Jeff Meets Wendy
“This looks delicious,” Jeff said as he plopped the heaping portion of potatoes onto his plate.
Brett, the guy in charge of breakfast, cocked his head to the side. “Where’s Matt?”
“He’s showing a girl around.”
“A girl?” Brett raised his eyebrows.
“A patient,” Jeff said. “You know how he is about strays.”
“Uh-huh. What happened to your head?”
Jeff’s free hand brushed against the bandage there. “I let Yan get too close.”
Brett laughed. “We warned you.”
“Yes, you did.”
Jeff took two rolls and moved toward a table.
The marketplace teemed with people, which was normal on a non-rationed day. He spotted a couple of guys just younger than him having a contest to see who could balance more rolls on their noses. A group of teenage girls had taken up residence in the middle of the clump of tables.
Jeff shifted the folder under his arm. He needed somewhere a bit quieter, and he knew just the place.
Sure enough, the rectangular tables near the machine shop were empty. Jeff dropped his plate onto the plastic surface before carefully placing the folder that Riggs had given him next to it. A quick glance around assured Jeff that he would be able to eat in peace for the first time in days. He sunk into the chair with a sigh of relief.
Ever since he’d agreed to take charge of the next class of teenagers he’d been inundated with questions from parents, from mentors and from some of the teenagers. Most were only a year or two younger than Jeff, but this new assignment had placed a huge rift between them.
This would be the biggest group of trainees Shelter had had since Mike had gotten here. When Jeff had trained, his class had consisted of just six teenagers. The one he was teaching now would be close to fifteen. Riggs had given him a short report on each candidate, which Jeff was supposed to use to break them into three balanced teams.
Jeff looked back and forth between his food and the papers. He was supposed to report to Riggs on the new trainees in a few hours, but what good would starving himself do? Jeff opened the folder so he could read the top paper; at the same time, he started eating.
The first two candidates’ reports drew a smile from Jeff: Kev and Cal. The two of them were basically brothers and could make a joke out of anything. From what Jeff had seen, Kev had some potential as a scavenger, but Cal’s skills weren’t as physical. He was more of a problem solver.
Jeff slid the two of them aside and found Arie’s report. Petite. Blonde. Pretty and mean as hell if you got in her way. Her father—her only remaining family—was a fighter, but Jeff didn’t peg her as a grunt. She might make a good leader for one of the teams. He slid her into a different pile and then grimaced when he saw the next trainee.
Dennis. The guy was a bully, plain and simple. Unfortunately, his mother held a place of power in Shelter, and he was a skilled fighter who was getting close to being able to challenge Jeff. None of the other trainees could rival Dennis in the combat rooms, and he did demand respect. Jeff reluctantly slid him into the leader pile.
Jeff ate as he read, trying to keep all of the little facts straight in his head.
After a few minutes, a familiar voice interrupted his progress. “Hey, Jeff.”
Jeff opened his mouth to ask Matt about a guy named Sven, but stopped when he saw the girl with Matt, both holding breakfast trays.
The girl looked ridiculously small compared to his tall, gangly friend. Her head barely came to his shoulder. A few tendrils of long, dark hair had escaped her ponytail. Her lips pressed into a tight line, and pale skin with more than its fair share of scars surrounded her piercing blue-grey eyes.
Her gaze shot through Jeff, almost taking his breath away. There was a feral beauty to the anger that sat simmering beneath the surface of her calm.
What her body lacked in size her eyes made up for in experience. Jeff had seen plenty of people on the outside, but he’d only seen eyes like that a few times. Guarded. Expecting trouble. Ready for anything. Familiar with pain and suffering. Barely controlled rage.
She stood perfectly balanced, like Yan. Jeff immediately wondered what she could do in the combat rooms. He wondered what a sparring match would be like between himself and this girl who had survived a Skinny raid.
“You got a second?” Matt asked.
Suddenly all too aware of his clammy hands Jeff wiped one on his pant leg under the table. “Sure.” He stood.
Matt turned to the girl. “Wendy, this is Jeff. Jeff, Wendy.”
Jeff offered his hand and could hardly believe how much bigger his palm was than hers. Her skin was cool and callused. Her fingers tightened around his hand and squeezed firmly. Jeff returned the gesture, making sure not to crush anything. A tingle of electricity crept up his arm.
Jeff pointed at the two chairs next to his. “Uh, have a seat.” He gathered his papers—which suddenly decided they wanted to go everywhere—and shoved them back into the folder so Matt and Wendy could put their breakfast down. Matt took the far seat, forcing Wendy between them.
Wendy sat ramrod straight, her hands resting lightly on her knees. Jeff’s eyes traced the muscled line of her shoulder up her neck to her eyes, which explored the surrounding marketplace. If he had to bet he would guess she was counting exits.
Matt—as usual looking like he’d forgotten something—met Jeff’s eyes over Wendy’s head.
Jeff gave him a flat stare. Matt had begged Jeff to talk to this girl, but he wasn’t about to start the conversation.
Matt shifted in his seat, and Wendy turned her haunted eyes to him.
“I, uh, well.” Matt cleared his throat and shifted again. “Yesterday, you sort of freaked out.”
Wendy’s shoulders stiffened, and her hands pressed into her legs.
Matt glanced at Jeff, who gave him a “get to it” look.
“I, uh, well, you had some sort of flashback. Am I right?”
Jeff forced himself not to flinch. Matt had described Wendy’s behavior the day before, and Jeff was almost positive that she was having flashbacks. Being hunted by his brother and his brother’s Skinnies for months before he’d finally found solace here had left a deep scar in Jeff’s mind that still hadn’t healed. He’d lost count of the times he’d woken yelling in the middle of the night.
Wendy kept her face impassive, but the muscles in her jaw twitched.
Matt looked at Jeff. “Jeff here has been through it. I thought he might be able to help you.”
Wendy turned her icy gaze on Jeff.
In truth, Matt and Doc had helped him, and it had taken the two of them months to get Jeff to talk about it. Now Matt had hoped having someone who had been through it might help Wendy get over it faster.
Jeff spoke. “Matt told me what happened. That you’re the only survivor of a Skinny raid.”
Anger rolled off of the girl, and Jeff thought she might snarl.
“I came here alone too,” Jeff said in his most gentle voice. He looked into her eyes, trying to get past the steel fortress she’d built there. “Everyone I knew died in an ambush. I had nightmares about it for months.” He paused. “I still do.”
Wendy narrowed her eyes. Her chest stopped moving.
Jeff took a breath. Matt had told him a little of Wendy’s story. “How much of the attack do you remember?”
Wendy kept her gaze on him. Her words sounded forced. “Some, not all of it.”
Jeff nodded. “And something happened yesterday that triggered some sort of flashback?”
“I’m not really sure,” she said in the same monotone voice.
Something in Jeff’s chest tightened, and for a brief moment he yearned to take her hand. To hold her in his arms and stroke her hair. No one should have to go through whatever she had. However, he knew that gaze, and she wasn’t anywhere near ready to talk about what had happened, let alone let someone comfort her.
Riggs had told Jeff that this petite girl had survived a Skinny raid, and even injured she’d taken down several of Riggs’ fighters and had given him the ugly gash on his face. If she could do that, they needed to give her something productive to do. Something to channel that anger.
Jeff opened his mouth to ask her what kind of fighting experience she had, but before he got the words out, the alarm went off.
The blood in Jeff’s veins went cold, and he shot to his feet.
Most of the fighters were at the tables near the breakfast booth, and they were already headed toward the everyday mess hall where they were supposed to gather in case of an attack. But that wasn’t the attack alarm.
Jeff stood on his toes so he could see all of the entrances into the marketplace. He was about to tell Matt to follow the other fighters, but his friend pointed.
Jeff’s eyes found what Matt had already seen. Skinnies. Several of them coming from the hallway that led to their pen.
Matt grabbed Jeff by the arm. “Come on.”
They took off at a run. Jeff half-expected Wendy to try to escape, but she followed. Jeff turned just past the shoes booth.
“Did some of them get out?” Matt asked.
“Apparently,” Jeff said, trying to pay attention to what was in front of him as well as looking for Riggs or Yan. “Do you have a weapon?”
“Course,” Matt said, drawing a long knife from his belt.
Jeff did the same. He preferred his club, but didn’t have it on him. Something that would not happen again.
People scattered like roaches, leaving a clear path for Jeff and Matt. They had run halfway to the far door when a scream split the air.
“That was a kid,” Matt said, slowing.
Jeff glanced back the way they had come and swore. “Wendy’s gone.”
Matt turned around. “Where did she go?”
Jeff jumped onto a chair. It only took a moment to spot her.
Wendy stood at the edge of the piles of crates, which took up a good section of the marketplace. The kids played in there during meals, and it looked like not all of them had gotten out when the alarm went off.
One Skinny was closing in on the small boy who had been screaming. Another Skinny stalked toward a terrified girl.
Wendy had somehow gotten to the edge of the crates and had just grabbed a slightly older red-headed boy and shoved him back.
Something in Jeff’s chest tightened. Wendy was in no shape to fight Skinnies, even if she was as good as Riggs had said.
Three fighters burst into the marketplace through another door.
Four more were coming from the east.
Jeff swore again and jumped down. “Come on,” he said to Matt.
Matt followed without question.
Jeff led the way, his heart pounding. A quick flash of the people he hadn’t been able to save from Dillon flooded his mind, and he shook his head. He didn’t have time for regrets. Not if he was going to save those kids. And Wendy.
The marketplace had grown organically, and there weren’t many straight aisles. Jeff and Matt wove in and out of booths and tables. By the time they reached the edge of the room, both Skinnies had a struggling kid by the neck. The Skinny holding the boy punched him in the face.
The fighters coming from the other direction shouted at the Skinnies to stop.
The Skinnies sneered.
Jeff gripped his knife tighter.
Then, like an avenging angel, Wendy jumped from the top of a crate. She flew through the air and clubbed the Skinny holding the girl in the back of its head so hard with a piece of wood that Jeff heard the crack over the alarm. The Skinny fell on top of the young girl.
The sound of the alarm changed, indicating that part of the situation was under control.
Obviously not this part.
The other Skinny saw Wendy and dropped the little boy. It ambled toward Wendy, who used a box to again launch herself into the air and kick at its face. But she was too close, and she lost most of her momentum and ended up on the ground. She cried out in pain, but was on her feet again in an instant.
Jeff glanced at the other fighters. He and Matt would get there first. They ran shoulder to shoulder. Like brothers. Like the brother Dillon had once been.
Jeff shook the thought away. “You take care of the kids, I’ll get Wendy.”
“Right,” Matt said.
Wendy stood her ground and waited an uncomfortably long time before the Skinny almost had her before she dropped, rolled and came up behind him.
A yell of frustration and pain sounded as Wendy slashed at the Skinny’s face with her makeshift club. She grabbed the boy and shoved him behind her.
Another Skinny, this one a woman, moved out from behind a large crate. She held the boy Wendy had pulled away initially to her chest, a piece of broken glass at his neck. Blood already flowed where the shard had cut into the Skinny’s hand.
This time Matt swore.
Jeff ignored the pounding in his head where Yan had cut him the day before and urged his legs to go faster.
The wounded Skinny rose and crept up behind Wendy.
Wendy glanced toward the oncoming fighters and then did something unexpected. She dropped the club and raised her hands.
“What’s she doing?” Matt asked as they got within twenty feet of the melee.
The wounded Skinny—dripping blood and eye fluid down his face—continued to stalk Wendy. Her eyes flicked toward him.
“That Skinny is in trouble,” Jeff muttered to himself.
In a blink Wendy drove her elbow back into the Skinny’s groin. She grabbed the much taller man and pulled him to her chest. She then tried to throw him over her shoulder. His feet came up, but then Wendy lost her hold and they both went down.
Jeff flinched. They were almost to her.
Somehow Wendy forced herself and the Skinny on top of her into a roll toward the Skinny still holding the boy. All four ended up on the floor.
Jeff and Matt arrived a few seconds before the other fighters. Adrenaline gave Jeff extra strength as he grabbed the female Skinny and threw her away from the boy, who was on his hands and knees, breathing hard.
Matt skidded to a stop next to the boy.
Jeff turned his attention to the Skinny on top of Wendy. Jeff knew the man, or the man he had been before he’d become a Skinny. Jeff cursed under his breath and put his knife away. The Council didn’t want the Skinnies killed.
The Skinny had picked up Wendy’s club and was about to bring it down on her neck. Rage like he hadn’t felt in weeks flooded Jeff, and he jumped forward and grabbed the Skinny’s wrist, twisting until it locked up. Jeff reached down and took the man by the throat and hauled him off of Wendy.
The other fighters joined the fray, and suddenly the Skinnies were being tied up. Matt moved from the unhurt boy to the girl who had been trapped under a Skinny the entire time.
“What the hell happened?” Riggs’ voice cut through the chaos. “How did they get out?”
“We’re not sure, but they’re locked down now,” a fighter reported.
Jeff gulped down air, trying to get his anger under control. He held the Skinny until the fighters finished tying him up. He felt Wendy’s eyes on him, and he forced himself to calm. It would take her a long time to get over whatever she’d been through before coming to Shelter. Jeff still wasn’t over his experiences.
But maybe Matt was right. Maybe he could help her through it. Jeff suddenly realized that he wanted to help her. He wanted to see her smile and laugh and relax. In order to do that, he needed a reason spend time with her. To be close to her. Jeff’s eyes turned to Riggs, and he made up his mind.
Riggs’ dark face and death glare intimidated most people, but Jeff had grown up with a very grouchy older brother. Riggs was practically a kitten compared to Dillon.
Riggs eyed him.
Jeff got close and leaned in. “Did you see that?”
“You said she was a good fighter, but I had no idea.”
This time Riggs didn’t bother to answer.
“I want her. With the trainees. We need someone who can challenge Dennis, and putting her on something like kitchen duty would only make her want to kill things.”
“You know this how?” Riggs asked.
Both Riggs and Jeff turned to look at Wendy, who was in turn looking at them. Blood ran from a cut above her eye, and she winced as she breathed.
“She’s not stable,” Riggs said softly.
“Neither was I, but she just saved those kids.”
After a moment of consideration Riggs looked at Jeff.
Jeff refused to wither beneath the gaze, but he got the feeling that Riggs understood.
Riggs nodded. “Fine.”
Jeff breathed a sigh of relief and moved toward Wendy as she got unsteadily to her feet. Jeff fished a bandana out of his pocket.
Wendy watched him come, that steely look back in her eyes.
“Here,” Jeff said. Before she could get away he gently pressed the bandana to her forehead. “It’s just a cut, but it’ll bleed like crazy for a bit.”
Wendy’s body trembled, and she leaned back ever so slightly. Jeff thought she might move away, but her eyes swiveled to something behind him.
A woman burst through the crowd and scooped the smaller boy up into her arms. Even Riggs smiled at the reunion.
Jeff turned back to Wendy and found an expression of such profound loss and pain on her face that he almost pulled her too him. But he knew what it was like to come in from the outside like that, and so he lowered his voice and drew her attention. “Are you hurt besides this?” he checked under the bandana, saw the wound still bleeding and pressed it back into place.
Wendy blinked, her face returning to a neutral expression. “Just beat up,” she said in an even voice. She raised a shaking hand and wiggled her fingers underneath Jeff’s so she could hold the bandana in place. Her eyes drifted up to his.
What felt like butterflies exploded in Jeff’s stomach, and warmth ran from where she had touched him down his arm and into his gut. It took him a moment to catch his breath. “Good.” His eyes darted around her face, looking for cracks in her facade. He found none. “That was fast thinking, and good fighting.”
“I’m just glad the kids are okay.” Her voice rang with certainty.
Why did she have to be beautiful, deadly and sincere?
Jeff cleared his throat. “Listen, I’m in charge of the trainees. If you’re really that good, I’d like to invite you to join us.” He inwardly winced. He really needed to work on talking to girls.
Wendy’s eyebrows furrowed together. “What does that mean?”
He tried again, this time with tact. “Each group of teenagers goes through fighting and tactics training. Most people here can fight, although many of them choose not to. We could use someone with good hand-to-hand skills. There are some exceptional fighters in this group, but your style is very different from theirs.”
“I just got here. I’m still in medical,” Wendy said. She wasn’t just talking about her physical condition.
Jeff’s eyes inadvertently darted to Riggs, who watched them, and then back. “I just saw you take down three Skinnies twice your size. You didn’t even flinch. We could use that kind of quick thinking and skill with the other trainees.” He smiled, trying to look inviting but not desperate. He didn’t want her to say no. “We could use it in general. Normally Mike has people wait six months before they’re invited to training, but I can get you in now. There’s no reason for you to go to work in the kitchen or something and waste talent like you’ve got.”
Jeff could see her weighing the decision in her head, although what she had to consider was beyond him. Maybe someday she would share. He kept his gaze on her as she thought about it.
Wendy pulled the bandana away from her head, made a face, folded it and put it back. She kept her voice almost indifferent as she said, “Sure, I like fighting.”
Relief flooded through Jeff—more than he had been expecting. He had to repress a grin. “Good.” He glanced over at his friend. “Now let’s have Matt give you a couple of stitches.”