Evening had fallen, the temperature plummeting as a cool breeze tickled Lilith’s cheeks. She hugged the cloak closer to her, stared at the flickering fire which cast spidery shadows across the grass. Only 36 hours left before her inoculation lost its efficacy. Only 36 hours before she turned into an infected.
How Lilith had ever confused the werewolves for people was beyond her. Now, with time slipping out of her fingers before she became one of them, their animal nature was grotesquely apparent. Jake and Howl were snarling—snarling—at each other. Beside her was Amber, her yawns too wide, her teeth too sharp. And on the other side of the fire was Silver, the firelight reflecting in his eyes, lengthening the planes of his face to something barely human.
Beyond Silver, scattered throughout the clearing, were other small fires, each attended by a small group of werewolves in some kind of primitive attempt at civilisation. Lilith longed for electricity, for technology, for running water and the security of locked doors. Even her broken phone would have brought her a measure of comfort. And Emma, Lilith thought with a pang, blinking to forestall the tears. Everything she had once known was gone.
“Do you reckon dinner’s ready?” Amber asked, nodding towards the centre of the clearing, where Fang and Scar were tending to a large pot.
Lilith didn’t move, and Jake and Howl were too busy squabbling. Silver sighed, rose to his feet. “I’ll go check.”
As soon as he was out of earshot, Amber turned to Lilith. “Have you seen Dev and Rae? It’s disgusting.”
Rae and Dev were sitting by another fire, kissing enthusiastically, Rae straddling Dev’s lap. They were a study of contrasts, blond against black. Then, because Amber seemed to be expecting a reply, Lilith said, “I don’t know what Dev sees in her.” Maybe he liked the whole ‘I-can-tear-your-throat-wide-open’ thing. Or maybe Dev was just as bad as Rae; he was built like a rock, his dark skin enhancing every curve of muscle.
“I don’t think I want to know,” Amber replied with a headshake and a small smile.
Lilith only nodded.
The following silence was noticeably awkward. Amber began untangling her hair with her fingers, glancing at Lilith. Just get on with it, Lilith wanted to say, dreading the inevitable conversation. Here she was, talking to an infected, with only 36 hours left to get underground.
“Your parents,” Amber began, and to her credit she sounded sympathetic, “must be frantic with worry.”
Lilith shrugged. “My mother, maybe.” Worried, yes; frantic, no. Lilith’s mother was a woman of action; frantic didn’t really enter her vocabulary. She was far more likely already arresting whoever was responsible for the theatre attack.
“Not your father?”
Lilith looked away. “I haven’t seen him since I was eight.” It was a lie, but a small one; the last time she’d seen him she’d been four days away from her eighth birthday.
“Oh.” Amber shifted uncomfortably. “Sorry.” The fire crackled. Amber leaned forward to tend to it.
Could an infected even feel sorry? Lilith took her time to reply, her mood darkening with each passing moment. “It doesn’t matter.”
There was another awkward silence, and then Amber shot her a quick glance. “Can I ask what happened?” She was cringing, as if fearful of the worst. But Lilith knew better, had seen the way Rae delighted in suffering. The infected were animals; they only understood pain.
“He’s not dead,” Lilith replied bluntly. A vicious twist of satisfaction burned through her when Amber looked embarrassed. And then, even though there was no point confiding in an infected, Lilith couldn’t help but continue: “The day after my eighth birthday, my father called to tell me he wouldn’t be coming back anymore. He’d met someone else.”
It was the first time Lilith had ever said the words aloud, and she was almost disappointed by how nonchalant she sounded. Not even Emma knew the full story.
Her father had been gone for the weekend for a business trip—a common occurrence—and had called to wish Lilith a happy birthday. Never mind that he was a day late, Lilith had been surprised he’d remembered her birthday in the first place. It was one of the few times he’d remembered without prompting from her mother.
She remembered her father being forcefully cheery on the phone. He was in Aspin, he explained, with a lady. He wasn’t coming home.
The words had made very little sense to Lilith at the time. She had pictured him on the swings, next to an unknown woman with blonde hair. The woman’s face was a soft blur, a question mark.
“Like a friend?” Lilith had asked, knowing somewhere inside of her eight year old heart that dad wasn’t talking about a simple friend.
“No, honey,” he had said, slowly. “Not quite.”
Lilith hadn’t had the chance to ask him when she would see him again. Her mother had walked in and snatched the phone. Then she’d hung up the phone very, very carefully, an odd, concentrated look on her face.
She never saw her father again. The calls petered out, until all that was left was a dull ache and a growing stack of half-hearted birthday cards covered with pink ponies and pictures she had outgrown years before.
Lilith stared at the fire, hoping the brightness of the flames would burn away the tears in her eyes. Only 36 hours left. Not enough time to make it home. She struggled to swallow against the sudden lump in her throat.
“You okay?” Amber shuffled closer. “Sorry about asking about your parents.”
Lilith turned her head away, closing off her body language. “I’m fine.”
This time, when silence fell, Amber didn’t try to break it.
Lilith turned fully away from the fire. Trees ringed the clearing, ominous in the darkness, their needle-like leaves hissing in the wind. Beyond the trees were only shadows and flitters of movement best undisturbed.
The sky was a yawning emptiness overhead, a frightening reflection of how Lilith pictured the rest of her life. She longed for the narrow streets of Etal, the familiar press of walls on either side. How pitiful her dreams for open space now seemed! She’d been so in awe of Precision Horizon’s offices, but it was nothing—nothing—compared to this.
An elbow bumped against hers. Silver sat down next to Lilith, facing the fire. He passed her a plate piled high with food. He didn’t say a word, but his thigh was a line of warmth against hers.