The 5th Wave
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“Ready? Ready for what?”
Dad smiled humorlessly.
AN HOUR BEFORE DAWN. Our last day at Camp Ashpit. A Sunday.
Sammy beside me. Little kid snuggly warm, hand on his bear, other hand on my chest, curled-up pudgy baby-fist.
The best part of the day.
Those few seconds when you’re awake but empty. You forget where you are. What you are now, what you were before. It’s all breath and heartbeat and blood moving. Like being in your mother’s womb again. The peace of the void.
That’s what I thought the sound was at first. My own heartbeat.
Thumpa-thumpa-thumpa. Faint, then louder, then really loud, loud enough to feel the beat on your skin. A glow sprang up in the room, grew brighter. People were stumbling around, yanking on clothes, fumbling for guns. The bright glow faded, came back. Shadows jumped across the floor, raced up the ceiling. Hutchfield was yelling at everyone to stay calm. It wasn’t working. Everyone recognized the sound. And everyone knew what that sound meant.
Hutchfield tried to block off the doorway with his body.
“Stay inside!” he hollered. “We don’t want to—”
He was shoved out of the way. Oh yes, we do. We poured out the doorway and stood in the yard and waved at the helicopter, a Black Hawk, as it made another sweep of the compound, black against the lightening dark of the predawn sky. The spotlight stabbed down, blinding us, but most of us were already blinded by tears. We jumped, we shouted, we hugged one another. A couple of people were waving little American flags, and I remember wondering where the hell they got those.
Hutchfield was furiously screaming at us to get back inside. Nobody listened. He wasn’t the boss of us anymore. The People in Charge had arrived.
And then, just as unexpectedly as it had come, the helicopter made one last turn and thundered out of sight. The sound of its rotors faded. A heavy silence flooded in after it. We were confused, stunned, frightened. They must have seen us. Why didn’t they land?
We waited for the helicopter to come back. All morning we waited. People packed up their things. Speculated about where they would take us, what it would be like, how many others would be there. A Black Hawk helicopter! What else had survived the 1st Wave? We dreamed of electric lights and hot showers.
No one doubted we’d be rescued now that the People in Charge knew about us. Help was on its way.
Dad, being Dad, of course, wasn’t so sure.
“They may not come back,” he said.
“They wouldn’t just leave us here, Dad,” I said. Sometimes you had to talk to him like he was Sammy’s age. “How does that make sense?”
“It may not have been a search and rescue. They might have been looking for something else.”
The one that had crashed a week earlier. He nodded.
“Still, they know we’re here now,” I said. “They’ll do something.”
He nodded again. Absently, like he was thinking about something else.
“They will,” he said. He looked hard at me. Do you still have the gun?”
I patted my back pocket. He threw his arm around me and led me to the storehouse. He pulled aside an old tarp lying in a corner. Underneath it was an M16 semiautomatic assault rifle. The same rifle that would become my bestie after everyone else was gone.
He picked it up and turned it in his hands, inspecting the rifle with that same absentminded professor look in his eyes.
“What do you think?” he whispered.
“About that? It’s totally badass.”
He didn’t jump on me for the language. Instead, he gave a little laugh.
He showed me how it worked. How to hold it. How to aim. How to switch out a clip.
“Here, you try.”
He held it toward me.
I think he was pleasantly surprised by what a quick study I was. And my coordination was pretty good, thanks to the karate lessons. Dance classes have nothing on karate when it comes to developing grace.
“Keep it,” he said when I tried to hand it back. “I hid it in here for you.”
“Why?” I asked. Not that I minded having it, but he was freaking me out a little. While everyone else was celebrating, my father was giving me training in firearms.
“Do you know how to tell who the enemy is in wartime, Cassie?” His eyes darted around the shack. Why couldn’t he look at me? “The guy who’s shooting at you—that’s how you tell. Don’t forget that.” He nodded toward the gun. “Don’t walk around with it. Keep it close, but keep it hidden. Not in here and not in the barracks. Okay?”
Shoulder pat. Shoulder pat not quite enough. Big hug.
“From now on, never let Sam out of your sight. Understand, Cassie? Never. Now go find him. I’ve got to see Hutchfield. And Cassie? If someone tries to take that rifle from you, you tell them to bring it up with me. And if they still try to take it, shoot them.”
He smiled. Not with his eyes, though. His eyes were as hard and blank and cold as a shark’s.
He was lucky, my dad. All of us were. Luck had carried us through the first three waves. But even the best gambler will tell you that luck only lasts so long. I think my dad had a feeling that day. Not that our luck had run out. No one could know that. But I think he knew in the end it wouldn’t be the lucky ones left standing.
It would be the hardcore. The ones who tell Lady Luck to go screw herself. The ones with hearts of stone. The ones who could let a hundred die so one might live. The ones who see the wisdom in torching a village in order to save it.
The world was FUBAR now.
And if you’re not okay with that, you’re just a corpse waiting to happen.
I took the M16 and hid it behind a tree bordering the path to the ash pit.
THE LAST REMNANT of the world I knew ripped apart on a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon.
Heralded by the growl of diesel engines, the rumble and squeak of axles, the whine of air brakes. Our sentries spotted the convoy long before it reached the compound. Saw the bright sunlight glinting off windows and the plumes of dust trailing the huge tires like contrails. We didn’t rush out to greet them with flowers and kisses. We stayed back while Hutchfield, Dad, and our four best shooters went out to meet them. Everyone was feeling a little spooked. And a lot less enthusiastic than we’d been just a few hours before.
Everything we’d expected to happen since the Arrival didn’t. Everything we hadn’t did. It took two whole weeks into the 3rd Wave for us to realize that the deadly flu was part of their plan. Still, you tend to believe what you always believed, think what you always thought, expect what you always expected, so it was never “Will we be rescued?” It was “When will we be rescued?”
And when we saw exactly what we wanted to see, what we expected to see—the big flatbed loaded with soldiers, the Humvees bristling with machine gun turrets and surface-to-air launchers—we still held back.
Then the school buses pulled into view.
Three of them, bumper to bumper.
Packed with kids.
Nobody expected that. Like I said, it was so weirdly normal, so shockingly surreal. Some of us actually laughed. A yellow freaking school bus! Where the hell is the school?
After a few tense minutes, where all we could hear was the throaty snarl of engines and the faint laughter and calls of the children on the buses, Dad left Hutchfield talking to the commander and came over to me and Sammy. A knot of people gathered around us to listen in.
“They’re from Wright-Patterson,” Dad said. He sounded out of breath. “And apparently a lot more of our military has survived than we thought.”
“Why are they wearing gas masks?” I asked.
“It’s precautionary,” he answered. “They’ve been in lockdown since the plague hit. We’ve all been exposed; we could be carriers.”
He looked down at Sammy, who was pressed up against me, his arms wrapped around my leg.
“They’ve come for the children,” Dad said.
“Why?” I asked.
“What about us?” Mother Teresa demanded. “Aren’t they going to take us, too?”
“He says they’re coming back for us. Right now there’s only room for the children.”
Looking at Sammy.
“They’re not splitting us up,” I said to Dad.
“Of course not.” He turned away and abruptly marched into the barracks. Came out again, carrying my backpack and Sammy’s bear. “You’re going with him.”
He didn’t get it.
“I’m not going without you,” I said. What was it about guys like my father? Somebody in charge shows up and they check their brains at the door.
“You heard what he said!” Mother Teresa cried shrilly, shaking her beads. “Just the children! If anyone else goes, it should be me…women. That’s how it’s done. Women and children first! Women and children.”
Dad ignored her. There went the hand on my shoulder. I shrugged his hand away.
“Cassie, they have to get the most vulnerable to safety first. I’ll be just a few hours behind you—”
“No!” I shouted. “We all stay or we all go, Dad. Tell them we’ll be fine here until they get back. I can take care of him. I’ve been taking care of him.”
“And you will take care of him, Cassie, because you’re going, too.”
“Not without you. I won’t leave you here, Dad.”
He smiled like I had said something kiddy-cute.
“I can take care of myself.”
I couldn’t put it into words, this feeling like a hot coal in my gut, that splitting up what was left of our family would be the end of our family. That if I left him behind I would never see him again. Maybe it wasn’t rational, but the world I lived in wasn’t rational anymore.
Dad pried Sammy from my leg, slung him onto his hip, grabbed my elbow with his free hand, and marched us toward the buses. You couldn’t see the soldiers’ faces through the buggy-looking gas masks. But you could read the names stitched onto their green camouflage.
Good, solid, all-American names. And the American flags on their sleeves.
And the way they held themselves, erect but loose, alert but relaxed. Coiled springs.
The way you expect soldiers to look.
We reached the last bus in the line. The children inside shouted and waved at us. It was all one big adventure.
The burly soldier at the door raised his hand. His name patch said BRANCH.
“Children only,” he said, his voice muffled by the mask.
“I understand, Corporal,” Dad said.
“Cassie, why are you crying?” Sammy said. His little hand reached for my face.
Daddy lowered him to the ground. Knelt to bring his face close to Sammy’s.
“You’re going on a trip, Sam,” Dad said. “These nice army men are taking you to a place where you’ll be safe.”
“Aren’t you coming, Daddy?” Tugging on Dad’s shirt with his tiny hands.
“Yes. Yes, Daddy’s coming, just not yet. Soon, though. Very soon.”
He pulled Sammy into his arms. Last hug. “You be good now. You do what the nice army men tell you. Okay?”