After the rabbit experiment—it blew that poor damn bunny apart, turning Peter into this unrecognizable mass of shredded guts and bone—I gave up the idea of using the rifle to hunt. I didn’t even do target practice. In the silence that had slammed down after the 4th Wave struck, the report of the rounds sounded louder than an atomic blast.
Still, I considered the M16 my bestest of besties. Always by my side, even at night, burrowed into my sleeping bag with me, faithful and true. In the 4th Wave, you can’t trust that people are still people. But you can trust that your gun is still your gun.
Shhh, Cassie. It’s close.
I should have bailed. That little voice had my back. That little voice is older than I am. It’s older than the oldest person who ever lived.
I should have listened to that voice.
Instead, I listened to the silence of the abandoned store, listened hard. Something was close. I took a tiny step away from the door, and the broken glass crunched ever so softly under my foot.
And then the Something made a noise, somewhere between a cough and a moan. It came from the back room, behind the coolers, where my water was.
That’s the moment when I didn’t need a little old voice to tell me what to do. It was obvious, a no-brainer. Run.
But I didn’t run.
The first rule of surviving the 4th Wave is don’t trust anyone. It doesn’t matter what they look like. The Others are very smart about that—okay, they’re smart about everything. It doesn’t matter if they look the right way and say the right things and act exactly like you expect them to act. Didn’t my father’s death prove that? Even if the stranger is a little old lady sweeter than your great-aunt Tilly, hugging a helpless kitten, you can’t know for certain—you can never know—that she isn’t one of them, and that there isn’t a loaded . 45 behind that kitten.
It isn’t unthinkable. And the more you think about it, the more thinkable it becomes. Little old lady has to go.
That’s the hard part, the part that, if I thought about it too much, would make me crawl into my sleeping bag, zip myself up, and die of slow starvation. If you can’t trust anyone, then you can trust no one. Better to take the chance that Aunty Tilly is one of them than play the odds that you’ve stumbled across a fellow survivor.
That’s friggin’ diabolical.
It tears us apart. It makes us that much easier to hunt down and eradicate. The 4th Wave forces us into solitude, where there’s no strength in numbers, where we slowly go crazy from the isolation and fear and terrible anticipation of the inevitable.
So I didn’t run. I couldn’t. Whether it was one of them or an Aunt Tilly, I had to defend my turf. The only way to stay alive is to stay alone. That’s rule number two.
I followed the sobbing coughs or coughing sobs or whatever you want to call them till I reached the door that opened to the back room. Hardly breathing, on the balls of my feet.
The door was ajar, the space just wide enough for me to slip through sideways. A metal rack on the wall directly in front of me and, to the right, the long narrow hallway that ran the length of the coolers. There were no windows back here. The only light was the sickly orange of the dying day behind me, still bright enough to hurl my shadow onto the sticky floor. I crouched down; my shadow crouched with me.
I couldn’t see around the edge of the cooler into the hall. But I could hear whoever—or whatever—it was at the far end, coughing, moaning, and that gurgling sob.
Either hurt badly or acting hurt badly, I thought. Either needs help or it’s a trap.
This is what life on Earth has become since the Arrival. It’s an either/or world.
Either it’s one of them and it knows you’re here or it’s not one of them and he needs your help.
Either way, I had to get up and turn that corner.
So I got up.
And I turned the corner.
HE LAY SPRAWLED against the back wall twenty feet away, long legs spread out in front of him, clutching his stomach with one hand. He was wearing fatigues and black boots and he was covered in grime and shimmering with blood. There was blood everywhere. On the wall behind him. Pooling on the cold concrete beneath him. Coating his uniform. Matted in his hair. The blood glittered darkly, black as tar in the semidarkness.
In his other hand was a gun, and that gun was pointed at my head.
I mirrored him. His handgun to my rifle. Fingers flexing on the triggers: his, mine.
It didn’t prove anything, his pointing a gun at me. Maybe he really was a wounded soldier and thought I was one of them.
Or maybe not.
“Drop your weapon,” he sputtered at me.
“Drop your weapon!” he shouted, or tried to shout. The words came out all cracked and crumbly, beaten up by the blood rising from his gut. Blood dribbled over his bottom lip and hung quivering from his stubbly chin. His teeth shone with blood.
I shook my head. My back was to the light, and I prayed he couldn’t see how badly I was shaking or the fear in my eyes. This wasn’t some damn rabbit that was stupid enough to hop into my camp one sunny morning. This was a person. Or, if it wasn’t, it looked just like one.
The thing about killing is you don’t know if you can actually do it until you actually do it.
He said it a third time, not as loud as the second. It came out like a plea.
“Drop your weapon. ”
The hand holding his gun twitched. The muzzle dipped toward the floor. Not much, but my eyes had adjusted to the light by this point, and I saw a speck of blood run down the barrel.
And then he dropped the gun.
It fell between his legs with a sharp cling. He brought up his empty hand and held it, palm outward, over his shoulder.
“Okay,” he said with a bloody half smile. “Your turn. ”
I shook my head. “Other hand,” I said. I hoped my voice sounded stronger than I felt. My knees had begun to shake and my arms ached and my head was spinning. I was also fighting the urge to hurl. You don’t know if you can do it until you do it.
“I can’t,” he said.
“Other hand. ”
“If I move this hand, I’m afraid my stomach will fall out. ”
I adjusted the butt of the rifle against my shoulder. I was sweating, shaking, trying to think. Either/or, Cassie. What are you going to do, either/or?
“I’m dying,” he said matter-of-factly. From this distance, his eyes were just pinpricks of reflected light. “So you can either finish me off or help me. I know you’re human—”
“How do you know?” I asked quickly, before he could die on me. If he was a real soldier, he might know how to tell the difference. It would be an extremely useful bit of information.
“Because if you weren’t, you would have shot me already. ” He smiled again, his cheeks dimpled, and that’s when it hit me how young he was. Only a couple years older than me.
“See?” he said softly. “That’s how you know, too. ”
“How I know what?” My eyes were tearing up. His crumpled-up body wiggled in my vision like an image in a fun-house mirror. But I didn’t dare release my grip on the rifle to rub my eyes.
“That I’m human. If I wasn’t, I would have shot you. ”
That made sense. Or did it make sense because I wanted it to make sense? Maybe he dropped the gun to get me to drop mine, and once I did, the second gun he was hiding under his fatigues would come out and the bullet would say hello to my brain.
This is what the Others have done to us. You can’t band together to fight without trust. And without trust, there was no hope.
How do you rid the Earth of humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.
“I have to see your other hand,” I said.
“I told you—”
“I have to see your other hand!” My voice cracked then. Couldn’t help it.
He lost it. “Then you’re just going to have to shoot me, bitch! Just shoot me and get it over with!”
His head fell back against the wall, his mouth came open, and a terrible howl of anguish tumbled out and bounced from wall to wall and floor to ceiling and pounded against my ears. I didn’t know if he was screaming from the pain or the realization that I wasn’t going to save him. He had given in to hope, and that will kill you. It kills you before you die. Long before you die.
“If I show you,” he gasped, rocking back and forth against the bloody concrete, “if I show you, will you help me?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t answer because I didn’t have an answer. I was playing this one nanosecond at a time.
So he decided for me. He wasn’t going to let them win, that’s what I think now. He wasn’t going to stop hoping. If it killed him, at least he would die with a sliver of his humanity intact.
Grimacing, he slowly pulled out his left hand. Not much day left now, hardly any light at all, and what light there was seemed to be flowing away from its source, from him, past me and out the half-open door.
His hand was caked in half-dried blood. It looked like he was wearing a crimson glove.
The stunted light kissed his bloody hand and flicked along the length of something long and thin and metallic, and my finger yanked back on the trigger, and the rifle kicked against my shoulder hard, and the barrel bucked in my hand as I emptied the clip, and from a great distance I heard someone screaming, but it wasn’t him screaming, it was me screaming, me and everybody else who was left, if there was anybody left, all of us helpless, hopeless, stupid humans screaming, because we got it wrong, we got it all wrong, there was no alien swarm descending from the sky in their flying saucers or big metal walkers like something out of Star Wars or cute little wrinkly E. T. s who just wanted to pluck a couple of leaves, eat some Reese’s Pieces, and go home. That’s not how it ends.
That’s not how it ends at all.
It ends with us killing each other behind rows of empty beer coolers in the dying light of a late-summer day.
I went up to him before the last of the light was gone. Not to see if he was dead. I knew he was dead. I wanted to see what he was still holding in his bloody hand.
It was a crucifix.
THAT WAS THE LAST PERSON I’ve seen.
The leaves are falling heavy now, and the nights have turned cold. I can’t stay in these woods. No leaves for cover from the drones, can’t risk a campfire—I gotta get out of here.
I know where I have to go. I’ve known for a long time. I made a promise. The kind of promise you don’t break because, if you break it, you’ve broken part of yourself, maybe the most important part.
But you tell yourself things. Things like, I need to come up with something first. I can’t just walk into the lion’s den without a plan. Or, It’s hopeless, there’s no point anymore. You’ve waited too long.
Whatever the reason I didn’t leave before, I should have left the night I killed him. I don’t know how he was wounded; I didn’t examine his body or anything, and I should have, no matter how freaked out I was. I guess he could have gotten hurt in an accident, but the odds were better that someone—or something—had shot him. And if someone or something had shot him, that someone or something was still out there…unless the Crucifix Soldier had offed her/him/them/it. Or he was one of them and the crucifix was a trick…