CONTRITION - MythMachine
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PART ONE

Chapter 1

ZOE

I don’t believe in aliens. I mean the outer space kind. I don’t know why, because, who am I to think that we’re the only living species in the vast universe to evolve into intelligent, rational beings?

Noah doesn’t believe in them either, but not for the same reasons. His beliefs are based on his faith in a benevolent creator whom I guess thought one planet full of people created in his image, massively screwing things up, was enough.

I just didn’t believe in the odds of it happening again. The fact that evolutionary forces managed a zillion-to-one shot at creating life and that this life form evolved over millions of years from plankton to the embodiment of President William Vanderveen (yes, my grandfather does believe he’s on the very top of the food chain)… I just don’t believe it could or would happen twice. Atleast, if it did, we would have successfully destroyed ourselves before it occurred, and thus we would miss the momentous event.

But right now, as we fell out of the sky, fear embodied me like a separate life form. It was thick, dark, and densely heavy. Like an iron mask encasing an octopus. Its multi-fleshy limbs banged against my rib cage—angry, slimy fists that slipped between the bones, writhed up my esophagus, and stung the backs of my eyes.

The panel on thedashboard of our illicit six-seater aircraft flashed erratically—little red, green, and yellow lights panicking—along with my heart. In contrast, the horizon turned an exquisitely peaceful blend of pink, orange, and blue. My mind stretched like plastic wrap near the ripping point.

I held the armrest with one white-knuckled grip and squeezed the life out of Noah’s fingers with my other hand.

The propellers slowed to a stop, the unnerving sound of the engine’s roar cuts to an eerie silence.

A quiet broken now by screams.

Mary yelled at her brother, grabbing his arm. “Jabez!”

Jabez smacked something on the console and pulled up on steering levers. “Damn it!”

Out the window I could see the Arizona desert below, flat but for a row of stout mountain peaks, like gray, ragged claws of an underground beast poking through the sand. The dry ground was dotted with green, and I could make out a longdirt road that ran in a straight line.

A perfect runway if we could reach it at a proper angle and a decent speed.

I looked to Noah for reassurance. We could do this. We could land safely and survive. Right? I caught his dark eyes but they reflected my fear, and I choked back a sob.

Taylor sat between Rebecca and his sister, Hannah. He had his arms around their shoulders and they had their faces tucked into his armpits. They were commune people. Raisedby folks who (supposedly) didn’t believe in technology. They thought it was unholy and the playground of the devil. Rebecca’s predictions—riding in this mechanical contraption would result in a fiery death that would catapult us all straight to hell—burned in my mind.

I didn’t believe in hell. But a fiery death wouldn’t be any fun either, and something I’d rather avoid.

Suddenly the propellers moved. Just a stutter.

“Come on!” Jabez shouted from the front. “Start!”

A groan and a shudder, and the propellers came back to life. The resulting vibrations pulsed through my body, jumpstarting my heart with hope.

Jabez’s hands gripped the wheel, his casted arm sticking out at an awkward angle. He’d met his match in a riot in St. Louis, and ended up with a broken arm. I bet he wished he hadn’t gotten into that fight that now. Healthy, fully operative limbs would be useful in this situation. Hisforearm muscles bulged through his black skin. Sweat droplets streamed down his temples, and his mouth was opened wide. He released a wail like a woman giving birth.

The desert floor rushed to meet us.

This was the moment of truth. Would we live or would we die?

We bent over in the emergency landing position, with heads down to our knees and arms around our ankles. I glanced at Noah, wondering if this was the last time I’d be able to look at his face.Were we in our last moments together? Bent over, clasping each other’s sweaty palms, terrified? His dark eyes latched onto mine and he gave me a reassuring nod.

“We’ll be okay,” he mouthed.

The wheels hit the ground with a violent jerk and bump. I yelped as my seatbelt cuts into my hips and my head hit the back of the seat in front of me. A scorch of pain traveled up my left arm, flaming a recent gunshot wound, a parting gift from a psychopathic cyborg assassin.

The aircraft was on the ground, but it swayed like a toy on the end of a string. We lashed back and forth, then into a sharp tilt on the passenger side of the aircraft. The wing touched the ground, stirring up a blast of sand. Inertia spun us in a circle until we came to a sudden and complete stop.

All was quiet.

It was funny what a person would think of at a time like this. I had a sudden flashback to the expansive shower stall in my bedroom at myparents’ house in Sol City. I entertained an image of myself sitting in the built-in chair, molded especially for my body as the warm water streamed over me. Laser lights mapped my scalp and twenty-eight silicone fingers reached out to massage my head through a shampoo and rinse. Twenty-eight freaking silicon fingers.

It was heavenly. Pure comfort and pleasure.

I moaned as my awareness returned to my reality. I sat at an awkward angle, pressed against the smallwindow, and my head throbbed with a sharp new pain. I reached for the source and winced. My fingers felt something wet and warm, and when I examined them, I saw blood.

I was bleeding but I was alive.

“Noah?” His chin hung to his chest, and a new panic strangled me. “Noah!” I shook his arm. “Are you okay?”

Please, Noah, be okay.

His eyelashes fluttered and he groaned.

“Hey,” I said, exhaling in relief.

His eyes opened and he had to work to focus on me. “Zoe?”

I stroked his face. “We’re okay.”

His dry lips pulled up into a slight smile. “Good.”

More groans erupted from the others.

“Is everyone okay?” I asked. I looked past Noah. “Taylor? Jabez?”

“I think so,” Jabez muttered. “Mary?”

No answer.

Jabez fought with his seatbelt with his good hand, finallyfreeing himself so that he could put his fingers on Mary’s neck, checking for her pulse.

“Mary!”

She groaned, and I let out a sigh of relief. Noah reached for her shoulder.

“Is she okay?”

“I dunno, man,” Jabez said. “She’s alive, but unconscious.”

Soft sobs came from Rebecca and Hannah. “My leg,” Rebecca muttered. Hannah’s face tightened in discomfort and her arms wrapped around her stomach. She wasn’tshowing yet, but apparently there was a baby in there. I hoped it chose to stay put, for all of our sakes.

I tried my door, but the handle wouldn’t budge. “It’s stuck.” The frame on this side had crumpled like an accordion.

Jabez reached awkwardly over Mary, trying not to crush her. Mine and Mary’s doors were pitched lower to the ground and were the easiest ways out.

“This one is too,” Jabez said. He crawled up to his side and managed to swing the door open. It angled up about five feet high in the air. “I need help getting Mary out.”

Noah scrambled to the front to assist. I watched his face as he took in Mary’s limp form. Deep concern etched his features. Not in a clinical, paramedic way, but something deeper.

Taylor worked the door open opposite me, and Rebecca yelped as he crawled over her to jump out.

“Sorry, Becca,” he said. He carefully pulled her free, but her long,Amish-style skirt got caught on the door hinge. I heard a ripping sound and Rebecca’s cry that followed.

“Are you all right?” Hannah asked.

Taylor answered for Rebecca. “It looks like a sprain.” He reached up to help Hannah out, and then he came back for me. His blue eyes flashed with concern and softened when they connected with mine. “Are you okay?” he asked softly.

“Yeah,” I answered back. “No breaks or sprains, but my head ispounding.”

I allowed myself to fall into his arms. He held me for a moment, an embrace, and I didn’t pull back. I felt lightheaded and weak. The strength of his arms around me, his body to support me, was a comfort I needed. I quivered, and his hold tightened.

He stroked my hair. “You’ve had quite a night,” he whispered.

I clenched my jaw to hold back the emotion. I’d been hunted, shot, chased, and now I’d survived a plane crash, all in one evening. Too many kinds of fear and terror, all twisted into a morbid bow in my gut. I was safe now, but I couldn’t’ release the horror.

I wanted to be in Noah’s arms. He was the one I wanted comfort from, but it was Taylor who offered it. I’d take it from anyone.

He gently guided me to sit on the ground by Hannah, who was examining Rebecca’s ankle, and went to help Jabez and Noah rescue Mary, laying her carefully on the ground. Jabez sat beside her andlifted her head onto his lap.

“Hey, Mary?” He wiped blood off her caramel-colored face, revealing a gash much worse than mine.

She moaned, parting dry lips. “Jabez?”

“You’re okay,” he said gently. “We landed the plane. Everyone’s all right. You’re all right.”

Hannah walked over to them. “Is there a first-aid kit on the plane?”

“Yeah.” He pointed to his cast. “I can’t get it.”

“I’ll do it,” Noah said.

“Is it safe to go back in?” I asked. I didn’t want Noah to risk himself. “I mean, could it blow up or something?”

“Noah,” Jabez said. “We were almost out of fuel. If it didn’t catch on fire when we landed, it’s fine now.” He told Noah where to find the kit, and Taylor gave Noah a leg lift up to the door. He managed to balance himself through the lopsided fuselage.

Noah returned with the kit, a jug of water, and a bag of sunflower seeds. He opened the jug and took a small sip, then handed it to me. “Everyone, go easy with the water,” he announced. “We don’t know when we’ll have more.”

It was an ominous statement. Surviving a plane crash was a moot point if we couldn’t find a water supply within the next day or so. I took a sip and passed it to Taylor.

Hannah proved to be a competent nurse. She stitched up Mary’s wound—thankfully she was passed outfor it since we didn’t have any painkillers stronger than Tylenol; she cleaned my arm and forehead wounds and bandaged them up; she tended to Rebecca’s sprained ankle, wrapping it with a tensor bandage.

“Sorry, there’s no ice,” she said to her. Rebecca seemed more concerned with the fact that a chunk of her skirt was missing, exposing her leg. She wrestled with the remaining fabric to try to cover it.

Mary rustled awake, and Jabez helped her to drink waterout of the jug. “What’s wrong with me?” she mustered. “My head is killing me.”

“You probably have a concussion,” Hannah said, handing Jabez the bottle of Tylenol. He shook two out into his hand and gave them to Mary

She winced as she tried to lean onto an elbow. “Ouch! My chest really hurts.”

Hannah gave the guys a look that said avert your gaze and then said to Mary, “May I look?” Mary nodded, and Hannah lifted her shirt. “There’s bruising over the ribs. I expect you may have broken one or two. That’ll be painful for a while, but they will heal. Hopefully there’s no internal bleeding. There isn’t any abdominal bruising, so that’s a good sign. But we’ll have to keep watch.”

“What now?” I asked. “We can’t stay here.”

Taylor pointed toward the mountains. “It’s going to get really hot soon. We need shade, shelter and water. See that patch of green? I’mhoping that means there’s a water source close by.”

I waved toward the broken plane. “We need our things.”

This time Noah hefted Taylor up, and he tossed our personal bags and backpacks down to Noah who eased them to the ground, along with a blanket, a flashlight, and matches.

I picked mine up and dusted it off. All that I had left to my name was in this bag. Three shirts, a pair of jeans, a week’s worth of underwear, toothbrush andpaste.

A gun.

I swung my bag over my shoulder, the motion sending me into a wave of dizziness. Noah was suddenly by my side. “Are you okay?”

I grabbed his arm, willing the swirling in my head to leave. “Just a little dizzy.” Thankfully it passed quickly. “I’m fine now.”

Noah’s eyebrows formed a deep V as he considered me. I wanted to know what he was thinking. If he was still determined to keep his distance from me, to play the part of my protector only, or if he was reconsidering. The kiss he’d given me back at the factory just after he’d saved my life made me believe we might have a second chance as a couple. It was more than an “I’m glad you’re alive” kiss. He’d let me see him during those few seconds of vulnerability before shutting his emotions off again.

“I’m going to need help here,” Rebecca said.

Taylor propped her under his arm. “I’ll do the honors.”

Jabez waved his cast. “I can’t carry Mary with this, and she can’t walk with broken ribs.”

Noah jumped to her rescue. “I’ll carry her.” He didn’t give me a second glance as he took long strides to her side. All that gym training and boxing had made Noah strong. His biceps bulged when he lifted Mary’s lithe form. He didn’t even grunt at the effort.

Mary cried out a little in pain, biting on her lower lip. Then she mustered a smile andmy heart lurched as I watched Noah stare back at her with affection.

We began a lumbering trek toward the north end of the mountain ridge’s edge.

Rebecca and Hannah were wearing long, old-style dresses, which hindered their progress, especially with Rebecca’s leg. They, along with Taylor, lagged behind. The rest of us wore jeans and we all still had our winter coats on. Before long we were stripping them off and tucking them into our bags.

Noah kept a good pace with Mary in his arms, but he had to be careful not to jerk her around because of her painful ribs and they fell back to the middle of the pack. That left Jabez and me to take the lead.

I couldn’t stop myself from sneaking peeks at Noah over my shoulder. His mouth was in a straight line and he kept his eyes on the mountains ahead of us.

“It’s farther away than it looks,” Rebecca said. Then to Hannah who had a hand pressed to her stomach, “Areyou okay?”

I’d wondered about her, too. The jolt of the landing and the stress of the entire awful experience was enough to bring on a miscarriage.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Just exhausted.”

I felt lightheaded in the heat and imagined that everyone else was experiencing the same thing. We finished the distance in silence, and couldn’t contain our relief when we reached the shaded areas.

“Watch out for snakes and scorpions,”Taylor said. Rebecca leaned on him as he guided her to sit on a large rock.

Are you kidding?” she responded.

“No.” Taylor shook his head. “They like to hide out in the shade during the day to keep cool, so be especially careful around stones and trees.”

Noah found a rock for Mary to rest on and gently helped her down. I hated that he had to assist her, but I swallowed my envy. I had a flesh wound from a gunshot to my arm and a gash on my head, but Mary had a concussion and broken ribs. She won.

Jabez had carried the jug of water and he took a swig before passing it around.

“Let’s check out that green patch,” Taylor said, pointing.

“We don’t all have to go, do we?” Hannah asked. Her eyes moved from Rebecca to Mary.

“No. I’ll stay with the girls,” Taylor said. He looked at Jabez and Noah, “If you guys want to check it out.”

Noah and Jabeznodded.

“I’m going, too,” I said.

Taylor shrugged. “If you want.”

Noah, Jabez and I drew closer to the green patch Taylor had directed us to. We dodged cactus thatches, and kept close watch on the ground wanting to avoid getting bit by startled desert creatures. Suddenly Noah put a finger to his lips. “Shh.” He cocked his head, listening for something. I searched his face, but his eyes were closed. Jabez and I went silent. The wind blew softly,providing a light break from the growing heat. I heard the odd bug buzzing.

And a trickling sound?

Noah headed toward a dark grouping of rocks. “Over here!”

The dark patch was actually an opening to one of those lava tunnels Taylor had talked about. We walked into the darkness, single file, following Jabez who had the flashlight. The air inside was cool and moist. My shoes slid on the surface.

“Water!” Jabez shouted. It ran in a narrow stream to the left of us. We immediately dropped to our knees and started slurping.

And then we laughed. Our cackling bounced off the walls, echoing back to us, which made us laugh even more. We had water. We would survive.

Though it was just a moment of insanity for us, it was good to see Noah smile back at me.

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