple weeks. Only Leo and I were safe, me because I’d been sick before and recovered, and Leo because I’d given him one of the vaccine samples before we’d realized just how hard it was going to be to keep the few we had safe and viable.
I grasped Gav’s arm again. “We need to walk just a little farther,” I said.
He wasn’t going to be able to sit by a fire the way he’d imagined. But there was a door in the living room near the fireplace, leading into a small home office layered with dust. After we’d staggered in, Gav embraced the patchwork rug as if it were a feather bed. I hurried out to grab a couple blankets and a flashlight. Justin had started smashing apart a chair for firewood, and Tobias was sprinkling the splintered pieces with kerosene from his camping stove. At least we’d have a little warmth.
“Kaelyn!” Gav called out, and I dashed back.
When I closed the door, the windowless room was thrown into darkness. I flicked on the flashlight, set it on the desk, and knelt beside Gav.
“It’ll warm up soon,” I said. He kept shuddering as I wrapped the blankets around him, despite the fever blazing under his skin.
“I don’t want to feel this way,” he said. “I hate it, Kae. I hate it so much.”
“I know,” I said, with a hitch in my voice I couldn’t suppress.
There was only one other thing I could give him. I turned off the flashlight to save the batteries and lay down beside him, lending him the heat of my body. We huddled together in the cold, dark room, waiting for the fire’s warmth to seep beneath the door.
Time passed with the uneven rhythm of Gav’s ragged breath by my ear. After a while, the room felt warmer, but maybe I’d just gotten used to the chill. Gav had curled against me like my little cousin Meredith used to, his head tucked under my chin, his arm looped around my waist. I hugged him tight. He was still shivering, off and on.
The last time I’d held Meredith like this, we’d been hiding from the Wardens in the artists’ colony where we’d met Justin and his mother. Where I’d left Meredith, with our friend Tessa, to make sure she stayed safe.
At least I’d saved one person. If she really had stayed safe there.
My heart leapt at a knock on the door. I’d wondered what the others were doing, but I hadn’t wanted to disrupt the calm Gav had settled into.
“Everything okay?” Leo asked, nudging open the door.
It wasn’t okay, not anymore, but there was nothing Leo could do about that. “We’re all right,” I said hoarsely, lifting my head from Gav’s. “How’s the weather looking?”
“The snow’s let up a bit, but it’s getting dark,” he said. “We figured it’d be better to crash here for the night and check out that town in the morning. If that makes sense to you?”
Another night lost. But I couldn’t expect them to hike for hours through the dark. And if the Wardens drove past and saw the flashlights...
“The smoke from the fire,” I said. “Is it still snowing enough to cover it?”
“I think so. And it’ll be so dark soon it won’t matter. We managed to get the SUV into the garage here so no one can spot it from the freeway.”
I should have thought of that. I shook my head, trying to clear it, but my mind spun. I hadn’t eaten since our hurried breakfast that morning.
One panicked thought broke through the rest. “The cold-storage box! You brought it inside?”
“Got it right here,” Leo said. “I put in some fresh snow. You want it in the room with you?”
Gav stirred. His fingers dug into my coat. I squeezed his shoulder, thinking about Anika out there with the others, still studying us to determine the best advantage. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.” She had tried to steal the samples once. Yes, she’d sided with us over the Wardens because of how harshly they’d treated her afterward, but that didn’t mean she was any less desperate to protect herself from the virus. Driving the getaway car was one thing. Withstanding the temptation of the vaccine sitting in clear view? That would be hard for anyone.
Leo opened the door to slide the cold box inside, and Gav flinched at the sound.
“Who’s there?” he said, and then doubled over, coughing.
Leo shot me a worried glance. At my strained smile, he ducked back out. I brushed my fingers over Gav’s hair.
“It was just Leo checking in on us,” I said.
He coughed a few more times, and wiped at his mouth. “Leo,” he sneered, and something twisted inside me even though I knew his jealousy was unfounded. There had been a time when my feelings for my best friend had gone beyond friendship, and maybe his for me too. Leo had kissed me after an awkward sort of confession when he’d thought I was leaving on this mission without him and might not make it back. But Gav didn’t know about that.
He didn’t need to. I was with Gav, and Leo knew I was with Gav, and both of us would have risked our lives to save him from the virus. If only we knew how.
I lowered my head as Gav pulled me closer. “Do we have to keep driving?” he murmured. “All the way to Atlanta. Centers for Disease Control. They really weren’t very good at their job, were they? Didn’t control this disease at all.”
“No one did,” I pointed out. As far as we knew, from what we’d seen and heard, the so-called friendly flu had spread across the whole world.
“Why not?” Gav said, his voice rising. “With all those scientists, one of them must have been smart enough, but no one could be bothered to—”
His voice broke with another coughing fit. And I thought, My dad bothered. My dad had kept working on his vaccine prototype until the day he died. Gav just hadn’t trusted him or it enough to take it when I’d asked him to.
And I just hadn’t insisted.
I bit my lip. “Hey,” I said, “don’t worry about that. You need to rest.”
“I’ve been resting,” Gav said. “That’s all I’ve been doing. We should go.”
He grabbed the edge of the desk to yank himself upright, his arms trembling. “Gav!” I said. The bottle of sedative-laced water in my coat pocket bumped against my ribs as I scooted over to him. I tugged it out.
“You should drink something,” I said. “This made you feel better before.”
“That orange crap?” he said. “I drank that in the car, and then I puked. No. I’m not taking any more.”
His muscles gave out, and he slumped back down onto the rug. I set the bottle aside.
“Okay,” I said. “Then just stay here with me.”
I’d need to come up with a better plan when we were back in the car tomorrow. Assuming we found a replacement tire. Assuming the Wardens didn’t swarm us in the middle of the night.
But for now, all that mattered was keeping Gav here and keeping him calm. That was going to be hard enough.