“Gripping and poignant, A Matter of Days takes readers on a heart-stopping journey of love and survival.“ — New York Times bestselling author Carrie Jones
Their new reality begins in just a matter of days.
On Day 56 of the Blustar Pandemic, sixteen-year-old Nadia’s mother dies, leaving Nadia to fend for herself and her younger brother, Rabbit. Both have been immunized against the virus, but they can’t be protected from what comes next. Their father taught them to “be the cockroach”—to adapt to and survive whatever comes their way. And that’s their mission.
Facing a lawless world of destruction and deprivation, Nadia and Rabbit drive from Seattle to their grandfather’s compound in West Virginia. The illness, fatigue, and hunger they endure along the way will all be worth it once they reach the compound.
Unless no one is waiting for them . . .
“Fans of Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave, S. D. Crockett’s After the Snow, or Cormac McCarthy’s adult novel The Road will find this a satisfying read.” —SLJ
“An exciting apocalyptic road trip.” —Publishers Weekly
An Excerpt fromA Matter of Days
I waited a few swallows, a couple of deep breaths, before standing and tugging the quilt, with its blue-and-white wedding ring pattern, up and over Mom's face. Quiet. Peace. Finally. Exhaustion frayed my edges, fringed my cogent mind until the world hazed a gray blue. Mom's death was a type of ending, sure, but the beginning of so much more. Are we ready?
I tucked the corners of the quilt down under the mattress, into the crevice between the headboard and pillows. Smoothed out the wrinkles, covered up the filth, the days of dying cleaned up with the bright rings of magical promises my parents made to each other twenty years ago.
The bulge in the middle of the bed didn't resemble a human being anymore, let alone the woman who'd loved us our whole lives. Why didn't she listen when it mattered? The juncos, chickadees, and nuthatches chattered like stock traders outside. Or maybe, as the world fell more silent with each death, the birds simply seemed louder, more insistent.
The day was what Washingtonians called partly sunny rather than partly cloudy, and only about fifty degrees, but I'd kept the windows open. The chilled breeze blew in the stench of rotting meat and garbage. This world was separated only by a matter of degrees of gross. I almost didn't notice. I remembered moments when the air I breathed was scented with cedar trees, the dank acidic tang of low tide miles away, or elderberry blossoms on the wind. A lifetime ago. Can it really be only eight weeks?
Move, Nadia, don't stop moving. So much to do. Rabbit's footsteps sounded like a herd of elephants pacing upstairs. I imagined he checked the family room one last time for treasures he absolutely had to take with him. He probably lingered over the Xbox 360, gaming maniac that he'd once been. The shooting game, Uncle Bean gave us with a stern lecture to hide it from Mom, but practice aiming, firing, and holding a weapon until we were comfortable with it.
Rabbit clattered down the stairs, dropping something heavy, swearing words he shouldn't know at eleven.
A sigh deflated my legs until all I wanted to do was melt into the floor and let the virus get me, too. Or pills. Or booze. Or blades. Anything to not be left behind. I leaned my back against the side of the bed and scratched my scalp. My fingernails had blood, and other grossness, in the cracks and creases. Will they ever be completely clean again? Will I?
Rabbit's footsteps paused outside the master suite's door. He'd worry at the quiet. Mom's moans and screams became a part of our routine; intense, contorting pain was one of many symptoms of BluStar.
A thin, wavering voice called through the door, "Dad come get Mom?"
If Dad came to get Mom, why in the hell didn't he take us, too? Why do we have to live? "Yep, champ, she's gone," I called back to my little brother, trying not to sound as defeated as I felt.
Get up, Nadia. Be the cockroach, not the orchid. I heard Dad's voice chastise me until I pushed myself off the floor. Leaning down, I kissed Mom's forehead through the quilt. It was almost easy to say goodbye. Those last few days had been so horrific, so painful to watch, that the relief felt too big to fit inside my skin. But I was empty, couldn't even summon up tears. I'd used them all along with fervent prayers and agonizing wishes. Who has energy left to grieve? I have to be strong. Keep it together.
"Are we--um, are you-- When?" Rabbit shouted as he threw a tennis ball against the hallway wall with the steady thrum of a heartbeat. He did it when he was most worried, most anxious. "Not in the house," Mom would yell. "No dog to bring it back," he'd say. "A dog could chase the ball."
I shook my head and did a few jumping jacks to slough off the haze and debilitating paralysis that made me want to sit in one spot until I died too. I had to snap out of it. Rabbit's counting on me. "Soon. Thirty minutes?"
"'Kay." The tennis ball bumped and echoed farther down the hall, back toward the kitchen. The empty, scavenged remains of our kitchen.
I stripped off clothes I'd worn for longer than twenty-four hours, longer than days, or years, or lifetimes. I shuffled into my parents' closet. I riffled through until I found my mom's favorite pair of jeans and the cashmere sweater set, the royal-blue one, never worn. Mom was saving it for when Dad got home from his tour in Afghanistan.
For a split second, I wished I could bury Mom in the National Cemetery next to Dad. I'd done the next best thing: put Dad's dog tags over Mom's heart and covered her in the wedding ring quilt. Granny had made it for my parents' wedding gift. It had covered their bed all my life until Mom shoved it deep into the closet when the uniforms came with casualty news. Now the quilt's memories tied my parents together, as best I could, on this day, in death.
I padded naked into the bathroom and dipped the last clean washcloth in a bucket of rainwater Rabbit collected yesterday. It was cold, but it was clean. My hip bones poked at my skin and I had divots between each rib. I have to eat more. Manic laughter threatened at the thought of eating more energy bars and canned soup.
I scrubbed with a loofah until my skin pinked, reddened angrily, chafed with the contact. I reveled in the sensation, and part of me wondered if that was all I'd feel ever again--pain. Physical, emotional--it was all pain at this point. I brushed my fuzzy teeth until they were slick and shiny. I tried not to cringe at the sight of the kinked frizz of my hair or the glaring sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of my nose.
I slid into Mom's clothes. Two of me would fit in here. I might as well be the hanger. She'd been a couple sizes larger than me to start; I'd lost a size or two over the past few months. I threaded a belt through the loops to keep the jeans up.
I buried my face in her sweater, trying to find the lingering of perfume I grew up associating with Mom, but it still carried that new-clothes smell. Where's her spray? I padded over to Mom's perfume on the vanity, sprayed a little DK Cashmere over my heart, and set the bottle back on the counter. It's lonely.
On impulse, I grabbed a toiletry bag and dumped Mom's makeup and perfume in. I sprinted into the bathroom and dug around in the back of the drawers until I found Dad's cologne and shaving kit, out of sight, but not gone. Maybe they'd come in handy. Something to hold on to.
I left the window open with the curtains rustling. I almost saw Mom and Dad standing together in the drape and movement of the fabric. A large brown moth with a perfect blue stripe sunned in a stray ray on the sill. Mom would know what kind it was. I can't ask her. I can't ask her anything, ever again.
I avoided looking at the bed even one last time before slipping out of the room, my arms full of my parents' daily routines.
I didn't spare my own room more than a glance as I slipped on my newest pair of sneakers. I hadn't slept in there for days, weeks. Homework was still piled on my desk, and there was a nasty mound of dirty clothes in the corner. I wanted to lie down on my bed and never get back up. Too tempting.
I found Rabbit sitting at the kitchen table staring out into the backyard. A Steller's jay imitated a red-tailed hawk and cocked its head as if asking if we'd put out the usual peanut butter. The bird feeders were full for the first time in weeks. We don't have time to feed wildlife. We need the food for us.
"I filled 'em," Rabbit said, before I'd even asked the question, and didn't take his eyes off the jay. Dad loved the birds.
I sighed. "That's nice." I knew I sounded bitchy and distracted, so I tried again, "I mean, I know they'll appreciate it while they can. You're a good kid, Rabbit." I flipped open cabinets, checking, double-checking. We'd jammed everything we could into the Jeep. Everything that was left, that we hadn't used up or had stolen from us.
"I'm packed," Rabbit answered with a shrug. "Ready." Antsy, more like.
I didn't blame him; the house felt oddly both full and empty, no longer home but a prison. I placed the letter for Uncle Bean on the counter just in case, exactly like he'd instructed.
Dad had promised me a summer vacation road trip after my sixteenth birthday. See the sights, visit the must-sees, and I would do the driving. Most of it. He was supposed to be sitting right next to me telling me to watch the speed limit, turn down the music, ignore the phone's vibrations of text messages. This wasn't what either of us had in mind when we'd planned our trip years ago.
"Let's go." My heart sped up, a sprint of anxiety. Am I doing the right thing? Should we stay in our neighborhood? We've managed this far. Aren't we supposed to stay put in case of emergency? That was the old days, when there was rescue coming.
As if he knew what I was thinking, Rabbit said, "We have to." He looked up at me with his big brown eyes, so much like Dad's. Depths of experience, more like an old man's than a young boy's, gave his gaze an otherworldly determination. "We have to find Uncle Bean. Dad said to survive the effect, not the cause."
I nodded. I'd never really understood all of Dad's nuggets of military speak he'd cram into his talks and vacation leave. Until this--now they all made an eerie kind of sense. Be the cockroach. Survive the effect.
We'd talked about going, about staying. Voted. 2-0. If we'd split the vote, we'd have flipped a coin. But then fires in the distance seemed to grow darker, bigger, and finally obscured the Seattle skyline completely. We were sitting ducks in this suburb if the fires didn't go out naturally, and why would they? There was plenty of fuel to burn, enough rain to tamp them down but not to put them out. If this were November, and not April, maybe we'd be stuck to deal until spring, but we could do this. Have to do this. Get to Uncle Bean and start over.
"Are you sure you don't want to say goodbye to Mom?" I paused.
"I did. You licensed to drive yet?" He sent me a mischievous grin like the bratty little brother he used to be.
"How hard can it be?" I smiled. At least the streets were empty. We'd take it slow until I got the gist, but it was a long way from the outskirts of Seattle to West Virginia. And we were alone.
We utilized every spare inch in the Jeep--left the backseat bare for sleeping, but Rabbit had to ride with his legs on the dashboard when he sat in the front with me. I couldn't see out the back window, but it wasn't like I needed to look behind me. Onward.
Rabbit carefully packed the sentimental bits like photo albums on the bottom and important usables like bottled water and toilet paper on the top. He deserved kudos for the organization; his ideas packed more into the Jeep than I'd imagined possible. He'd packed, and unpacked it, while I tended to Mom. We'd known it was only a matter of time before we hit the road. Mom knew it was only a matter of time before she and Dad reunited. If we'd forgotten anything, we'd scavenge on the road, or live without it.
I stuck my parents' toiletries in a cranny under the driver's seat and tapped my pocket to make sure I had Dad's MP3 player. I didn't look at the house again. Couldn't. I hope we have everything. Maybe someday we'll come back and the house will be here, untouched. I shook my head; fantasy had a life of its own in this new world.
I shifted the Jeep into reverse and slowly backed down the driveway, with Rabbit calling out directions. I'm gonna need to see out the back, aren't I? My practice with the riding lawn mower, with pedals and steering--which Mom oversaw before--came in handy. Tiny compared with this monster heft, but better than nothing. Family cars lined the driveways and the sides of these suburban streets, as if everyone had taken the day off. Cozy and happy inside their homes. Appearances are so wrong.
Rabbit hopped in, his knees up to his chin as we rolled out of our neighborhood. Twisting to stare behind him, he didn't seem to breathe as our house disappeared into the distance. "Can we stop at Jimmy's?"
"Just Jimmy's?" I asked, clenching the steering wheel. Why couldn't driver's ed have been last semester instead of next?
I didn't know what it was like for Rabbit to look out at the deserted streets and quiet backyards, but for me it was eerie. Bananas crazy. Like a movie set, not real life. Like one of those amusement-park tours Dad loved--"This is where they filmed 'The End of the World Part Four,'" he'd say with a chuckle.
"Well, he is my best friend, and if he's there alone . . . What if just kids survived this?"
Rabbit clearly hadn't figured out that there was something in the shot Uncle Bean gave us. We're lucky. Special. But our survival had to do with our family and not our age. Maybe I should have shown him Bean's letter?
The world unfolded differently from the driver's seat. I didn't realize how little I had paid attention to streets and landmarks when I was riding shotgun.
Rabbit continued as if my silence wasn't answer enough. "If he's alone he can come with us, right?"
I pressed the accelerator harder. We don't leave marines behind, Nadia. Yes, Daddy. "Of course. Sure, we'll stop." Just what I need, two boys to worry about.
How was this supposed to work? Should we knock on the doors of everyone we'd ever known? Every friend? Classmate? Should we nurse them if they were sick? Bury them if dead? We'll never make it to West Virginia by summer.
Rabbit exclaimed, "You missed a stop sign!"
I slammed on the brakes. "Crap." We were in the middle of the intersection. There was wildlife, but no traffic. No humans at all.