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By Beth Lewis
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on 2016-07-05
FICTION / Science Fiction, FICTION / Thrillers
Elka is our plucky young lady’s name and she had my undivided attention as she told her tale of survival against the odds. Having the strong voice needed to convey everything her story had to offer she takes the most challenging circumstances on the chin. Each time she unearths an appalling fact along the way she briefly reflects by applying her unique brand of wisdom to the situation.
I don’t much like roads. Roads is some other man’s path that people follow no question. All my life I lived by rules of the forest and rules of myself. One of them rules is don’t go trusting another man’s path.
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A girl on the run in a post-apocalyptic wilderness soon realizes that your past can not only haunt you, it can kill you.
A romp through the frozen woods on the trail of a killer who’s also hunting you can be satisfying, but this debut is a rabbit snare that comes up empty time and again.
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The W O L F R O A D
THE WO LF RO A D B E T H L E W I S C R O W P U B L I S H E R S N E W Y O R K C R O W NN N E W YO R K A NOVEL
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright ? 2016 by Beth Lewis All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. crownpublishing.com CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. Simultaneously published in Great Britain by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, London. Library of Congress Catalogingin-Publication Data Names: Lewis, Beth, 1986? author. Title: The wolf road / by Beth Lewis. Description: First United States edition. | New York : Crown Publishers, 2016. Identifiers: LCCN 2015038448 Subjects: LCSH: Orphans'Fiction. | Survival'Fiction. | Apocalyptic fiction. | Suspense fiction. Classification: LCC PR6112.E8924 W65 2016 | DDC 823/.92'dc23 LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2015038448 ISBN 978- 1- 101- 90612- 5 eBook ISBN 978- 1- 101- 90613- 2 Printed in the United States of America Frontispiece image: Aleksander Bolbot/Shutterstock Jacket design: Jake Nicolella Jacket photograph: (trees) Gallinago_media/Shutterstock 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 First United States Edition
For my mum and her red pen.
The W O L F R O A D
The End a? Old Me I sat up high, oak branch 'tween my knees, and watched the tattooed man stride about in the snow. Pictures all over his face, no skin left no more, just ink and blood. Looking for me, he was. Always looking for me. He left red drops in the white, fallen from his fish knife. Not fish blood though. Man blood. Boy blood. Lad from Tucket lost his scalp to that knife. Scrap of hair and pink hung from the man's belt. That was dripping too, hot and fresh. He'd left the body in the thicket for the wolves to find. I blew smoky breath into my hands. 'You're a long way from home, Kreagar,' I called down. The trees took my voice and scattered it to pieces. Winter made skeletons of the forest, see, made camouflage tricky 'less you know what you're doing, and I know exactly what I'm doing. He weren't going to find no tracks nor footprints nowhere in this forest what weren't his, I know better'n that. Kreagar looked all around, up high and 'neath brushes, but I've always been good at hiding. 'Who's that talkin? at me out in the trees'? he shouted. His voice was like rubbing bone on bark. Something raw in it when he raged, but when he was kind it was soft rumbling that cut through a chill night. I didn't want to think about him being kind no more. His kindness was lies and masks. 'Saw what you did to that boy,' I said, 'saw where you put him. See his curly hair on your belt.'
| B E T H L E W I S Kreagar sniffed hard. Cold making his nose run into his beard. Teeth bared like one of them mountain bears. Didn't even have a shirt on, never did when he did his killing. Blood splashed all over his chest, mingling with the tattoos and wiry black hair. 'That you, Elka girl? That my Elka playing squirrel in the trees'? he shouted. 'I ain't yours,' I said, 'never was, never gonna be.' I took out my knife. Long blade, barbed saw teeth on the back, and staghorn handle. Kreagar stamped around the forest, showing all the critters where he was, trailing blood like a damn invitation. 'Come down, give ol? Kreag a hug. I've missed you.' 'I don't think so. Think I'll stay right where I am.' His eyes searched the trees. Black as pitch them eyes, black as disease and disorder and hate and lies. He grinned, flat white teeth like gravestones, and twirled his little fish gutter in his fingers, flinging blood everywhere, rolling out the red carpet. 'Elka, you know I don't mean you no harm.' His voice turned friendly. 'I'd never hurt my Elka.' He wandered around like a blind man, trudging through the snow, steam lifting off his body. Always hot after a killing. He was lean, carved out of wood some say, and but for the tattoos had a face you'd take home to your mother. He leaned up against a cottonwood tree, panting to keep the cold out, getting sick of hideandseek. 'Could a? killed you a hundred times, girlie,' he said, slow. 'Could a? taken my pig sticker and cut your neck to navel while you slept. Could a? peeled your skin off easy as boiled trout.' I remembered all those years calling him Daddy and felt sick. 'Could a? made my winter boots out of your back,' he carried on, voice getting more excited, smile getting bigger, like he was reeling
| 3 off courses at a feast. 'New belt out of your arms. Could a? stuffed my mattress with your silky brown hair.' He laughed and I felt sicker. He raised his knife, pointed it into the trees, right at my face though he didn't know it. 'You'd make a fine pair of boots, Elka girl.' Heard it all before but it didn't stop the cold creeping up my back, cold that weren't snow. Cold that weren't ice and winter. I'd heard him say worse but never to me. I was still afraid of him, the things he'd done, the things he made me do. But damn if I wasn't trying to turn it to good. 'All these months you been looking for me, Kreagar, and I found you first.' I raised up my own knife. Weighted right nice for throwing. I told him in my head to stay there against the tree, told him don't you move a muscle. 'I been worried something rotten for you, Elka. This world ain't no place for a kid like you on your own. There are worse things than wolves in the dark. Worse things than me.' But for the blood he could have been a normal Joe out on a stroll. But for the kid's scalp swinging in the breeze, he could've been anyone. But he wasn't. He was Kreagar Hallet. Murdering, kidkilling bastard Kreagar Hallet. Took me far too long to figure that out and no prettiedup words would change it now. I stood up on the branch without making more'n a snowflake shudder and wound back my arm. Breathed out. Pictured him like a deer. Threw my knife with all the force I had, straight and true and hit him in that soft spot just below the collarbone. That metal went through his shoulder into that tree, pinned him hard, heard that wood thud you get during target practice. And I'd done a lot of target practice. Damn if that weren't a perfect shot. Hollered and howled he did, more out of shock than pain. Didn't
| B E T H L E W I S think his little Elka could throw that hard, I'll bet. Kreagar shouted some things I daren't repeat, some threats that shouldn't see light of day. His own blood met the boy's. The fat black lines on his chest now coated red, hot and steaming fresh in the cold. He tried to pull it out, but I cut them barbs deep. He screamed like a dying sow when he tried. 'Get here, girl, I'm gonna rip you up!' Still looking around for me, screaming up something fierce. He roared at me, filling the forest, making birds flee their nests, rabbits scrabble into their warrens, but he still couldn't see me. Ghost I was in those woods. He'd taught me well. 'I'm gonna find you! I'm gonna kill you slow, Elka!' I couldn't help but laugh. I had him. Finally. Sprung the trap and caught me a rabid bear. 'Magistrate Lyon's going to find you first,' I said. 'Told her where you is and where the boy is too. She'll see what you did to him. She's been hunting you a long time, across mountains she's gone, looking for you.' That shut him up. Color drained right out of him. Nobody wants Lyon and her sixshooter on their tail, and Kreagar had for months. But then, so had I. He started pleading, trying the friendly on me, but I wasn't hearing it. Strands of spit hung off his beard, flaring out with every breath. I watched him until I heard the clomping horse hooves, kicking up snow and soil. Steam rising off hardridden flanks. I smiled. Magistrate Lyon and her lieutenants, here to bring in the bad guy. Another life and that bad guy could a? been me. No reward, of course gold don't mean nothing to me no more, only life got value in my mind. I saw them coming through the trees, Kreagar still stuck and hollering, panicking and pulling on the handle, that blood trail leading them right to his feet.
| 5 Lyon's smarter than Kreagar, got eyes like a sparrow hawk, she'd see me in half a breath and she'd take me too for what I done. She'd have questions. Big ones I didn't feel much like answering. Kreagar heard them hooves, heard them whinnying mares. His eyes went wide like a buck about to be shot, and that's when I got to leave it up to the law. Shame about the knife. That skinned me many a rabbit and marten, saved my life more'n once too. A good knife is hard to come by, about as hard as finding a good person in this damned country. When your life is your only currency and you got debts to pay, a good knife can make all the difference. I might've lost my blade, but I paid my debt. Lyon shouldn't come looking for me no more. Unless a? course, Kreagar tells her the truth.
The Beginning, or Close as You Gonna Get When the thunderhead comes, drumming through the sky, you take cover, you lock your doors, and you find a place to pray because if it finds you, there ain't no going back. When the thunderhead came to Ridgeway, my clapboard town, I had nowhere to hide. Seven years old I was and screaming up something fierce at my nana. She wanted me to go collect pine resin for the lamps. Said it made 'em burn with a pretty smell. I told her pretty is for fools and I didn't want no pine smelling up my house. 'My house, girl,' she said, 'you just a guest here till your parents come back. Pray that it be soon.' I think I had a different name back then. Don't remember Nana ever calling me Elka. I told her to go spit seeds and started howling. 'That mouth of yours is black as the goddamn devil's,' she shouted in that tone what meant I was in for a beating. Saw her reaching for her walking stick. Had me welts the shape a? that stick fresh on my back. 'My mouth ain't nothin', you ain't my momma, you can't tell me nothin'.' I was wailing and trying my damnedest to push over the eating table, to send all them plates and three types a? fork scattering all over. That'd show her, I figured, show her good. Nana let out one a? her big sighs. Seen other old folk in Ridgeway sigh like that, like they weren't just sick a? the person giving them
| 7 ire but sick a? the world what was full a? them. All them years, Nana must a? been hundreds, all them wrinkles creasing up her face, that sigh is what them years sound like: wheezing, long, and dog tired. 'Your momma,' Nana said, 'my fool of a daughter, running off with that man.' She looked at me like I was Momma for a minute, kindness in her eye, then must a? seen that Daddy half a? me and got mad again. She clenched up all her teeth so hard I wondered brief if they was going to crack and fly out her head. 'They coming back to get me,' I said, whining voice full a? tears. 'Daddy gonna show you the back a? his hand for beating me.' Nana laughed, highpitched and trilling like a shrike bird. 'Your daddy's too busy hunting gold up in the north and your momma's too busy shining his boots to think of you, girl. You're stuck with me and I'm stuck with you, so you better go out and get that resin or so help me child I'll beat you blue.' Nana's fists was tight and her body was shaking. She was a rake of a woman but she was Mussa Valley born, built head to toe out a? grit and stubborn. She had strength in her what you'd never credit behind that paper skin. Broke my arm once, she did, with just them hands a? hers. I crossed my arms over my chest and I huffed and I said I didn't want no pine and I hated pine 'bout as much as I hated her. Then she threw up her arms, sick of me, and said she was going walking. 'Don't you follow me,' she said, 'I don't even want to look at you no more.' She'd been gone not half an hour when the sky boomed black, cut out the sun. Sounded like a mountain splitting apart. No matter how many times I've heard that since, I get the fear. Cold runs up my bones from my toes to my skull. I shake. I sweat like a snow fox in summer. All because of that day. All because my nana left me alone when the thunderhead came.
| B E T H L E W I S Our little tworoom shack, far out in the forest, didn't stand a chance against that weather. Nana said her and Grandpa, afore he died in the Second Conflict some twenty years past, rebuilt that shack a hundred times and she'd rebuild it a hundred more no doubt. Nana and me was like butting rams most days but not all my thoughts a? that shack were dark. When that thunderhead came, I sure as shit wanted that woman and them iron arms 'round my shoulders. I saw the thunderhead coming down from the north, rolling 'tween the hills at the top of our valley. Our idiot valley. Acted like a corral, funneled all that raging storm right toward our forest, our front door, and to Ridgeway a few miles down the way. It kicked up rocks and broken branches and mashed them all together with ice and rain. I saw it out the window, roaring down the hill like a grizzly in heat. Ground shook. My toes went cold. The roof ripped off and smashed against the cedars. I don't remember screaming but I'm sure I was. Felt like all hell was coming down on my sevenyearold head. Cracking thunder all but deafened me. Hail and rain all but froze me solid. I hid under the eating table, arms and legs wrapped tight around its leg, and shouted at it all to go away, leave me be. Shouted for my nana to come back. Cursed her name more'n once. Then I was in the air. Table lifted up like a dry leaf and afore I knew it, I was too high to let go. I dug my nails into the wood and scrunched up my eyes. Rocks and twigs snagged at me, cut up my arms and legs, pulled out my hair in clumps. Tiny balls of ice hit my face and felt like hot metal filings. That wind threw me and the table around like we was nothing. Only existing for the fun of the thunder. Table got ripped away or I let go, I don't know. Spinning and careening and screaming. No idea if sky was up, rock was down, or if I was already dead. I don't know much a? what happened next. The storm must a'
| 9 let me go, had enough of playing. Next thing I knew I was falling, rushing air pulling at me, storm passing off to the east. Headfirst into the Thick Woods. I fell through close branches, smells of cedar and alder and cypress. Cradled me, slowed me, till one a? them branches didn't want to let me go. My vest ripped and snagged and I was swinging ten feet up from the dirt. Felt blood on me and cuts stinging and my lungs was stripped from screaming. Then my vest ripped and I dropped. Landed with a thud on the moss, a pain shooting right up my back. Dazed, I was. I remember that clear as spring. The thunderhead blew itself out over the ridge. They never last long though they make sure you never forget them. I sat in that same spot in the Thick Woods, swaying, gathering up all that had just happened in my baby head. Trying to make some kind a? sense of it all. Could a? been ten minutes. Could a? been half a day. Think it was when I started to get hungry that I snapped out of it. Everything was green and brown. Couldn't see the sky for the branches. Couldn't see more'n a few feet in front of me. Lucky I was small and could squeeze 'tween the trunks. 'Nana,' I shouted, 'Nana, where you at'? But the forest didn't answer. Didn't take me long to realize Nana weren't coming. She said we lived south in the valley. Ridgeway town was souther still. Showed it me on a map one time. I figured the thunderhead came from the north, so that's where it took me back to. My young head said go south. South was down on the map so that's the way I went. Down any hill I could find. Got lost quick. I tried picturing all those places on that map of BeeCee. That's what we call our country now, just letters of its real name what most people have forgot or don't care to remember. The map said that old name behind all the scribblings, all the new borders and ter-
10 | B E T H L E W I S ritories my nana drawn on, but I could only read letters then, not whole words. All I know is that one day all the maps became useless and we had to make our own. The old'uns called that day the Fall or the Reformation. Nana said some down in the far south called it Rapture. Nana was a babe when it happened, said her momma called it the Big Damn Stupid. Set everything back to zero. I never asked why, never much cared. Life is life and you got to live it in the herenow not the backthen. And the herenow for little me was the Thick Woods, with night coming fast. I had these little boots on, cute things stitched from marten pelt, soft and warm but no good for traveling. They tore up in a few hours. The thunderhead torn a swatch out a? the knee of my denims and them trees had chewed up my vest so's it was barely hanging on to me. Sevenyearold me walked till it got dark. Belly rumbling worse'n the storm. I started crying proper then, big fat tears, blubbering and wailing. I huddled myself inside a hollowedout log as the darkness crept through the trees. Bugs and grubs crawled all over me. I shivered so hard it shook rotten wood dust into my hair. Never been alone before. Always had Nana close by and afore her, though I barely remember them, my momma and dad. Nana said they'd gone north? far, far up the world to find their fortune and bring it home to me. That was a few years ago. They sent a letter 'bout a year after they went, brought to the Ridgeway general store by some kind traveler heading that way. I couldn't read it, 'course, but I made Nana read it to me till I knew all them words like I know my own name. Words like 'gold? and 'sluice? and them what sounded foreign and exciting 'Halveston,' the 'Great YK,' 'Carmacks,' 'Martinsville.' My momma and daddy's names. I made Nana read them over and over. Made the world and them sound close and far all at one time, that letter did. I kept it 'neath my pillow, ink fading with readings and years. Put an ache in my chest thinking the thunderhead took it.