By K.S. Merbeth
Read by Stephanie Willis
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But as they journey across the wild together, Kid learns that her newfound crew may not be the heroes she was hoping for. And in a world that’s lost its humanity, everyone has a bit of monster within them…
Table of Contents
A Preview of FEED
A Preview of THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
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Show Your Teeth
"Need a ride?"
His grin looks more like an animal baring its teeth. His teeth are yellowed and chipped, with gaps between showing where others have been knocked out. There's something starkly predatory about him, which is the first reason I shouldn't say yes.
The second is I'm small, alone, and unarmed. Any of those could be a death sentence in a place like this.
And there we have the third reason: By "a place like this," I mean a torn-up, full-of-potholes road running through the middle of nowhere. It's the only thing marking the landscape for miles. There's nothing but empty desert and the ruins of old cities in every direction. Nuclear war can do that to a place, I guess. But the point is, there's no one around to hear if I scream. Plus, even if someone did hear, chances are they wouldn't give a shit.
The fourth reason is the creepy lady in the passenger seat, who has blue hair and an assault rifle in her lap.
The fifth reason is the red-stained sacks of something-or-other sitting in the backseat.
The sixth reason is… ah, hell. Need I go on?
I scratch my nose, sniff, and spit. The rumble of the jeep is the only sound in the stagnant air.
It's obvious that getting in this jeep is a terrible idea. A sixteen-year-old girl like me could provide a hell of a lot of entertainment for someone with a sick enough mind. I must look like easy prey, with my ragged clothes and skinny body.
So naturally, my answer is—
"Sure, why not?"
When it comes down to it, I've been walking for days. The soles of my boots are collecting holes. The sand burns my feet during the day, and the world is dark and frightening at night. The sun has left my skin raw and peeling, and when it sets it sucks all the warmth away. I'm down to one can of food and less than two days' worth of water—not enough to make it back to town even if I wanted to go. Lord knows how far I'd have to travel to find more.
This jeep and its driver are smelly, creepy, and very possibly dangerous, but they're my only ticket out of here.
The stranger shows his teeth again. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of goggles too big for his face.
"Hop in then, kid."
I clamber into the backseat next to the reeking mystery bags, nearly tumbling onto them before I manage to squeeze myself into the tight space between the bags and the door. I place my backpack on my lap, my arms curling around it protectively. It doesn't hold much, just my canteen, one can of food, and a blanket my papa gave me, but it's all I have. I lean back with a sigh as the jeep starts moving. Sayonara, middle of nowhere! I might end up dead and dismembered in a ditch, but it'd be better than wandering aimlessly through this hellhole of a desert.
We pick up speed quickly, and I have to pull down on my beanie to stop it from flying off my head. A few strands of mousy hair poke out from underneath it, and I try to push them under again, but it's no use. I settle for holding the beanie with one hand and resting the other on the side of the jeep. The rank smell of the bags is getting stronger and stronger, making my eyes water. I blink it away and try to ignore it.
My attention shifts to the lady in the front seat, who still strikes me as pretty creepy. She was still and silent the whole time they waited for my answer, but now she turns around. It's impossible not to stare at her hair. It's very long, nearly waist-length, and oddly straight and sleek. I really don't understand how someone could have hair so perfect looking, or how and why her hair is colored electric blue. The color is incredibly vivid in the dust-colored world around us.
She has dark eyes that reveal an Asian heritage, and small lips painted a vibrant red. She's pretty, with a noticeably ladylike figure despite the wasteland garb covering her quite modestly. Her red lips are mouthing something, but I can't make out any words with the wind whipping around me.
I squint my eyes, tilt my head to the side, and give her a vacant stare. She stares back at me for a moment before turning around.
She doesn't try to talk to me again, and neither does the feral man. Apparently they don't care enough to ask where I intend to go. I'm just along for the ride, and that's fine by me. Wherever I'm going has to be better than where I've been.
If I had any common sense at all I'd probably want to stay on edge. But, at this point, I'm already in the jeep. Either they want to kill me or they don't, and I won't get much of a choice in it either way. So I decide to nap. What can I say? It's been a long couple of days.
I wake up with my face pressed against the lumpy garbage bags, and wow do they smell. The scent is invading my nostrils, pillaging my throat, and violating my poor brain. I gag and recoil, pressing against the side of the car and frantically wiping my face with a hand that is probably even dirtier. I don't know what the hell is in there, but I don't want it on or near my face.
Once I determine I'm safe from any obscene-smelling substances, I realize the jeep is no longer moving, and my backpack is no longer on my lap. The man and young woman are standing a few yards away from the still vehicle, having a quiet conversation. Neither of them is paying attention to me.
I adjust my beanie and climb out of the car, stretching out my bony limbs one at a time. My back cracks and both of the strangers' heads jerk toward me.
"Err," I say. The woman still has her assault rifle, and it's now pointed in my direction. I raise my hands and smile nervously. "My bad."
She relaxes when she sees it's just me, and the man displays that grin of his again. I notice my backpack in the dirt at his feet. In his hand is what I assume to be my last can of food. Unsurprisingly, it's beans. Despite how sick I am of goddamn beans, my stomach rumbles. But his other hand holds a really big knife that he must have used to pry the can open, so I decide not to comment.
"So you're awake," the man says through a mouthful of food. He swallows, sighs with unabashed satisfaction, and continues. "We were about to wake you up, but you looked pretty happy in there. You were drooling a little on the goods."
I wipe my mouth and feel my cheeks grow hot. He laughs, a hearty and surprisingly genuine sound. He bends down to grab my backpack off the ground and tosses it over to me. I can't resist the urge to take a peek inside, just to make sure nothing else is missing. Once I'm certain that my canteen and my papa's blanket are still inside, I sling the bag over one shoulder and smile at him.
"We found a little town," he says, jerking his thumb behind him. "Decided it was as good a place as any to stop."
"Oh, yeah, great," I say sincerely. "That works just fine. Thanks for the ride, mister."
He laughs again, this time for no good reason I can decipher.
"Right, kid," he says. "Mind helping us carry this?"
I glance at the gross bags in the back of the jeep. The thought of lugging them around is far from pleasant. I don't know what's in them, and honestly I don't want to know. But he did give me a ride, so…
"Good!" He grins again. "Don't drop 'em or anything, we're selling this shit."
I nod and wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans. Right, I can handle that. Probably.
The blue-haired Asian lady has been looking at me intently this whole time, and it's starting to make me uncomfortable. She has a weird blankness about her. Not a hint of emotion ever crosses her face, and she has an incredibly unnerving stare. It's like looking into the eyes of a corpse. I try to ignore her, but looking at the guy with the savage grin isn't much better. At least the woman combs her hair. The man's is in long brown dreadlocks, and obviously hasn't been groomed in an awfully long time.
The two of them move over to the jeep and start unloading. They pack my arms full first, and I scrunch my nose and try not to inhale too deeply. Once we all have as much as we can carry, we head toward the town.
Or, rather, toward the pathetic collection of shambling buildings we call towns around here. Like most, it's built over the ruins of an old city, and made mostly of crumbling walls and scrap metal. People have patched up half-destroyed shells of rooms with blankets and plywood and whatever else they can find. From the looks of it, no more than a couple dozen townies live here. They peek out of doorways and windows as we pass through the outer limits of town. I see mostly men, a handful of women, and not a single child, which is not surprising. The end of the world didn't exactly encourage people to go making babies left and right, and half of the ones that do get born won't make it past their first year.
I've only ever seen pictures of the great old cities, but it's enough to make me appreciate the sadness of what they've become. I thought the town I left was small and run-down, but now I know the people back there had it pretty good. These people are dirty, thin, wrapped in rags.
Hollow eyes in hungry faces turn to watch us, but they don't seem overly alarmed. Apparently this place is used to strangers, which is a bit odd. Most of these little towns can go months without seeing a new face. Three strangers arriving would've been a big old affair where I came from, and not a friendly one at that.
We walk for a few minutes, moving into what seems to be the heart of the town, an open space between some of the more well-kept buildings. The man dumps the bags he's carrying on the ground, and the woman and I follow suit. They produce wet thumps and small clouds of dust as they hit. I gratefully suck in fresh air while the other two survey the area. I'm not really sure what my plan is at this point, but these two seem to have some kind of goal, so I figure it can't hurt to stick with them for now.
"Where are they?" the woman asks. Her voice is nearly a whisper, and as flat and emotionless as her face.
"Not here," the man says, "which can't mean anything good."
I eye them, but bite back my question as a townie approaches. He's a tall, wiry, dark-skinned man with a commanding presence and suspicious eyes. He folds his arms over his chest and spits a gob of yellowish saliva that narrowly misses my boot.
The dreadlocked man beside me shoves his hands into the pockets of his ratty jeans, assumes a relaxed posture, and grins.
"Name's Wolf," he says. "We've got some goods here. You have anything worth trading for? Gasoline, maybe?"
The townie says nothing. He looks at us, scrutinizes the bags, and looks at us again.
"Might," he says finally. "What've you got?" He nudges a bag with one shoe.
Again comes that cruel display of teeth.
"Meat," Wolf says, overemphasizing the word.
The other man's eyebrows rise.
"Ain't seen that in a while," he says. "What's it from?"
"Couple o' wild hogs."
"Hogs," the townie repeats. He stares at the bags, his jaw working as if he's chewing on the information. "Lot of meat for a couple hogs."
"Fat ones," Wolf says dryly. "Look, you gonna trade or not?"
The man pauses.
"Let me think," he says. He seems to be carefully weighing each word. "I'll have to look at our stocks. Why don't you lot stay overnight? We'll talk in the mornin'."
"Meat won't stay good forever," Wolf says. It's hard to read his expression behind the goggles.
"Meat probably ain't good now," the townie says, spitting again. I have to hop to the side to avoid this one. "One more night won't hurt."
"Fine," Wolf says. He turns and jerks his head toward the woman. "Dolly, you'll sleep with the jeep."
"We ain't thieves," the man says.
"'Course not," Wolf agrees enthusiastically, but shoots Dolly a meaningful look. "Anyway, we should at least get our goods out of the sun." The townie nods, saying nothing, and Wolf turns to me. "How 'bout helping us with these bags again?"
Something tells me I should leave right now and pretend I never had anything to do with a strange couple of travelers called Wolf and Dolly. Something tells me a man with a smile like his can only bring trouble. Maybe that something is what normal people call common sense.
But Papa always said I don't have a whole lot of that.
"Sure," I say. "Why not?"
Carrying the cargo is sweaty work, and by our second trip into town I think I'm starting to smell as bad as the bags. It doesn't help that Wolf is off bartering somewhere, leaving Dolly and me to handle it all ourselves. None of the townies offer to help. Instead they completely ignore our presence. Men rest on rocks or lean against nearby buildings in small clumps, carrying on conversations that fall silent when we get close. And it really is all men; the women have disappeared. So have the elderly, and the incapable. Every single person left lingering outside looks like they could give me a thorough ass-kicking if necessary. I can feel their eyes following me when I turn my back.
"This is weird," I say in a low whisper. I glance over at Dolly, who keeps her eyes forward. "Isn't it?"
She gives a minuscule shrug of her shoulders and says nothing. I guess that's as close to an answer as I'm going to get. I sigh and try to ignore the uneasiness creeping up on me. These people did invite us to stay in their town for the night. That alone makes them friendlier than the town I left. Wolf and Dolly would've been shot the second they got within ten paces of the place. These townies are just being reasonably wary of strangers. Probably.
"So, where are you and Wolf headed, anyway?" I ask, trying to distract myself from my nerves. Neither of them has told me anything about themselves or why they're here. They haven't asked about me, either. Come to think of it, I don't think they've even asked for my name. Maybe I'm supposed to assume those are the rules of our temporary relationship, but my curiosity is getting the better of me.
"Nowhere," Dolly says. I frown.
"So you're just… driving around randomly? Isn't that kind of…" Pointless? Dangerous? A waste of precious gas? I don't even know where to begin. "Are you traders?" Traders are the only people I can think of who would have any reason to wander like that. Well, and myself, but I have my own reasons.
"No," she says. I wait for her to continue. She doesn't.
"Okay," I say. When I was young and my papa left me in our bomb shelter by myself, I used to play a game that involved bouncing a ball off the wall. It always just came bouncing back, but I would keep doing it like I expected something new to happen, or thought a friend might materialize. Trying to carry on a conversation with Dolly feels about as productive as that did.
I shut my mouth and keep walking. I should save my breath, anyway. Even though I'm only carrying half as much as Dolly, the bags are heavy, and the exertion is making me more aware of the hunger in my belly and the tired ache in my bones. Despite that, it's nice to feel helpful. Back in my old town it was always Get out of the way, girl and Don't you know how to do anything right? One of the many reasons why braving the wastes alone sounded better than staying.
As we pass one of the rickety buildings, the door bangs open. A woman comes out, dragging a young boy behind her. I guess there are children here after all; they must just keep them hidden away when strangers are around. The woman stomps her way over to a group of men sitting on the hood of a rusted, broken-down vehicle. She speaks in hushed whispers to them, saying something that involves a lot of head shakes and hand gestures. She releases the hand of the boy as the conversation seems to grow more heated. The boy's gaze wanders over to us. As our eyes meet I shoot him a friendly smile.
My smile drops as the kid takes that as a sign to start walking over to us.
"Oh, no. No, no, no," I mutter. As much as I like children, somehow I don't think this kid is supposed to be near us. I don't want to give the townies any other reason to distrust us. But it's not easy to wave him away with my hands full, and I don't want to raise my voice and draw attention.
I slow down as he gets closer. It's hard to see the kid around the bulky bags I'm carrying.
"Careful, little guy," I say, stepping around him. "This is heavy stuff."
Apparently he's not the sharpest tool in the shed, because he moves away from me and steps directly into Dolly's path. He stares up at her with wide eyes and doesn't move. Dolly stops in her tracks.
"Can I touch your hair?" the boy asks.
"We're kind of busy here," I say. Dolly doesn't seem like the kid-friendly type, and I don't want to see her go all ice queen on this poor kid. But instead, to my surprise, she drops her bags and crouches down, bringing herself to eye level with the young boy. With several inches between their faces, they scrutinize each other with an apparently shared sense of awe. He raises a hand and touches the ends of her hair with small, chubby fingers. I'm sure his hands are filthy, but Dolly doesn't pull back from his touch. I catch a glimpse of something oddly soft in her face, a crack in her blank expression. She almost looks sad for a moment.
"Mommy said you were bad people," the boy says, "but I think you're nice." He smiles. His two front teeth are missing. Dolly leans close and whispers something in his ear.
A surprised expletive alerts me that the boy's mother has noticed his disappearance. She looks around frantically, homes in on us, and rushes over, her eyes wide and fearful.
"Jimmy," she hisses, grabbing the boy by the hand and yanking him away. She pulls him behind her and backs away from us. Her suspicious eyes flit back and forth between Dolly and me. Once she's apparently decided we're not going to attack her, she turns her back and hurries away, tugging her son along. "What did I tell you about talking to strangers?" she scolds him.
With another loud bang, she disappears into the building she came from. The men near the jeep are watching us with a renewed and obviously unfriendly interest. I frown, and glance at Dolly to see if the interaction bothered her, but her face is back to its usual blank slate. She stands up, takes her bags, and resumes walking. I hurriedly follow, trying to match her long strides.
"You like kids, Dolly?" I ask, not really expecting a response.
"Yes." A straight answer, to my surprise, and when I turn to look at her there's a ghost of a smile on her lips. It disappears immediately when she notices me looking.
"Me, too!" Finally, some shared ground. I smile at her, but she doesn't seem to notice. "What'd you say to him?"
"To listen to his mother."
I nod slowly, automatically assuming it to be good advice before I remember what his mom said.
As the day grows later, the townies invite us to share a meal with them. It's good hospitality, especially for a place this small. The idea would have been laughable where I came from. Even after living there for a couple of years, I wouldn't get fed unless I got enough work done during the day.
I'm grateful for the generosity, and yet something about this place is definitely rubbing me the wrong way. Nobody says anything openly, but everyone gives us these weird sideways glances and dirty looks. It's gotten even worse since this morning. Part of me wonders if it's Wolf and Dolly specifically they're suspicious about, but since I arrived with them and have stuck with them since getting here, it's a little late for me to try to distance myself from them.
Since Dolly is watching the jeep, Wolf and I are alone. The townies light up trash can fire pits, place sheets of metal over the tops, and set aluminum cans of food on top of those. They cluster around the trash cans as the sun sets and the day's warmth slips away. Wolf and I stand apart from them. I can barely feel a hint of heat from this distance, and have to rub at my arms to keep from shivering. However, the smell of the meal cooking reaches us just fine, and my mouth waters at the distant memory of hot food. I haven't eaten anything but cold beans for days.
But the looks from the townies sour my stomach. They all look incredibly pissed off as soon as they catch me looking. I can read the accusations in those stares: strangers, untrusted, unwelcome. I'm particularly familiar with the latter. In the wastes, you have to fight for your right to exist.
"Are you sure we were invited?" I ask, turning to Wolf and trying to ignore the stares. My stomach churns with a familiar discomfort. I didn't leave my last town just to become an unwanted mouth to feed again. At least Wolf doesn't seem to mind my presence.
"'Course I am." He continues staring at the food. He pulled his goggles down around his neck when the sun set, and his eyes are sharp and intense without them. I shrug and look down at my boots.
As the townies start passing out cans, clumps of people shift into a messy line. I watch as Wolf walks up and completely ignores them, bypassing the line and snatching a can of food without a moment's hesitation. I attempt to follow in the wake of his bravado, but only make it two steps before someone bumps into me and sends me stumbling.
I look up to see a gaunt-faced townie scowling down at me. His eyes are hard, his lip curling derisively.
"Sorry," I say automatically, as my brain tries to work out where the hell he came from. All of the other townies were by the fire pits, so why was this guy behind us? Was he watching us? My uneasiness deepens, and I swallow hard.
"You ain't supposed to be here," he says.
"Huh? Wolf said—"
"Not him. You." He jabs a finger into my chest. I back up, rubbing at the spot and staring at him. "What are you doing with them?" he asks me.
"Umm, well, it's kind of a long story—"
"Scrawny little thing like you," he says, stepping closer and bringing his face down to mine. I'm uncomfortably aware of how much bigger than me he is. Would the other townies step in if he tried to hurt me? I doubt it. "Think you can just wander into town and help yourself to our food?"
"You thought wrong." He puts a hand on my chest and shoves, sending me stumbling right into Wolf.
"Is there a problem here?" he asks.
I never thought I'd be so happy to see his crazy grin. I scamper behind him and stay there, eager to have a shield from the townie. The man stares at Wolf for a long few seconds. Wolf barely looks at him; he's focused on the can of food in his hands, which he's slowly opening with a knife much too big and sharp for the task. Metal grates harshly on metal as he peels it open. The townie's jaw is clenched, a tic jumping in his cheek. He looks like he's dying to throw a punch. But just when the tension seems taut enough to snap, he shakes his head and walks away.
I let out a low whoosh of breath and step out from behind Wolf.
"Well, I'm sure glad I didn't show up here alone," I say, forcing a laugh. Wolf shrugs nonchalantly, raises his can to his mouth, and takes a big gulp. My mouth fills with drool at the sight, and I realize with a sad twist of my stomach that there's no way I'll be brave enough to get food for myself now. Wolf lowers the can and notices me staring.
"What?" he asks, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "What is it? Why aren't you eating?"
"Oh, uh, I'm not that hungry," I say. "I just ate… the day before yesterday."
Wolf rolls his eyes.
"Do I gotta do everything for you?" he grumbles.
Before I can protest, he shoves his can into my hands.
"Let me show you somethin', kid," he says. He walks over to the townies and casually cuts into the front of the line again. He grabs a can, grins at the man passing out food, and saunters back to me. "See? It's that simple."
Apparently he doesn't notice the death glares and murmurs that follow. Though, at this point, it's probably more accurate to say that he doesn't give a shit.
"Well, that's easy for you to say. You're—" I pause before the word scary leaves my mouth. "Umm. You have a really big knife."
"Oh, this?" He looks down at the knife, which he's currently using to pry open the second can of food, and chuckles. "This ain't nothing. Now eat your damn beans before they get cold."
Of course it had to be beans. I suppress a sigh and take a sludgy gulp of the familiar food. At least they're hot. I scarf them down as quickly as possible and swipe a finger around the can to collect the last remnants.
Once I'm done, I watch Wolf. He eats slowly, which is strange. Most wastelanders eat as quickly as possible, not only because we're starving half the time, but because we're afraid someone might take our food. The way he eats shows that he's not worried about either of those problems. It says a lot about him, and raises more questions, too. I can't help but wonder about him and Dolly. Who are these people? Where are they from, where are they going, and why did they stop to pick me up?
When he finally finishes eating, he notices me looking and exhales an exaggerated sigh.
"What do you want now?" he asks.
"Oh, I, umm." I consider the whirlwind of questions in my head, but bite my tongue. "I just wanted to say thanks. You didn't have to do that. Get me food, I mean."
"'Course I did," he says. "I took your last can, didn't I? Fair's fair." He shrugs. "Anyway, you're with us—for now. And we look out for each other."
I'm not really sure what being "with them" means for me, and the pointed "for now" is a little worrying. Still, I guess it's going pretty well so far, seeing as I've got a belly full of warm food and avoided getting shoved around by that townie.
"Sounds good to me."
"Good. 'Cause you've got first watch tonight."
He turns and walks away. I smile at the back of his head before setting off after him.
"No idea what you're flapping your gums about."
I awaken to the sound of a voice nearby. It's just past dawn, judging from the light. I'm sprawled out on the ground, twisted up in my papa's blanket, but the spot Wolf slept in is now empty.
"You sayin' this is all coincidence?"
There's another voice. Both are marked by open hostility, and gradually rise in volume.
"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying."
- "Bite is a full throttle, sand-in-your-eyes, no holds barred ride through a Mad Max-style wasteland where the bad guys become family. Finally, an underdog with teeth!"—Delilah S. Dawson
- "In an environment that turns people into monsters, where the line between good and bad is thinner than a knife-edge, survival is the least of Kid's problems. This post-apocalyptic debut may seem to take its scenery straight from the film Mad Max, but Merbeth has created her own universe filled with destruction and not a small amount of grim, acerbic wit. Fans of Mira Grant's "Newsflesh" series will be pleased by the smart writing."—Library Journal
- "Filled with dark humor, wit, and a realistic dystopian setting, Bite plays with the idea of who the good guys are in such a harsh world. Think Carl Hiaasen thriller set in a Mad Max world, and you have an idea of what to expect."—Booklist (starred review)
- "A high-octane story that sinks its teeth into you and refuses to let go."—K. B. Wagers
- "Merbeth's debut novel puts a unique spin on post-apocalyptic horror... Bite flips the script."—B&N
- "Pure undiluted high octane anarchy ... If you enjoy movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, or games like Fallout 4 and Borderlands, then Bite is the book for you. Gleefully unrestrained and unrelenting, strap yourself in an enjoy the ride. Bite is here, let the mayhem commence!"—The Eloquent Page
- On Sale
- Jul 26, 2016
- Hachette Audio