This scene corresponds with chapter 20 of After The Ending. What follows is Jake's experience leading up to the first time he met Zoe in the wooded area of Fort Knox. Enjoy!
Jake started awake. At first, all he could feel were the jagged rocks littering the ground beneath him, but feeling slowly returned to his stiff, crumpled body. His bones felt frozen through and through. As he stirred, a smarting pain shot through his spine, and he winced. He struggled to remember where he was, why he was in pain, and what he was doing on the cold, hard ground. He blinked, too groggy to remember what had happened.
Distant howling roused him from confusion, and he peered out into the winter-ravaged forest surrounding him. As he scanned the gray pre-dawn that enshrouded the forest, his blurred memories sharpened, coming into focus.
The forest was familiar. Jake was lying in the same woods he’d been searching for Cooper hours, maybe even days ago.
He tried to move again, but a familiar yip followed by a bark resounded through the crisp air, and he froze. His confusion gave way to understanding and then…rage. He was lying in the very place he’d been standing the moment Bennington had suddenly appeared, vicious and intent. He was lying exactly where the bastard had stabbed him. The fleeting thought of how the soldier seemed to have appeared out of nowhere was unsettling.
Climbing to his feet, Jake faltered and lurched forward, cursing as another jolt of pain shot through his back. He reached his arm behind him, his fingers finding the hilt of the knife still protruding from below his left shoulder blade.
“Bennington!” he bellowed. “You son of a bitch!” Twisting his arm further back, he groaned as he wrapped his fingers around the knife’s handle. Awkwardly, he struggled to pull the blade from between his ribs, and he let out a roar—his anger masking the searing pain.
The wound burned and ached, but only for a few seconds. Chest heaving, he tried to process what was happening to him as he brought the combat knife around, eyeing the bloody blade. How had he survived? He squeezed the metal handle and let out a deep, fortifying breath.
Forcing himself to stand, he used the nearest tree for leverage and climbed to his feet. His body creaked and protested as his joints worked for the first time in…he didn’t even know how long. Angry, he threw the combat knife. It hit the ground with a muffled thud a few yards away, and he instantly regretted his rash action. He knew he would need a weapon, something to protect himself should he run into Bennington or the others.
Cooper howled again, and Jake realized he needed to find the Husky before the lunatics back at base did something horrible to him. Or maybe they already had.
Taking an uneasy step toward the knife, he felt something hard beneath his right boot. He glanced down, spotting a black metal object partially covered with withered leaves. It was a pistol—his pistol. He jerkily bent down and picked up the gun, the movement less excruciating than a few moments before. The pain shooting down his spine and through his limbs was fading more quickly than he thought possible.
Resolved to find Cooper no matter the bizarreness of his situation, Jake checked the ammo. Satisfied the clip was still full, he held the pistol at his side and strode toward the distant barking.
“Cooper!” he called, hoping his ears weren’t deceiving him.
Like he’d only been patrolling the woods nearby, Cooper came bounding through the trees, barking excitedly as his tail whipped back and forth.
Jake squatted to scratch the dog’s scruff, the Husky licking his face and hands ecstatically.
In the violet dawn, Jake noticed blood crusted on Cooper’s white muzzle. “What’d he do to you, Coop?” Jake murmured as he searched the dog’s body for wounds. He could find none, only patches of dried blood Jake assumed belonged to someone else.
With a quick hop, Cooper pulled away from him, whining and panting and wagging his tail as he took a few anxious steps back in the direction he’d come from. The dog looked anxiously back at his master.
“I’m comin’.” The handgun still at this side, Jake followed Cooper deeper into the trees.
With another burst of energy, Cooper trotted up to a sprawling hickory tree, barking and jumping at the base as if a toy was stuck up in its outreaching limbs. But Jake’s eyes lingered on the blood staining the forest floor. After taking in the red-stained ground cover, he glanced up into the tree. Someone was up there.
In the first golden rays of sunlight, Jake noticed the outline of a person bracing himself between the trunk and a thick, gnarled branch.
It was Bennington. He wasn’t dead, but he might as well have been. His face had been mauled, making it barely recognizable, and his throat hissed with each shallow breath. Glancing back at the copious amounts of blood covering the ground, Jake wondered how the soldier had any left to lose; it was only a matter of time before he took his final breath.
Standing on hind legs with front paws braced against the tree, Cooper yipped again, trying ineffectually to get to the dying man.
“Cooper,” Jake reprimanded, and the dog looked back at him, almost pleading, but sat down obediently with his head cocked to the side.
At the sound of Jake’s voice, Bennington’s eyes opened to slits. “You were…dead. I—I…killed…you,” Bennington choked out, each word more of a struggle than the last.
Ignoring him, Jake glanced down at Cooper. “You did this?”
Cooper yipped, and out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw Bennington wince.
“Why’d you try to kill me?” Jake asked coolly as he peered back up at the soldier. “Why’d you stab me in the back like a coward?”
Bennington tried to speak, but all that came out was an incomprehensible gurgle.
“Never mind,” Jake said. Bennington was the least of his problems. Jones and Taylor were more than likely holed-up in the barracks, and Jake still had Clara and the other three women to worry about.
When his eyes shifted back to Bennington, Jake saw that the man’s head had lolled to the side and his arms were no longer wrapped around his middle, instead hanging limply. Dead or just unconscious, Jake didn’t care. He was too exhausted, and Bennington clearly wasn’t a threat…not anymore. Although his pain had dissipated, Jake’s limbs were heavy and his muscles ached. All he wanted was to sleep.
Feet dragging, he searched for a place to rest for a minute. A bed of fallen, withered leaves washed in sunshine seemed as good a place as any, and he situated himself against the base of a fir tree. Cooper, clearly equally exhausted, curled up beside him, his tail thumping casually until he dozed off and began to snore.
Unlike Cooper, before his mind could rest, Jake forced himself to assess the mess he’d gotten himself into. He knew he should’ve left Fort Knox the moment he’d met the three men; Taylor’s eyes tended to linger too long and appraisingly on Clara, and Jones’s insincere smiles and sideways glances at the always silent Bennington were just as unnerving. He was even more baffled as to why he’d decided to stay
He let out a deep breath. That wasn’t true, not really anyway. He did know why he’d decided to stay. The three women stuck on the base with the soldiers were being abused. They cowered when they rounded every corner and when walking by every shadow. They would only make eye contact with Clara, not with him.
Clara. The woman he couldn’t abandon no matter how uneasy she made him. Why hadn’t he been able to walk away from her, to leave her behind in Oklahoma City to fend for herself? Jake had met a handful of survivors on his long trek from Colorado, and he’d never felt obligated to save any of them. Why was Clara so different? Every time he looked into her bright blue, pleading eyes, he felt the invisible tether between them gain strength.
Jake scrubbed his face. This wasn’t what he’d planned, what he wanted. He needed to be alone; he needed to keep heading east, as far away from the memories and heartache as possible. But he couldn’t leave Clara and the others with Jones and Taylor. The women would be better off on their own than with the likes of them.
In the midst of trying to figure out what he should do, the world around him faded to darkness, and Jake finally fell asleep.
Hours later, Jake woke to Cooper’s wet tongue lapping at his cheek and dog breath assaulting his nostrils. “Jesus, Cooper.” He nudged to dog aside. “We need to brush your teeth.”
The dog whimpered.
“What is it?” Jake grumbled, climbing to his feet. He felt rested—a hundred times better—and he wondered how long he’d been asleep. Gray clouds filled the sky once more, covering the sun, and a cold breeze rushed him from behind. It carried a scream.
Jake stiffened, and Cooper took an anxious step forward.
“Easy,” Jake murmured and the Husky glanced back at him, waiting for a command. But hearing another scream, the pair started sprinting toward the cry for help. The barracks were close, and Jake bet Jones or Taylor were roughing up one of the women.
“Go to hell!” a shrill voice spat as Jake and Cooper lurched to a stop at the edge of a clearing. He didn’t recognize the raven-haired woman struggling to free herself from Taylor’s grasp. “No!” she sobbed, fighting against him.
Jake’s body heated with anger, and his stomach churned with disgust. Cooper raised his hackles and snarled, his body rigid beside Jake’s. Both of them were ready for a fight.
“Let go of her, Taylor,” Jake ordered.
Taylor’s hold loosened from her ankle, and he glared back at Jake as the woman scrambled out of his grasp.
Jake returned the bastard’s glare, noticing his eyes were bloodshot and his skin was pallid. Jake wanted to shoot him between the eyes and be done with it.
“What the hell are you doing here, Vaughn?” Taylor said, a smirk stretching across his face.
Jake ignored him as he watched the woman cower beside a tree, her chest heaving and her chin trembling as she wiped the tears from her dirt-streaked face. She was scared, but there was a fierce determination in her eyes.
“I thought you were dead,” Taylor prompted, incredulous, but Jake continued to ignore him.
He vaguely registered that Cooper had run to the woman. All Jake could do was stare at her—at her teal eyes. It wasn’t possible. What Becca had predicted couldn’t have been…
Taylor chortled, and Jake forced himself to refocus on the unstable man leering at the woman on the ground.
“You’re a piece of shit, Taylor,” Jake said in an even, scathing tone before he raised his pistol, aiming it at the Taylor’s chest.
“Whatcha gonna do with that gun, Jake?” Taylor sounded more amused than concerned. No matter how crazy he was, Jake knew he wasn’t stupid. He could see Taylor’s fingers twitching nervously at his side, itching to draw his gun. “I don’t think you have it in ya to kill someone, Jake.” He took a step forward.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.” Jake retorted and risked another glance in the woman’s direction.
“I should’ve known we couldn’t get rid of you that easy.” Taylor spat on the ground in front of him, his tone hardening. “You’ve been causing problems since you got here.”
In the blink of an eye, Taylor’s gun was drawn and the woman was screaming. Jake pulled the trigger without hesitation, putting a bullet in Taylor’s chest. Taylor dropped to the ground. Taking a step forward, Jake studied the dead man. That was two dead out of three, he thought.
And as if Jones had been the last in a line-up, ready for his execution, he strode through the trees, slow and confident. “Well, well. I thought you were dead,” he said conversationally.
Jake’s eyes shifted between Jones and the black-haired woman. “I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.” He couldn’t help but assess her wounds. “She’ll die because of you, Jake. The woman with the long black hair and teal eyes…You’ll save her, but she’ll die because of you.” Jake shook his head, refusing to believe there was any truth in his sister’s final words.
“What did you do to my man?” Jones said, kneeling down beside Taylor’s body. He placed his fingers on the dead man’s throat. “You son of a bitch,” he bit out. “You killed him.” He shot up to his feet. “Did you kill Bennington too?”
“That’s what I tend to do when people try to kill me,” Jake answered dryly.
Jones’s eyes widened, and his mouth twisted into an ugly sneer. “It’s like you’re trying to piss me off.” He reached for his gun, but Jake was quicker.
Jake’s gun was already in his hand, and he pulled the trigger first.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the woman start to run away, but for some reason, when she looked back at him, she hesitated. Keep running, Jake wanted to yell. His distraction almost cost him his life; from his crumpled position on the ground, Jones shot at him.
The bullet clipped Jake in the shoulder, and he dropped to his knees in sudden agony. “Shit,” he rasped.
Across the clearing, Jones cursed in pain, immediately followed by yelling and snarling and barking as Cooper attacked him. After a few long moments, Jake stood up, trying not to move his injured arm.
“Cooper,” he called, feeling woozy and a little unsteady on his feet. But as Jake was struggling to control his breathing, Jones was reaching for a pistol lying on the ground just out of reach. Jake took aim and shot him once, and then again, ensuring Jones was really dead before nearly collapsing against a tree.
The woman hobbled over to Jake. “Oh my God,” she rasped, her hands hovering over his body as she examined him for more wounds.
He felt lost in the intensity of her eyes. “She’ll die because of you, Jake. The woman with the long black hair and teal eyes…You’ll save her, but she’ll die because of you. It has to be that way…”
There was no way his sister could have predicted the future, that Becca could possibly have known he would meet this woman. There was no way she could have known that he would have to save her. It had to be a coincidence.
The woman fussed over him, taking off her long-sleeve shirt and using it to put pressure on the bloody hole in his shoulder. “What can I do?” she implored.
Jake straightened. “Nothing,” he said and pushed her away. There was nothing she could do, unless she could bring back his dead sister to ask her what the fuck was going on.