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  1. If you live in Upstate, NY, make sure you swing by Oswego on July 20th for Theresa’s BBQ Benefit and Kid Carnival. A gift basket with SIGNED paperback Proofs of SARATOGA and The Phoenix Project Series will be raffled off. (This gift basket is valued at $50, but since they are signed proofs it's actually priceless! There will be other raffles also, click the link above to see)
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Back to writing,
M. R. Pritchard

 
SPARROW MAN is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
 
Copyright © 2014 M. R. Pritchard
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever without express written permission from the author. All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system–except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper–without permission in writing from the publisher.
________________________________

Faults and feathers
 
“Tell us what happened,” the man from center of the desk-of-questioning says to me.
“It’s in the report,” I reply. “I wrote it down already.”
My eyes flick from left to right. There are three of them sitting across the room from me wearing dark robes, their aged faces placid and expectant, waiting to hear my story.
“We need to hear it from you,” the man to the left says.
“Do you remember what happened?” the one on the right asks.
Like it was yesterday. You don’t forget that shit.
“You said I could go,” I remind them, pushing my sweaty palms across the legs of the maroon scrubs they gave me to wear, my Newcomer uniform. It seems I always wind up wearing these things, formless scrubs or jumpsuits.
“We’ve put out a notice,” the one in the middle says, weaving his fingers together. “We can’t let you free into the general population until someone comes to collect you.”
I look away from the three men at the corner, the wall, the floor, anything but them. I’m tired of looking at them. And yet, they are my last hope to find the one thing I want. Jim.
“When did it start?” the one on the left asks.
I let out a breath of air that I didn’t realize I was holding. “When they came looking for guns.”
“Who?” the one in the middle asks.
“Whoever the Governor hired.” I look back at them. “All I know is it wasn’t the local law enforcement.”
“You knew them?” the one on the right asks, his thick white eyebrows migrating to the top of his forehead. Furry icebergs, that’s what they look like.
“Yeah.” I cross my arms over my stomach and sit up straighter. Everyone knew the local law enforcement, that’s what you get in hickville.
“Go on,” the one in the middle offers, waving an aged hand with his index finger extended. “Tell us the rest,” he beckons.
“I was alone. Waiting for my fiancé to get home-”
“His name is Jim?” the one on the left asks. “Correct?”
I narrow my gaze on him. “Yeah, Jim Sullivan. If you know this already then why are you asking me?”
The one in the middle clears his throat and I swear I hear him kick the one on the left under the table. “Go on,” he urges.
“I was waiting for my fiancé, Jim, to get home from work and the doorbell rang.”
“Did you answer it?” the one on the right asks.
“No.”
“Why not?”
“I could see them through the window.” I shake my head a tiny bit. “They weren’t good men.”
“You could tell this just by looking at them?” the one on the left asks.
“Yes.” They keep asking questions from each end of the table, back and forth. The one in the middle is starting to look as annoyed as I feel.
“So you didn’t let them in because they looked bad?” the one on the right asks.
“Because I was alone and pregnant.” I look at the corner again. “There were seven of them. One of me.”
“So you were outnumbered?”
I glare at the one on the right. “Men like that; you can see it written all over their faces. They were all hyped up from confiscating guns all day. Their trucks were blocking the street. None of the neighbors were outside.” I shrug, tired of wondering why no one else came to help me. “Too afraid I guess. I told them to come back when Jim got home. I told them that I didn’t know where the guns were.”
“But you had to know,” the one in the middle says.
“It doesn’t matter. They weren’t good men to begin with,” I repeat. “I tried to stall them. Offered them sodas on the porch, but they wanted to search the house.”
“But you knew where the guns were,” the one on the left says.
“Of course I did!”
“Please, Meg, don’t yell.” The one in the middle raises his palms towards me, placating-like. “These walls aren’t soundproof. We don’t want to disrupt the others.”
There is a moment of awkward silence as the three men wait for me to continue.
“They broke down the door. I guess it was best that Jim wasn’t there after what happened, after what they did to me. It’s best he didn’t see that.” I shake my head, pick at my nails. The one in the middle squirms in his seat. Yeah, they read my report.
“Why didn’t Jim stay when he found you?” The one on the right asks.
“I told him to go. When he found me and what I did... I told him that I would find him later when it all blew over. We had a place set up to meet in case of an emergency. Jim was always prepared for an emergency.”
“So he left you?”
“He had to. After what I did I knew there’d be trouble. The guns were illegal. Hell, it wasn’t just the guns. Those were twenty-five round magazines. State law says you can only load at max of five rounds per magazine. And there were more of them. Those were felonies, each magazine, and there were a lot.”
“So he left you there with all those injuries?” The middleman asks with a frown.
“I told him to,” I reply. “Argued that the state would show leniency to me after what those men did. They would have locked Jim up for forever if he had taken the blame.”
“How much time did you get?” the one in the middle asks.
I roll my eyes. “Here, let me tally up the charges for you. For seven men breaking into my house and raping me, tossing me down the stairs, killing my unborn child, and threatening to kill my fiancé, I got seven months in the county jail, which includes the hysterectomy and three blood transfusions.”
The man in the middle, his face pales a stark white.
“You think I got what I deserved?” I ask.
“Well…” The one on the left clears his throat. “You did kill them all.”
I glare at him. “Wouldn’t you?”
“What happened next?” the one on the left asks.
“Went to the Hospital. Then county lockup.”
“But you didn’t serve all of your time. You escaped?” the one on the left asks. “How?”
“Have you ever seen Shawshank Redemption?”
“That’s how you got out? With a spoon?” the one in the middle asks.
I guess Canada does have a slight affiliation with great American movies. I nod yes to him.
“What did you eat? You were there for months.”
“Rats from the walls.” I control a shudder, remembering that. I could handle the walking dead, I could handle the shuffling and the moaning. It was the biting into the flesh of a warm rodent that made my skin crawl.
The men look at each other.
“We find it hard to believe you made it out alone,” the one in the middle says.
I shrug. “Call it an act of God then. There was no one left but me. The rest had all turned.”
“So you believe in God?” the one on the left asks. His eyes rise in an almost hopeful expression.
This is what they’re looking for here, believers. Well, they won’t find one in me. “No,” I tell them firmly.
“But you just said-”
“It’s a phrase.” I lean forward, pressing my elbows into my thighs. “That’s all.”
“So when you got out, where did you go?” the one in the middle asks.
“Where I knew I’d find guns to protect myself,” I reply. “The local drug dealers.”
“So you used to do drugs?” the one on the right asks. His expression turns into one of concern.
“No, Chuckles,” I say out of extreme annoyance. “I went to high school with them. We all grew up together. Tiny town. Remember?”
They shuffle papers and murmur to each other.
The one in the middle looks at me. “You still haven’t cleared up our questions. Why did those men target you and Jim?”
“I don’t know.” I shrug my shoulders.
“Look, Meg, we want to let you in. We think you would make and excellent addition to the community. You could help us here. But if you want to see your fiancé, answer the questions.”
“I have.” The reply comes out as a sigh. I’m tired of this.
“Why did you come all the way here?” the one in the middle continues. “Why didn’t you just give up and find one of the Safe Houses near where you were?”
“Jim had a plan. We were to meet in Kingston. I just want my home, with him. I wanted to get home again. That’s why I’m here now. I just want Jim back.”
“But you can’t truly go home. You came here,” the one on the left points out.
“I’ll be home when I find Jim. Home is where he is.” And as the words leave my lips, for a split second I wonder where Sparrow is and what he’s doing.
“Isn’t that what the army men used to say?”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“Can’t you see,” the one on the right starts, “you’re just like them? We need someone like that here, especially a woman. That would be great for recruitment.”
“No, I’m not army.” I shake my head and straighten in my uncomfortable chair.
“I think so,” the man on the right argues.
“I don’t care what you think.” Agitated and tense, I’m ready to launch from this stupid chair. “I’m not military. Just a country girl from a small town.”
“You sure? You talk like them, like those men. You have that look in your eyes,” the one on the left says.
“What look is that?” I ask.
“Like you’ve almost lost all hope.”
Never have six words ever hit me so hard. Not even all the crap daddy used to say to me. I sit up a little straighter. “Like I said. I’m not military.” I glare at them, all three of them. “I never went away to war. I never saw the travesties of third world countries. I only witnessed what happened here.” I point at the floor.
“Shouldn’t…” the man in the middle rubs the stubble on his chin, “shouldn’t you be more… emotional?”
“You want me to cry or something?” I shout. “Fuck off!”
“Ms. Clark!” The man in the middle stands, his robes swaying. “The others will hear you.”
“I don’t care.” I stand, tipping over the lone chair that they gave me to sit in and head for the door. “I’m done with this.”
“We did not dismiss you,” the man in the middle continues.
I bang on the door with my fist. “You don’t need to. My free will tells me that we’re done here. I can dismiss myself.”
“You’re in a Safe House now, Meg,” he continues. “Your free will is something you’re going to have to get used to giving up.”
“Bullshit,” I mutter as the door opens.
“This will impact our final decision,” he warns.
“I hope it does,” I reply, just out of earshot.
 
“Third day is always the hardest,” my Parole Officer, Deacon, says as he escorts me to my cell.
Parole officers used to be the ones to watch over criminals, keep track of them and where they are. Now they’re used to help assimilate Newcomers to the Safe Houses. They are our guides; they help in the research and the admission process. If there is a family member or friend who might be in the community or another one nearby, the Parole officer is responsible for finding them and helping them claim us. People like me who aren’t a walking corpse, yet.
“Lots of emotion rolling around for the last overnight in the cell,” Deacon continues.
“The last night in the cell?” I ask, my steps echoing on the metal platform we walk across.
“Yeah.”
“Doesn’t everyone spend the night in a cell here? The only difference is if they are with someone that they love, family or friends.”
He doesn’t answer, just moves one thick hand to his collar and adjusts the white band there before stopping and opening the door.
“Did you find Jim?” I ask as I step into my cell.
“You know I can’t tell you that,” Deacon says as he reaches for the door and slides it closed, locking me inside. “If we find him, he’ll claim you. Until then you should use this time to reflect on what you’ve done with your life.” Deacon tips his head and gives me a stern nod before walking down the elevated platform, hopefully to find Jim.
Needing to cool down from the questioning, I head for the shower. That’s the one nice thing about these Safe Houses, they may be jails and prisons used to lock the survivors inside, but there’s fresh water, food and safety and something that my last jail cell never had: a shower.
Stripping off the maroon scrubs they gave me to wear, I turn the water on hot. I scrub my skin and wash my hair. Stepping out of the shower, I take the small towel off of the sink and dry myself. I reach for my clothes, the ones I wore here and cleaned in the sink, a pair of worn jeans and a light blue top with a wide neck. They don’t like this shirt here. It shows my tattoos. Deacon already told me to stop wearing it three times. He said the people here don’t like women with tattoos.
Turning to the mirror, I comb my hair with my fingers, thankful it’s short; just above my shoulders and easy to take care of. It’s straight and black and a few days without a shower don’t show so easy. After almost a week with my hair like this, I don’t even miss my old hair. Long hair got me nothing but trouble. Men like long hair and it’s easy to grab onto. Sparrow Man helped me cut it. I don’t think I’ll ever have long hair again.
The summer tan that once darkened my skin is already starting to fade, leaving behind a spattering of freckles over my nose and under my eyes. I’ll be back to pale as a ghost in no time being indoors like this, and all it took was a few days. I adjust my shirt across my shoulders. I like this shirt. Makes my eyes look a brighter blue, and yes, the tattoo shows, the image of a black quill across my right collarbone. Maybe that’s why Sparrow Man helped me so much-he has a thing for feathers.
I should tell them that there are more tattoos under the shirt, a spattering of tiny stars across my left shoulder, a heart on my right hip, and an anchor on my ribcage. They would probably kick me out if they knew all that.
“Dinner!” a voice shouts from outside the cell door.
I leave the bathroom.
“Nothing funny,” the chick with my plate of food warns as she twists a key, opening my cell. She tosses the tray on my bed, tipping over the glass of milk and wetting the bedspread with it. She smirks as she locks the cell door before leaving.
“You’re an ass,” I tell her.
“And you’re not supposed to be wearing that shirt.” She smirks again. “Makes you look like the sinner you are.”
“I hope you wake up with a third eye.” I mime an unkind gesture in her direction.
“Third eye’d be nothing compared to what your third day’s gonna be like.” She laughs and walks away.
That delivery chick is a bitch. If I have to stay here much longer, I might kill her. All she had to do was set the tray down. She didn’t even have to step in the cell. I pick up the tray, placing in on the table that’s next to the door, and pull the bedspread off of the bed. If the milk soaks through this place will reek all night. I don’t know what it is about unpasteurized milk but it smells terrible after a few hours of being soaked into the linens.
 I was hoping Deacon would say something to her, if we all complained enough, but no one else on containment wants to risk being thrown out. I guess I shouldn’t risk it either, since this is my last hope at finding Jim.
I eat the stew. At least, I think it’s a stew. I can see what looks like tiny chunks of potato and carrot, but the meat… yeah, the meat. I try not to think about it.
When I’m done eating, I pull on my clean pair of socks and my shoes, tying them in double knots. Reaching for my bag, I pack my other things inside of it; the scrubs they gave me and a package of crackers that came with the stew. I set the bag next to my bed. Just in case. You always have to be ready to run these days.
Lying on the bed I stretch out, hands behind my head, feet crossed. Tomorrow, I tell myself. Tomorrow this will be done. Jim will come to collect me and then I can live out the rest of this life with him, just as we planned. And I will finally be home.
 
Days ago…
 
The first place I ran to when I spooned my way out of the county jail was my house. It was stupid really. Never go back to the scene of the crime. Everyone knows that. Too many memories. Paralyzing memories. But I couldn’t help myself. I had nothing; no supplies, no clothes, no weapons, and I needed all of that stuff. I couldn’t be running around in this bright orange jumpsuit. That just screams criminal. And it makes me more visible. I need dark clothes, layers of clothes for these northern nights. I need food, if I can find any. And I need weapons, because while I was in that jail cell something strange happened to the rest of the world. I thought what happened when the men came for the guns was a nightmare. I was wrong, this is much worse.
The great part about small towns is that everything is close by; the stores, the houses, and the county jail. So when I got out of that cell, when I broke through the crumbled cement with my worn out spoon and climbed my way through the space in between the walls, I made it to the basement. There was a way out in the basement of the county jail. I knew this because that’s what happens in tiny towns with no money and old buildings. The county jail has a basement with a sewer cap, and if you get to that sewer cap and open it, you can walk the sewers to anywhere in town.
I knew this because Jim had done it before, when he was a kid. His dad was the county Sheriff in Gouverneur, so Jim knew lots of tricks and facts. Like the fact that his Dad didn’t want him around me. I was nothing but trouble and trash. I knew what the people here thought of me, they thought the same thing when I was here growing up, when I left, and when I came back.
I would have never come back if it weren’t for Jim. If I hadn’t run into him at college downstate, things would be a lot different right now. But all it took was a few drinks, a few sweet words from a local boy on a lonely night, some willing sperm, and one of my stupid little eggs. And the deal was done. Jim dragged me back to this godforsaken town before I could get an abortion, brought me to meet his Dad and declared that we would be married. Just like a small town love story.
Barf.
I wanted Jim. That was all I wanted. I wanted Jim because he was the only one who had ever wanted me, and I wanted to run away from this place. I never wanted this town. There was too much here, too many memories of a past that I wanted to forget.
But Jim’s dad knew that stuff already. He told me so, right after he told me to get the hell away from his son and get the abortion like I wanted. He told me he knew all about my trashy family drama and he didn’t want none of that ruining his pristine bloodline.
By the time I got done reminiscing about my sad little life story, I had made it to the manhole in front of our house. 
Now I know what you’re thinking-house?-they don’t have houses up there. They have trailers and dentures. Nope, I had a real house, bought with the money from my Mother’s estate. Daddy held it until I was eighteen. Then it was enough for four years of college and a new start elsewhere. Instead I used it to buy this, a real brick and mortar colonial with the big front porch and oak tree in the back, picket fence and all.
I climbed out of that sewer and ran into the house. There wasn’t a door to close behind me. That was gone, kicked in and never replaced by those men.
I pause in the living room, smelling the stink of rotting food and empty house. There are cats in here now, probably feasting on the mice which were cleaning out the cupboards. I wait to hear noise in the house, the sound of another person or one of them, those things that used to be human. Now they are nothing more than walking rot.
I glance around the living room. All my furniture is still here, the pictures still on the wall, the coats still hanging by the door. I make my way towards the stairs, ascending slowly. I step over the dried blood on the carpet. There’s more blood upstairs, on the bed and in the bathroom. I know this because I was here. I have the scars to prove it.
I try not to remember what they did to me in my own home. How men could do something like that to a pregnant woman on American soil, I just don’t understand it. Our country was changing-no-it had changed. Jim and I were prepared for this. He may have been full of pretty-boy hopes and dreams, but he was also a planner and a thinker, and Jim was making sure we were ready to get out of here when the shit hit the fan. Something bad was brewing in our country. You could taste it in the water, smell it in the air, see it on the faces of the locals in the county store. I just didn’t expect it to be this, the dead walking the streets, ready to eat your face off.
Stepping over another dried pool of blood, I remember my plan. Kingston. That’s where we were to meet. Kingston, Ontario. We had our passports, we had our stories, and Jim even had a small cabin in the woods up there that we bought with my leftover money. All I had to do was make it the eighty miles, then I’d be safe, then I’d find Jim, then I’d be home, then I could put this all behind me.
Reaching the top of the stairs I take a left, headed for the bedroom. Hearing the creaking of the floorboards behind me I turn quickly, only to find one of the cats has followed me. I close the bedroom door and push a chair under the door handle. It won’t do much to keep them out, but at least it could give me a head start. I pull open my dresser drawers. Finding all of my clothes still here fills me with a tiny bit of glee. I strip off the orange uniform and throw it on the floor. No one will be searching for me, not now; everyone else is too busy trying to save their own ass.
I change, savoring the feel of my own underwear, a real bra, my worn jeans and old soft shirt. I use the bathroom and take a handful of ponytail holders, twisting my hair up with one and shoving the rest in my pocket.
Next, I crouch under the bed to find the black backpack Jim had stashed in case of an emergency. It’s all I have, since the guns are gone. How do I know they took all the guns? They read a long list of everything they confiscated at my bedside hearing. Brought the courtroom to my hospital room. I guess they felt bad with the option of wheeling me into court after all that had happened. And I’m sure the Governor didn’t want this in the news. It was all very hush-hush.
They may have taken the guns, but I was pretty damn happy to find that they thought nothing of a dusty backpack under the bed. I pull it out and unzip it. Yes! Everything is still there: a Swiss Army knife, one of those survival bracelets with a few feet worth of paracord, reflective blankets, empty water bottles with filters, dinner kits, and a few toiletry items. I stand and put a change of clothes and extra socks and underwear into the bag. The backpack has one diagonal strap that goes across the chest. Jim always said it was so it could be unclipped and left behind in an emergency. I adjust the strap and put the bag on.
Next I get my shoes, a pair of those boots that look like sneakers, already worn in from the few hikes Jim took me on in the mountains until I was too pregnant to walk more than a mile.
Standing by the door, I listen for any movement. Hearing none, I move the chair and open the bedroom door. The cat that followed me up the stairs meows at me. I pay no attention to it. Instead, I stare straight ahead at the closed door at the end of the hallway. There’s a nursery behind that door, painted all light yellows and greens. Something inside me wants to walk down that hallway, open that door and run my fingers over all the soft baby clothes and blankets.
Stop it! I had more than enough time to think about that loss as I laid in my hospital bed for all those weeks, and then in my cell.
It’s strange really, just when I got it in my head that I wanted that baby, that I really wanted it and got excited about it and started thinking about our future as a family, it was taken away from me. Funny how life works like that. Usually trash like me has five kids by the age of twenty-four. That’s what we get up here in the North Country; a rap sheet, five kids, a trailer in the country, and then our incisors and ten-year molars rot out.
At least I tried to be different, and even though I knew they all called me trash, at least I was changing. I went to college, bought a real house, buried my rap sheet-hell, I still have all of my teeth. Didn’t matter to Jim’s dad though. Didn’t matter to my dad either, not that I have spoken to him much since I packed my single suitcase and left that broken down trailer I grew up in.
I walk past the cat and make my way downstairs, headed for the kitchen. Cats scatter as I walk through the small dining room. I hold my breath. The stench of rotting food is enough to make me gag. Searching the cupboards, I find a few packages of crackers and some stale soda. I pack them in the bag and then circle the kitchen and dining room.
I need a plan. I know where I have to go and how to get there. God knows we discussed it about a million times. Kingston. I look out the back window at the garage. There’s nothing but heavy equipment in there, shovels and axes that would slow me down and make my arms tired. I look under the window and notice Jim’s baseball bat. This could work. I grip it in my hand and swing it around.
Satisfied with the meager weapon, I take a step, getting ready to leave, but, hearing a deep moaning sound I spin myself around and see one of those things schlepping-it across my backyard.
“What the fuck,” I mumble to myself.
The backyard is totally enclosed by white picket fencing. And I have no idea how that walking meat sack got back there. I take it as my cue to get the hell out of here.
“Bye bye, kitties,” I whisper to the cats that currently inhabit my house and run out the door.
Running down the street, I don’t stop until I’m three blocks away. I need to find weapons-a gun and bullets. But ever since the raids I’m sure it’s going to be hard to find anything.
Stupid government, I think to myself. They raided all the law abiding citizens, those of us with a few registered firearms and permits, but you know the places they never hit: the criminals.
That gives me an idea and I think I know where to start looking; the local drug dealers house. And I know the best one. Noah Cooper. My old flame and half the reason for all the trouble I got into. I run down the street, turning left on Main Street, then running for three more blocks until I reach Gleason. It’s just a bit further to Birchwood. I slow when I get to the elementary school. Small town drug dealers, they always live across the street from a school.
I pause at a tree, taking in my surroundings and wiping the sweat from my forehead. Noah’s house is right in front of me. A big brick Victorian he inherited from his grandmother. It has a huge basement, with no windows, and that’s exactly where he grew his weed.
Now the windows of Noah’s house are boarded up, but the front door looks the same, a metal knocker and red paint. I make my way to the front steps, hoping to hell that his cache of guns is still in that root cellar off of the main basement. Not that he needed guns here. He had no competition being this far north, but Noah had some gangster idea in his head that he needed those guns to protect his weed.
When I reach the front door I hold my hand up, ready to knock. But before I can make a move the door whips open and someone grabs my wrist, hard, dragging me into the house. I drop the baseball bat.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” a voice whispers harshly into my ear. “You don’t just wander up to the front door and knock like you’re selling fucking Girl Scout cookies.”
It’s this moment that I realize, yup, Noah’s got guns. I can feel one being pressed to my jaw as this douche spits in my ear. Someone clicks on a dim light. My eyes focus on the face in front of me; it’s some Asian kid I’ve never seen in this town before.
“Would you like to answer me you dumb bit-”
“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa!” I hear a familiar voice. “If you ain’t a sight for sore eyes.”
I focus behind the Asian kid and find Noah standing across the room, arms crossed, blonde hair a bit too long and looking like the lady-killer that he thinks he is. “Let her go, Rick.” Noah must be speaking to the Asian kid because he pulls away from me and holsters his weapon in his belt.
“Rick?” I raise my eyebrows at the Asian kid. I’ve never heard an Asian be called such a redneck American name before.
“Shut up, dumbass.” He flicks a finger across his nose. “You could have gotten us killed pulling that crap.”
Noah walks towards us. “Keep it down. We don’t want them finding us here. Plus, my lady Meg here just got out of jail. I’m bettin’ she doesn’t even know what’s going on now.”
“Better give her a lesson then.” Rick peers out of a narrow crack between the window boards.
I feel Noah wrap an arm around my shoulders, my entire body stiffens. “Sorry.” He releases his arm from around me. “Almost forgot that about you.”
Most people don’t expect it; it’s kind of unnatural, not wanting to be touched. I can’t remember when it started, all I know is it that it’s worse now than it ever was.
“Come on, Meg.” He leads me away from the door, down the hall, to the kitchen and through the door that I know leads to the basement.
I stop dead in my tracks. The last time I was led to a set of stairs, it turned out very badly for me. Noah must sense this because he stops and gives me a concerned look. I’m sure he heard what happened to me. News like that makes it across town before you’re out of the operating room.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Meg. We just need to go somewhere safe.”
I turn to look at him. This is my first interaction with real live people in weeks-no, months. “Noah?” I ask. His name sounds strange exiting my lips at this moment.
His brown eyes soften as he smiles. They’re like chocolate, light milk chocolate. God what I wouldn’t give for a piece of chocolate right now.
“It’s okay.” Noah steps in front of me. “I’ll go first.”
He walks down the stairs, flicking the stairwell light on along the way. I hear people talking when he reaches the bottom.
“What happened?” someone asks.
Noah turns and holds his hand out, waiting for me to descend. I grip the backpack strap and placing one foot in front of the other, I walk into the basement.
There are people here and the shelves Noah once used to dry and package marijuana are now stocked with canned food and supplies. I look around at the six faces that are down here with him, four other guys and two girls. I notice one face is missing, Noah’s older brother, Jack.
“Where’s Jack?” I ask him.
“Not here. Come on.” In all the years I’ve known Noah, the tone of his voice tells me not to ask about Jack. Noah pulls on the sleeve of my shirt, leading me to a table in the corner of the basement. “We need to talk.”
I sit across from him at a rickety card table.
“Thought you were doing time?” Noah asks.
“Got my get out of jail free card today,” I reply.
“They just let you out?”
I shrug and unclip my backpack, letting it fall to the floor at my side.
“How did you get out, Meg? Last I knew you were in County, getting your three meals a day and free cable. Actually...” He taps his finger on his chin. “How did you get to go to County for killing seven men?”
“Must be Governor of the state grew a heart or something.” Noah’s eyebrows rise. “I’m guessing he didn’t want the Times publishing a story about how a poor trashy pregnant white girl got assaulted and almost killed by the goons he hired for his gun raids.”
“I thought you were supposed to go to the federal prison-”
“So were you, Noah. I’m not an idiot. I read the papers when I was in the hospital. You got caught with a lot of weed and locked up for possession, sent to state prison down in Auburn. They just let you out?”
He laughs. “Kicked us out, actually. Nobody wants a bunch of criminals hanging around with this stuff.”
“Must be nice.”
“They didn’t let you out.”
I shake my head.
“How did you get out?” he asks, tipping his head to the side.
“Shawshank Redemption style.”
He thinks for a minute. “A spoon?”
“Well, that got me through the wall. You know what a piece of shit County is. And you know those rumors about the sewer drains?” Noah nods his head. “They’re true.”
“You went through the sewer?” He snorts. “Thought you smelled kinda bad.”
“Screw you, pretty boy.” I look him up and down. He doesn’t have that fucked-up aura that the others who come out of prison do. The one that tells you they went through something terrible and are truly sorry for the sins that sent them there. “You never made it to the state pen, did you?”
He shakes his head no.
“How’d you get out?”
“They pulled the bus over on our way there.” He looks at his hands. “Unlocked the cuffs, kicked us off the bus, and sped away to save their own asses.”
I stare at him for a long moment, everything swirling in my head. “How is this happening?” I finally ask. “Do people get bitten or something?”
“This isn’t like them zombie movies everyone used to watch. Nobody get’s bitten, they just wake up that way.”
“What do you mean they wake up that way?”
“Just like I said, they go to bed all normal and fine, and wake up a walking bag of dead flesh. That’s why they kicked us out of the jails. The others, they lock themselves up at night. Guessing that’s what happened to you. Guards locked everyone up at bedtime, and the ones in charge woke up in that state. Strange, you were the only one to survive.”
“That’s so fucked up…”
“Sure is. But, it sure gets people saying their bedtime prayers.”
“Why would they say prayers?”
Noah leans forward, his knuckles shifting closer to my hand on the table as he speaks. “I know it’s been a while since you last visited a church, but that’s what people used to do at night, say their prayers, apologize for their sins, pray to God that they survive the night and don’t die in their sleep. You must be saying your prayers each night to have survived on your own this long.”
“I don’t pray. I don’t believe in God.”
How could I believe in a God that would let my mother die in childbirth and let that man raise me? If he could even be considered a man. I haven’t even thought about him since I left for college. Actually, deep down I hoped he was one of the first ones to change.
Noah raises an eyebrow at me. “Might want to start,” he suggests.
“No,” I tell him. “You know me better than that, Noah.”
He smiles, showing a row of perfectly white teeth, lady-killer teeth. “I do know you pretty well, inside and-”
“Shut it,” I warn him.
Noah looks away, at the group of people sitting on the other side of the basement. There are couches and cots. Two of the guys are playing cards, one’s sleeping and another stands against the wall.
“Why did you come here, Meg?” he finally asks.
“I need a gun and bullets. Just enough to make it to Kingston.”
“What’s in Kingston?”
“Jim.”
He clicks his tongue and leans back in his chair. “Good ‘ole Jim boy, huh?”
“What?” I ask, narrowing my eyes at him.
“They got a Safe House up there in Kingston, good one I hear. They got hot water and everything. Pretty safe place if you can get through all their qualifiers.”
“Qualifiers?”
“Yeah, they test you, question you, quarantine you for a few days to make sure you’re not a walking sack ‘o death in disguise.”
“Sounds awesome,” I tell him flatly.
“Okay, I’ll help you. But to tell you the truth, Meg, I don’t care who Jim was to you. Any man who leaves his woman behind after all of that, he ought to be smacked in the head with a shovel.”
I feel the toe of his boot rub against mine.
“Stop it, Noah. You know you’re like a brother to me now.”
He cringes, exaggeratedly. “I really hate it when you say that.”
“It’s the truth.” I push my chair back a few inches, far enough away so that his wandering toes can’t reach my foot anymore. “When are you going to see that? You got me into way too much trouble a while back. I’m not going to relive all of that. Besides, it’s the end of the world, isn’t it? I’m sure all the townies are throwing themselves at your feet. I bet some of them even have teeth left.” The leggy brunette across the room scowls at me. “See,” I tell him. My eyes scan the room, stopping on the guy standing against the far wall. “Who’s that?” I ask Noah.
“Oh, that there’s Sparrow Man. Don’t mind him. Harmless.”
I try not to stare in the dim light, but it is hard not to. Sparrow Man is tall, almost the tallest person I have ever seen. And since my father was just over six feet, this probably put Sparrow at almost six and a half feet. He has brown tousled hair and eyes as green as I would expect the fresh Ireland grass to be. He’s wearing a trench coat that should have hit at the shin on a normal person, but it hits at his thigh. The coat is buttoned so tightly, all the way to his neck, that only his shoes, a pair of black boots, and jeans are visible.
“What’s his deal?” I ask.
“A bit cracked in the head.” Noah taps the side of his skull and makes a face.
I stare longer than I should at a stranger. Sparrow Man’s shoulders twitch, his eyes dart, his right hand shoves in his pocket. As he scans the room, his eyes suddenly flick to mine. Too shocked to look away, I hold his gaze as he pulls his hand out of his pocket and twirls a black feather in front of his face.
“What’s up with the feather?” I ask Noah out of the corner of my mouth, unable to break my stare.
“He’s got some obsession with feathers. Sings lots of Bon Jovi too.”
 “He’s not from around here,” I tell Noah. “He’s not a local. Where’d he come from?”
“Just showed up one day. Stopped one of those meat sacks from chewing on my head down by the local pharmacy.”
“Nice of him.”
“Sure was.”
“You trust him?” I ask.
“He’s saved my ass ten times already. I trust him more than these other chuckleheads.” Noah waves a hand at the others in the room.
I lift my backpack off the floor, holding it to my stomach.
“Meg?” Noah tips his head at me. “You okay? You know, after everything?”
“I’ll live,” I tell him, gripping my bag tighter to my chest.

**That's the first 26 pages of SPARROW MAN!! I hope you enjoyed the preview. This book was a contender in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards and received excellent feedback from the Amazon VINE reviewers. I'm so excited to get this out to everyone. Look for it in mid-August!
Copyright © 2014 M. R. Pritchard, author, All rights reserved.


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