Chapter One of STOLEN SON
North Carolina Outlands
Former Uhwarrie Forest
Dawn was always her favorite time of day.
The birds were beginning to chirp, shaking dew onto her as they flitted from branch to branch, waking their fellows and preparing to feed their babies.
Clear, sunny mornings in particular — like this one — filled her with a sense of hope, of calm, that she so rarely enjoyed now. It felt new, fresh, a spotless day full of potential. Individual sunrays peered through the thick canopy of trees around her, leaving pools of yellow light on the brown leaves. It was almost winter, so the green didn’t glow quite as bright, but it was special nonetheless.
Quiet. Solitary. Peaceful. If she closed her eyes and listened, she could convince herself she lived in a world with no war, plentiful food, and her family just minutes away, nestled safely in their beds. Her mother would make her breakfast and she’d tease her father about how much he loved the crossword in the paper.
But she always had to open her eyes. She looked down at one of the buckets she was carrying to the river for water collection, rusted at the edge. Her hands were dirty. Her long, curly hair fell over her shoulders and into her face, wild and chaotic. A dagger was fastened to her ankle, its handle barely visible as it poked out of the top of her boot — just in case.
The world of Lauren Palmer’s dreams didn’t exist anymore. The Trinity saw to that.
Lauren reached the river quickly, despite the blisters developing on her pinky toes. She woke up later than intended, the sky already a faded, watery blue when she bolted out the door of her cabin and accidentally grabbed Anna’s smaller boots instead of her own. She gingerly traversed down the hill toward the river, wincing as her skin rubbed mercilessly against the inner fabric.
Lauren knelt, tying her unkempt hair into a ponytail. The tangled curls always matted together in her sleep, but Lauren didn’t have the patience to try to neaten it so early in the morning. Masses of tangled tresses coiled down her back, almost to her elbows. At times she loathed her wild look — like when one of the younger kids told her she resembled a cavewoman after a bear fight — but no one could afford to worry about their vanity these days, and Lauren was no exception. Still, she occasionally dreamt of the nights she’d sit quietly at her mother’s side, watching as she carefully braided and wrapped her own kinky, mahogany hair.
Lauren filled four small buckets with water from the river, taking extra care to watch for chunks of plant life or bugs floating through the stream into their water supply.
“One down, three to go.”
She set her filled, strained, and perfected bucket of water higher on the bank and returned to repeat the same process. Lauren had Water Day once a month and, while it was exhausting to carry the buckets back and forth for hours, she enjoyed it far more than her laundry or cooking duties. Sam even traded shifts with her every so often, taking her spot in the wood-gathering crew because he knew how much she enjoyed the solitude.
Lauren pictured Sam; tall and strong, with a wide smile and huge dimples that took over half of his face. His hair was light brown and curled up at the ends, nestling his ears and the nape of his neck. He wore his hair shorter than most of the men at camp; the only one whose hair wasn’t quite long enough to tie back into a ponytail, a quite fashionable look around camp as of late. Lauren found she didn’t mind. Sam had the kindest eyes of anyone she’d met since she found refuge in the forest, and would hate to see them hidden behind sheets of hair.
The frigid water flowed over her hands and Lauren closed her eyes, taking the time away from the bustle of camp to enjoy the tranquil, early-morning forest. Tension from an uncomfortable night on a hard wooden bunk melted from her shoulders and into the river, whisked away by the current. It was rather beautiful, Lauren conceded, the untouched nature they found.
A gift in and of itself, Joy would say.
Lauren watched red, gold, and brown leaves dance over slick rocks in the riverbed, and tiny minnows dart around her hands on their way to — what? Did the fish know what happened? Had their lives changed too?
She turned her attention from the fish to the sky.
It’d been what felt like a lifetime since she heard the explosions signaling the end of her happy childhood, but she could still envision the smoke poisoning the sky. She knew she should look away, she knew what would happen if she didn’t, but the images materialized in front of her eyes like it was the day, that day, all over again.
As she stared, puffy white clouds turned into black smoke — twisting and choking her, the sight forever ingrained in her mind’s eye. With the smoke there was fire, of course, lighting up the night sky like an erupting volcano — not that that made any sense, there are no volcanoes on the eastern seaboard… this was something else.
Smoke, fire, and ash — then there was screaming; melting metal, melting buildings, melting people. She was running, and jumping, and falling, dragging herself up off the pavement, forcing herself to move. She felt her mother’s hands rough against her back as she shoved Lauren out of their burning house, screaming for her to go. Her heart thudded in her chest for what felt like days, she never caught her breath, she never slept, the tension in her muscles never ceased, cuts didn’t heal fully before they ripped open again with thorns, with cement, with human hatred. Her ten-year-old, bruised and battered body didn’t feel like her own, her shoes — what were shoes? — lost long ago when she fled from those unfamiliar soldiers dressed in head-to-toe grey.
She ran. Escaping from place to place, feeling the grey-clad soldiers always one step behind her. Her stomach ached from hunger and when she was lucky enough to fill it, she’d become violently sick from the filth she ingested. Eventually she couldn’t bear to move anymore, let alone run for her life. If they were to find her, balled up like a filthy dishrag in the corner, she’d have no energy to escape, to save herself, to beg for her life — not that they’d listen, they would blink and fill her with bullets like they did her father, her mother, her sister —
Lauren’s eyes snapped open, and she saw the tops of the trees. She slowly sat up, not sure when she’d fallen onto her back. Her buckets were where she’d left them. There were only three. She looked down the river and saw no sign of the fourth; it must have been swept away during her… nightmare? Flashback? She never knew what to call them.
Lauren sat up and crawled, her hands still trembling, to the waterline. She splashed cold water on her sweaty face, waiting for the nausea churning in the pit of her stomach to abate. It had been at least a year since she last had an incident.
One relapse isn’t bad. It was bound to happen. I’m getting better. I am.
Lauren looped the handles of the buckets over her arms, talking herself down from the episode as she worked her way back up the hill toward the well-worn path into her camp. An image of her mother, brown-skinned and maternal, bloomed into her mind and Lauren quickly erased it. It was replaced with her father, his light brown hair and blue eyes as clear as if he were in front of her. Lauren stopped, setting the buckets down in the leaves and leaning against a tree. Her heart raced, sending sweat trickling down the back of her neck even in the chill of the autumn morning.
Stop. They’re gone. They don’t exist. Forget them.
Lauren rubbed her face, suddenly fatigued.
What’s wrong with me?
She pushed off of the tree and grabbed her water supply, marching onward as the ground sloped upward toward her camp, ignoring the burn in her thighs.
The face of her older sister, Noelle, clouded her mind when she crested the top of the hill. Noelle looked just as she did the night of The Revelation, only somehow more beautiful. Light caramel eyes, long silken black hair, elegant even in death. A leaden weight fell into Lauren’s stomach as she thought of her sister, dissimilar to the waves of despair that crashed upon her when she remembered her parents. The emotion that filled Lauren when she envisioned her sister’s perfect face was far different, and far worse.
Three hours and five trips later, Lauren walked the narrow trail from the kitchen cabin toward a familiar cluster of cottages. She spotted Joy, one of the camp’s leaders and its unofficial matriarch, struggling to lift a pot of water onto a hook suspended over the fire pit. Strands of dark hair fell from its ponytail, her brow furrowed in concentration. With effort, she successfully connected the pot to the hook and stood, wiping her forehead.
“Good job there, big guy,” Lauren teased, approaching her. Joy turned at the sound of Lauren’s voice and smiled.
“I should have you do the heavy lifting, get some meat on those bones,” she replied, pinching Lauren’s bony arm. Lauren winced and shrugged away from her.
“I’d rather eat more rice. Do thank Henry for saving me some scraps, by the way,” Lauren said, crossing her arms. As she lost valuable supplies during her water run, she had to eat last — a punishment from Joy’s husband Henry, the co-leader of the camp. Even after her portion, her stomach still rumbled, a familiar empty feeling she’d almost grown accustomed to. There was dinner last night, but not enough.
Joy sighed. “You know how Henry feels about things. We need to remain vigilant. He’s not trying to starve you, just make an example of you. Sure, we can find another bucket, but what about who finds ours?”
Joy rubbed her arms, looking out across the camp she and Henry built together.
“It could always be another settlement, like us, grateful to be lucky enough to find extra supplies. Or it could be… someone else. We don’t exactly want to broadcast our location to everyone in a ten-mile radius. Just in case.”
Lauren took in Joy’s concerned expression and relented. “It’s fine. That rice was kind of gross anyway.”
Joy laughed and shook her head, wiping out the empty pot.
“Go get some rest, Lauren. I know you haven’t eaten much, and I need you strong. We have a special project tomorrow.” Joy looked over at Lauren with a bright grin. “You’ll love it.”
Lauren groaned, dropping her head back. “Let me guess — some terrible manual labor Henry volunteered me for because he’s still pissed?”
“No,” Joy replied patiently. “Some terrible manual labor I volunteered you for because you’re strong, healthy, and have enough common sense that I don’t have to worry about you in the forest. We’re low on firewood so we’re gathering the hardiest of us to track down more.”
“Cool,” Lauren said, biting back a scathing comment she knew Joy didn’t deserve.
“It won’t be that bad. Henry’s staying behind so you two can’t fuss at each other. It’ll be you, me, Sam, and West, plus whoever else is available and feeling strong tomorrow.” Joy looked at Lauren, abandoning her stirring. “I threw your name in because I trust you, and the others respect you. You’ve come a long way since you arrived here, and have grown into somebody our new residents can look up to. You’re an original member, and on Council. You’re a leader whether you like it or not. I need you to show it.”
Lauren shifted, unsure what to say. She couldn’t help but feel camp decisions should be left to those with an actual interest in leadership. But Joy was smiling at her encouragingly, and there was hardly anything Lauren hated more than letting her down.
Just suck it up. Two hours of wandering and picking up sticks and you’ll be done. How bad could it be?
“I’ll do it, Joy, thanks. Glad to help.”
An hour into firewood gathering, Lauren was already counting the minutes until she could get back to camp. Two teenagers, Anna and Nathan, were in rare form, giggling and sneaking kisses behind trees, wearing Lauren’s nerves down to the quick.
“Don’t you remember how ga-ga you were over Sam a few years ago?” Olivia, Lauren’s bunkmate and self-appointed confidante, hissed into her ear after Lauren’s seventh or eighth eye roll. “I promise, you were just as obnoxious.”
Olivia was tall and olive-skinned, with chunky dreadlocks stretching down her back. The girls became fast friends the fall that Lauren turned fifteen, when Olivia joined the camp after her own caravan was attacked by Trinity hunters on the prowl for deserters. Olivia had been with the camp for three years, most of which was spent by Lauren’s side.
“Whatever,” Lauren muttered, her face warming at the mention of Sam. “I was never like that.”
“Maybe not you,” Olivia conceded. “Sam was, though. Still is, if you get him enough of that swill they all like to drink. Remember when he sang that song to you by fire, in front of everyone? By that old boyband?” Olivia snorted before clearing her throat dramatically and holding her arms out, crooning in an unfortunately spot-on impression of an inebriated Sam.
“It was something like, ‘Ooh girl I love your face, I love your hair, I love your boo — ”
“I don’t think he remembered the words very well,” Lauren said, elbowing her. “And quiet down. You know he’s embarrassed about that.”
Olivia snickered. “He should be, he’s a terrible singer.”
Joy’s voice rang out, quelling Olivia’s rising laughter. “Everyone over here, make sure you drink water — Anna, here, pass these along to the group over there…”
“Finally,” Olivia said, groaning. “My arms are killing me.”
Lauren and Olivia both dropped the bundles of branches and sticks they’d been carrying and stood beside Joy. She handed out flasks, bottles, and taped up containers, whatever they had at camp to hold water for their trip. It was another chilly day, but the group was sweaty and pink-faced as they collapsed next to their collections. Lauren helped Joy pass around slices of bread, rolling the hard, stale crumbs under her fingertips as she broke pieces off to share.
“Did we get these from the usual traders?” she asked Joy. “They seem older than the batch last time.”
Joy handed off the rest of the water containers to Anna, waiting for her to walk away, before answering. She glanced at the bread in Lauren’s hand and shook her head.
“No, that group was… unavailable.”
Lauren felt Joy avoiding her eyes, spending extra time wiping her hands on her jeans and making a big fuss of breaking her own slice of bread into little pieces.
“Joy — ”
“Don’t worry about it. We were able to find a replacement. Are you being a picky eater now?” Joy smiled at Lauren, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Joy, be honest with me. You said you trust me. What happened?”
The older woman sighed, glancing at the rest of the group before standing and gesturing for Lauren to join her by their cluster of backpacks a few feet away.
“I don’t know what happened,” Joy told her once they were alone. “Henry and West went to the usual meeting spot, just like they do the same time and same place every month. He took the knives, like they asked.”
Lauren’s eyebrows rose. “Knives? Our knives? That’s some of the only protection we have.”
“And they had none at all, Lauren,” Joy continued, glancing away again. “They were also frightened, and so desperate for help that they were going to withhold food from us unless we gave them something to protect themselves.” Joy shrugged and shook her head. “We didn’t have much of a choice. Either starve, or give them what they demanded.”
Lauren nodded, shifting uneasily.
“I know,” Joy said. “It’s not ideal. Anyway, they waited an hour. He even walked further from the river, thinking maybe he lost his bearings and was at the wrong spot. No one came.”
“Do you think they just blew us off? Maybe found their own weapons and wanted to keep their food? It’s some of the only edible stuff we’ve found around here, I wouldn’t blame them for hoarding it,” Lauren said.
“I don’t think so. He and Henry had a good rapport; they did honest business, if you can believe it these days. Henry feels like whatever they were scared of caught up to them before they could get the protection they wanted.”
“They couldn’t be that far from us, right?”
“Maybe five miles?” Joy replied. “He and Henry’s meeting place was supposed to be halfway between our camps, and Henry said he only had to walk two or three miles. We’ve given them water before, so I don’t think they’re in the direction of the river.”
Lauren’s jaw involuntarily clenched.
“You understand why I haven’t shared this information with the rest of the camp?” Joy asked, peering at her.
“Right, of course not. Mass panic and all that,” Lauren said quickly.
“Exactly.” Joy patted Lauren’s arm. “So please don’t say anything. But don’t be afraid. We’re a much larger group than they were, and unlike them, we do have some protection if it came down to it. We just need to be extra careful.”
“No wonder Henry was mad about the bucket,” Lauren mumbled, wrapping her arms around herself.
“He’s not all bad, you know. He wants all of us safe just as much I do.”
“How do we know the other camp didn’t tell whoever attacked them about us? I would consider it, if I thought giving them information would save my camp.”
“We don’t,” Joy sighed again. “We can only hope all of us out here can have some type of solidarity. Would you really sentence another camp, just like us, to death? Would they deserve that just because we were found and they weren’t?”
Lauren felt like this was a test.
“No, I guess not,” she replied, mostly because she knew that was what Joy wanted to hear.
“It could have been anything, Lauren. Maybe they did find other trading partners. Maybe there’s a sickness at the camp. No one else knows of the meeting spot. This doesn’t mean the entire camp is gone, just Henry’s contact.”
“What does your gut tell you?” Lauren asked, unconvinced.
“About this missing camp thing,” Lauren turned to face her fully. “You always tell me to trust my gut, that my instincts are my strongest defense. What’s yours saying? Should we be scared?”
Joy watched her for a moment. After a beat she looked away, her eyes settling on the resting group.
“It’s saying we should be careful.”
The group headed back thirty minutes later, dusk falling.
“I hope Henry’s got dinner going,” Olivia said, tying her locs away from her face with a long sapphire-blue ribbon. “I’m starving.”
“Nah, he’ll have Marjorie do it,” West, Henry’s pseudo-lieutenant, answered her from several feet ahead of them, tugging playfully on the ribbon as Olivia passed. He fell into step beside them. “We men have better stuff to do, like building things and fighting wolves. Man stuff.”
West’s light blonde hair was tied in its signature short ponytail at the nape of his neck, sweaty strands sticking to his temple. He had bright blue eyes that often sparkled with mischief; in fact, the only suggestion that West was closer to thirty than twenty were the few laugh lines adorning his mouth.
“Only mildly sexist,” Lauren said, rolling her eyes.
“Man stuff, huh? Yet here you are strolling through the woods with a bunch of women,” Olivia quipped, bumping him with her hip, her arms wrapped around her bundle of kindling. The three of them brought up the rear as the group slowly moved back toward their encampment.
“I’m only joking,” West said, squeezing between Lauren and Olivia and throwing an arm around each of their shoulders. “I know both of you could kick my ass any day — but only because I refuse to hit a lady.”
“Speaking of, Tough Guy, why aren’t you carrying anything? Feeling weak?” Lauren said, glaring at him.
“Nah, gave ’em to the kid,” he said, jutting his chin toward Nathan. The younger boy carried more than anyone, sweat beading down his forehead.
“You jerk, you know he idolizes you,” Olivia said, though she was grinning. “I bet you were a bully in school.”
“You call it bullying, I call it educating, thank you, and I’m just trying to toughen the kid up. He has a girlfriend now, if he doesn’t build some muscle he won’t be able to protect her. Sam went through my rigorous training and he turned out alright, didn’t he, Larry?” West ruffled Lauren’s hair and she shoved him away with a shoulder.
“Shut it, West,” she grumbled. “And I told you not to call me that, I’m not twelve anymore.”
“Or what? You’ll send Loverboy after me? He may be the height of a baby giant but I could still take him. Tell me — does that puppy dog look really work on you?”
Lauren dropped her bundle of branches and turned to face him, her hands on her hips. Olivia whistled, continuing past them.
“Here they go!” she called.
Joy turned, sending an annoyed glare their way. “Can you two calm down? We don’t really have time for the horseplay today.”
“One sec, Joy,” West said, still grinning wickedly. “Lauren’s about to fight for her man’s honor.”
He cackled as Lauren lunged at him. He dodged her easily, leaping over the pile of kindling Lauren dropped and bounding into the woods.
“Don’t go far!” Joy called after them as Lauren pursued West through the trees.
“You’re too slow!” he shouted over his shoulder, hurdling over a thick log. Lauren narrowed her eyes and trailed him, clearing the same log a second later. Running through these forests was something Lauren did often and well; she would catch up to West in no time.
“You’ve got about seventy pounds on me!” Lauren shouted between breaths, tailing him. “I’m… faster than… you!”
Lauren was at his heels, spotting another log he’d have to leap over. She watched him jump in the air, and then pause for a moment to stick his landing on the other side — the same moment she used to jump onto the log instead of over it, bounding off it again and onto his back. She wrapped her arms around his neck, laughing as he spun in a circle trying to shake her off.
“Take it back!”
“Never!” he choked, half strangled by Lauren’s grip.
“I’m stronger than I look, West! Don’t make me kill you!”
She felt him laughing beneath her, still standing despite her increased pressure against his windpipe. In retaliation, West bumped her against nearby trees, backing into them while trying to pry her arm from around his neck.
“Oww!” she squealed as he grazed her against a tree. “You scraped me!”
West opened his mouth, still grinning, to give what would surely be a scathing retort, when they both froze.
The sound echoed around the trees, sending a flock of birds into the sky, and an electric chill down Lauren’s spine. She released her hold on West’s throat and jumped down. West held onto her arm, keeping her still.
“West, that was — ”
The hair stood up on Lauren’s neck, chilly wind finally penetrating down to her bones.