Out of the Darkness, the 5th and final book in The Light series is now available! Here is the link for ebooks and the link for paperbacks. (If you are a bookseller you can get the books through Ingram or NewDay/Spiritus.) Thank you all so much for being my very faithful readers, the preorder sales have been amazing. You are incredible and I have dedicated Out of the Darkness to each of you. Here are the prologue and first two chapters. (Ignore the extra spacing. That is a blog issue not a book issue 🙂
Washington, DC The week before Thanksgiving, one year ago
He picked up his phone, anger seething through him. There was nothing unusual about this; anger was a cancer growing inside him, overpowering all other emotions. No one questioned his irate expressions or verbal rants. His employees were paid well, so they stayed. Those he socialized with were there for the money, power, and prestige he brought, not his personality. He had no one in his personal life except one daughter, who up until this moment had never challenged him.
I asked you a question, answer it, he demanded of his daughter. This text followed up the one he’d sent three hours ago: Have you placed the order for Thanksgiving?
That simple question required a simple yes or no response. She was not a stupid girl, unlike so many other women and men he was surrounded by; she was completely capable of answering the question and doing so now, not three hours later.
She understood the rules. He had made those perfectly clear throughout her life. When he spoke, she answered. When he called, she answered. When he texted, she answered. And she did so immediately, not in a few minutes or a few hours or when she felt like it.
A thought entered his mind: Perhaps something had happened to keep her from answering his text. At this thought he stood, going swiftly to his office door. He abhorred yelling, found it one of the basest forms of human behavior, and so he avoided this particular expression of anger. His assistant, a small woman with timid eyes, was accustomed to his rapid appearance at her desk, with his face red and voice agitated.
“Check my daughter’s social media accounts. Tell me if she’s alive.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, and opened the social media accounts she had created specifically for this reason. She felt a pang of guilt every time she snooped on his child this way, but it was her job, she told herself.
“Well?” he asked after a few seconds.
“She checked into a coffee shop near her apartment thirty minutes ago,” the assistant said.
He dug his heel, causing a squeaking sound to emerge from the wood floor. He spun his body, returning to his office, and picked up his phone from the burled walnut desk that cost more than the house he had grown up in.
Coffee! You’re ignoring me because you’re drinking coffee!
He typed because he was afraid if he used the speech-to-text feature, he would end up yelling.
Thanks for making this easier than I thought it would be. I’m not sure where I’m going for Thanksgiving, but it won’t be with you.
He read the words and stood, his body shaking, and fumbled to push the Call button.
It went straight to voicemail. “Hi, you’ve reached my phone. Leave a message and I’ll call you back.” His daughter’s chipper voice only served to infuriate him more. He paced, dropping his phone to keep from snapping it as he had the other three this year. He hit his shin on his chair and reacted without thought, lifting the chair, throwing it across the room. It bounced and broke.
He stared at it, surprised and embarrassed for a moment, that he had actually thrown a chair. Snapping a cell phone was one thing, throwing a chair was something more. He would think about that later. For now he had his daughter to deal with.
How dare you! he texted.
She responded: I’m 21. It’s time to stop pretending that we want to spend time together.
You ungrateful—but before he could finish his thought a text came through.
I appreciate all the financial support you’ve given me during my life, and I hope this support will continue until my graduation in May. Regardless of your decision in that area, it’s time for me to do what’s best for me. It is time for me to be healthy.
None of that sounded like his cowardly daughter.
“Who else checked into that coffee shop with her?” he screamed, forgetting that he abhorred yelling.
Two seconds later, his assistant entered his office, only mildly fazed by the broken chair or his raised voice. “The young women she is always with.”
“And who are they?” he said with clenched teeth, though even a father as uninvolved as he could have guessed.
“Sara and Blaise, sir,” the assistant said before leaving the room.
He took his phone to the couch in his office, the one that cost more than his assistant’s salary.
He steadied himself. He was not dealing with Bria, he was dealing with her friends who thought they were doing what was best for her. But they were merely children who had no idea what was best for anyone, including themselves.
I would like for you to rethink your decision, he typed as calmly as he could. Sara and Blaise are welcome to come to our home for Thanksgiving and …
“Is she still dating that boy?” he called to his assistant.
“Yes, sir. She posted a picture of herself and Trent this morning.”
Trent may come too, if you like.
He sat the phone on the polished coffee table and rubbed his hands on his knees.
She wrote back: The apartment we shared together has never been my home.
He believed it was her this time, not her friends.
He expected a surge of anger but it didn’t come. Another emotion did, one he was far less familiar with, or at least far less familiar with these last eighteen years. He leaned his head back and stared at the white ceiling. Blinking, he felt sadness. For the briefest of moments his wife entered his mind. He physically shook his head to remove her image. It was too late—the thought of her reminded him of who he had once been and who Bria had once been. He remembered the bright-eyed child who loved and laughed.
“She’s nothing like that now,” he said softly to himself.
How could she be happy? Her mother and brother are dead. He winced at the thought.
“She could still be loved,” his soft voice countered.
This was the voice he used to speak in, he realized. The voice that was his many years ago, before his heart hardened and the darkness overtook him. No one in his life would recognize this voice coming from him, not even his daughter.
You’ve done the best you could do, you’ve given her everything, the angry voice in his mind spewed. This voice had dominated his life since his wife and his son died.
“No,” his soft voice choked. “I haven’t given her love.” A single tear slipped from his right eye, the first tear to do so since they had arrived in this city.
He leaned his head forward, rubbing his fingers through his graying hair. He cleared his throat and picked up the phone, his hands no longer shaking.
I’m sorry, he typed, and then placed his phone on the coffee table and stared at it.
He did not pray, because Holt Ford had given that up long ago, but he hoped—something almost as foreign. He hoped it was not too late for his only living child to feel the love from him she deserved.
After several minutes he stood and went to the broken chair in the middle of the room. He lifted it, putting it back on its casters. It slumped, no longer able to support any amount of weight. He held his hand on the leather, feeling incredible sadness for the pain he’d caused this inanimate object.
His phone buzzed, and he practically ran to it.
It was a client. A client that should be locked up but wasn’t because of him. Guilt swept over him. He wondered what was happening to him. Why, after all the years, were these emotions surfacing now? The memory of carrying Bria, sobbing and confused, away from the casket that held her mother and her baby brother clouded Holt’s mind.
Esther had insisted their son be named after him. The memory of her lying beside him in bed, her belly so large, her hand against his unshaven face, replaced the memory of her funeral.
“His name is Holt,” she insisted.
He smiled as her finger traced his lips. “I appreciate that, but seriously, there are better names and better men to name him after.”
She forced herself to a sitting position. He did the same.
“There is no better man on this planet than you,” she said emphatically.
He kissed her. “Honey, Quint is better and he lives next door. I’m sure the rest of the planet has some pretty great guys too.”
“Quint is wonderful, but you are more wonderful and you are the father of my children. I want our son to have your name. Please,” she said, softening her voice as she leaned against his chest.
So tired. The pregnancy made her so tired.
The pain of the memory too much to withstand, he stumbled to the couch as his body crumpled like the broken chair and, unable to stand upright or support his own weight, he slipped to the floor.
His phone buzzed again.
I hope you have a nice Thanksgiving.
At her kindness, the tears began to rock his body. Tears he’d held in for so long came with such force he gasped for breath. He could not quiet the sobs even if he would’ve tried, but he didn’t try. He thought about all those in his office who would hear the mighty Holt Ford sobbing like a baby.
He wiped his eyes and nose on the monogrammed cuff of his tailored shirt and picked up his phone.
Thank you. I hope you have a good break too. Maybe when you get back you could come home … he deleted that word and added, to our apartment for a day or so.
He stared at the phone, hoping it was not too late for them.
No, I’m not going to be the one to make an effort, not anymore.
He deserved nothing less, he told himself.
Then I’ll come to you and we can have dinner.
Whatever, she answered.
“She doesn’t believe me,” he said to himself.
Why should she? his thoughts answered. You’ve never set foot in any of her apartments. You’ve never gone out of your way for her. If she fit into your life, you allowed her presence; if she didn’t, you didn’t.
I’ll be there, he responded.
Whatever it takes … I’ll be there.
I awoke, the pit in my stomach growing with every moment of increasing awareness.
Sometimes when you wake up you forget the truths of the night before, hoping the thoughts forcing themselves into your consciousness are from a dream. Sometimes you can even trick yourself for a few minutes into believing that the awful reality of your dreams was just a dream, with no truth behind it. That worked in the past, but not this time. This time the truth of my conversation with Jonah was only made more real in my dreams of dead bodies lying beside a crumpled train.
I turned my eyes, careful not to alter my breath or move my body. He was asleep. I was glad for that. I didn’t want to talk to him, not yet. I stared at the ceiling, made of narrow logs, the gaps stuffed with moss. Jonah had gathered the moss and cut the logs. He had lovingly placed each one where it lay so we would not have to share our honeymoon and first months of marriage with everyone in the main house. He loved me—I was sure—but I didn’t feel that love right now. He always thought of me, putting my needs above his own, but not now, not when it came to this decision. Maybe that was why the pit was growing in my stomach. It wasn’t just his desire to leave this place, it was his not putting me first, and that hurt.
Could I blame him? His sister was out there, alone, fighting to save the world. Could I blame him for wanting to try to help her?
His family blamed him for her not being here. They tried not to, but they did. What would they think when we told them we were leaving? Would they think that was what we should have done all along? Do anything we could to make sure she was alive and safe? Or would they see it as a foolish decision, like I did?
An image of my father entered my mind. I scrunched my eyes closed, trying to keep the tears in. I didn’t want to lie in bed crying beside my husband. That was not how marriage was supposed to be.
I rose from the bed as swiftly as I could and left our hut. I went to the stream on the other side of the spring house and watched the water disappear into the stone building that my ancestors had built to keep food cold. More tears came, but it didn’t matter; my weeping could not be heard above the sound of the moving water.
The dry summer wind lifted the tips of my hair. I looked at the sky. The moon was full, the wisps of translucent clouds layering in front of it creating an eerily calm glow, hiding all but the brightest stars. I closed my eyes, my neck stretched upward. The scent of jasmine permeated the air. I inhaled deeply, allowing its sweet scent to fill my lungs. I opened my eyes and lowered my head. The jasmine reminded me so much of what I wanted to forget, but it was not right to forget.
Jonah had a point: We couldn’t hide here in our honeymoon suite while others were risking their lives. Perhaps there was a time when I could’ve ignored the truth, but that time was past, that me no longer existed.
Twigs snapped behind me. I didn’t turn. I recognized his walk.
How bizarre was my world that I could recognize the sound of the man I loved by the sound the twigs made as they cracked beneath his feet. He stopped beside me, his legs folding gracefully as his body reached the ground. Our shoulders and hips pressed lightly against each other.
“It’s a beautiful night,” he said, turning to face me.
I lifted my shoulders and neck. “Yes,” I answered.
He straightened his arms behind him, leaning back, staring up toward the heavens. “Is that jasmine?” he asked, inhaling.
I nodded. “Every time I smell it, I think of the girl Haz and Mrs. Pryce loved.”
“Me too,” he said, moving his right arm so it rested against my back.
I allowed his strength to hold me as I released my body into his. I turned to face him. His beard had returned. Neither of us liked it, but razors were scarce. He kept it trimmed with his hunting knife, but I wouldn’t let him shave with a knife. The risk of infection from an accidental cut was too great.
“I think you’re right,” I said, my body leaning closer to his. “We need to go back.”
“Why do you think that?” he asked, his voice thoughtful.
“Sitting here reminded me of the point of life.”
“To know God, love God, and serve God?” he said with a sly half smile, already aware that was not what I meant.
“To live intentionally and strive to help others,” I said, returning the sly expression.
He tilted his head forward, his lips brushing mine as he said, “That’s basically the same thing.”
I leaned toward him, pressing my lips to his, and then pulling back as he moved his body closer to mine.
“Is it?” I asked, amused.
“In a loosely defined sort of way,” he said, straightening his back as I leaned against his chest.
The leaves twisting in the trees slightly muffled the gurgling of the water. The moonlight dancing off the water gave the appearance of thousands of tiny lights.
I raised my head from his chest. “How are we going to find her?” I asked. “We don’t even know where to look.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Will you please consider staying here?” he asked, pleading.
“Will you?” I said in return.
“I can’t,” he said, sounding beaten.
I turned, sitting up onto my knees so my eyes were even with his. “I go with you, no matter where that is.”
He turned away. I used my fingers to gently turn his face to mine and kissed his lips. “It’s what I want, Jonah. I want to find her. I want to know she’s okay. We can’t stay here in paradise while she risks her life.”
He laughed. “It’s funny to hear you call this paradise. Our little shack doesn’t even have electricity or a bathroom.”
“It’s not a shack,” I said, feigning offense. “It’s a quaint rustic cottage nestled by a gently flowing stream. And bathrooms are overrated.”
He lifted an eyebrow.
“Okay, they totally aren’t. I seriously miss indoor plumbing, but the other stuff isn’t so bad.”
“You’re so different,” he said, pushing a strand of hair behind my left ear.
“That’s what makes people so resilient. We can adapt to our environment,” I said, kissing him.
“It’s not that you’ve adapted to outhouses and candles, it’s that you’re so full of life while doing it.”
I thought for a moment. “I guess marriage agrees with me,” I said, sitting back onto my heels as he leaned forward, closing the distance between us.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could ever love as much as I do right now,” he said.
My fingertips caressed his right ear as I slid a long strand of his hair from his face. “It is amazing, isn’t it?” I said.
His hand went to mine and pulled it to his lips. He kissed the palm of my hand. “Thank you for being my wife.”
I sat back, wrapping my arms around him as I lay against his chest.
“Thank you for asking me to be your wife,” I said, the beauty of the moment making me forget for an instant why we were both awake and sitting by the stream in the middle of the night.
I hesitated, not wanting to ruin the mood, but decided it was necessary. “I think we should start searching in the town. Even if she’s not there, I’m sure Mrs. Pryce will know where to find her.”
He sat taller, propping himself against his left arm, his right one wrapped around me. “She will know where East intended to go, but ….”
“Who knows where she actually is,” I said, completing his thought.
He was silent.
“I guess it’s the same as when we were looking for Sara and Blaise’s families,” I said.
“Except it’s not,” he said, his voice heavy. “When we left here five months ago to find them, we had no idea what we were going into. We didn’t know what to expect. Now we do.”
“We’re stronger and wiser,” I said. “We won’t walk straight into danger without realizing it.”
“When we went into the city and …” he fell silent.
“And met Trent,” I said, finishing his sentence. “It’s okay to say his name. He no longer has any power over me.”
“I’m glad,” he said. “But the memory of him, of all he did … to you. It’s not easy for me.”
I bit my lip and buried my face in his chest.
“We never could have predicted he would be there,” Jonah said, as if blaming himself.
“You’re worried about what we can’t predict,” I said.
Jonah leaned closer to me. “We are wiser and stronger and can avoid some dangers, but we’ll never be able to avoid all of them,” he said with a mixture of fear and anger.
I was silent, watching the moonlight reflect into sparkles dancing across the stream.
“That’s life,” I said, as an owl hooted in the distance. “We can avoid some dangers—the most obvious—but we’ll never be able to avoid all of them. Even staying here has risks.”
He lifted his head toward the stars.
“Staying here has risks, breathing has risks, but leaving here,”—he lowered his head—“that is inviting danger to walk beside us.”
“What’s the alternative? We stay here and spend our lives wondering and worrying about East. She may never come home. If we don’t go to her, we may never see her again. Are you all right with that?”
“No,” he said emphatically.
“Me either,” I said. “I could live the rest of my life here beside you, perfectly happy, but we can do more. And I guess I think that if we can do more, we should.”
“Is that a statement or a question?” he asked.
He was right. It wasn’t clear from my tone of voice.
“It’s a statement,” I said, “but it’s a strange one for me to make. I’m not used to sacrificing my own comfort or wants for those of others.”
“This is more than comfort,” Jonah said. “You aren’t just being asked to give up hot showers or a soft mattress.”
I leaned in closer to him, saying nothing. He was right. This was about far more than comfort, but I was right too. This was something we had to do, not because we wanted to, but because we needed to.
“When do we leave?” I asked.
He exhaled and lowered his head, the side of his face leaning against the top of my head. “As soon as possible because every day puts us closer to winter.”
“Then we’ll tell the others tomorrow,” I said, with a forced determination.
Thoughts of JP and my dad tried to intrude into my mind, and I pushed them aside. They were not helpful thoughts.
“Yes,” he said, his voice sounding as though he was apologizing.
The fighting never stopped; even during the darkest points of night the guns fired, almost rhythmically. Most nights I could sleep through it, but tonight was a struggle. Probably because we were closer now, close enough to see faces when we used the binoculars. This was the reason we had moved so close to the fighting. Haz wanted to see those fighting, to see if he recognized any of them.
He did. A few on either side. He respected none of them, before or after the light of the EMP. Some gunmen were from the police department—“The worst the city has to offer,” Haz remarked in frustration. The others were politicians. Mostly local, all corrupt. John recognized only one and that one he had little to no respect for.
As I watched the battling groups earlier in the day, I was struck by how similar their leaders seemed, at least through the stolen high-powered binoculars. I couldn’t hear their words, but I could watch their actions, and none struck me as caring about anything more than power. Day turned to night and the binoculars became useless. I wondered if the followers sensed the greed for power in their leaders.
The only good news came in the realization that Trent’s commander, who came to us at the town, was not in any real position of power—an awareness that brought me unease and joy in almost equal amounts. I was glad he held no power, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was only because those who led him were even crueler than him.
I glanced beside me. John was snoring softly.
“I’m glad he’s asleep,” Haz whispered.
I nodded. I liked John and so did Haz. He was a good man to his core, but that goodness made him hyper focused on finding his daughter. I supposed I couldn’t blame him, but any time we weren’t moving locations, he was pacing, asking us repeatedly when we could leave DC.
If I thought for a second that he would survive the trip to North Carolina without Haz and me, I would tell him how to find her, but I didn’t. It wasn’t that he was inept. On the contrary. He was bright and had more common sense than most, which mattered more than being bright. But the world was dangerous and complicated in ways it wasn’t before the light. And he didn’t understand this world.
He had survived the last nine months by being a prisoner, not by learning how to stay alive. He needed us to make that journey with him, or at least that’s what I told myself. Though deep inside I accepted that my desire to lead him to Juliette was not one hundred percent altruistic. I wanted to go home. I wanted to see my family and hold my daughter. I wanted to make sure they were all safe and there were no new threats. I worried about them. What if they needed me? I would never know and that truth was consuming me with fear.
I turned back to the window, swallowing the fear that threatened to suffocate me. The firing started again.
“Is it for show?” I asked to no one in particular, though it was only Haz and a few of the freedom fighters near me and I wouldn’t have expected the fighters to respond.
“Yes,” Haz answered, turning away from the window. “At least right now it is.”
They were firing at each other, but their distance was too far to do any actual damage.
I rubbed my hand through my hair. From the corner of my eye I saw Harley move to stand in front of the window.
“How many times have we told him to stay out of the full view of the window,” Haz said in frustration.
Haz and I weren’t on watch, but in actuality we were never not on watch.
“How can we leave them?” I said to Haz, quiet enough so the fighters wouldn’t hear us.
I wanted to go. I wanted to get to Raven Rock, share the information we had, and then go home. I wanted to protect those I loved, but I felt protective of the fighters too. They were kids, though not much younger than me. Age didn’t matter; maturity mattered and they weren’t mature. Yes, they had survived the foster care system, but because of that, they believed they were untouchable. A dangerous, pride-filled belief. It’s true Haz and I would never understand all they had experienced, but when we tried to explain that no one was untouchable and everyone had something to learn, they didn’t listen. It was this cocky adolescent behavior that was going to get them or someone else killed.
“They survived this long,” Haz said, as if trying to convince us both.
“I’ve never understood when people say things like that. All that means is they haven’t been killed yet. It offers no assurance that they won’t be. Harley and Xander take way too many risks. And no one can tell Amber anything she doesn’t already know,” I said. “They’re kids, and they’re going to get someone killed.”
“These aren’t like your pampered middle-class kids,” Haz said, glancing in the direction of Harley, who was no longer standing in front of the window. The faint outline of a weapon hidden beneath his baggy slave clothes was apparent.
“You mean, not like you and me?” I said.
Haz and I might not be those pampered kids anymore, but we were before life made us adults. This was one of the few things we had in common. Our parents loved us and never hurt us, and they did their best to protect us. Our childhoods were nothing like those of the freedom fighters.
He laughed. “Yeah, not like you and me, they’ve always taken care of themselves. It made them into the survivors they are today. Besides, we promised John. We’ve learned what we needed to learn. It’s time for us to go to Raven Rock and then to your place.”
My body tightened at the mention of home. I thought of Quinn. How much had she grown in the few months since I’d been gone? Had she learned to read or finally learned to say the “Our Father” without forgetting the line about forgiving others? I shook my head, shaking away her image.
“We’ll take him there when our job is done,” I said. “I’m telling you we can’t leave these kids here by themselves. They let us in, they let us keep our weapons, and they’ve made a million more mistakes since then. If we’d been anyone else, they’d be dead.”
“We’ve talked to them about that. We’ve shown them how to better secure their hideouts,” Haz said.
“They didn’t pay attention,” I said in frustration, at the memory of Amber half listening to our advice.
“They heard more than you think they did. They’re smart kids. They’re not going to let pride or stubbornness get them killed. They’ll do what we recommended when we leave, just not in front of us. Besides, we asked them to come and they said no. What else are we supposed to do?”
“Make them come.”
“Make them come?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
I nodded. I didn’t care what he thought. I couldn’t leave them here to die.
He reached his palm to my forehead. I swiped his hand away. I hated people touching me, even Haz.
“Sorry. Just checking to see if you have a fever, ’cause you sound delirious.”
I glared at him. “This is no time for jokes.”
“No, it’s not, so stop making one! No one has ever made those kids do anything. And you’re talking about dragging them—what, at gunpoint?—out of a city where everyone else wants to kill us and them. How is that going to work? And if, by some miracle it did work, we get out of the city and then what? We force them to march their way to Raven Rock? How long we gonna force them? They’re people, albeit young people, but they’re still people. They get to decide where they go in life, the same as you and me.”
“They aren’t like you and me. We can keep ourselves alive.”
“They’re alive, right?” He blinked at me.
“Ugh,” I growled.
His voice had softened and he slowly moved his hand to my arm. I watched his hand touch the sleeve of my shirt.
“I understand you want to save them, I really do,” he said. “But you can’t force someone to be saved. Trust me, I tried. I would lock up kids to keep them off the street and away from the people trying to hurt them or use them. Eventually, though, I’d have to let them go, and they’d run right back to the dangers I’d taken them from, except this time they also ran from me because I did exactly what all those on the streets told them a cop would do, lock them up. That’s when I lost them. Those first kids that I locked up, they never got near me or any of the men and women I worked with again. I learned, and with the next kids I built trust. I never tried to help them by arresting them. Instead, I arrested those exploiting them. I kept them safe that way. Bad stuff still happened, but by getting the ones hurting them off the street instead of the kids, other kids were safer. And by building trust, they started to go to some of the safe places and programs I asked them to go to. It was a longer road, but way more effective.”
“That’s awesome,” I said in my most sarcastic voice. “You saved kids. Congratulations. What about these kids? There’s no jail to lock the bad guys up in and no programs to send them to. It’s us, we’re it.”
He straightened his arms against his folded knees, and his dimples began to show.
“What?” I said.
“You care way more than I realized.”
I turned away. “Whatever,” I said, making my voice sound harder.
He leaned toward me. I felt my body tense with the closeness. I wanted to scoot away, to create space. Not because I didn’t like him that close, but because I didn’t like any man that close. It filled me with fear. His face moved toward mine. I wanted to turn away. I wanted to lower my eyes, but I didn’t. I kept my body as still as a statue as his cheek moved close to mine, the longer strands of his thin beard brushing against my face. I held my breath. Had I ever been this close to someone I wasn’t fighting?
“Caring is a good thing,” he said, his words warm in my ear. “I promise I wouldn’t leave these kids here if I thought they were in any more danger than the rest of us. They’re smart, and we’ve taught them. They’re going to be okay. We need to leave DC today, the earlier the better.” He shifted subtly back so he could look into my eyes. “You don’t need to hide who you are, not from me. I won’t use it against you. I promise.” He hesitated.
For a moment I thought he might try to kiss me. Did I want him to kiss me?
He leaned back and turned away. I exhaled, my body losing its rigid stance.
John was awake, his eyes on us. Most fighters were asleep, the others dozing or on watch. Haz was right. If we were leaving today, now was the time.