A/N: You’ve been introduced to one OC so far, but Christie is far from the only original character. The family in this chapter is integral to the story and I hope you enjoy the new OC offerings!
THE STREETS OF BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
Rule number one: never go anywhere alone after dark.
It amazed Sam there were still idiots who did just that. She didn’t have the time or inclination to stop and feel sorry for the kid slumped over near the edge of the alley, throat cut and eyes blank. Jackals, the worst cob (gang) in Boston, had gotten him. Sick kernels always spray painted an X over their victims’ faces. Like it was some kind of joke.
The boy was completely stripped, his shoes, if he’d been cocky enough to have a pair, ancient history with the rest of his clothes.
Rule number two: don’t wear shoes.
You had to have serious cred to get by with it. Kernels kill for much less, unless they’re afraid of you. One of a million reasons that Sam and her family were better off on their own.
Sam turned away from the body dispassionately, tucking her chin-length brown hair behind her ears, and was grateful Beth and Tootie had stayed at The Hole. Despite everything, Beth was still horrified by each senseless killing. But Beth was only fourteen (or so—it was hard to keep track of things as useless as birthdays after the end of the world) and had the gentlest spirit of anyone Sam had ever known.
Sam had killed before, and would have to again, to stay alive. She hated it, but she had little choice. If something happened to her, Beth and Toot wouldn’t last more than a few days—and she couldn’t let that happen.
She detested the Jackals with a passion. There were a few gangs of kids that weren’t as malicious, and Sam had a few—a very few—allies on the streets, but for the most part, she and her two charges stayed on their own. Beth was too pretty, Toot too young, and Sam didn’t trust even her two allies more than she could throw them.
Well, Ricky she trusted a bit, but he was so skinny, she could throw him like a discus and there would be nothing he could do about it. She grinned and looked casually around the corner and down the street.
Besides the corpse, there was no one in sight—which was exactly why Sam always went diving at the first light of dawn. She thought the gangs’ habit of partying all night and sleeping all morning was about as stupid as it gets, but she used it to her advantage.
Strolling back into the alley, Sam approached a dumpster and braced herself on the edges, pulling herself up and over. The smell of rotting garbage had long since failed to faze her. Ignoring the decomposing scraps, Sam sat on her knees and sorted through the trash. She had a slouchy, sling-like crossover bag that Beth had made for Toot when he was a baby, and she used it to collect and carry anything she found that would be worth trading.
It was slow work, and she didn’t find a lot this morning. Just a lighter that still worked, a belt, a few batteries in questionable condition, most likely dead, but she saved them anyway, a box with a few matches, and a frosted-glass tumbler. Not a great haul, but better than nothing.
Sam looked out at the alley and listened for a minute before she hopped over the edge of the dumpster and back onto the ground, landing softly on her feet. She’d just have to hope that Ammon was in a good mood this morning.
Ammon, the “proprietor” of The Hive, an opportunist to give any politician a run for their money, wasn’t an official member of any one gang, but he straddled the proverbial fence, providing everyone with neutral territory to trade for goods and food.
Ammon, who had been an exchange student from Egypt at the time of the Fall, was closing in on seven feet, boxed all throughout high school, and could do as he pleased. It is taken for granted that not only does he wear shoes, he has a closet full. Girls tripped over themselves to find favor in his eyes, seeing something in his cocoa skin and golden eyes that Sam couldn’t even begin to fathom. She only showed him contempt, with a grudging respect; he was brilliant, however little she wanted to admit it.
As for Ammon, he liked her forthrightness, even fantasized about her sometimes, but he wasn’t stupid enough to say so. There was no end to the number of blades Sam carried, and the girl had a temper. That was another reason he liked her so much. But he wasn’t an ahbal hayawaan. He didn’t fancy sharp objects flying at his face.
Still, he liked to make her turn red.
Ammon looked up from behind his computer and grinned as his favorite dark-haired shrew stepped through the door with her permanent scowl in place. Closing the game of solitaire, he unfolded himself from his chair and stretched, eyeing Sam with a maddening light in his eyes.
Her scowl deepened.
Ammon laughed, the sound a shockwave in the otherwise quiet room. “Good morning, sunshine, I do hope you had a satisfactory sleep,” he greeted, each syllable spoken clearly and in quick succession. His light-brown eyes crinkled in the corners as he rose one eyebrow to her succinct silence. “Very well, Sam, what brings you to the bees’ knees?”
Sam made a show of rolling her eyes. “Ammon, you’re seriously demented, I hope you know that.”
“I know everything, O Dark One. What have you got for me today?” he asked, finally getting down to business.
Sam sighed softly and began unloading her finds on the bar. He barely looked at the goods before he lifted the key around his neck, entering the locked room. He shortly returned with a can of Progresso stew and a bite-size Hershey’s Mr. Goodbar.
Sam’s eyebrows rose. “Chocolate? Again?”
“Something to sweeten you up,” he answered with a wink.
Sam narrowed her eyes at him and tried not to smile. “You’re going to spoil him.”
Ammon snorted, leaning towards her, his arms resting on the counter. “Small chance of that. How is the kid?”
Sam took a small step back. “Eh, rowdy. I guess Beth would want me to thank you,” she added, slipping the two items into the purse at her waist.
“Please tell her she’s most welcome.”
“Stop acting the gentleman, Ammon, your duplicity is making me queasy.”
He grinned wolfishly and Sam huffed.
Ammon noticed that it was nearing eight o’clock. “You better get out of here, Sam.”
She nodded and turned to leave, lifting her hand in a dismissive but playful farewell.
It was a short walk back to The Hole, and after eyeing the empty street around the small auto garage, Sam lifted the key from around her neck and unlocked the metal door. After their parents were murdered in The Fall, the genocidal event that killed most if not all of the adults in several major cities, this was the safest place that Sam could find for her and Beth. The garage doors in the front of the building were operated from the inside, and the only regular door was thick, metal, and nigh indestructible. The first thing Sam had done after The Fall was steal the set of keys from their uncle’s house, who, in all fairness, wasn’t going to need the keys or his business anymore. A few possessions they couldn’t live without, all of the non-perishables they could carry in two backpacks, and they had left their home behind.
Thankful for her uncle’s power tools, Sam had immediately boarded up the two large windows with anything she could find that would work. She had broken apart an old card table, dissembled some cabinets, and even a few road signs were screwed in to cover part of the windows. When the electricity failed, it was blindingly dark, hence the nickname.
After the first blackout, Sam had dived for a week before she amassed enough goods for Ammon to trade her an oil lamp. He was especially difficult if you had something in particular in mind. From then on, when she managed a really good haul, she would save her best finds and then trade one for oil later, when the lamp was running low. She didn’t like the impenetrable dark.
Sam knocked hard twice and then paused and knocked once more. Letting herself in, she locked the door behind her and replaced the roped key around her neck as two tiny arms attacked her legs, squeezing with joy, and a curly mop of a head grinned up at her.
“Thsammy! You mithed it, you mithed it!” Tootie cried, his curls bouncing in his eyes.
Sam knelt down, her shoulders relaxing as her frown melted into a genuine-if-awkward-looking smile. “Yeah? What’d I miss, shorty?”
“I thspelled my name,” he declared proudly, puffing out his little chest.
Sam looked up at Beth, who was seated on a wheeled creeper, a warm smile on her face. She nodded, and Sam scooped Tootie up into her arms. “No way, I don’t believe you!”
He scowled at her, his two-year-old face comically reminiscent of her own. “T-double O-T-I…T-I—E!”
Sam laughed and bounced him on her hip. “Oh, you proved me wrong! Good job! Here, shorty,” she dug in the purse and pulled out the small chocolate bar, “a gift from Ammon, just for you.”
Toot smiled down at the small yellow-wrapped candy. “Choc-o-lot?” he asked, causing Sam to laugh out loud.
“Yes, ah, choc-o-lot. High five, monkey.”
He gave her an abrupt high five and then wiggled down, heading towards his blocks (bits of wood Sam had scavenged from an abandoned sawmill nearby).
“What do you say?” Beth cajoled.
“Thanths for nothing,” he chirruped happily, quoting Sam, who sometimes grumbled about Ammon under her breath. Well, okay, she grumbled about him on a regular basis on her good days.
Sam burst out laughing. And noted to do more grumbling inside her head than outside of it.
“I’m glad you’re back, Sam,” Beth said with a gentle smile, sounding tired, which was odd for her.
“What’s wrong?” Sam asked sharply.
“Noth-nothing,” Beth quickly asserted, not quite meeting her sister’s eyes.
Sam crossed the room in a few strides. “What’s the matter, Beth?” she asked, eyeing her sister closely.
Beth’s pale face was flushed, and she chewed her bottom lip, then turned her head to watch Tootie. Finally, she quietly admitted, “Nothing’s very wrong, I promise. It’s just…I feel a bit off. I’ve got a fever and I’ve had this headache that won’t go away,” Beth grabbed Sam’s hand before she started pacing in panic, “I’m fine. I’m just so afraid that it could be contagious. I don’t want you or Tootie to get sick. Especially Toot. He’s still so little,” she whispered.
Sam rocked on her heels for a minute, fresh worry settling on her shoulders with cruel efficiency.
A little over a week later, Sam pounded the wall in frustration as quietly as she could, so as not to wake Beth or Tootie.
She wasn’t quiet enough.
Beth’s eyes opened slowly, as if the movement caused her a terrific amount of effort, and she eyed Sam with compassion and concern. She couldn’t keep her eyes open for long, but she fought the weight. “Sam,” Beth said softly, barely audible, but Sam froze.
Sam turned and faced her little sister, her vision edged with worry bordering on hysteria. She was going crazy. It had been eight days and Beth had only grown worse. Her steady administrations of their precious aspirin and water had had no apparent effect. Beth’s color was high, her brow, forehead, and hair sweaty, her eyes tired, but her chapped lips were raised in a tremulous smile.
“Sam.” Beth coughed, and the rattle tore right through Sam. Beth flinched and then tried to speak again. “Don’t worry so much. I’m—”
Sam growled. “If you say you’re fine, so help me—” Sam paused and crumpled, breaking into breathless, quiet sobs.
Beth tried to sit up. The effort hurt her chest and she started coughing much worse, then she had to give up and lie back down. She closed her eyes and stretched out her hand towards where Sam was leaning back against the wall. Only a few seconds passed before Sam was at her side, holding her hand, and back under control.
Sam sighed with a long exhale and then raised her chin stubbornly, back, more or less, to her normal self. “I’m going for help. You need real medicine…and I don’t know what else to do.”
Beth nodded and let her eyes settle on Tootie, who was tucked in on his cot, fast asleep on his belly, his butt sticking up in the air. He breathed slowly in and out and Beth was thankful for the millionth time that, somehow, he hadn’t gotten sick yet. “Tell Ammon I said thank you, even if he can’t help.”
Sam snorted but gave no other reply. She unlocked the door, opened it, then locked it behind her as she left. Once outside, under the evasive light of the partial moon and the endless shadows that only seemed to appear in the half-dark, Sam sprinted. Her feet made no sound on the pavement, and she practically flew over the concrete and around corners and alleys that she really had no business running through at night. But she almost welcomed a confrontation. Let some idiot attack me, she thought. Destroying them might take the edge off of her nerves.
She didn’t confront anyone in the dark, however, and her lithe steps eventually led her to Ammon’s doorway. The door was locked, and she huffed in frustration. She was feeling more anxious every second she was away from Beth. She knocked firmly and insistently, eyeing the street with caution until she heard movement from within. It sounded like a table fell over. Finally, the door yanked open forcefully amidst cursing and Ammon’s glowering eyes met hers. His expression changed dramatically, his eyes widening in surprise. He gaped for a second, then yanked her in and shut the door behind her. He towered over her for a moment, at a loss, then asked, his voice breathless, “Something’s wrong. What is it? What’s wrong?” His voice rose an octave on the last word.
Sam tried to keep her voice even as she replied. Her hand involuntarily covered her eyes, pressing, keeping any more traitorous tears at bay. “It’s Beth. I think she needs antibiotics.” Her throat was tight, and the words were hard to get out.
Ammon nodded once and lifted his storage-room key from around his neck. He spoke softly, asking questions as he unlocked the door and gathered up a few supplies. “How long has she been sick? What are her symptoms?”
“A rattling cough, a high fever, headache, nausea, weakness…she’s been like this for over a week, but it’s getting worse all of the time.” She met Ammon’s eyes as his head poked out of the door frame for a few seconds. “She can barely move.”
Ammon took a few long strides and gripped her arms with his huge hands. “She’s going to be just fine, Sam. What about the wee lil’ man? Has he shown any symptoms?”
Sam shook her head back and forth silently, shocked that he’d touched her.
Ammon noticed her discomfort, but he didn’t let go right away. Instead, he searched her eyes. She looked past the point of exhaustion, and he doubted very much that she’d slept much at all in the past week. Finally, he let her go and stepped back. “I will be back in just a second.”
Ammon strode through his storage room agitatedly and wished he had access to fresh food. They were all malnourished. With a final, quick decision, he slipped two bottles of multivitamins that he had saved for his personal use into his bag, and searched among the assorted medicines he had until he found a box of expectorant and a bottle of penicillin. Taking a step towards the door, he turned around and selected several cans of broth and chicken noodle soup.
When he had locked his storage room again and shrugged on his jacket, Sam stared. Her eyes followed his every movement as he slipped on a pair of boots and double-knotted his shoelaces.
“You’re not coming?” she asked, even more confused than before.
“Don’t be daft, Dark One. Of course I am coming with you. It won’t hurt your reputation to be seen with me,” he grinned smugly, “and I want to see my patient for myself.”
Sam blinked. “Your patient?”
He ignored her huge eyes and pure astonishment and opened the front door. “After you.”
The street outside was cold, but Sam didn’t notice the bite of the concrete against her bare feet. The journey back to The Hole was timeless and surreal. She couldn’t believe that she was going to let someone into their home. She wasn’t convinced she could do it, in all honesty. When they paused at a corner, she couldn’t help but stare up, up, up at his dark face.
When they were near the garage, Ammon chuckled when he caught her staring again. “You should see your face. You look as though you are going to face a firing squad. Are we almost there, then?”
Sam’s eyes narrowed and countered the rise of heat in her cheeks. The garage was only around the corner. She stopped and leaned back against the wall of an abandoned barbershop. “Yes, we’re nearly there. Ammon, I….” She gritted her teeth and squared her shoulders, meeting his warm gaze with her cold one. “If you harm them in any way, I will make you suffer for eons before I kill you.”
Ammon tried not to burst out laughing, which was his first instinct, but he schooled his features and nodded as stoically as he could. After a breath, he said, “I would rather die than harm a child. It might be the end of the world, but I am not yet a monster.”
Sam swallowed. “I know, I know,” she said quietly, then closed her eyes, drawing strength and resolution from within.
“They make you vulnerable,” Ammon whispered, wishing fleetingly that he could do the same. “I feel as though I care greatly for them simply because of how special they are to you. I would never hurt them.”
Sam’s throat thickened and she turned away to hide her feelings. She was so tired and stressed and spent that her emotions were much too close to the surface. “Let’s go,” she said after a few moments.
Sam took a deep breath as she lifted her key from around her neck. She could feel Ammon’s presence at her side so strongly, so acutely, as if it were burning her. It was as if she was standing much too close to a bonfire. Her hand shook slightly as she unlocked the door and knocked. She could hear Beth’s rattling cough as she opened the door and Toot’s exclamations of joy at her arrival. He must have woken up. Sam frowned at him as she closed the door behind their surprising guest.
Both Toot and Beth stilled and Toot’s eyes grew comically wide as his mouth opened and stayed open as he stared up, up, up, and up at Ammon. Toot’s little head was leaning back, his eyes were bright, and suddenly he was grinning from ear to ear. Before Sam could stop him, Toot ran up to Ammon and cried, “Up, up!” and tried to scramble up his legs.
Ammon bellowed out a laugh and bent to hold the little wild boy. He was having trouble focusing. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of Toot or Beth, and he kept looking back and forth searchingly between them. He settled for approaching Beth’s bedside as he held onto the curly-headed little tyke while Sam locked the door and then shifted nervously to Beth’s side.
Beth’s eyes were wide as well, and she tried to sit up and she smiled at him warmly between coughing fits. Her eyes were too bright from fever, her long blonde braid loose and damp, her cheeks red and her lips chapped, but he was sure that he’d never seen a more beautiful girl in his life. She was too young, yes, but he was awestruck.
He was careful to relax and school his features, because Sam was watching him and she didn’t miss anything. Toot was running his fingers along his jaw, feeling his stubble and giggling in delight, and a tight feeling crept into Ammon’s chest. He never would have imagined it, but he knew suddenly and clearly that he wanted this. He wanted family.
Swallowing past the rising jealousy and longing, Ammon folded his long frame and sat in a straight-back chair next to the bed and swung Tootie up onto his shoulders. Toot laughed and started playing with Ammon’s close-cropped curls, and Ammon couldn’t help smiling as he dug through the bag sitting in his lap. He gripped Toot’s legs gently so he wouldn’t fall and then scooted the chair closer to Beth and felt her forehead and cheeks. Her forehead was scorching, and he wished he had had a thermometer so that he could get an accurate reading. She started coughing, and the rattle was painful to hear. She coughed for a long while and Tootie tried to climb off of him and onto her bed, but Ammon held him fast. “Easy there, monkey,” he cajoled, “let her rest, okay?” Ammon met Sam’s worried gaze and held eye contact as he thought. Finally, he turned back towards the girl and smiled. “You’re in luck, you know. My mother was a nurse practitioner. She was,” he chuckled breathily, for it was still hard to think about his family, “ah, quite the overlord, actually. Education was everything in our household….” He swallowed, watching Beth’s face, then cleared his throat and pulled out a small but full bottle of general antibiotics, penicillin. He handed the bottle to Sam and helped Beth to sit up fully.
Beth smiled before she swallowed the two tablets that he instructed her to take. “She sounds lovely, like a strong woman.” Beth’s voice was soft and a little weak, but she spoke clearly. “Both of our parents were teachers, so education was very important as well. I always wanted to be a teacher, too, until…” she quieted, then took a sip of a bottle of water and leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes.
“And what would you teach, in a better world?” Ammon inquired, curious.
“Oh,” Beth sighed softly, “music, like my mom.”
“She was special,” Ammon stated, because he knew it was the truth.
Beth nodded and Sam came around the bed and scooped Toot up into her arms and retreated with him to his play corner. She didn’t often get down on the floor and play with him like Beth did, and he was delighted and kept handing her pieces of wood to stack. She tried to ignore the conversation taking place on the other side of the room. Nothing made her feel more raw than thinking about their parents.
Ammon leaned forward and felt along Beth’s neck, checking for swollen lymph nodes. He pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and asked her to open her mouth as wide as she could. Her throat was red. He stood. “Do you mind if I use this light to look in your ears?” he asked.
Beth sat up straighter and shook her head. “No, not at all.” She tucked her damp curls behind her ears.
He gently turned her head from side to side, trying not to get captured by her soft gaze upon him, and shined the light as carefully as he could into her ears, but they, at least, did not appear to be infected or irritated at all. He paid attention to the sounds she made when she was breathing and sighed as he sat back. “My best guess is that you have a severe case of bronchitis or pneumonia. If you take the antibiotics and the cough expectorants I brought twice a day for ten days, I think you should feel as good as new. Be sure to rest, even when you feel better.”
Beth reached for his hand and smiled up at him gratefully. “Thank you so much. You didn’t have to do all of this.”
“Nonsense. Someone has to keep Sam in line, and I am certainly not up to the task.”
Beth laughed, then started coughing and tried to stop. He handed her the water bottle again and when she could, she took small sips. After a quiet minute, she asked him, “What would you have done?”
Ammon leaned back in his chair and laughed self-deprecatingly. He scrubbed at his short, curly hair for a few seconds and then sighed. “My answer four years ago would have been easy and very different than what it is now. I wanted to fight. Boxing. I was, ah, a natural, I suppose. I maintained a high enough GPA to satisfy my parents, but my head was always in the ring. We fell out when I was sixteen, because they wanted me to start my applications to university and to pursue a career as a doctor or a lawyer or—well, they sent me here to live with my uncle, who owned the store where I now…. I was so sure of what I wanted, I was willing to defy them. I was only here in Boston a few months before the—before everything changed. Now, I…I don’t know.”
Beth bit her lip and nodded with a sigh. She knew what he meant. The last few years had changed everything.
A/N: Thank you, Devilish Motives and Davros Fan for being awesome betas! And thank you, guys, for reading!
Ahbal hayawaan: Egyptian Arabic for “foolish animal” (according to the internet—if anyone has any corrections for any of my translations, please don’t hesitate to let me know. And thank you!)
Creeper: Those rolling platforms that mechanics lay back on as they work on your car
“Sick kernels” is just an insult I made up. Correspondingly, slang for a gang of kids is “cob.” I think the street slang might be filled with creative insults based upon food and things that they long for. Twisted, but that’s what I like about it. Ex: “Shut it, marshmallow, ‘fore I flame you.” (or something, er, lol) Cookie, toast, loaf, coffee, etc. and then a lot of condescension, like princess, thrown in. Of course, cursing would be thicker than molasses, I know, but you won’t find much in the way of actual swear words in my fics.