Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 19

  “Are you okay?”

  “Yeah. I hit my forehead on the stairs. ” His breath dances over my face and I breathe it in, inhaling deeply, my ribs expanding against his.

  Outside our tiny room under the stairs, something explodes. The walls shudder, dust falls into my eyes, and I need to cough. I lean my face into Bowen’s shoulder and force myself to take slow, even breaths. His arm moves around me, pulling me a millimeter closer, cradling my head.

  “It’s okay,” he whispers. “We’ll be okay. ” His chin bumps the crown of my head when he talks. “It’s the militia. They won’t find us in here. If it were a beast, or the …” His body shudders.

  I turn my head to the side, pressing my ear against his chest, and listen to the sounds of his body. Breath moves quickly in and out of him, and his heart is like the hummingbird’s wings—frantic.

  Boots pound the ground outside our room, go up the stairs, and unsettle more dust. I turn my face back against his shoulder and hold my breath. Most of the boots echo overhead, but one pair comes back down the stairs. Another shower of dust rains down. I press my face harder against him and take deep, slow breaths. The smell of him makes me think of cool mountain lakes and pine trees and sweat. I take a deeper breath, letting my body melt into the firm angles of his body, the safety of his physical presence, and loop my arms behind him.

  “Bowen?” someone yells.

  I jump, gripping the back of his shirt with my sweaty hands. The voice thunders through the factory and finds its way into our tiny shelter.

  “We need the Fec!” I recognize the voice. Mickelmoore, the gray-haired man. “Bowen, this Fec might be the most important person alive. It is mandatory that you turn her over to me. ”

  Bowen’s arm tightens around me, pulling me more firmly against him, against the rise and fall of his chest.

  Feet thump down the stairs again, shaking our shelter.

  “Sir, he’s not here. Tommy might have given us false info. They were pretty tight,” a different voice says. “Marshall thinks he saw something in the factory across the street. ”

  “File out,” Mickelmoore orders. “And have your guns ready. ”

  Boots echo and fade as they leave. I lift my face from Bowen’s damp shirt, relieved that they’re gone, and dare a deep breath of the dusty air. “Why d—” His hand presses against my mouth.

  “Someone’s still here. They always leave one man behind, just in case,” he whispers, his lips soft against my temple. My body goes rigid again. Our hearts beat against each other’s, and his hand stays firm over my lips. The air in the shelter is suddenly so dense I can hardly breathe. Or maybe it’s being pressed against Bowen that steals my breath. For a long time we stand motionless. And then the solitary sound of boots resonates through the factory, fades, and drifts into nothing.

  Bowen’s body grows slack, and he moves his hand from my mouth to the back of my neck. His breath cools the sweat on my face, and I lift my face toward his. He sighs and rests his forehead against mine. Our noses bump, and something soft touches my lips—his—an accidental, feathery touch. But then his hand tightens on the back of my neck, and his lips move, tracing a line of fire from my mouth, along my jaw, to the soft skin below my ear. He takes a deep breath and moves his lips back to mine. They press against mine again, soft and firm. And very deliberate. His lips part, and I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been kissed.

  My stomach drops, and my knees forget how to stay straight. I grip Bowen’s shirt and let my lips melt against his. But he pulls his face from mine.

  The door opens. Cooler, dry air takes Bowen’s place against my body, and he steps into the light. He runs his hands through his dark hair and curses.

  “What?” I say, breathless. I lick my lips and taste salt.

  He points to the door. Or what’s left of it—a gaping hole in the side of the factory, surrounded by rubble. The mangled door lies beneath the solitary window on the opposite side of the factory.

  He turns back to me, pulls me out into the open, and takes my place in the shelter. Kneeling, he begins filling the backpacks with food and water. The shelter is crammed with cans. From floor to ceiling. Except a small space big enough to fit one body. I look at Bowen’s scowling profile and wonder, Did I imagine his lips on mine? I slide my tongue over my lips again and can still taste him.

  “Take off your shirt,” he says, peering up at me.

  My heart jumps into my throat. “What?”

  His jaw muscles pulse. “Don’t ask questions. Just do it, Fo. ”

  I pull the stained shirt over my head. Bowen stands and puts his hands on my bare shoulders and looks down into my eyes. My knees tremble and I lean toward him. He frowns and flips me around so my back is to him, and pulls the shirt from my hand. It falls to the floor by my feet.

  “Arms out,” he orders. I lift my arms. He slips something over my hand and up to my shoulder, the way my mother helped me put on my coat when I was four. The other arm is next and then he spins me back around to face him. He pulls a heavy black vest closed over my chest and zips it into place.

  “Bulletproof?” I ask. His troubled eyes meet mine, and he nods. From the floor he takes my shirt and presses it into my hands. I pull it over my head, over the vest. The instant it’s in place, he thrusts a heavy, bulging pack at me and slings the other over his shoulders. Then, without a word, without a backward glance, he turns and leaves.

  “What about you?” I say, running after him, thinking of his scarred chest and shoulder—the only things hidden beneath his shirt. “Aren’t you going to put on a vest?”

  His stride doesn’t slow. “There’s only one. ”

  “So, you’re giving it to me? A Level Ten?” I ask, shocked, clumsily following him as I try to get my arms into the heavy backpack’s straps.

  He yanks the straps of his backpack tighter. “I suppose I am. ”

  “Why?”

  He slows and looks at me, and his eyes hold mine. I lick my lips again, wondering if I can still taste him. I can’t. He lets out a deep breath, looks at his watch, and curses. “Come on. It’s almost dusk. And shut up. We’ve got to be silent. And we’ve got to find somewhere to spend the night, fast. ”

  Chapter 20

  It is like playing capture the flag. Only if we’re caught by the other team, we lose something much more important than a scrap of fabric and a game. Bowen leads and I follow, from doorway to doorway, alley to alley, our feet as silent as the rest of the shadowed world.

  The sun sets and the sky darkens, and Bowen balances his gun over his shoulder, ready to shoot at any moment. I clutch the straps of my backpack with sweating hands. Every so often voices float over the still evening air. When this happens, we pause and Bowen tilts his head to the side, choosing a new direction. Always away from the voices.

  Bowen’s stance is as rigid as his gun. Tension oozes from his taut shoulders and finds its way inside me, making me jump at every sound, making my heart pound as we round corners and duck into buildings.

  “If we’re lucky, it’s the militia,” he whispers.

  Who else could it be? “And if we’re not lucky?” I whisper, wondering if I want to hear the answer. He glances at me over his shoulder, his face lost in shadows, but doesn’t reply.

  As we creep through the darkness between two tall buildings with gaping holes where windows used to be, the voices stir again, restless whispers bouncing between the walls. Bowen holds a hand out for me to stop, and when I do, my foot skids on the ground, a grating sound that destroys the silence, sends my heart into my throat, and makes a stream of sweat trickle between my shoulder blades. Bowen grips his gun, swinging it in a frantic circle, eye glued to the night-vision scope. I look around, but see nothing in the darkness.

  A pebble falls, swishing the air in front of my face, plunking on my shoe like a fat drop of rain before settling between my feet. Together Bowen and I look up to the roof of the bu
ilding on our right, Bowen through the gun’s scope. Before I see anything, he yanks me forward, hard. My feet tangle in his, and we crash to the ground, his arm cradling my head. Something pops and echoes, and I expect a firework to bloom overhead, mingling with the first stars of the night. Bowen gasps and his body flinches, curling against mine. An instant later, he shoves me aside and leaps to his feet, pulling me to standing in the same swift movement. With our hands clasped we run, backpacks thumping against our backs, veering through starlit alleys, across deserted streets, and in and out of buildings.

  Voices fill the dark, shouts that echo against buildings and disappear down alleys. Feet thud behind us, a staccato mess. I glance over my shoulder and see light dancing inside a building a block away. And then men wearing headlamps swarm out of it. Militia. Energy surges through me. I grip Bowen’s hand and run faster, pulling ahead of him, around the corner of a building.

  Gray against the gray dusk, like a plume of smoke, a shadow steps in front of me. My feet skid and grind on the pavement. Bowen slams into my back and throws an arm around my waist to keep me from spilling forward with his momentum.

  “Why did you …” His words die and his arm tightens around me. The shadow, slight and wispy as the naked trees, takes my hand and pulls me and Bowen, his arm still around my waist, into the nearest building.

  The building has windows, dark windows tinted to block out sunlight, whole windows in a world of broken glass. My eyes widen at the interior darkness, and my skin crawls. The building—there’s something about it, something different from all the others we’ve been in, as if it is frozen in time.

  Bowen’s arm tightens and pulls me to a stop. Without releasing me, he maneuvers himself between the shadow and me and raises his gun.

  “Who are you?” he whispers to the shadow.

  A smell oozes around us, clings to my throat like grease. I breathe through my mouth and taste the oily tang of tunnels.

  “Arrin?” I whisper, peering around Bowen.

  “Shut up, Fo,” she hisses. “Or we’ll all die. ”
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