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From Falling, Book 1 in the Saints of Salvation Series:

 

SPARKS SOARED into the night sky, a dance of fireflies caught up in a swirling wind. A hushed sound of distress escaped some of the onlookers when the roof of the church gave up its fight before the ever-present oppressive silence fell upon them once again.

They had to be silent; the enemy was listening. Always listening.

Nathan flinched when one of the building’s sides collapsed outward, spilling debris and embers onto the once pristine lawn. Now that patch of grass that had been the envy of the neighborhood was parched like the rest of the landscape, untended with no one left to care for it. Flames licked at the dried blades of grass which quickly succumbed as the fire spread across the lot.

He didn’t hold any particular fondness for the little white church that perched like a beacon on the corner of their street, but he wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulder when she sobbed softly, offering silent condolence. Tammy had grown up in the Baptist church and watching it crumble to the ground like a sandcastle giving in to the tide had to be difficult.

The arson was just one more crime in a very long string of them in their city. Rapes, murders, robberies… all the numbers had skyrocketed once the economy crashed, and the citizens panicked. Truthfully, though, the devastating financial situation seemed like just an excuse for the scum of the earth to crawl out of its hole.

Nathan knew their town wasn’t the only place suffering from the crash. Before he’d been unceremoniously booted from the town’s police force when life handed him an unsavory platter of “sucks to be you,” they’d been getting reports from all over Indiana about crime rates reaching unprecedented levels. Police in all divisions and departments were blindsided by it and no one knew what to do.

It had been expected that the governor would declare martial law and bring in the National Guard, but there was just too much chaos… and too few to deal with it. And instead of asking for volunteers to stay on and help fight against the anarchy, the police departments had just let everyone go.

Nathan was still shaking his head over that decision.

Tammy continued to sob quietly as the structure finally gave way and crumbled into a mass of twisted metal and burning timber. He tugged on his wife’s hand to pull her away from the scene.

“C’mon,” he murmured, “there’s no reason to stay here.” She nodded against his side, but then separated herself to hug some of the other onlookers. A few Nathan recognized—the pastor of the church, Ralph, for one, and his wife Eddy. The couple had been after him for years to come to church, to accept Jesus as his “savior.”

Nathan wasn’t having any of that nonsense.

Once his wife said her goodbyes, Nathan wrapped his warm around her shoulders and led her away. They’d been on their way out of town when Tammy saw the flames in the little church’s window and had rushed toward the building. Nathan had barely managed to grab her before she’d flung the front door open. What she’d been planning to do, he had no clue. He was just thankful that he’d been able to stop her in time.

“How far are we going?” Tammy said, barely above a whisper.

“Gerald’s house,” Nathan said, wincing when she sucked in a sharp breath.

“That far?”

He nodded; it was necessary that they get as far away from the city as they could, and as quickly as possible. They were already starting to lock down cities and towns of any notable size and Nathan didn’t want to get stuck “inside” where there wasn’t a safe place to be, nor a way to get out. At least they had a place to escape to.

When it was evident after a few chaotic months that life wasn’t going to return to “normal,” his friend from the police department had offered for them to stay with his family outside of the city. At the time, Nathan had secretly scoffed at Gerald’s offer; he was certainly man enough to hold his own against the petty thieves and others causing general mayhem. But then everything got worse.

So much worse.

And then there was the other consideration—that Tammy would be better off with people she knew when Nathan started down that slippery slope he found himself on. Gerald was one of only three people who knew about the horror he would soon be facing. Another was his precinct supervisor.

The other was his doctor.

He shook his thoughts away as he navigated them around a giant, newly formed pothole. Nathan didn’t want to tell Tammy the reason why they’d need to walk over twenty miles in the pitch-black night. It was a hazardous time to travel, with unseen dangers in their path likely to trip them, but he’d picked the moonless night for a reason. While they might not be able to see their surroundings, they in turn would not be seen.

And the new enemy was always watching. Listening and watching.

It had been whispered that they were quick to shuttle off “dissidents” to unknown places, just for voicing discontent or sharing an opinion. Nathan knew of several people who’d disappeared shortly after the enemy had shown itself. And those people had all been known to be very vocal in their conservative beliefs.

The time for having a voice of freedom had passed. They were no better off than Russia in the seventies. And soon, freedom would be as rare as it had been in Germany during the first four decades of the nineteen hundreds.

If he were a believer, Nathan supposed he’d be praying like his wife was so fond of doing. Tammy had certainly spent a good portion of her time on her knees after the economic collapse. He’d never known her to be so pious, but when everything started heading south toward the bowels of hell, she’d suddenly remembered her religion.

Nathan wished she hadn’t, because his wife had started hounding him to “get right with the Lord.”

He gritted his teeth at his thoughts. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was hypocrites. And as far as he was concerned, all Christians were just that. Nathan supposed that assumption was probably unfair, but the beliefs were embedded deep within him, like a sticker from a thistle that broke off under the skin.

It didn’t help that he’d been raised in a strict Jewish home, one that lambasted the Christian faith, especially in claiming that the Jews’ coveted Messiah had already come. His family had spent years drilling it into his head that “true Jews” still awaited their savior, and that the Christian’s claim was “blasphemous heresy.”

Truth be told, Nathan didn’t really believe the Jews either. As far as he was concerned, “God” was just myth created by man to keep people in line.

He kept his thoughts to himself, though. While Tammy hadn’t been practicing her religion when they’d met and married—if she had, he never would have asked her out in the first place—he didn’t begrudge her for falling back on it. The times were scary and if it made her feel better to pray to a myth, then he wasn’t going to say anything.

A sound to his left startled him and he reached out for his wife, inadvertently hitting something soft that made her yelp. He hissed softly, the sound telling her to be silent as they both stopped moving and just listened.

It was difficult to pick out individual sounds, what with the clamor of the night. Nathan thought that it was strange how those who weren’t breaking laws and wreaking havoc were quiet, staying under the enemy’s radar; yet those who were bent on crime sprees had no such qualms. They hooted and hollered and banged about, not caring who heard them. Nathan knew why they weren’t afraid of the enemy.

The Neo Geo Task Force encouraged them.

Most citizens thought the newly formed “government agency” was there to provide peacekeeping, to stop the criminals from getting out of control. The “Neos,” as they were called, were the good guys, the new sheriff in town. The city had breathed a collective sigh of relief when they’d rolled in.

Those in the police department knew better. The Neo Geo Task Force was no better than the S.S. of Nazi Germany. In fact, in many ways it seemed that they were worse. Far worse.

As the sounds in the night faded into the distance they continued walking, each silently considering their circumstances. Surviving was at the top of the list. Everything else paled.

Surviving had an entirely different meaning now. Before, it had been “work to make money so you can buy stuff and eat.” Now, it was “Stay low, keep your head down, avoid the criminals, and above all, avoid the Neos.”

All things considered, Nathan was glad the police department had let him go. Word was that the Neos were conscripting anyone who had weapons training. They’d started at the Federal level, but were now shaking down local law enforcement, looking for more minions to join their ranks. The last thing Nathan wanted to do was become another mindless Neos soldier, controlled by superiors with highly questionable ethics.

But the timing of the financial collapse couldn’t have been worse. When his supervisor informed him the department would have to terminate him, Lieutenant Jeffers had also told him that he would likely be eligible for long-term disability. Nathan had been hopeful that he’d be able to stash away some money for Tammy before the inevitable happened, plus he had the life insurance policy he’d taken out when he first joined the force. With the collapse, none of it mattered because money no longer mattered.

And it terrified him to think of his wife trying to survive on her own.

Gerald had promised Nathan that he and his wife would take Tammy in, for as long as she wanted to stay. That comforted him somewhat, though he wasn’t sure the offer would still stand once he was gone. Gerald had always been a good friend, but when times were as tough as they were, friendships had a way of taking a backseat to feeding your own.

A gunshot rang out and Tammy gasped, before Nathan clamped his hand over her mouth and pulled her to the shadow of a tree. Though the moonless night was dark, he didn’t trust that someone might spot them. Screams filled the night then, the sound of grief, the lament over the loss of a loved one.

Nathan’s heart clenched then, wondering how long Tammy would grieve over him. He hated the thought of her hurting and for the hundredth time, considered ending his life sooner than later. Get it over with. At least then she wouldn’t have to watch him wither away.

He shook his thoughts aside as he concentrated on the sounds. The screams were close, in one of the nearby homes. A woman, wailing, calling “Tiffany” over and over. Probably a child… In his ten years on the police force, Nathan knew there was nothing worse than a child’s death. He’d never met an officer who thought otherwise.

The heart-wrenching screams were abruptly cut off by another gunshot and Nathan decided to get Tammy out of the area before the shooter went on a rampage. Or before other lowlifes decided to join in on the shooting spree.

He pulled his wife along behind him as they ran down the block toward the little back road they needed to travel down. Nathan hoped the road leading toward Gerald’s farm would be deserted, as few had gasoline or the resources to get any. At least there were very few houses along the way. Less chance of running into someone with bad intentions.

They reached a cross street before he slowed down. Tammy was panting and Nathan felt a little guilty for dragging her the way he had, but it couldn’t be helped. They had to get away from “civilization” as fast as they could.

Heading down the cross street, they slowed to a walk as he relaxed his guard slightly. It was a nicer neighborhood, one of Nathan’s favorites. Older, but with well-kept homes and manicured lawns, it was one of the prettier areas of the town. Of course, that was true just a few months ago; nowadays, no one bothered to mow their grass or trim their shrubbery. It was just a matter of time before those nice homes were neglected and crumbling, or else taken over by the lowlifes who thought they deserved somewhere better to live.

Funny thing was, there wasn’t any place that was “better.” Not any longer.

Getting out of town, away from the others, was their only chance of survival. Nathan was sure of that. In the past few months, society as they’d once known it had dissolved into something entirely unrecognizable.

It was reminiscent of those ridiculous movies Nathan had seen as a kid, depicting a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors turned into savages, barbarians who held no value for human life. The survivors of the financial collapse might not be driving around in unrecognizable vehicles with bolted-on parts as makeshift armor or wearing animal skins that were little more than loincloths, but they were most certainly leaning toward savagery in every other way.

The back road they needed to be on was ten blocks away and Nathan breathed a sigh of relief as he realized they were making better time than he’d thought. Of course, some of that was due to forcing Tammy to run nearly four blocks, which he felt slightly guilty about. While he was still in good shape from his police days, Tammy had spent the past twelve years at a desk job as a dispatcher. It was how they’d met. She’d always joked about her “secretarial spread,” thinking her hips were too wide. That was no longer the case as she’d lost quite a bit of weight since snacks and desserts were a luxury of the past.

Lately, they’d been lucky to eat anything at all in a day.

That was something else the Neos had promised—they had a plan to provide food for the masses. Medicine, as well. Nathan huffed a quiet laugh; there was no medicine that could help him, even if he were willing to sell his soul to the Neos devils to get it.

Food, though… that would be good to have. He really hated imposing on Gerald and his wife, but most especially since they’d be arriving without anything to offer. No food, no supplies. Nothing.

Car lights in the distance startled him out of his thoughts and he grabbed Tammy’s arm, pulling her off the road and into the overgrown bushes lining the front yard of a large home. He tugged on his wife’s arm, pulling her to a squat as they waited for the vehicle to drive by. Hopefully, they hadn’t been spotted.

Tammy was panting again, but Nathan knew it was due to fright rather than fatigue. “It’s okay,” he murmured. “I don’t think they saw us.” She nodded but didn’t say anything.

Nathan peeked through the leaves, watching the car as it slowly approached. It seemed they were looking for something… or someone. He pulled Tammy farther into the shrubs, hoping they were out of sight.

They both released a breath when the car passed by, turning left on the street they’d just passed. Nathan stood, holding out a hand to help his wife up.

“That was close,” she murmured. He nodded, though he didn’t comment.

It angered him that they always had to be quiet, to keep their voices down and to be careful not to draw attention. For once, Nathan would have liked to shout, preferably from a rooftop somewhere, “Neos can kiss it!” But he supposed that was rather immature.

Tammy leaned over to dust off her knees after kneeling in the dirt. It made Nathan smile slightly, the fact that his wife was still concerned over such things. He adjusted her backpack, then shifted his own before starting to push back through the shrubs.

 

“Hold it right there!”

The voice startled them, though not as much as the volume. Only criminals had leave to make all the noise they wanted. The couple turned around slowly, putting their hands up.

Nathan squinted into the darkness, though he could only see the outline of the man who called out to them. He had to assume the man was armed and his heart pounded, worrying that he might shoot them with no provocation.

“We don’t mean any harm—”

“Shut up!” the man snapped. “I don’t care why you’re on my property, but you’ve got exactly two point oh seconds to get off it!”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nathan said as he grabbed his wife’s arm and yanked her through the bushes and into the street.

“And don’t you ever come back!” the man shouted.

It was then that Nathan realized he recognized the voice. It was Clyde Peters, who Nathan had helped just six months before when the old man had been robbed and left bleeding on the sidewalk in front of a diner. Nathan had driven Clyde to the hospital himself, since the man hadn’t wanted to call an ambulance. He’d even waited for Clyde to get stitched up, making sure he didn’t need a ride home.

Nathan paused and turned back. “Mr. Peters, it’s me, Nate. Uh, Officer Diamond. You remember me, right? I was the one—”

 

“I don’t care who you are!” the silhouetted figure shouted once again. “Get outta here!”

Nathan sighed and turned around, tugging Tammy to resume their trek away from civilization. What had once been a quiet, safe college town was now full of fearful, hateful people who only looked out for themselves. Crime was through the roof and the “peacekeepers” couldn’t care less.

It was a long time later when they finally reached the end of suburbia. Nathan felt the tension in his shoulders ease, though he kept a cautious eye on the horizon, waiting for the telltale glow of the coming morning. If they didn’t reach Gerald’s before then, they’d have to find a place to hide until darkness fell once again.

Though they were away from the houses of the town and, more importantly, the residents who felt the need to defend what little they had left with whatever means they had at their disposal, Nathan felt more exposed on the open road. They’d only walked maybe a quarter of a mile when he couldn’t get over the feeling and reached out to grab Tammy’s arm.

She jumped at the contact, obviously having been lost in her own world of thought. “What’s wrong?” she murmured.

“C’mon,” he said a bit more loudly. There wasn’t as great a need for quiet now that they were away from the town. “I… I just have a feeling that we need to get off the road.” Tammy didn’t answer, but she acquiesced, and they moved into the trees lining the road.

Tree branches caught at their clothing and skin as they moved through the woods. Nathan hoped they weren’t deviating from their easterly path, though it was difficult to tell in the dark. He wished he’d had survival training to know how to navigate with stars, though it wouldn’t have done much good with the canopy of leaves above them. Though they’d had a two-year drought and nearly every suburban lawn had long since died, it was a testament to the wild trees’ survivability that they were still green.

They were no longer making good time due to the difficulty of navigating the trees in the darkness and Nathan considered moving back onto the road, feeling a bit foolish for letting nothing more than a hunch govern his actions. But when the distant rumble of a vehicle caught his attention, he realized his gut feeling had panned out.

“Get down,” he told Tammy as he squatted. The rumble increased, and Nathan realized it wasn’t one vehicle, but a fleet of them. And most likely Neos.

His wife made a pained sound after kneeling beside him, but she immediately quieted as they watched the approaching convoy’s headlights through the trees. Nathan realized then they’d been paralleling the road nearly exactly. He also realized they were only a few dozen feet away from that road.

“Lie flat,” he told Tammy as he himself stretched out on the forest floor. The crunch of sticks and leaves made him wince, though he knew that was foolish; none of the passing soldiers would be able to hear such a soft noise. He was more concerned that they would be spotted, especially since he noticed one of the vehicles toward the back of the line was shining spotlights into the woods on both sides of the two-lane road. It made him frown, wondering what they were looking for.

Or who.

Tammy’s breath was coming in huffs, a clear indication she was feeling stressed. Nathan didn’t blame her; his own heart was pounding like mad. If they were caught, it was likely they’d never be heard from again.

Breaking the six p.m. curfew was grounds for shooting. Of course, that punishment only seemed to be doled out to those who broke it for the “wrong” reasons—running to a neighbor’s to borrow milk for a baby, or taking a loved one to the hospital. Nathan knew of two people who’d been shot dead in the street for both of those “offenses.” But perversely, the criminals were given free rein on the city. It seemed there was no curfew for those up to no good.

The world was topsy-turvy.

“What’s good is bad and what’s bad is good,” Tammy had told him when he’d shared the fact that their neighbor had been shot for trying to borrow some milk the night before. “The Bible talks about that in the end times.”

Of course, Nathan had ignored her comment, since he didn’t believe the Bible was actually true. As far as he was concerned, it was written by men about a make-believe god to try to scare people into acting right. The boogeyman for grownups.

The first truck in the convoy had reached the area across from where they were hidden and Nathan tensed as they drove by far too slowly for his liking. Tammy made a small sound of distress and he looked toward her, realizing he was grabbing her shoulder too tightly and released his grip. He frowned when he realized the light blue t-shirt and jeans shorts she wore might be easily spotted by the soldiers with the spotlights. Even in the darkness, he could see her clothing clearly.

“Shh,” he hissed softly, reminding her to stay silent. He waited a heartbeat for the first truck to pass, then grabbed the back of his wife’s shirt and tugged her. “Move farther back here,” he whispered. Thankfully, she listened and scooted with him without argument, deeper into the woods.

They belly crawled into thicker brush until Nathan was satisfied they were better hidden. He made a mental note to get some neutral-colored clothing for Tammy when they got to Gerald’s, since the clothes on their backs was literally all they had with them. The backpacks were reserved for what little food they could scrounge and precious bottles of water.

The convoy slowly made its way along the road, the tires of the big trucks crunching on the debris that had accumulated on the asphalt over months of disuse. Nathan estimated they were barely going five miles an hour, if that. It was obvious they were searching. That thought made him want to hold his breath.

From the headlights he’d seen, he figured there were ten trucks, and it seemed an eternity before the last truck with the spotlights passed them. As it approached, he grabbed Tammy’s head and held her to the ground, a silent plea to remain still and silent. Thankfully, she understood.

They released a collective breath when the truck finally passed, but they didn’t move or speak for a long time afterward, until the roar of the engines was so distant it was barely audible. Tammy was the first to break the silence.

“Thank You, Jesus. Thank You.”

Nathan rolled his eyes as he released her from his near stranglehold. He didn’t comment, though. The last thing he wanted to do was cause animosity between the two of them when time was so short. He didn’t want her to have any bad memories of him.

“C’mon, babe,” Nathan said as he pushed to a stand and grabbed Tammy’s backpack, pulling her up to her knees. She gasped again, another pained sound. He frowned.

“What’s wrong?”

It sounded like she was panting again, trying to get her breath. It was long moments before she spoke. “I… I have some sort of injury.”

 

His frown deepened. “What? And how?”

Instead of standing, Tammy leaned back to sit on the forest floor. “My leg. Shin. When we first crouched down in the trees. I… I think I have a stick or something stuck in my there.”

Nathan squatted beside her and squinted in the darkness, but he couldn’t see anything. He regretted not bringing his flashlight, but the batteries were too drained and he didn’t have any replacements. It wasn’t like he could go to the store and buy any, not without any money. The last time he’d checked, two D batteries were going for twenty-five dollars. They were probably up to a hundred now. It was just a matter of time before the U.S. dollar held no value whatsoever.

He slid a hand from her ankle slowly up her leg, feeling for whatever was causing her pain. She squeaked when he touched it, while he grimaced when he realized it was a rather large chunk of wood and they had no first aid supplies with them. Nathan was starting to feel like an idiot for not thinking of all the problems they might face while traveling. He’d just been in a hurry to get out of town and hadn’t planned. Not at all.

“I’m gonna have to pull it out,” he murmured. “It’s gonna hurt, honey, but try not to yell, ‘kay?” She didn’t answer, but he sensed her nodding.

“Okay, here we go, on three… one, two—” he yanked it out then and put his hand over the wound, hoping to stop any blood flow.

 

To her credit, Tammy made barely more than a grunt. “What happened to three?” she wheezed. Nathan smiled.

“Sometimes it’s better if you’re not expecting it. You woulda tensed at ‘three’ and it probably woulda hurt more.”

Even though he held his hand over the wound, he could feel blood seeping through his fingers. Nathan started worrying about blood loss, though he was glad that her body was cleaning the wound on its own. Keeping it clean, however, was going to be a challenge. He hoped Gerald had something they could put on it.

He took off his cover shirt and ripped a strip from the bottom, then wrapped it around her leg, tying it tight enough to make her suck in a breath. “Sorry,” he murmured, “gotta stop the blood flow. We’ll check it in a bit and see if we can loosen it.”

Nathan helped her to her feet and steadied her while she hopped. “Lean on me,” he instructed her. “We’re gonna have to go back on the road, cuz there’s no way we’re gonna be able to navigate this forest with you limping like that.”

“Sorry,” she muttered. Nathan leaned over and kissed her temple.

“Not like you got hurt on purpose,” he told her. “And it’s my fault for not packing a first aid kit.”

“We didn’t have one,” she pointed out as they started slowly making their way toward the road. “And I can only imagine how much they cost now.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “But not as much as booze. Last time I went to the store, I saw a bottle of cheap whiskey for two hundred thirty bucks. And some lady actually picked a bottle up.”

A low whistle escaped his wife’s lips. “People will do anything for their fix, huh?”

Nathan nodded, though she couldn’t see it. “Yeah, but maybe she was buying it for medicinal purposes.”

Tammy chuckled. “For pain management maybe?”

“And sterilization. You know, that’s not a bad thing, now that I think of it. Maybe we oughta dump some of our water bottles out and fill them with Jack Daniels.”

Despite her need to lean on him, Tammy managed to elbow him in the ribs while laughing quietly. Nathan was glad to hear it; it had been far too long since they’d been able to find anything humorous.

It was a long while before they made it back to the road and when they cleared the trees, he had to force his panic down; the dark night was already starting to lighten. Dawn was drawing near, and they still had over eight miles to go by his estimation.

Tammy didn’t make a sound as she limped and hopped alongside him while clinging to his waist. Nathan kept his arm securely around her back and had to shorten his long gait to match her shorter one. It made for a very uncomfortable walk, but he told his complaining inner voice to shut up; at least he wasn’t injured like his poor wife.

They’d barely made a mile when Tammy gasped, “Nate, I have to stop.” He glanced at the horizon, stifling a moan when he saw the red glow had lightened to a deep yellow. The sun was about to breach the earth and that meant they’d need to find a place to either hide or go deeper into the woods to continue their trek.

He turned them and helped her get through the trees until they found a fallen log to sit on. Tammy wheezed as she sat, and Nathan knelt in front of her. The makeshift bandage was already soaked through, and blood was trailing down her shin into her shoe. The sight made his heart lurch; the injury was worse than he’d originally thought.

Since he could see a bit better with the approaching dawn, he untied the bandage and peeled the fabric away from her wound. The sight that met him made his stomach churn; not because of the sight of blood, but because of the size of the hole in her leg. He would be able to fit his little finger into it.

Nathan was torn; instinct told him to drag Tammy into the thickest brush he could find and wait until dark to head out once again. But he knew that her wound needed tending to, and soon—it was still bleeding, and the deep puncture would likely get infected if they didn’t get it treated. He swallowed hard several times, his throat working against emotion and stress.

He was running worst-case scenarios through his head, a jumble of what-ifs and what-thens, when Tammy reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. She then said the words he most dreaded to hear.

“Honey, let’s pray.”

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