Enjoy this free preview of The General’s Daughter. I hope you like this story as much as I liked writing it!
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JUNE 9, YEAR 03
(Three Years after the Ash)
“Hey! How ’bout you get over here and suck my dick!”
The soldier’s smile is full of bravado, and the soft pink cheeks and the prideful way he struts tells me he is young, not quite out of his teens. He grips his rifle awkwardly, as though it hasn’t yet become a part of him.
His friends cast him horror-filled looks. One of them gives him a shove like he wants to lose the guy as fast as possible.
“Fuck’s wrong with you?” growls Sgt. Garrett, one of my bodyguards. “That’s the general’s daughter.”
The youth’s ruddy cheeks bleach white, and so they should. My father holds the lives of the entire territory, some thirty-thousand people, in the stern grip of his fist. Even mine.
I nod once, as if to say I won’t report you, and neither will my guards. But I keep my face carefully void of expression, so they’ll understand—all of them—that I am not their friend.
The soldier and his buddies scuttle past, no doubt heading off to find something strong and liquid to ease their nerves. I hate them for that. Escape.
But freedom is an illusion. I can’t go anywhere and neither can they. Three years ago, the Yellowstone Super-volcano erupted and painted the noontime sky the color of lead. It’s lighter now, but even though it’s June and only seven in the evening, anything further than fifty feet away remains cloaked in shadow. Scientists on Dad’s payroll tell us it’ll be at least another five years before the atmosphere clears. Longer, maybe. Year round, the sky bleeds snow traced with sulfuric acid, and the earth suffocates under the never-ending onslaught. No sun means no food, for us or the animals. I wouldn’t make it one mile outside the territory before the desperate found me.
I make my way to the Officer’s Club. There’s to be a celebration tonight for the cadre and the members of my father’s cabinet. Somehow I’ve managed to hit the streets just as shifts change at the hydroponic gardens, the protein mills, and the recycling center. Brilliant. What’s left of humanity plows past my guards and me, the bulk of them draped in frayed clothing. Here a pair of boots held together by duct tape, there a double layer of leggings, the outer layer torn at the knees. One man clutches his coat closed, and his companion’s is held together by safety pins. I spot mismatched scarfs woven from rags, and hats and mittens knitted, and then unraveled and re-knitted as the yarn wore out. Although my expression remains neutral—as always—I’m conscious of my patent leather heels, of the cool swish of silk under my thick wool coat. Privilege. I am a package designed to intimidate. Various expressions cross the sea of faces, most of them sliding somewhere on the scale between fear, envy, and disdain.
I deliberately blur my vision, and the opinions of others disappear. Yes. I am General Balenchuk’s daughter, but if you think that makes me more fortunate than you, think again. The pretty clothes I wear probably came from another young girl who died during some raid. I can almost smell her death. My father controls everything—the food I eat, the movies I watch, the style of my hair, the words I speak. Even my mannerisms are under constant scrutiny. His or his spies’. I gave my last gasp of free will years ago.
We enter the circular drive—a governor’s drive, although since the Ash sent civilization back to the Dark Ages, there’s nothing to drive around here but the occasional snowmobile or horse-drawn cart. The bodyguards remain silent and vigilant, as they’ve been instructed. They are under long-standing orders not to speak to me. If one of them were to break that rule, it would be considered flirting—or worse, seduction—and my father would have their heads. Literally. I know my guards by first name, and they spend enough time in my company that I know their favorite foods, recognize their family members on sight, know which girls they sleep with. The reason for my father’s orders? He’s afraid I’ll debase myself by fraternizing with the great unwashed masses. Of all the things I’m forbidden, that’s the biggest one. Boys. Men.
The taller of the two—Sgt. Morey, a good-looking guy who is married and has a baby on the way—reaches the door before me. He opens it, steps back, and casts his eyes downward, but not before I see the tension that creases his brow. I want to ask him how Erin is. Erin labors in the hydroponic gardens, but a year ago she and Andy Morey fell hard for each other. I know her from long ago, when we cheered for the junior varsity football team together. But even if I ask, I won’t get an answer, so I pass through the double oak doors into the lobby.
“I won’t be long,” I tell them. Unlike the guards, I am allowed to speak. How else would I give them orders? “As soon as the dinner part of tonight is over, I’ll want to go for my walk.” And then go home and hide in my room, where no one can look at me. Hear me. Taste the scent of my perfume.
Morey and Garrett bow their heads in unison, as close to an answer as I’ll ever get.
I leave my coat with the attendant and smooth the folds of my dress. Emerald-green silk with a flared skirt. Chosen by my father, of course.
I enter the ballroom, and as usual it is thick with uniforms and testosterone. I’m surprised I haven’t sprouted my own set of balls by now.
“Ah, Ilsa. There you are.” A smile bright enough to bring back the sun spreads across my father’s face, as though seeing me is the highlight of his day. He once owned a chain of car dealerships. He’s used to smarm.
Bile claws up my throat. I spread my lips in a suitably pleasant smile of my own. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”
I sound thirty-five. I feel like it too. Truth is I just passed my eighteenth birthday.
I kiss his cheek, and as I do, I notice a small fleck of blood where he’s cut himself shaving.
“Never,” he says, taking me by the arm. Impatience fills his companion’s face. I have stolen him from something important.
Dad guides me toward the section reserved for the elite.
“We’ve got corn on the cob,” he says as though offering me the rarest of treats. It is. Ordinary citizens only get potatoes and mushrooms. I know the corn will be fresh, probably picked no more than an hour ago. It’s actually grown for fuel production, but whatever Dad wants, Dad gets. At the buffet he fills my plate with fresh steak, blueberry salad, and of course, the corn.
Outside, people are starving by the thousands—the millions—but in here, in our own little microcosm, I am a princess, and Dad makes sure I eat steak. I almost ask him where the baked potato is, just to see how he reacts. But I don’t want to deal with the reprimand, even the subtle ones he’s so good at dishing out. I accept the plate with thanks and allow him to escort me to our table. It is set apart from the others, round, and covered with color-coordinated tablecloths, the kind they used to put out at weddings.
A couple of Dad’s advisors are already seated, and they nod their greetings. Colonel Ernshaw’s wife moves aside to give me the best chair. She doesn’t so much as bat an eye, but I tense anyway. After all, who am I, really? I never even finished ninth grade. The colonel’s wife not only graduated college, but she used to write books. Before, that is. And she has to make way for me. I smile at her, trying to convey apology and gratitude, but she merely bows her head once and moves on.
That happens a lot around me.
Dad takes the seat next to mine and begins salting my corn. No butter—that would not be healthy, and God forbid that anything should happen, that any risk should be taken with my life. He nudges my napkin; I forgot to place it on my lap when I sat.
“When I am away,” he says, “I don’t want you leaving Morey and Garrett. Understand? You are to stick close to them at all times.”
Rather than roll my eyes, I flick my gaze to the wall and hold it there. “Okay.”
What planet is he on? Did he inhale some of that volcanic ash? There’s absolutely nobody on the entire mountain who would want to hang out with me, who would even be allowed to without my father’s express permission. Without his direct orders.
He steals a blueberry and pops it in his mouth. “We’re not sure how close General Barry will send his scouts, so I want you to restrict yourself to the house and grounds.”
This is news to me. I knew Dad was heading a large party out tomorrow, but I didn’t realize another army had encroached so far inside our territory. “Do you think he’s planning to attack us?”
He gives my shoulder a squeeze. “Don’t worry about that. Barry’s group is little more than a gang. We’re three times their numbers. They’ll never get anywhere close.”
“Do I really have to stay near the house?”
“I’d rather you did.”
The walls of my prison creep ever closer. Someday they will crush me. “What about the movies?” I ask, careful not to reveal how much the Wednesday shows at the crumbling theater mean to me. The films are pathetically ancient, as in movie-reel old, but it’s the only escape I have. He doesn’t even like me to read books. God forbid that I learn something, get an independent thought of my own. God forbid that I get any ideas that rise above what kind of shampoo to use. His own library is filled with books on military history. I read them when he’s not looking. I’m that bored.
He ponders that, scratches behind a reddened ear, and I notice for the first time that he has a hair growing in there. “Only if Morey and Garrett escort you,” he says finally.
Relief rushes through me. Actually it’s more like wild excitement, but the only reaction I can show is curling my toes. If I seem too happy, he’ll think I want to meet some guy. Ha! Like that’ll ever happen. I smile, though, happy for this one concession.
His whole face lights with pleasure, as though I just told him the Yellowstone crisis is over and the sun will come up tomorrow.
“Colonel Ernshaw’s daughter might make a good companion for you. Would you like me to arrange it?”
Tara Ernshaw. I can’t stand the little bitch. She acts all nice to my face and then goes and tells people how snotty I am. She’s damn creative sometimes, the lies she tells. If people didn’t already hate me for being well fed, clothed, and housed, they’d almost certainly hate me from the rumors.
Not that a couple of them aren’t true.
“Tara’s fun,” I tell him. “All the guys like her.” I throw in a giggle for good measure.
Dad’s eyes narrow, and by the downward turn of his lips I’m pretty sure Tara will not be joining me at the movie.
Colonel Graham approaches the table and salutes. “Sir.”
“Graham,” says Dad. He wipes at his eyes as though he’s tired and gets to his feet.
“First truck leaves tomorrow at 0500 hours.”
This time I can’t prevent the flush of excitement that heats my cheeks. I shove a blueberry into my mouth to mask my reaction. He’s leaving. Leaving!
“I’m sorry, honey.” Dad places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes just a little too hard, and I know that’s my cue to give him a brave smile, a perky smile that will tell him I’m happy, everything’s fine, and I’m sorry he has to go.
Instead I take a sip of water.
“We’ll be gone a few days, a week at the most,” he adds.
This time I produce the smile. “I’ll be fine.”
The only obsession he has that’s stronger than managing every detail of my life is Bluefield Mountain. He and his minions rebuilt Bluefield, West Virginia on a nearby mountain by raping the original buildings to get the materials. Now he has his kingdom, and from a military aspect it’s strategically placed. He says so, anyway. Dad is the commander in chief of this sizable army of survivors, and that’s no small feat. People were desperate when Yellowstone first blew. They still are. At all times he stands vigilant, preparing, watching for those who might want to invade our territory. To kill the men and enslave the survivors, and take everything he’s managed to preserve from the pre-Ash world, as well as all he’s built to feed and house us. The fact that he’s saved so many—or collected them, depending on how you look at it—is damn near heroic.
Doesn’t matter though. I still hate him.
I finish the meal, fold a couple rolls into my napkin, and secret them in the pocket of my dress. I take whatever I can at night and leave it for our housekeeper. Sometimes it’s fresh fruit, others it’s something lame, like now.
None of the people at the table have spoken to me, and there are five of them. They are allowed to, but I guess I’m just not interesting enough. When my father doesn’t return, I excuse myself, find my coat, and rejoin Sgts. Morey and Garrett at the door.
“I’m not going to walk tonight,” I say. My head aches so badly by now that my neck hurts. Even the front part.
I’m retying my belt when I notice Morey’s eyes widen. He almost trips.
“I just don’t feel like it,” I explain.
Sgt. Garrett nods, and there is a hint of a smile tugging the corners of his mouth. His eyes take on a far-off look, as though he’s already hunting down a girl for the evening. He’s one of the soldiers who accepted the vasectomy. V-Secs, we call guys like him. Not a lot of birth control rolling around in the apocalypse, but guys who are sterile are pretty popular with the ladies.
And then I remember something. “Hey, guys, when we get back, can one of you wait outside a minute? Dad gave me some boots, but they don’t fit. If you guys know someone that wears a size 8, can you pass them on?”
I know perfectly well what size Erin wears. In the before times, we were friends.
Sgt. Morey bites his upper lip and nods. He looks…scared. What is up with that? Free stuff like this should’ve put him in a great mood. Perhaps he is afraid Dad will think I’m being too friendly. You know, he could be right. I’ll need to come up with a story to explain the gift. Or else not give it.
When we reach the house, Garret excuses himself and leaves. Morey fidgets, glances at his watch, and his entire face pinches.
“I’ll only be a sec,” I assure him.
Once inside I take the stairs two at a time. I don’t want to get caught, and I know for sure Morey doesn’t. I grab one of the LED lanterns on the upstairs landing and switch it on. Dad might be the most powerful man in a two-hundred-mile radius, but even he doesn’t waste electricity. The windmills power the hydroponic gardens, the hospital, and the other emergency services. Period.
The instant I throw open my bedroom door, I sense that I am not alone. My body goes rigid as someone sucks in a loud gasp. I shove the lantern farther into the room, and that’s when I see a small figure cringing against my dresser.
“Erin?” Shock practically blows my hair back. Is she out of her freaking mind?
Erin Morey licks her lips and eyes the door, so I shut it behind me. She’s been rooting through my sweater drawer.
“Please,” she whispers. She sucks in her lips and flicks the door another yearning look.
I grip the sides of my head.
“What is wrong with you?” My voice comes out in a harsh whisper as I cross the distance between us. “You know what they’ll do to you.”
She closes her eyes for a second, and when she opens them again, they are wide and wet. “Please,” she whimpers, and the way she says it, it’s like she’s pleading with her executioner. “I know you’re not bad. Not all bad. You gave food to Maria. And that shampoo—you gave shampoo to Cynthia.”
Fear fuses my spine, and for a moment I cannot move. People…know. I cannot speak. When reason returns, I seize her arm in a viselike hold. “How do you know this?”
Erin is shaking. My former friend is terrified of me. “Cynthia told me,” she bleats.
I push her farther into the dresser, and my grip on her flesh is not kind. “Well, you tell Cynthia to keep her goddamn mouth shut. That shit’s going to get me in trouble.”
Her expression shifts as she processes my words, and she eyes me warily. “We want to leave, Andy and me. If you let me go, I’ll never bother you again.”
I drop her arm and cup my hands over my face. “Do you even know what’s out there?”
“I’m having a baby.” Her increasing excitement is apparent in the flush of her cheeks, the shine in her eyes. “We can’t stay here.”
I roll my eyes and turn away. “Someplace is always better. There are people out there who think it’s better here, and it is, Erin. I hear what the officers say about how things are Dad’s reach. People are murdering each other for what little scraps are left. They’re eating human flesh just to stay alive.”
Erin takes a step forward, and this time her eyes are bright as the stars that used to shine in the night. “It’s not all like that. There’s this place—it’s called Tintagel. They have light there, and enough food to eat, and jobs for everyone. Not whore jobs. Real jobs.”
I sigh. “There is no place like that.”
“Andy’s brother went there,” she says, her voice strengthening. “It’s true.”
“If you leave here, you can’t come back. Ever. My father will kill Andy for leaving his post, and I don’t even want to think about what he’ll do with you.”
And then the old Erin reemerges, the stubborn one with the proud tilt to her head. “We’re not planning on coming back. Ever. Either you turn me in now and we die, or we go out there and take our chances.”
A flash of hate sears me. At least she has a choice. At least she feels hope. I hold my breath, squeeze my fists, and catch sight of her shabby hiking boots.
“You won’t make it a mile in all that,” I say, gesturing toward the window, where it has started snowing, as it does almost every day in this hideous perma-winter.
I stride to my closet and yank out the warmest coat I own. It is also white, so it will blend in with the landscape. I toss it to her, and as she catches it, she gapes at me. I rummage around the floor of the closet until I find my fleece-lined UGG boots, then scavenge cashmere warmies—a hat, mittens, and scarf.
Erin starts to cry.
The door flies open, and when Andy charges in, my mouth goes dry. His weapon is pointed right at me. That look on his face—he’s going to kill me. He’s known me, served as my guard for well over a year, but it won’t bother him an inch if it means saving his wife.
“No!” Erin jumps between me and the weapon. Jesus. “She’s helping us.”
He works his jaw as though holding back something violent and profane. “She’s not helping anyone. Trust me. Now get out of the way.”
“That’s right,” I sneer. “Ilsa Balenchuk helps no one. So don’t you go telling anyone this shit.” I glare at him, daring him to pull the trigger and end it. I’ve been dead for years.
He lowers his weapon, darts of confusion shooting from every pore.
Erin shakes her head. “That’s what she always says.”
The way she looks at me, it’s like she’s looking at her freakin’ guardian angel. No one has looked at me that way since I was fourteen. It really gets to me. My throat thickens.
I narrow my eyes. “Do you ever wonder what happens to me when I disobey the general?”
Both of them stare at me. Neither speaks.
By now I’m shaking. “The last time I tried to help someone, Dad beat me with his belt until I fainted.”
I’d given one of the camp whores a winter coat and some shoes. She’d said she couldn’t bear the endless string of men using her, and using her, and using her. She and a couple others wanted to run away, and back then I’d been reckless enough to want to help.
Colonel Ernshaw sent a party out after them. They caught up to them just outside the boundaries of General Barry’s territory. Dad said if they would have gotten any farther, they could have betrayed some valuable information. Never in a million years would I have thought that by looking the other way, I was putting us all at risk.
As far as Dad is concerned, undermining his authority cannot be tolerated. Any disobedience around here gets addressed swiftly and without mercy. Even when the culprit is me.
Especially when it’s me.
Andy Morey’s eyes widen, and Erin claps a hand over her mouth.
“Now you two take this stuff and leave. The troops are heading out at five a.m. I suggest you leave by three and go nowhere near Beckley.”
Morey clears his throat, his expression stiff. But the barrel of his gun is aimed at the floor.
“I knew it! Nobody changes that much. It’s just like back in school. We’re still sisters.” Erin steps forward and moves as though she’s going to hug me.
I retreat a step, my hand outstretched in the universal signal for stop.
“I am no one’s friend. Do not forget that.”
I am wide-awake when Dad fumbles his way through the darkness and out the door. I’m twitching when the last of the trucks pulls out onto the main access road and down the mountain. It’s only when I’m so angsty I think I’ll scream that I finally get up, wind my clock, and take my morning shower.
The water is warm, hot actually, and I can’t stop thinking about Erin. She’s out there somewhere in all that snow and ice. She has Andy with her, but he’s just one person, and he won’t be able to protect her from the gangs that roam the countryside. Bands of ten, fifty, sometimes hundreds of the desperate are constantly on the move, looking for a safe place to stay, a meal to eat, or a pretty girl to steal, and very few of them are above a little cannibalism.
It’s not that I don’t get it. I long for escape sometimes. It’s just that the world I want to go to no longer exists. I’ve heard there’s a town in Upstate New York that’s run something like ours, but I don’t know a whole lot about it. All I know is, if I want to be safe, I need to stay here. I need to keep my mouth shut, keep Dad happy, and accept that my sole purpose is to serve as loving daughter and willing PR tool. I don’t like being so…I don’t know…closely watched. But I’m fed well, I have plenty of warm clothes, and I have a safe place to sleep. Pretty much no other girl has what I have, and I know it. Erin didn’t have luxuries, but she had regular food and a safe place to live. I just wish she’d understood how good she had it, too.
I’m dressed for my morning walk. I have to drag myself down the steps. I want to pretend last night was just a dream and the world will stay the way it is. That it’ll get better. I don’t want to open the door and find only Garrett.
I leave the napkin-wrapped rolls on the foyer table for the housekeeper to find. The things I steal are always for her. She has such kind eyes, and she has that loose-skinned thing going on that tells me she used to be fat. Someone that loves food that much really shouldn’t have to stick to mushrooms, potatoes, and turkey.
My muscles tense. It’s time for a cold blast of reality.
When I step outside, I’m greeted by a complete stranger.
“Corporal Roane, this is the general’s daughter.” Sgt. Garrett indicates me with a jerk of his head. “You will not speak to her, you will not touch her, and as long as it doesn’t violate the general’s orders, you will obey her.”
I swallow. I hope the expression I give him screams confused. “Did Dad send Sgt. Morey out with the troops?”
Cpl. Roane looks to Garrett. Garret shrugs. But there is something in his eyes. Anger? Mistrust? He’s definitely guarded.
When his eyes slide away from mine, I realize he knows exactly what Erin and Andy Morey have done. I can only pray he knows nothing about my role in it.
We set out. Dad wants me to stay active and he installed an indoor gym for me, but I hate it. I’m inside all day, every day, and the only time I get to leave is when he lets me go to the officers’ dining hall or when I go for my walks. These brief outings are the only times I get to feel free.
We head out past the Officer’s Club and across the main access road, then make for the wide creek that meanders in a series of waterfalls down the side of the mountain. It’s completely frozen over, but I like to pretend sometimes that there’s still something alive under all that ice, hibernating, just waiting for the day when the sun comes back.
It’s only when we’re close to the ice’s edge that I see them. “Oh my gosh! Ducks!”
My heart pounds, my lips spread, and I do something I haven’t done in a long time. I laugh.
The birds waddle southward, and I skip along the creek’s edge and over the hidden bridge that covers the carefully disguised twenty-foot deep, ten-foot wide pit that encircles most of the town. Dad had his laborers place thousands of pointed stakes at the bottom. To those who don’t know better, it looks like solid, snow-covered ground. The idea is that anyone who’s stupid enough to attempt an invasion will fall into the pit and get impaled. Anyone who doesn’t die right away will be get trapped down, ripe for a turkey shoot. And Erin wants to go out there.
The heavy crunch of footsteps follows at a discreet distance. When I get to the woods, though, Garrett shouts something. He sounds angry.
I turn. “They’re just ducks. I don’t think they’re plotting to kill me!”
I don’t wait for his response but rather take up a slow jog. I want to catch up to my newfound friends. Wild ducks! If anyone sees them, they’ll be meat, for sure. Me, I just want to see something living, something happy and totally its own being. It’s kind of like if I can watch them, see them waddle around and peck their feathers, maybe hear a few quacks, then my life will be a little less small, a little less closed in. Ahead of me looms a twenty-foot-high boulder, and it’s totally in the way of my view.
That’s when Garrett breaks protocol. “Please, Miss Balenchuk! This area hasn’t been scouted!”
I turn and gape at him. He must be really desperate, speaking directly to me like that.
“I didn’t hear you speak,” I tell him. I give him a teasing smile, and he blinks. I am completely out of character. “I’m just going to go a little farther. I promise. We’ll turn around in a couple minutes.”
Sgt. Garrett and the new guy pick up their pace, half jogging to catch up to me as I round the side of the boulder and move out of their sight.
I hear a grunt and then a thud, as though something large has fallen.
I turn back and spot Cpl. Roane on the ground with his eyes wide open, an arrow sticking out of his chest. My muscles freeze, and sweat prickles my underarms as I spot a man the size of Mt. Everest standing over Sgt. Garrett’s lifeless body.
My breath stutters in my chest, and I open my mouth to scream. That’s when a gloved hand claps over my mouth and an arm anchors me against a solid wall of muscle.
“Gotcha,” he whispers in my ear.
My lungs don’t work. That voice—I’d know it anywhere. It’s been four years, but I’d never forget him—the boy who changed my life forever.
I’m being kidnapped by Talon Heinseman.
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