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Page 43

Cooper had emptied his duffle bag and was carrying it with one hand, and holding Ashley’s hand with the other. We all stopped just outside the door, fidgeting and nervous. I hated not knowing what to expect, especially when something that wanted to eat us alive could be inside, and I imagined everyone else had the same thoughts.

Joey glanced down at Cooper’s duffle bag. “Water, weapons and ammo, food. In that order.”

We all nodded.

Joey crouched down, and Cooper did the same. He looked like a little boy trying to emulate his favorite super hero. He stepped his foot inside the nylon handles and dragged the bag along with him.

What are you doing? Joey mouthed, immediately reacting to the noise the duffle bag made as it slid across the floor with each step Cooper took.

Cooper held up his hands. Hands free, he mouthed back.

Joey rolled his eyes and shook his head. Cooper looked like a scolded puppy, stepping back out of the duffle bag’s handle before picking it back up. A few moments later, we heard a noise come from the back.

Four pairs of eyes grew wide, and Ashley immediately attached herself to Cooper’s side. Joey disappeared down one of the short aisles. We all stood around, not sure what to do.

Joey returned, his posture more relaxed, and his gun at his side. “Must have been an animal. I didn’t find anything.”

“Let’s get to work,” Bryce said. He took a miniature basket, the perfect size for that miniature store, and I followed him as he made his way up and down the aisles. He grabbed water bottles, canned goods, Ramen noodles—which was a staple for us as college students, anyway—a couple of large screwdrivers, various sizes of knives, a meat tenderizer mallet, an umbrella, and a few brooms.

“You gonna clean someone’s house?” I teased.

Bryce unscrewed the bristle end and then picked up a knife. “Spear.”

I nodded and smiled. “Impressive.”

He winked at me, and then we met everyone else at the front of the store.

Joey had a couple of boxes of condoms, a first-aid kit, matches, a box of trash bags, and four bottles of water in his arms.

Bryce saw the condoms and was instantly defensive. “Seriously?”

Joey wasn’t fazed. “Each one can hold up to two liters of water. Seriously.”

Bryce’s shoulders relaxed, and then he looked to me. “We can just wheel this to the Bug. I’m sure no one will say anything.”

“Funny,” I said.

As we returned to the car and practiced our Tetris skills loading it up with our finds, the boys began talking about searching the houses and garages for gas cans. Joey suggested that if we had to, we could syphon gas from one of the vehicles.

“Depending on what we find and how quickly, we’re talking about spending a few nights here.”

“No,” Ashley said. “Miranda, tell them. We need to get to Dad’s.”

I looked to Bryce. “Dad is probably worried sick about us.”

Joey didn’t wait for Bryce to answer. “We’re not going anywhere until we get gas, and I think we can all agree that we need more than just a tank full. Let’s be smart about this. We have resources here. Let’s use them before we move on.”

Bryce made a face. “When we found you, you’d run out of gas.”

“Exactly,” Joey said. “Learn from my mistake. It’s no fun being stuck in a car with those things trying to get in, and this car is a convertible. It won’t protect us.”

“Those things can’t even work a swinging door,” Bryce snapped.

“You wanna risk it?” Joey said.

Bryce looked at me, and then back to Joey, shaking his head. “No.”

“It’s settled, then. We search until we can fill the tank and as much extra as we can. You guys can break up into groups if you don’t want to let the girls search alone.”

“I’ll go by myself,” I said.

“No,” Bryce responded instantly.

“I’m not helpless. I can handle a gun.”

Bryce reached for my fingers. “Maybe I don’t want to go by myself.” He used his most charming smile, the one I could never resist. I nodded, and his hand squeezed mine.

Joey rubbed his neck. “First thing’s first. We need to set up camp. The ideal place would be away from other houses. On the outskirts of town, maybe.”

“Okay. That’s like two blocks away,” Ashley said.

“Let’s walk. We’ll find something,” I said.

Joey kept talking as we walked. “Several exits. Good visibility.”

“Now you’re just being picky,” I said.

Joey smiled at me. I tried not to, but I smiled back.

Ashley was right. It only took about twenty minutes to find a location that fit Joey’s description. It was a yellow house on the end of a long line of houses, but it had a large field in front of and behind it, and there were two lots between it and the next house. It also had a fenced-in backyard and the small windows running along the ground screamed basement.

We climbed the steps to the porch, and I knocked. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. “What?”

“Let me clear it first, drop off what we have, and then we can go back for the rest.”

Bryce held his arm out to his side, gesturing for Joey to go in. I made a face at him. Joey was just trying to keep us safe, and Bryce was being kind of a dick about it.

Joey was inside for quite a while. Just when I thought about mentioning that we should go in and check on him, he appeared in the doorway.

“It’s clear.”

“You have blood on you,” Cooper said. “I mean more than before.”

Joey pulled up his shirt to wipe his face. A full set of abs was revealed for just a second before he let his shirt fall back down into place. “Well . . . it’s clear now.”

“I didn’t hear your gun,” Bryce said.

“I used a fork.”

Cooper nodded, an impressed smile flashing across his face. “Well played.”

Chapter Sixteen

Nathan

“Kids?” I asked.

“The corner house. Three . . . no, make that four. Two boys and two girls. Teenagers, by the looks of ’em. They’re alive.”

I lowered my gun and motioned for Zoe to stay in the house. “Then we should probably introduce ourselves.”

As I crossed the street and walked down the block, I tried to keep my posture relaxed, and my gun down. I could only see one kid, one of the boys, his dark hair wiry. He was a ball of testosterone and muscles like I was at that age.

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