Dust: Before and After - S.E. Smith - ebook

2016 Gold Winner of the Wishing Shelf Book Awards! Dust wakes to discover the world as he knew it is gone after fragments of a comet hit Earth. It isn’t the only thing that has changed, though, so has Dust. He now possesses powers that continue to grow, but also come with a price. A dangerous encounter after he leaves his home leads to a new discovery – other survivors, and a creature that has risen from the ashes, one that is determined to possess the powers that he has. Follow a new band of unlikely heroes as they fight to make Earth a better, safer place! Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of adventure and intrigue. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid landscapes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite! Main Content: 193 (6x9) pages, 64,078 words

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Before and After

S.E. Smith





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Sample of Voyage of the Defiance

Additional Books and Information

About the Author


I would like to thank my husband Steve for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank you to my sister and best friend, Linda, who not only encouraged me to write, but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Christel, Sally, Jolanda, Lisa, Laurelle, Debbie, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S.E. Smith

Montana Publishing

Young Adult

DUST: Before and After

Copyright © 2016 by Susan E. Smith

First E-Book Published March 2016

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters, places, and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations are strictly coincidental.

Summary: A teenage boy wakes to a different world after a comet hits Earth only to discover he has changed, and so have some of the other creatures on the planet. Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith had done it again!

ISBN: 978-1-942562-84-9 (Paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-942562-83-2 (eBook)

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. Post Apocalyptic – Fiction. 2. Science Fiction – Fiction. 3. Paranormal – Fiction. 4. Young Adult – Fiction. – 5. Romance – 6. Horror}



2016 Gold Winner of the Wishing Shelf Book Awards!

Dust wakes to discover the world as he knew it is gone after fragments of a comet hit Earth. It isn’t the only thing that has changed, though, so has Dust. He now possesses powers that continue to grow, but also come with a price.

A dangerous encounter after he leaves his home leads to a new discovery – other survivors, and a creature that has risen from the ashes, one that is determined to possess his powers.

Follow a new band of unlikely heroes as they fight to make Earth a better, safer place!

Chapter One

Before and After

Dust woke from his sleep, blinking up at the dark gray skies. He could see the swirl of acidic clouds through the hole in the ceiling. It took a moment for his body to catch up with his mind.

He often forgot to focus on it. Since the morning he woke up alone in a collapsed building that had once been his home, he realized that things would never be the same. Before, he was just a fourteen year old boy who loved playing video games and hated going to school. A year had passed since the day the comet hit the Earth. A year since the strange cloud had washed through the small town where he had lived Before. That is what he called his life... Before. Now, he was in the After.

His body wrenched as it came back to its solid form. He was used to the feeling now and thought no more about his unusual ability to dissolve into the shadows. Rising up off the floor, he stretched and twisted. Glancing around, he walked over to the bent metal cabinet where he had hidden his knapsack. It contained one pair of jeans, one shirt, a clean pair of underwear and socks, and a bottle of water.

With a wave of his hand, the debris in front of the cabinet rose up into the air and moved. He opened the door and pulled out the dark green knapsack he had found in one of his many excursions over the past year. Slinging the strap over his shoulder, he turned and quietly left the building.

Dust paused on the sidewalk outside the small convenience store where he had taken refuge. His disheveled brown hair stuck out in all directions. Glancing around, his dark brown eyes paused on a moving shadow between two abandoned cars halfway down the street. The sense of danger rose in his gut. His gaze narrowed on the three shadowy forms that slowly stepped out from between them.

Devil dogs.

He didn't know if that was what they were really called, but that was the name he had given them. They were like him... different.

Turning, he slipped the straps over his shoulders so he could run faster. It was time to move on. Where there were three of the creatures, there could be more. Dust felt the adrenaline surge through him as he took off at a steady pace, glancing back and forth as he ran through the center of the small town he had arrived in late the night before. He had hoped to find food. The changes to his body demanded that he eat more often.

Food wasn't always the easiest thing to find. The lack of it was what had finally forced him to leave the small town where he had lived with his family during the time Before. As the sole survivor, he had foraged for every piece of food he could find during the past year until he could find no more.

Dust didn't bother turning to see where the creatures were. He knew they would follow him. They were hungry. He knew, because he felt the same hunger. There would be a fight, of that he had no doubt. Up ahead was the shell of a two-story building. With a wave of his hand, the door was ripped off its hinges and it flew out behind him. He heard a snarl and a thud. They were closer than he'd realized.

Sprinting across the sidewalk, he disappeared into the shadows and allowed his body to dissolve. It would be difficult to keep his shadow form for long. He desperately needed food if he was going to continue using the amount of energy that he needed to maintain this form. Scooping up a metal pipe as he flew by, he turned just as the first shape came through the door behind him. The end of the pipe caught the creature in the chest, impaling it and driving him back against the wall. His body solidified at the force and the wind was knocked from him as he slammed into the wall.

The creature's glowing red eyes flashed and its jaws snapped, but he could already see the light fading. He immediately recognized that the creatures must be starving to attack him so boldly. Not only that, they couldn't hold their shadow form any longer than he could. He pressed the metal rod down to the floor and forced the metal tip further through the beast and twisted it. The creature's loud snarls turned to a scream before silence engulfed the room. Dust didn't wait. There were at least two left, possibly more.

Ripping the pipe out of the creature, he turned toward the open stairwell. The faint sound of glass crunching under heavy feet pulled his gaze to the ceiling. He could hear one of them. It must have gone through an upper level window. Dust's jaw tightened. He would have to kill all of them or the creatures would follow him and he would never find food or rest. His fingers wrapped around the cool metal and he started up the steps, taking them in a slow, steady climb. He was almost to the top when the huge black creature appeared at the top of the stairs.

Dust glanced over his shoulder when he heard a second snarl behind him. He was stuck between the two beasts. Glancing back and forth, he realized that they had set up a trap for him. A shiver ran through him. He started when the one above him suddenly jumped. Focusing, he used more of his precious energy. The creature flashed through his body, sending a wave of nausea through him. His body once more solidified and he thrust upward, pushing the rod through its soft underbelly while it was still in the air. He allowed the weight of the creature to twist him around. The force of the movement and his gradually weakening strength tore the metal pipe from his hands as it crashed into the beast moving up the stairs at the same time.

Stumbling back against the wall, he watched as the dying creature struck its companion. He gripped the stairwell and pulled himself up. He needed to find another weapon before the last beast regained its footing. His legs shook as he half crawled, half climbed the stairs. He barely had time to roll to the side before the third creature came up through the narrow opening and turned. Dust rolled to his stomach, his gaze froze on the heaving chest and foaming jaws. His arms trembled and he knew he didn't have the strength to dissolve.

He pushed upward in a slow, steady movement, never taking his eyes off the beast. He was almost to his feet when it sprang. Jumping, he twisted to the side and rolled. Almost immediately he was back on his feet and twisting around. The beast had slid into a large wooden desk. The force of its body hitting the desk shattered one of the legs and the heavy piece of furniture collapsed on top of it. He took advantage of the reprieve, darting down the staircase. He jumped over the dead creature at the bottom, tearing out the metal pipe protruding from its chest. Running, he burst back outside.

A loud crash resounded behind him. Dust didn't pause. Spying an abandoned SUV with its door partially open across the street, he pushed every ounce of energy he had left inside him to his quivering legs. He reached out and grabbed the door handle, pulling it open far enough to squeeze through. He barely had time to pull it closed before the beast hit the door with enough force to knock the SUV onto two wheels. The force of the blow knocked Dust across the console and into the passenger seat. He quickly pulled his legs up when the glass on the driver's door shattered.

Dust fumbled for the handle behind him as the beast thrust its long black head inside, its jaws snapping viciously at his legs. Blood dripped on the fine leather interior from where the ragged glass cut into the beast's neck. That didn't stop it. If anything, the creature became more enraged, clawing at the glass and pulling it away so it could try to wiggle into the vehicle. Dust kicked out, striking the canine-like snout. It jerked its head back, giving him just enough room to grab the door handle. He fell out the other side, landing heavily on his back. Kicking his foot out again, he slammed the door just as the creature jumped into the driver's seat.

Rolling stiffly onto his hands and knees, he gripped the metal rod in his hand and rose to his feet. Glancing back at the snarling beast, he took off running. It was only a matter of seconds before he heard the sound of breaking glass again. Ducking under a torn awning, he darted through the open door of another building. It didn't take long for him to realize his mistake. The back section of the building was blocked by fallen debris. The only thing separating him from death was a tall refrigerated display case and the metal pipe in his hand. Turning, he backed up as the dark shadow paused in the entrance.

"Don't move until I tell you," a soft voice said behind him.

Chapter Two

Someone else lives

Dust froze, his eyes locked on the blazing red eyes of the devil dog even as he wanted to turn to the sound of the voice. It was the first voice other than his own that he'd heard in over a year. Afraid he was dreaming, he stood ready, holding the bloody pipe in front of him.

The beast took another step and snarled. White foam dripped from its mouth and its yellow teeth snapped as it moved through the doorway. Dust knew it was about to attack. The sound of the voice yelling for him to move echoed through the air at the same time as a thin shaft flew past his right shoulder.

He jumped to the side, sliding under a table that was bolted to the floor. His back hit the wall and he jerked his legs out of the way as the beast’s thick, black body slid across the few feet of cleared space on the dirty tile. He stared in shock at the two thick shafts of wood sticking out of its throat and upper chest. The beast's red eyes were blank and its jaw hung open as it pulled in its last breath of air.

Dust slowly scooted out from under the table, keeping his eyes on the creature just in case. He was rising to his feet when a movement behind the counter caught his attention. Turning, he held the dark gray pipe out in front of him. Two figures, one slightly taller than the other rose from behind an old display. Swallowing, Dust stared at the two dirty faces looking back at him with a combination of curiosity and fear. It took a moment for him to realize that the tall person was pointing one of the long arrows at him.

Dust waited, staring at the girl. He saw her swallow, but she didn't lower the bow in her hands. The small boy next to her scooted slightly behind her when Dust glanced at him. His gaze returned to the girl's face. He curled his fingers into a tight fist as a wave of dizziness washed through him. The hunger was beginning to become unbearable. He needed something to eat.

"Who are you?" Dust asked in a rusty voice, his eyes locked on the face of the young girl who seemed to be close to his own age.

Dust swayed as he waited for the girl to respond. He saw her swallow again and nervously bite her bottom lip. She still didn't lower the bow in her hands, even though he had dropped the pipe to his side. The small boy next to her stared back at Dust with a wide-eyed, curious expression. Dust kept his gaze fixed on the girl's face.

"Who are you?" the girl suddenly demanded, staring at him through narrow eyes.

Dust flexed the fingers of his right hand, trying to stay focused. "Dust," he said in a low, hoarse voice.

"Sammy, he don't look so good," the boy whispered, tugging on her shirt.

"What's wrong with you?" Sammy asked in a tight voice.

"Food," Dust whispered, uncurling the fingers of his left hand and letting the pipe drop to the floor with a loud thump. He felt his legs begin to shake so much that he couldn't hold himself up. "I need food."

The girl lowered the bow when his knees gave out on him and he sank to the floor. His head fell forward and he drew in a deep breath before gagging when the stench of the dead devil dog poured through his nose. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and shakily lifted his arm to cover his nose.

"We need to get out of here," the girl said in a soft voice, stepping around the edge of the display case. "Todd, get me one of the bars."

"But, Sammy," Todd protested. "We don't have but three left."

Sammy frowned at the small boy that appeared to be around seven years old. "Now we have two," she stated, holding out her hand. "Get me one of them."

Dust didn't bother opening his eyes. He was afraid if he did that the two of them would disappear. Instead, he rested his cheek against his bent arm.

"Here," Sammy said. "Eat this, but do it slow so you don't get sick."

Dust lifted his head and opened his eyes. Sammy was holding out a small fruit bar. His mouth watered and he reached shakily for it. Their fingers touched for a brief moment and he almost jerked back. He could tell she was just as surprised as he was at the contact. Taking the small bar of food from her hand, he nodded his thanks before lifting it to his mouth and taking a bite.

All too soon, it was gone. His eyes closed again for a moment as he felt a surge of energy. It wouldn't last long, but it was enough to keep him going. His eyes popped open when he felt the tentative touch on his arm again.

"We really need to get going," Sammy said, rising to her feet and holding her hand out. "I don't know how many more of those creatures there are. I counted four earlier."

Dust nodded, reaching up and gripping her hand. He rose clumsily to his feet before bending down and picking up the bloody metal pipe. Testing it, he glanced at Sammy and Todd.

"I killed two of them. That makes three," he muttered, staring out the doorway. "I need more food."

"There's a small grocery store at the end of the street," Sammy said, uneasily. "That's where we were headed when we saw those things and hid in here. It's just a few doors down."

Dust lifted his arm, stopping Sammy when she started to walk around him. His gaze flickered from her to Todd and back again. If there was still another one of those creatures out there, he would go first.

"I'll go first, you follow," he said in a rough voice. "Keep the kid between us."

"I know how to take care of us," Sammy muttered, glancing at Todd. "Hand me the backpack, Todd."

"I've got it, Sammy," Todd mumbled. "You need your hands free."

Dust felt a tug of emotion when Sammy smiled tenderly down at the boy. For a moment, he felt a wave of envy. There were times in the past year that he would have given anything to have someone to talk to. He drew in a deep breath. Now wasn't the time to think of the past. He needed to find more food before the little bit of strength he had deserted him.

Grabbing a hold of the door frame, he glanced outside. His gaze carefully moved down along the street in both directions before pausing on the building across the street. If there were only four of the devil dogs, then they should be okay. He could kill the other one. He glanced over his shoulder and jerked his head to Sammy and Todd. Stepping outside, he walked slowly down the sidewalk along the buildings, pausing every once in a while to search the shadows.

A sigh of relief poured through Dust when he saw the sign for the small grocery store hanging at an odd angle. He really hoped there was still some food inside. His steps increased as they drew nearer. He was passing a small barber shop when a movement inside caught his attention. The shadowy form exploded through the plate glass window just as he turned.

The devil dog's snapping jaws barely missed his throat as it hit him in the chest. The only thing that saved him was the metal pipe he had raised and gripped between both of his hands. A grunt of pain escaped him when the creature's sharp claws sliced through his thin shirt and across his chest. Twisting, he tripped on the edge of the curb and landed heavily on his back in the road.

Dust jerked his head back when the beast lunged again for his neck. His arms strained to keep it back, but its front and back legs were cutting through his clothing. A hoarse yell escaped him when the beast suddenly yelped and rolled away from him. He turned onto his side, staring at it as it wobbled for a moment before it turned and half ran, half limped away, the shaft of one of Sammy's arrows sticking out of its front shoulder.

"You're bleeding," Sammy said, kneeling down beside him. "Did it bite you?"

Dust shook his head and grimaced as the pain from the numerous cuts flashed through him. "No, just scratches," he muttered, leaning on the pipe as Sammy slid her arm around his waist.

"I'll lead," she said, turning to Todd. "You help him."

Todd just nodded. His eyes were wide with fear. He stepped forward and stood next to Dust.

"What if there's more?" Todd whispered, glancing back at where the devil dog had disappeared between two buildings.

"Then we'll deal with them," Sammy said, fitting her last arrow into the bow. "I need to either get the arrows I shot or find more."

"I need food first," Dust muttered, beginning to droop again. "Food, then we'll look."

"Hopefully there are some medical supplies there as well," Sammy said with a worried glance at the blood coating the front of Dust's shredded shirt. "Let's go."

Dust just nodded. Once he had food in his system, it wouldn't take long for his skin to heal. It was one of the things he had learned after he had awoken from the change. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he leaned against Todd so he wouldn't fall flat on his face again. They stepped back up onto the sidewalk and continued the few feet to the entrance of the store.

The large front window and the glass in the front doors were shattered. Sammy lowered her bow and peered through the opening before reaching over and tugging the door open. The loud screeching sound of metal hitting the glass as it pushed against the concrete drew a wince from all of them. Sammy glanced back at Todd and Dust before squaring her shoulders and stepping through into the dark interior.

Chapter Three

The Search for Food

She and Todd hadn't known what was going on that day almost a year ago. Her dad had been at work and her mom had driven into town for a doctor's appointment. She had been watching Todd when the weather alert went off. At first, she thought it was a mistake because the skies had been a crystal clear blue, but the alert said that it wasn't and that emergency precautions needed to be made. She had dragged Todd down into the storm cellar buried out behind the house.

They were almost there when they saw the huge, dark cloud rolling toward them. Sammy had never seen anything like it. Frightened, she had ordered Todd to get down behind the boxes in the back as she slammed the door shut and locked it. Seconds later, the light on the inside had gone out and the entire shelter had shaken so hard that Sammy had been thrown to the floor.

The aftershocks continued for days and the sound of dirt and rocks hitting the door had lasted even longer. For a while, Sammy had actually feared that they might get buried under the onslaught. When it finally stopped, they had waited... and waited... and waited for either their mom or dad to come tell them that it was safe to come out. Sammy had used the flashlights stored in the shelter sparingly. Fortunately, the growing season had just ended and the huge collection of canned goods she and her mom had processed and stored for selling remained protected from the fallout.

A week had gone by before Sammy finally worked at forcing the door to the shelter open. The land around the house was barren, stripped clear by the blast. Only the shell of their house and the barn remained. She and Todd had searched the area, but they seemed to be the only ones left alive. Remembering her father's warning that if there was ever an emergency to stay put until someone came for them, Sammy salvaged what she could from the ruins of the house and returned to the storm shelter.

They had waited for someone to come, but no one ever did. When the food started to get low, she and Todd began venturing to neighboring farms in the hope they would find someone. They discovered the occasional can of food, but never another living human soul.

The first strange creature they discovered had been small. She and Todd were on their way back to the shelter from a neighboring farm. They had stopped at a narrow bridge over a dried creek to rest. The thing had come up from under the bridge and grabbed Todd's pant leg. She used a long walking stick that she had found and beat the thing to death. They had run back to the shelter and hidden for two days.

It had taken her a while to finally understand that the thing had been some type of mutated animal. That was when she searched the barn for her dad's old bow and arrows that he used when he went hunting. She spent hour after hour each day practicing until she was confident she could protect herself and Todd if need be. Two months later, their food was dangerously low and she knew they had no choice but to leave the shelter and search for some – and more survivors.

"I see food," she said, shaking away the memories as she stepped through the doorway. "It looks like the creatures didn't get all of it, only the stuff they could reach and open."

"I... I just need something... anything... for now," Dust muttered in a voice filled with pain.

Sammy glanced at the bent shelf that was closer to her. There were cans of green beans on it. It would have to do. Gripping the bow in her right hand, she walked over to the shelf and grabbed a can. She turned and wove her way along the row of cash registers, searching for something to open the can with, when she saw a can opener hanging from the tab along with other items. Grabbing it, she quickly removed the top of the can before turning to walk over to where Dust was sinking down next to a pile of shredded candy wrappers. She held the can of green beans out to him.

"Be careful, the edge is sharp," she said. "I'll go look for some medical supplies. Todd, you start picking up as many cans of food as you can and stack them near Dust. We'll figure out what to do with them once we have an idea of how much there is."

"Okay," Todd said, sliding the backpack off his thin shoulders.

Sammy glanced one last time toward Dust where he sat frantically eating the green beans, liquid and all. Her gaze flashed over his chest. She'd have to see if there were any clothes along with the medical supplies. She reached down next to him and picked up one of the handheld shopping baskets before turning to walk away.

She glanced up at the signs above each aisle. Number ten held cosmetics and bandages. She carefully walked down the center aisle, pausing to glance down each row as she went. It looked like most of the items had been either knocked off the shelves or crushed.

Turning down aisle number ten, she quickly grabbed everything she could off the shelves. Once the basket was filled, she released a frustrated groan. She would need to get more baskets. Food and medical supplies were essential. How they would carry everything, she didn't know, but for now, she wasn't going to worry about it. Remembering the blood covering Dust, she turned and hurried back down the aisle to where she had left him.

"I found some...," Sammy's voice died when she saw the four empty cans of green beans next to Dust. That wasn't what froze the words in her throat. "What happened...? How did...? What are you?” she asked in a trembling voice, staring at his chest.

Sammy's fingers instinctively searched for the bow she always carried. A curse swept through her mind when she remembered that she had set it down to gather the medical supplies. Swallowing, she dropped the basket in her hand and took a step back as Dust rose to his feet. Her eyes remained glued to his chest. There was dried blood on his skin where the devil dog had clawed him. The front of his shredded T-shirt was proof that she hadn't imagined the attack a short while ago. Only now, instead of ripped flesh there was smooth, unmarred skin.

"I don't know," Dust replied, staring back at her with an intense expression on his face. "But, I know that I won't hurt you or Todd."

Sammy shook her head, her eyes flashing from his face to his chest. She bit her lip, trying to decide if she should scream for Todd to run or stand her ground. Her gaze flickered to the front door. If they ran, how far could they get? That thing was still out there and they needed food. She was also out of arrows. In here... There was food, medicine, and... Dust. Swallowing, she locked gazes with Dust again. Could she trust him? That was the real question.

Chapter Four

What is he?

Dust stared at the two figures walking ahead of him. He glanced down and kicked at a stone in the road when Sammy looked over her shoulder at him again. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. She had been glaring at him for the past two hours. At first, she had backed away from him. When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to attack her and Todd, she had tried ignoring him. They had worked quietly, gathering as much food as they could and placing it in stacks.

He found some more shirts on one of the aisles and quickly changed out of his torn and bloody one. He had also snacked on anything he could find and felt better than he had in ages. He paused when she stopped to stare inside one of the small cars left in the middle of the road. Curious, she opened the door and slid into the driver's seat. He jumped when he heard the clicking of the engine. His expression softened when Sammy leaned her forehead against the steering wheel.

“Pop the hood,” he called out.

Sammy slowly lifted her head and stared at him in silence before she bent down and pulled the lever. Dust stepped forward and felt under the hood until he found the latch. Pulling it, he lifted the hood and pulled the thin bar down to hold it up. He glanced around the engine, looking for anything obvious.

“Can you fix it?” Todd asked, coming up to stand next to Dust.

“Maybe,” Dust replied, touching some of the wires and hoses, before checking the battery. “Does it have any gas?”

Sammy stepped up to look up under the hood. “I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “The battery is dead.”

Dust grinned. “I might be able to help with that,” he commented, looking around. “Wait here.”

“Where else are we going to go?” Sammy muttered under her breath as she turned to watch him jog across the street. “Shit!”

“Sammy!” Todd exclaimed, watching Dust with wide eyes.

“Sorry,” she muttered, staring at the spot where Dust had just disappeared – literally. “He just went through that door without opening it!”

“I know,” Todd whispered in awe. “I wish I could do that!”

Sammy didn’t say anything. Instead, she watched as the door opened this time and Dust walked out. He had disappeared inside what looked like a discount auto store. He had several things in a dark red basket. He stopped in front of the car and set the basket down before rubbing his hands nervously down the front of his pants.

“I used to help my dad in his shop,” Dust admitted. “It may take a little while, but all we’ve got is time, right?” he joked, looking at Sammy with a slightly pleading look.

“Why are you doing this?” Sammy asked, swallowing over the lump in her throat. “What happened to you?”

Dust bent his head and shook it. “I don’t want you to go without me,” he said softly. Clearing his throat, he bent and picked up the tools he had picked out and set them on the edge of the radiator. “You two are the first humans I’ve seen in over a year. The only other thing I’ve seen are a few animals and….”

“And?” Sammy asked, motioning for Todd to take the pack in her hands. “Can you put this in the car?”

“Okay. Can I help you, Dust?” Todd asked with a hopeful smile.

Dust nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Can you make sure everything is cleaned out as much as possible so we can load the car up when we get it going?”

Todd’s face fell, but he nodded his head and kicked at a loose rock. “Yeah, I guess,” he mumbled.

“If I need more help, I’ll call you,” Dust promised. “This is important, though. We’ve got to have supplies.”

“That’s okay,” Todd replied with a hesitant smile. “Can you teach me how to go through doors like you did?”

Dust’s smile faded and he bowed his head again. Sammy shook her head at Todd, who released a loud sigh and turned away. Sammy’s gaze followed her little brother with a look of worry.

“I won’t hurt him… or you,” Dust muttered. “You asked me what happened to me. I don’t know,” he said, bending forward and beginning to pull the spark plugs. Both the plugs and wires were scorched. He quickly removed them and tossed them to the side. “I don’t remember much after the initial blast. I was in the house alone. My mom and dad were in the barn, trying to bring the cows inside.”

“What… What happened to them?” Sammy asked, watching as Dust worked.

Dust glanced at her before bending to pick up some new spark plugs he had taken from the auto store. Sammy wished she could take back the question, but it was too late. Dust turned away from her and worked in silence for several minutes before he spoke again.

“They were gone and so was the barn. There wasn’t much left of the house,” he said in a low voice. “I woke up buried in the cellar. I could see through the roof. I remember a strange light in the sky, bolts of lightning striking all around me and a strange dust. It all mixed together and everything began to glow. The next time I woke, I was….”

“You were…,” Sammy prompted, placing her hand lightly on his arm before jerking it away.

Dust’s head slowly turned and he looked at her with piercing brown eyes. “I was there, but I wasn’t.”

Sammy stared at him for a long time before she nodded, as if she had made up her mind about something. Biting her lip, she looked at where Todd was playing. Her heart hurt for both Todd and Dust. Life shouldn’t be like this. Blinking back the tears, she looked back at Dust and blushed a little when she saw he was watching her.

“Todd can stay here and help you,” she said suddenly. “I’ll start bringing stuff from the store and packing it into the car. This way we can get out of here as soon as you get it started.”

“Okay,” Dust replied, glancing back down the street with a frown. “Be careful. We don’t know what happened to that one devil dog and we don’t know if there are more.”

“I will be,” Sammy said, stepping back. “Just… Promise me that you’ll keep Todd safe.”

Dust straightened. “I promise,” he replied. “I’ll keep you both safe – or die trying.”

“Let’s hope that won’t be necessary,” Sammy retorted with an unsteady laugh, pushing her hair back behind her ear.

“Take your bow,” Dust advised.

Sammy shook her head. “I only have one arrow left. I’ll borrow your pipe,” she said, reaching for the long piece of metal leaning up against the front of the car. “Just get the car going.”

Sammy didn’t wait for Dust to reply. Instead, she focused on the task she had assigned herself. If Dust was successful, she wanted to get out of here. Her gut was telling her they didn’t want to be here after dark tonight.

Chapter Five

A Way Out

Dust listened to Todd as he ran around the car. Glancing at the boy, he made sure that he couldn’t see what he was about to do. The battery was dead and there was no way to jump it.

Checking on Todd once more, he held his hands above the battery where the cables connected. A burst of energy shot out from the palm of his hand. He kept it that way for a moment before he pulled his hand back.

He wiped his hands on the cloth he had found in the store and walked around to the driver’s side. Sliding in, he turned the key. The engine tried to turn over, but couldn’t quite make it. Fortunately, the gauges were now working and he could see that the car had an almost full tank of gas. Turning the key off, he slid back out of the car and looked for Todd.

“Todd, I need your help, dude,” Dust called.

Todd’s head whipped around and a huge smile lit his face. He dropped the stick he was playing with and ran over to Dust. Dust couldn’t help but grin at the boy’s enthusiasm.

“What’cha need help with?” Todd asked excitedly.

Dust nodded to the driver’s seat. “I need you to turn the key when I tell you to,” he said. “Do you know how?”

“Sure, my dad would let me start the truck if it was cold out so it could warm up,” Todd replied, sliding into the seat. “Do you need me to give it gas?”

“Not unless I tell you,” Dust replied. “I don’t want to take a chance of flooding it. I’m not sure how good the gas is, hopefully it isn’t too bad.”

“Okay, just tell me when,” Todd answered with a grin.

Dust walked back around to the front and bent over the battery again. This time, he sent a stronger charge into it and yelled for Todd to try to start it. It took three tries before the car started. It idled roughly at first, but soon smoothed out.

“Just let it idle for a while to give the battery a chance to charge,” Dust instructed, turning when he heard the sound of wheels on concrete.

“Wow! That’s a great idea, Sammy,” Todd said, watching as his sister pushed one shopping cart full of food and items they had salvaged and pulled another one. “Do you want some help?”

Sammy nodded, pushing her hair back from her flushed cheeks. “If you can start packing this in the car, I’ll go back for more. There isn’t much, but maybe we can find more in another town,” she said, turning to look at Dust with delight. “You got it running!”

Dust grinned and polished his fingernails on the front of his shirt. “Of course,” he replied with a grin. “I’d like to see if I can find extra gas to take with us, just in case.”

“Okay, but that means less for us to pack in the car,” Sammy said, looking at the shopping carts.

“No, I’ll tie them to the luggage rack,” Dust said with a shake of his head. “We can’t put the gas in the car. It wouldn’t be safe.”

“Oh, right,” Sammy said with a slight blush. “I knew that.”

“I helped Dust start the car, Sammy,” Todd boasted. “I’ll take care of this stuff while you and Dust get the other stuff.”

“Thanks, Todd,” Sammy said with an affectionate smile. “One more trip should do it.”

“I saw some gas cans in the auto supply store. I’ll grab them and anything else I think we could use and meet you back here. I’ve got to change a couple of the tires, too,” Dust explained. He decided he’d better test the engine by turning it off and back on before he left it. He grinned when it started again. Deciding not to waste any more gas than necessary, he shut it back off. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Todd, will you be alright?”

“Sure! If anything comes at me, I’ll jump in the car and close the doors,” Todd said. “I’ve done that before.”

Dust paused and stared at Todd. “When?” he asked in a tight voice.

“Once on the way here,” she said, looking to stare down the road. “There were some other creatures, not as big as the devil dogs, but just like them.”

“We saw them attack a stray cow,” Todd said in a somber voice. “Sammy and I hid in the car until they were gone. When we finally got out, there wasn’t nothing left of the cow but a few bones.”

“They were near the town where we used to live,” Sammy said, looking back at Dust. “That’s why we came north. We were hoping that they wouldn’t be here.”

“But they were, just not as many,” Todd added.

“How many were there where you were at?” Dust asked, looking at Sammy.

She shrugged and looked down, was silent for a minute before she looked up at him and bit her lip at the dark memory. “I don’t know, a dozen or more,” she finally said. “It was hard to look and count. They were everywhere and I was afraid they would see us.”

Dust’s eyes narrowed and he pressed his lips together. A dozen was more than he’d seen at any time. Four, maybe five, but more than a dozen wasn’t good. He had noticed back in his home town that they worked together as a pack. It had been difficult, but he had eventually killed the last one. Unfortunately, like him, they needed food, a lot of it to survive and had cleaned out the town fairly quickly. He was surprised that they hadn’t done that here. The only reason he could think of was because they hadn’t been here for long.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” he said with a sharp nod. “Todd, pack the car. Sammy, get all the food and supplies that you can. I’ll find more gas and anything else I think we might need. How far away is your town from here?”

“Twenty, maybe twenty-five miles or so,” Sammy said, pushing her hair behind her ear.

“We need to get out of here,” Dust said, turning away. “Something tells me with that many, they are going to be looking for food and traveling fast.”

Chapter Six

The Beginning of the Pack

"That's it," Dust said, pulling on the straps he had found in the auto parts store.

"Dust," Sammy called out suddenly from the other side of the car.