Mari slams her bedroom door and listens for a few seconds. When nobody yells, she yanks it open and slams it again.
“Mariana!” Diego shouts.
He doesn’t follow it up with anything. He knows that whatever he orders her to do, she’ll do the opposite as loudly and as often as she can until he gives up. Diego knows he can’t make her do a thing when mama and papa are gone, which is often. She’s across the bridge in Juaritos, picking up shifts at the clinic again. He’s always at the Fort, doing something he isn’t allowed (or just doesn’t want) to talk about.
When she’s satisfied that Diego isn’t going to escalate this argument into a war – and a little disappointed, come to think of it – Mari hurls herself into bed and grips her pillow in her fists. She balls them up so tight they go numb and start shaking.
She hears Lucas protest — his little boy whine, high and pleading, like a drill in her head – from all the way downstairs. Mari can’t make out his words, but she doesn’t need to. He’s always bleating about needing to go out to catch those little video game monsters on his phone. When Mari first started in on Diego, Lucas had the nerve to try join her – as though not being allowed to play his dumb game is anywhere near the same injustice as her not getting to see The Mellow Tonins on the one night they’re actually, miraculously playing this skeevy town. They’re only like her favorite band this year. She put their poster up and everything. When was the last time she’d bothered decorating her room? They move so often they don’t even own thumbtacks anymore. She had to go out and buy them just for the occasion. That’s how much she cares, and nobody even cares that she cares.
She gazes desperately at the poster — Mikey with his heavy eyeliner, worn so ironically you can almost see him rolling his eyes. Yvette in her long sleeveless coat, head down, lost to the bass. Deacon barely glimpsed in the back, both arms raised, drumsticks clutched like he’s hanging on for dear life.
Everybody in the whole world is going to that show tonight. David, Angel, Lucy – even Gabe, the giant dork who probably can’t name a single song off their first album. Everybody in the whole world.
Except for her.
And all because mama told Diego it “felt weird” out there.
If it was just Diego, she’d shove him outta the way and skip right out the front door, both middle fingers raised in triumph. She would never – ever – do anything just because Diego said so. He’s only two years older than her, and a total loser outcast. Mari hates when people at school ask if he’s her brother. Like, she can’t say “no,” because then it’s a secret. In high school, there’s nothing more deadly than a secret. It always gets out. Then it’s a weapon to be used against you.
So she’s gotta acknowledge Diego’s existence at least, but even that eats at her. He’s so dim, he doesn’t even realize she’s trying to ignore him. She’s tried everything — looks down when they pass in the halls, doesn’t return his greetings, takes the long way to Chem just so she won’t pass his locker — but he won’t get the point. In fact, whenever Mari ignores him, Diego starts yelling her name or asking her what’s for dinner or what they’re going to do this weekend, like he’s trying to tell everybody they know each other for some-
He’s doing it on purpose!
She flashes back to his goofy smile, which he never wears except when they meet at school. The way he trips over nothing just when she and her friends walk by. Or else he burps or he says some stupid slang that nobody has used for like, eons. It’s almost like the more she’s embarrassed by him, the harder he wants to embarrass her. But that’s…that’s just evil.
Mari gets up and slams her door again. Diego doesn’t even have the decency to say something so she has an excuse to yell at him. The jerk.
She thinks of sneaking out, just to spite him. He would get in so much trouble. ‘You’re the responsible one,’ mama would say, her arms crossed over her dirty blue scrubs, hair all frazzled from work. ‘If we can’t trust you, what happens then?’
Mari’s insides light up just to think of it.
The only problem is, she’d get it way worse than Diego. It’s like cutting off an arm just to give your enemy a headache.
Lucas yells again. She makes out the words this time — “rare ones only come out once a month!” – and rolls her eyes. But she realizes that’s not enough, so she gets up and opens her door, pokes her head out into the hall, and screams:
“Shut up, Lucas!”
Him and Diego are still arguing in the kitchen, downstairs. She waits for it…waits for iiiit…
“No, you shut up!” Lucas finally shouts back.
And there’s her excuse.
See, Diego can play the quiet game, but Lucas has got no filter between his mouth and his brain.
Mari stomps down the hallway. She wants them to hear her coming, so they can worry about it. But it’s hard work. She practically has to jump just to get her footsteps to register through the carpet. She’s kinda small for her age, and Fort Bliss’ military housing is new-build; it hasn’t had time to go to crap like the ones in Nevada. Still just as ugly though – adjoining townhomes cramped up in a fourplex, beige on beige on slightly darker beige. Big, ugly squares, all the same.
She rounds the corner and practically slides into the kitchen.
“What did you say to me?” Mari snaps.
“I said you shut up,” Lucas snipes back, safe from his fortified position behind Diego’s legs. “Because you said it first.”
“I said ‘shut up’ because you’re being a little jerk,” Mari says. “You can’t tell me to shut up when you’re the one that needs to shut up.”
“Would you both shut up?” Diego asks, in his aggravatingly polite way. Like he’s so far above their petty squabbles he’s only playing along out of boredom.
“No!” Lucas and Mari shout, at the same time.
For just a second she feels a bond with the little brat. Allied together against the bigger dork, who has the gall to try to boss them both around.
But that fades when she remembers why he’s upset. His stupid game. The concert.
“Did she even say why we can’t go out?” Mari asks.
She knows the answer. She was here when mama told him. But she wants to hear Diego say it, so he can hear how stupid it sounds.
“Because it feels weird out there,” Diego says.
He’s looking at the ceiling, not in her eyes. He knows.
“Oh, cool. That’s a great answer,” Mari says. She holds out her hand, palm up, like she’s holding the answer there. She makes a big show of checking it out from all angles, then says: “Yep, makes total sense to me. It’s weird outside. Better stay in until we die.”
“Look,” Diego says. “I don’t like it anymore than you do-”
Mari cuts him off: “Like you even care! You don’t even go out. You probably love this.”
Diego closes his eyes. She can practically see him counting to ten. Little numbers rolling back behind his eyelids. When he opens them again, he doesn’t say anything. He just turns and walks over to the window. Holds the blinds apart with one hand and motions for her to come look.
She doesn’t. Like she’s just gonna jump at his beck and call?
“It is weird out there,” he says. He shifts his eyes from her to the window and back. “Mrs. Hendricks is standing on her lawn staring at the sky.”
“Oh my god who cares,” Mari says, practically all one word. “Are you saying I can’t go to the show because the neighbor lady is outside?”
Mari makes a wanking motion with her open fist. Lucas joins her.
The little idiot probably doesn’t even know what it means.
“She’s been out there for hours,” Diego says. “And it’s not just her – half the neighborhood is all zombied out.”
Well that’s…they’re probably just…
Okay, Diego has her there. She has to at least look.
She leans way out over the sink, not quite tall enough to peak through the blinds while keeping both feet on the floor. Diego’s not lying. The Asian kids from down the block – she doesn’t know their names, the other army brats are too interstitial to even bother — are right in the middle of the street, all huddled up around something Mari can’t see. A couple guys in uniform are milling about like drunks. The buff guy from a few houses down and his tiny wife; the creepy old white folks with their forever-smiling teeth, and yeah — Mrs. Hendricks, too. She’s lock-legged on her “lawn,” which is really just a little strip of grass the size and shape of a carpet runner. Her mouth is open a little bit, eyes wide, staring at something above Mari’s house.
“So what?” Mari asks, even though she goes cold in her toes and fingertips. “They’re probably just looking at that black spot in the sky.”
Mari leans in further and looks up to follow their gaze, but she can’t see the spot from this angle.
Diego lets the blinds snap shut on her face.
She hops back onto her heels and glares at him.
“You’re not supposed to look at the spot,” he says. “The news said it’ll hurt your eyes.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Well, obviously the neighbors don’t care.”
“Or maybe it’s doing something really cool!” Lucas exclaims. He’s hopping up and down at the edge of the kitchen counter, trying to lever his weight forward so he can see out the window, too. But the blinds are closed, and he’s still a couple feet too short, even if they weren’t.
“He’s right,” Mari says, not because he is, but because anybody that’s not Diego is right by, like, comparison. “I bet something awesome is happening. It’s probably like our moon landing out there and you’re keeping us from it.”
Diego laughs and she can practically taste how annoying it is.
“Okay,” he says. “Let’s go see, then.”
Lucas is already running for the door, like he somehow knew this was going to happen, but Diego issues a bunch of negative tuts that stop him short.
“In the living room,” Diego clarifies. “If something big is happening, it’ll be on the news.”
He’s always one step ahead. He probably plans this stuff out at night, laying in his smelly bed and plotting ways to ruin everybody’s lives.
But Mari still follows him to the living room because the people on the street are bouncing around in her head. She’s never seen grown-ups make those faces before. Only real little kids let themselves go that blank in public, smiling or drooling or laughing and yelling at nothing you can see. Mrs. Hendricks looked like a two-year old going through a car wash for the first time. Just awe and confusion and terror but also a little bit of joy. Mari had to see what she was looking at, even if it was secondhand.
Diego flips the TV on. He doesn’t even sit down. Just stands there in the middle of the room with his arms crossed like he’s doing something big and important instead of pushing a button on a remote. It’s amazing, Mari thinks, just how many ways he finds to bother her. She and Lucas sit on the couch like normal people. Diego surfs around until he hits the news. A pretty Latina girl that looks way too young to be doing TV stuff is standing in front of a crowd of pissed off looking people. She’s talking fast, trying to beat something about to happen. Then the camera spins around and frames a tall old white guy in a blue uniform. He stands behind a wooden podium, a small army of men in riot gear flanking him.
He starts yammering about something stupid.
“Oh,” Mari says. “This is just about those gangbangers that got shot.”
“They weren’t gangbangers,” Diego says, like he knows everything. “They were just kids. Mexican kids.”
He emphasizes that last bit like she should care because she’s also supposed to be Mexican, even though she was born in Michigan and she only spoke enough Spanish to understand when mama yelled at her. It’s like, after the move, being this close to Mexico tricked Diego into thinking they were anything but ordinary, lame Americans.
Mari is so lost in her head, trying to think of the perfect insult to show Diego how stupid his newfound immigrant kick is, that she actually missed the start of the riot.
She just sees the old white guy fall, and then the stormtrooper dudes step forward and start emptying assault rifles into the crowd. Diego jumps, and Lucas slams his hands over his eyes. Ever since he saw papa get beat up real bad back in Nevada, Lucas can’t watch people hurting each other. He just shuts down. Probably why he likes his dumb animal and card games so much. No people getting hurt.
The camera catches a few frames of the crowd screaming, bleeding, falling, and then it’s on the ground. She forgets that cameras have like, operators behind them. So used to just thinking of them as the all-seeing eye. Now the eye is sideways, and she sees what’s probably the camera-guy grab the pretty news girl and hustle off toward an alley. Somebody kicks the camera, and it spins for a while – world gone to a black and red disk – then it settles on its back, idly filming the sky. That little black spot in the upper right hand corner, like a fly on the screen, doing and looking like not much at all.
But the sound’s still on.
Gunfire. A woman crying. Some wet meat sounds. Impact. So many different people screaming and yelling stuff that it’s all just lost. Just noise.
Mari reaches out and covers Lucas’ ears, too. She’s been yelling Diego’s name over and over for what feels like an hour, but he’s just standing there quietly watching the sky and listening to the screams. Mari leans out from the couch and kicks him in the back of the leg. That finally snaps him out of it. He looks at her like they’re old friends meeting unexpectedly at the supermarket, this little disbelieving smile on his lips.
“Turn it off!” She yells.
“Oh,” he says. “Right.”
The room goes quiet except for Lucas, who’s quietly humming to himself. Always that same song, when the violence breaks his mind.
“What’s wrong with you?” Mari snaps at Diego.
He looks like he’s actually considering the question. He pauses for a long time, then finally decides:
“Nothing. I just wanted to see what was going on…”
Lucas and his little song. Toes digging into the carpet. Meat of his palms sealed over his eyes.
“What about him?” Mari asks. She motions to Lucas with her chin. She’s still holding her hands over his ears.
“Crap,” Diego says, and it’s like his brain just came back from a vacation. “I am so sorry buddy, I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t mean-”
Mari releases her grip and backs away. Diego drops to his knees and peers into Lucas’ covered face.
“Are you okay, little dude? It’s all right. It’s over now. It’s safe to come out,” Diego keeps whispering, soft and steady. A gentle running stream of platitudes until Lucas finally peaks out between his locked fingers.
“The blankets,” Mari says. She speaks from the corner of her mouth. She doesn’t want to look at Diego right now. Instead, she’s looking at the kitchen, staring at the closed blinds above the sink.
“Right,” Diego says, all matter of factly, like it’s a vote that just passed. “Let’s get you into the blankets.”
Lucas’ eyes are glossy. That humming song of his on loop. He follows Diego like he’s been brainwashed.
He probably won’t speak for another few hours. That’s how it happened last time.
Mama and papa have Mondays off, during the day. The only time they get alone, mama reminds them constantly, as though it’s the kids that are clinging to her and not the other way around.
Lucas, he came home early from school one day and found mama and papa watching some war flick. They didn’t hear the door. He stood frozen behind the couch for god knows how long, watching people shoot each other, beat each other’s brains in, die screaming. Never said a thing. Mama jumped when she spotted him, caught him up running and dumped him headlong under his blankets. He crashed out like a coma patient until late that night, when he asked for a milkshake. Papa went out and got him one from an all-night drive thru. Lucas stayed up ‘til morning nursing the shake, but by lunch he was back around and talking.
Diego’s the one who forgot about Lucas’ thing. That means he’s the one who has to sit by the kid’s bed, watching the lump under the blankets for signs of life. That’s good: It gives Mari dinnertime free, at least – no Diego trying to force Hungry Man’s on her like they actually supply any kind of vital nutrients.
Mari gets up and pads to the kitchen in her slipper-socks. They’re super dorky and all, but they’re the coziest things in the world. She only wears them around the house – if anybody saw her in bulky red knee-highs with cheesy cartoon stars and stripes all over them, her heart would literally explode. She pours and drinks a glass of water, tries not to, but opens the blinds again.
The street is empty.
That should put her at ease, right? The eclipse or whatever was over, and her neighbors went back inside.
That’s what happened.
But see, there’s a single child’s shoe in the middle of the road, and it’s freaking her out.
Stupid kid probably lost it playing tag or something, and then ran inside without thinking.
But see, there’s a dark spot on the lawn where Mrs. Hendricks had been standing. Probably some gearhead jerk dumping out his motor oil instead of recycling it. Happens all the time.
That’s what it is.
But see, there are no lights on in any of the other houses.
All of the military families live in these identical plaster crapboxes. Crammed together end-to-end, four deep and not enough windows. The second the sun’s not overhead, you need lights on. Diego always has all of theirs on twenty minutes before he has to, because he likes to “get it out of the way.” That’s all he does: “get things out of the way.” He’s probably going to join the army when he’s old enough, no matter what papa says. He’s got that good little soldier stare.
So unless there’s a blackout or something, all these houses should be lit up like Vegas.
That’s what’s going on: A blackout. A very localized blackout, affecting the rest of her block, but not her house. Or the streetlamps on the corner.
But over there, across the street, a shape darts through the gap between complexes and there’s something about its quickness that sets Mari’s nerves on edge. Probably one of the Asian kids didn’t get the message that hide ‘n seek was over. Now he’s running home at full tilt, afraid of being late.
That’s all the shape is.
But then there’s the screaming.
Mari startles and sloshes water all over her favorite Mellow Tonins T-shirt. She knows it’s completely lame to be the girl wearing the band’s shirt at the band’s show, but she was hoping to get Deacon to sign it. While it was still on her.
He’d have to touch her!
That was worth risking lame.
Mari listens, but the scream doesn’t repeat. It didn’t sound like a kid and it didn’t sound playful. It sounded like anger. Pure and harsh, unbroken by thought or concern. Like whoever screamed was so mad they didn’t care if it made them look stupid, or if the neighbors asked questions later.
Mari decides to check on Lucas. That’s what she’s doing. It’s not because she’s freaked out by it “feeling weird out there.” That’s still a dumb reason for not getting to go to the show, and she won’t dignify mama’s logic by acknowledging it.
Up the stairs and down the skinny hall to the tiny bedroom. She pushes the door open — Lucas used to hang signs on it; biohazard symbols, posters for cartoons, little skull stickers, and his own crude drawings of superheroes and fighter jets — but after the last flurry of moves, even he gave up on decorating.
That’s weird. There’s a Lucas-sized bump under the pile of safety blankets — six deep, no matter how hot it is — but Diego isn’t sitting with him.
Oh god, he’s such a jerk. Does he just automatically expect her to do it? Why, because she’s a girl?
“You do all the emotional stuff,” Diego would probably say, in his good little soldier voice. “That’s woman’s work.”
And then she’d BAM! Punch him right in the nose and he’d start crying and she’d say-
Lucas picks up his humming song.
Mari sighs, extra loud, so he can hear it through the blankets. Then she crawls up on the bed and snakes a hand under the covers. She finds his ankle and rests her fingers against it, so he has a constant reminder that he isn’t alone. With her free hand, she fishes her phone out and starts poking around. Since her plans got so unjustly canceled, she’s already killed half the night checking the internet. She read through her social feeds, checked all eight of her email accounts, texted everybody that would reply – she’s done basically everything a human being can do.
Now she just stares at her screen and waits for something to happen. It doesn’t.
All of her friends are probably at the show already and too busy to reply, so her whole world is on pause. She settles for watching stupid cat videos or whatever on mute, until she falls asleep using the Lucas lump for a pillow.
When she wakes up, it’s fully dark outside. She taps her phone, which says it’s past midnight.
She slept for like four hours? And nobody woke her?
Mari pats around the bed, flattening the bumps, and finds Lucas has already recovered and gone. The little butt. He should have known she didn’t want to sleep the whole night away. Even if there wasn’t anything to do and no point to being awake at all.
At least both mama and papa would be home by now.
She rubs the sleep out of her face and tries to muster up some anger, but she’s still groggy and it won’t stick. She thinks about just finishing the job and crashing in her own room for the rest of the night, but if she sleeps too long mama and papa will be gone again in the morning and they’ll have no idea how mad she was. That is not acceptable. They have to know.
Mari trudges into the hall on search mode – all the bedrooms are empty – and tromps down the stairs. Lucas is sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal. He’s got that checked-out look, and he’ll probably have it for a while. But at least he’s up and around. Mari thinks about hassling him for ditching her, but he’s had a rough enough night already.
She’ll get him tomorrow.
She fakes some energy and charges into the living room, all spooled up and ready to unravel all over her parents. But they’re not there.
It’s just Diego.
None of the lights are on in the living room. Only the glow of the TV set. The same image from earlier – that abandoned news camera filming the sky; a little black spot burning in the corner. It was sunset when they first saw it. All fiery orange smeared into dark blue, the black spot the sole point of contrast. Now it was a night shot: A smattering of stars in the darkened sky, which you’d think would make the black spot invisible, but no – somehow you can still see it. Like it’s blacker than space.
Diego is staring at the TV all quiet, his lanky arms slack at his sides. His mouth is open a little bit and his eyes are wide, pupils expanded like a druggie. Mari says his name, but he doesn’t answer. She snaps her fingers in his face and he doesn’t even blink. She shoves him but he’s like one of those inflatable boxing clowns – just bounces right back into place. Mari walks up and stands in front of him. She’s too short to block his view. He just stares over her head. She holds her hands up in front of his eyes and then she’s on the ground somehow, her brain rattling around her skull and little spots skirting her vision.
He…hit her? Diego actually hit her? Is that what happened? She’s disoriented and can’t quite remember him moving.
“What,” she asks, but Diego cuts her off.
“Shhh,” he says, not breaking eye contact with the TV. “Just listen.”
She does, for some stupid reason, but she doesn’t hear anything. Either he’s got the TV on mute, or the sound on the broadcast gave out, or else there’s nothing to hear in the first place.
“I don’t-” she says, and Diego screams so loud it sounds like something pops in his throat.
“Shut up!” he yells.
She flinches, starts crawling away real slow. But he’s not interested in her at all. Only the black spot on the screen.
“Just listen,” he says, to nobody. “They’re explaining everything.”
Mari’s legs are boiled noodles, but she drags herself upright in the hallway. She doesn’t want to crawl into the kitchen and risk freaking Lucas out. Last thing she needs is for him to go all catatonic again. Because now he needs to run. Now they need to get the hell out of the house.
“Hey buddy,” she says, approaching Lucas like he’s a skittish kitten.
Right away that’s the wrong move.
Like, fully 90% of Mari’s interactions with Lucas involve her informing him of how annoying he is, and the other 10% are her asking him to leave.
Lucas’ eyebrows scrunch up, he leans away from her.
“What’s going on?” He says.
He’s talking. That’s good. That’s amazing actually – his whole PTSD thing might be getting better. She hopes it stays that way, after tonight.
“Nothing,” Mari says. She tries to correct course: “Except for you being a little butt.”
The weight of uncertainty lifts off of him. He loosens up, turns his attention back to his cereal.
“Then quit being weird,” he says.
“We have to go,” Mari tells him.
“No seriously, we have to get out of here.”
A tremble runs through Lucas. It’s still too soon after his last breakdown for this kind of thing.
“Why?” He asks, already dreading the answer.
“It’s papa,” Mari says. “He uh… he wants to see us. Show us something up at the Fort.”
It’s literally the worst lie Mari has ever told. No part of it is believable. She lost credibility at ‘papa wants to see us.’ That they’d be allowed, much less wanted at the Fort, at this time of night? Lucas doesn’t bite. He doesn’t even nibble.
“You’re being a crazy person,” he says.
“No really,” Mari can’t think of anything to do but commit. To keep slapping shiny parts onto the lie until the mere possibility of its truth is too intriguing to pass up. “It’s the secret project he’s been working on. They’re all finished now – just now, tonight – so they don’t have to keep it secret anymore, so they can show their families.”
Still ludicrous enough to be unbelievable, but not so ludicrous that it’s irresistible. She’s losing him.
“I guess it’s some kind of uh…hovering…”
Lucas’ eyes widen, marginally.
“Robot…tank,” she finishes.
He’s practically salivating, but still reticent.
“I guess it even talks,” she says.
And Lucas is up on his feet, yanking at her shorts.
“Let’s go!” He chirps. “Hurry!”
“Okay, sure, whatever,” she says, carefully distant.
She lets him pull her to the door and just about has her hand on the knob when Lucas looks her up and down and stops to puzzle.
“You’re going like that?” He says.
Mari’s wearing her Mellow Tonins shirt, a pair of too-short jean cut-offs – mama called them Daisies for some reason – and her fuzzy stars-and-stripes pajama-socks. That’s it. No shoes, no jacket.
“Yeah,” she says. “They’re just gross old Army guys. Who cares?”
She reaches out, grabs the knob again.
“Are you coming, too?” Lucas says, looking behind her.
Cold needles dance up the backs of her legs.
“Nobody is going anywhere,” Diego answers.
Mari’s mind revs, but it’s not in gear. Can she lie to him? He’d never buy the one she told Lucas. She can’t think of another. She actually can’t think of anything at all to say. So she doesn’t. She yanks the door open, and her wrist shatters.
She yelps and jumps backward, clutching her arm to her chest.
Diego calmly shuts and locks the door before turning to face her. He’s got psycho eyes. Not blank, like before: Now he’s hyper-focused, but detached – it’s that same expression the cultists on TV get when they start talking about their weirdo prophets. Diego’s holding a hammer in one hand. Black rubber handle with a steel head. Tiny spikes on it. The meat tenderizer.
Mari looks at her pulverized wrist and sees little dots of blood rising where the spikes impacted.
Lucas hasn’t even had time to process what he just saw. He’s still looking between her and Diego, all confused, when his coma response starts kicking in.
“We’re nothing without rules,” Diego says. He starts right out with crazy and just keeps going. “Weren’t you listening?”
“To…to what?” Mari asks.
“To them,” he says. He gestures at the ceiling with his hammer.
He watches her for a reply, but she doesn’t have one.
“Oh, no,” he says, and he looks heartbroken. “You can’t hear them? That’s…that’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
Diego reaches out as if to hug her, then reconsiders.
“I’ll have to show you,” he says, voice gone icy.
Before she can blink he’s grabbed her by the arm, which she’s been nursing against her chest like an injured bird. She screams. Diego doesn’t care, or even notice. He drags her across the room to the big butcher-block cutting board mama keeps out on the counter. He pins her broken wrist to the board, and she cripples with pain.
“Now, the rule was that you’re not allowed to go out tonight,” Diego says, all business. “I was there when the rules were explained-“
“It doesn’t matter!” She protests. “Mama just wanted to keep us safe, if she knew-”
“It doesn’t matter who makes the rules,” Diego says. “Or what they intended. It only matters what the rules say, and that we obey them. Don’t you see? We’re animals without rules. Dirty beasts.”
He brings the hammer down on her thumb. She mostly just feels the vibration through the board. Not much pain yet.
“You tried to get out using this hand,” Diego continues. “So it’s gotta go.”
Hammer again. Her pointer finger this time.
“If you could hear them, you’d understand. You’d understand this was mercy – the others, they’re fickle. Now that they’ve returned, they’re taking back all their gifts. They know we don’t deserve them. But not Haruk. She’s justice. She’s law. Now that she’s back, she isn’t revoking her gifts – she’s giving us more!”
Two quick slaps – god, it sounds just like mama beating slabs of chicken – and Mari doesn’t even know which fingers are pulp now. It’s all one big burning ball of wrong.
Diego pauses, watching her kindly. Like he expects her to thank him or something.
In the quiet, she can hear Lucas humming his fragile little song.
Diego frowns at her, then brings the hammer down one more time. He releases her wrist, pushes her backward, and she crumples on the kitchen floor like a puppet with its strings cut. Mari holds her arm close, but she doesn’t dare look at the damage. That’s the only thing that would make it worse: Actually seeing what’s been done.
The tenderizer is dripping red. Her blood, streaming off it in ribbons.
“Isn’t judgment beautiful?” Diego asks her.
He means it. He wants her to agree.
So she does. What else is she supposed to do?
“It was wonderful,” she says, not recognizing her own voice. It sounds like a shy little girl. “Thank you.”
He beams at her.
“So now you get to understand – really understand – what breaking the rules means,” He says, like he’s kinda jealous of her.
Mari doesn’t cry. But only because she’s scared that’s going to make it worse.
They’re all silent for a moment, save for Lucas and his droning.
“We skipped dinner tonight, didn’t we?” Diego says.
“Don’t worry!” Diego laughs – actually laughs – and says, “That was my fault. I was supposed to feed you, and I forgot. I was listening to them. But that’s no excuse. There are no excuses. I’ll see justice later, once the wrongs are corrected. In the meantime…”
He trails off as he makes his way to the fridge. He pulls a couple of TV dinners out and sets about unboxing, unwrapping and poking at them. He joins in Lucas’ humming as he works – the whole family has heard the tune enough to know it by heart – and in a few minutes has the food microwaved, plated up, and set out on the table.
Mari uses the time to slowly acknowledge the pain, which emanates in shockwaves from the elbow down. She doesn’t dare cry out, or move from her place on the floor. But every second she sits, just waiting, is a drop of adrenaline burning out inside her. A tick up in pain. By the time Diego has dinner ready, she’s dizzy with agony.
“Up,” he says, grabbing her good arm and helping her to her feet.
He deposits her in a chair and turns to Lucas. Zombied out, he doesn’t struggle at all. Just goes where he’s guided.
They sit there, bleeding and humming, uncertain of what comes next.
“Well, go ahead and eat,” Diego says, chipper as a soccer mom.
Mari picks up her shaking fork and tries to keep a piece of Salisbury Steak on it long enough to reach her mouth. She fails a few times, but eventually gets it. It tastes like wet, dirty cardboard. She can’t tell if that’s because she’s going into shock, or because it’s Salisbury Steak.
Diego smiles at her. He turns to Lucas, who stares straight ahead and does nothing.
“Eat,” Diego tells him.
“Eat,” Diego says. Like he’s pronouncing a death sentence.
Lucas doesn’t respond.
Diego spins and starts rattling through cabinets until he finds what he’s looking for. He comes back to the table with a pair of vise-pliers from the miscellaneous drawer and squeezes Lucas’ mouth open.
“Wait, stop,” Mari says. “What are you doing?”
“If you don’t eat, you don’t need teeth,” Diego says, working the pliers over Lucas’ top canine.
“No, don’t-” Mari starts, but it’s too late.
Diego rips the pliers out, and a stream of blood arcs across the table. It splashes warm and thick across Mari’s face.
Mari tips out of her chair and backs all the way across the floor. Puddles up in the farthest corner and just keeps screaming. She wants to stop, she really does, but it’s like somebody pulled the cord in her back and now she has to make this noise until the mechanism winds down. Even Lucas stops first: After the initial yelp, he falls into wracking sobs.
Diego stands by the table and waits it out. It can’t last forever. Lucas lapses back into pause mode. Mari stops screaming just before she starts to black out. When it’s all over, she looks at Diego with blank terror.
“That’s okay,” he reassures her. “Mama didn’t set any rules against screaming.”
He patiently ushers the both of them back to the dinner table, puts forks in their hands, and waits. Mari digs in immediately, and this time even Lucas manages to shakily spoon some watery potatoes into his mouth.
“Good,” Diego says. “You’ve been fed. Now, to me…”
He flips through the cupboards, neatly stacking things to the side as he goes.
“Do we keep eating?” Mari asks him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he answers quickly, automatically. “The rule was that I feed you. You’ve been fed.”
His pile of assorted objects grows. Cooking Sherry from the forgotten cabinet above the stove, rubbing alcohol from the medicine drawer, papa’s good whiskey from his hiding spot that everybody knows about…
“W-what are you doing?” Mari asks him.
He looks at her like he forgot she was there. Or maybe like a chair that just suddenly started to speak.
“I didn’t cook for you on time,” he says, like that’s an explanation.
He upends the rubbing alcohol over his head. Smells like acid and medicine. It reminds Mari of a room you’re not supposed to go in a hospital. When the plastic bottle is empty, Diego tosses it aside and picks up the Sherry. He sloshes it around the cabinets and on the counters. Finally, he grabs the dusty brown bottle – objectively, Mari knows she’s got bigger problems, but she still instinctually cringes when Diego uncorks papa’s whiskey and starts emptying it out on the floor.
Mari sneaks up and grabs Lucas out of his chair, covering his eyes with her good hand. She backs the two of them up as far as they can go. Diego pauses to think, and Mari hopes he just snapped out of it. Maybe this is like, a nervous breakdown – and it’ll all be over as abruptly as it started. Diego’ll start crying and they’ll send him to a place for this kind of thing. He’ll wear papery clothes and talk about his feelings and walk everywhere barefoot and come home in a few months all fragile and skittish like a deer-
Diego snaps his fingers like he just remembered something. He smiles, then crosses over to the miscellaneous drawer again. He leaves slippery, shimmering footprints. He rummages around in there, comes out with a blue plastic stick. He resumes his place in the pool of alcohol, and holds the tip of the stick up to his head. It’s not until she hears the click that Mari recognizes the blue thing: It’s the fireplace lighter they bought a few moves back, when they briefly had a fireplace and naively thought they’d use it.
It doesn’t light.
“Diego,” Mari starts, but there’s another click and fire flows down his body like syrup.
It’s oddly beautiful for the first few seconds: Just a wave of flickering blue tracing Diego’s arms and face; a soft surge of yellow and orange following behind. He looks angelic in that freeze frame: a serene young boy behind a watercolor aura. Then he really catches. His hair and clothes go first.
The flames hit the puddle at his feet and expand in every direction. It felt so slow at first, but now time lurches forward. Half the kitchen is an inferno in the space of a breath. Mari edges toward the door, reluctantly removes her unbroken hand from poor Lucas eyes, and reaches for the knob.
Diego’s head – just a black silhouette behind a curtain of fire – instantly snaps towards her.
“You’re not allowed to go out,” he says.
Mari figured any sounds out of his mouth would all be screaming, but he speaks calmly and harshly: like he’s reprimanding a toddler. Looking at him there, a twisting black mannequin inside a hurricane of flame – the voice should be demonic. It should be The Exorcist or like a death metal band. But it’s just Diego’s voice, and that’s the worst part.
She rips the door open and shoves Lucas out first. He only runs a few steps, enough for the momentum of her push to peter out, and no more. Mari grabs his wrist as she sprints by, drags him out onto the stoop, down the sidewalk, and across the street. But she stops there and turns around to…what? Assess the damage? She doesn’t really know.
It’s all just fire in there. Like their front door opens right into hell.
And out from it walks Diego.
He doesn’t pause for a second, just spots the pair of them frozen across the way and starts their direction. He’s moving fast, but not running. A brisk walk, like he’s on his way to tell off a coworker and – oh yeah, incidentally, he’s also on fire.
Mari is backpedaling, Lucas in tow. She’s transfixed by the figure advancing on her. It’s impossible. It’s something out of a fantasy movie. It leaves flaming footprints in the grass. She can’t think of this monster as Diego anymore, can’t reconcile the thing as human at all. It raises a finger to point at her.
“We’re not allowed to leave,” it says.
The fire is finally starting to affect its voice. Vowels come easy, but the consonants barely register. The creature is also starting to slow down, which is good, since she and Lucas are backed up as far as they can go, cornered against the garage of the opposite four-plex. She can’t do anything but stare in awe as the thing approaches. It stumbles, recovers, trips again, goes to its knees. Her heart soars, but it’s still coming. Crawling on three limbs, that one accusing finger still pointing.
It’s trying to speak again, but it must have lost the vital parts. Just sputtering and bubbling. Not ten feet away from them, it loses the front arm and collapses on its belly. That doesn’t phase it. It just starts wriggling forward on its shoulders like a worm. It closes another few feet like that before it finally stops altogether and sort of collapses in on itself. It smells familiar. Like the Fourth of July. Fireworks and gunpowder and barbecue.
Mari blinks and her sense of self comes roaring back. Her very first action is to cover Lucas’ eyes, though she knows she’s laughably late. She inches along the garage door, not taking her eyes off the pyre for a second. They skirt the corner of the townhome and creep backwards down the sidewalk until the fear of what’s behind them overcomes the fear of what’s in front of them. Mari glances around the block, but it looks empty. She can hear chaos coming in on the wind from somewhere close, but their block is an island of calm. She squats before Lucas and looks him in the eye. Tracks her head back and forth, but he’s not following her.
“I know, okay,” she says, shaking his shoulders gently. “I know that was bad. Worse than bad. That was like, nightmare stuff. I know and I’m so, so sorry. Okay? I’d give anything for you not to have seen that, and you can have so much time to deal with this later. We’ll get you a million blankets and the biggest milkshake in the world. But you’ve gotta stay with me for just a few minutes, okay? Just until we find papa?”
She waits, but Lucas says nothing.
There’s a worrying throb from her wrist. She still can’t look. Can’t let herself understand the damage. There will be time for that when she finds help. Time to take care of everything. But right now she has to focus on moving. As long as they stay moving, nothing bad can happen.
She’s not sure why she thinks that, but she doesn’t feel like dissecting the logic right now. Instead she takes Lucas’ tiny limp hand in her one good one, and guides them out of their housing complex. Then she sees why her block went so quiet. The party is next door. Up ahead there’s an intersection between this road and one of the base’s main thoroughfares. She forgets — or maybe never knew — the name of the street. Just past it is the base’s mall, called something stupid like Freedom Post or Freedom Shops (just like it is on every base), and it’s as busy as she’s ever seen it.
There are people, or something that looks like them, everywhere.
It’s like one of those zombie movies that Diego likes-
Nope. Can’t think about him. Try again.
It looks like somebody started a riot on top of a massacre. There are bloody and broken bodies all around. Most them are still. Some of them move, moan, clutch wounds or crawl toward cover. Others are standing, but just barely: Bent at the waist, neck slack, arms hanging, like there’s an invisible wire wrapped around their bellies and it’s the only thing keeping them upright.
In the distance, shadows blink through the mall’s lit areas. People running. Or more like loping, kinda-but-not-really on all fours, like angry gorillas. They flit by so quickly she can’t see them. Not really. She just catches silhouettes. And screaming. Faint, but so much of it and so purely, starkly furious that it sets her small hairs on end. She starts backing away, toward home — maybe they can put out the fire and wait until help arrives – but she hits something solid.
Mari turns and looks into the happiest face she’s ever seen. Ear to ear smile, pure teeth and gums. Eyes practically sparkling. Every inch of it is covered in blood spatter. The guy’s hair is all matted with it, his clothes completely soaked in gore. He holds a pickaxe over one shoulder, all jaunty, like he’s off to play polo or something.
“Hey,” the bloody man says. “Quick: What’s six times seven?”
Too much, too fast. Mari’s brain is on autopilot.
“Forty-two,” she answers, reflexively.
“Good!” The man laughs, and he steps around her. Practically skips down the sidewalk, spinning his pickaxe in one hand.
He stops by one of the moaning bodies and repeats his question.
“H-help,” they answer.
“Haha, wrong!” The bloody man says, and he brings the pickaxe down into them over and over and over again.
He’s still going when Mari gets her senses back and guides Lucas away. She returns to their street to regroup.
“Okay,” she says, mostly to herself. “Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to cut through the block and get to the cemetery…”
Lucas has nothing to say about that. He barely blinks. Humming on loop. But Mari pretends he’s listening anyway, just so she has an excuse to keep talking.
“I know it’s freaky,” she says. “But dead people can’t hurt us. It’s the living ones we have to worry about, and there’s no reason for them to be in the cemetery right now. It’s dark and empty and there are lots of places to hide. We can cross through it and get to the airfield, and there’ll be soldiers there. They can help. They can get us to papa.”
Lucas doesn’t look convinced. But then, he doesn’t look much of anything. He’s a blank chalkboard, waiting for somebody to start writing.
Mari stands and scans the street like a prairie dog. She doesn’t spot any threats, but there are plenty of looming shadows full of their promise.
“It’ll be okay,” she says, still half-convinced she’s consoling Lucas. “If we just keep moving.”
Mari guides him and Lucas putters along. He won’t run, but he’ll manage a brisk walk. They sneak along the sidewalk by their house. She keeps him on the inside, shielding his view from the smoldering pile of blackened bones across the street. Mari watches the windows of the other homes for signs of movement, but with the lights out, there’s no telling. She catches phantoms in every pane of glass one second, then chases them away the next.
Mari pulls up short at the end of block and shuffles Lucas behind her. She leans around the corner of the last four-plex. There’s a little side-alley there – unfenced and unused. A darker patch of dirt worn down by all the lazy kids who opted to cut through, rather than walk all the way around the block. To one side, the housing unit’s tall wooden fence. To the other, barb-wire — just three twisting braids wrapped around a series of off-kilter metal posts. An empty lot beyond the wire sports a couple of big white tanks, rust spots just starting to eat through the paint, and nothing else. Barely even scrub grass. On the other side there’s another block of identical military housing. No lights on there, either.
The alley itself is clear, but there’s another road that cuts between the housing complex and the cemetery, and it’s anybody guess what’s out there.
Mari slinks through the alley, jumping at every rustle of the dry and sunburnt grass creeping out from under the fence. She slides under the single side-window of the townhome. Has to maneuver Lucas into doing the same. She pulls down on his hand, and he dips to his knees without protest, but it’s a struggle to get him standing again. He wants to shut down. She can’t let him, no matter how badly she wants to go home and tuck him under a pile of blankets and let him hide there. Maybe crawl in with him, only emerging days later when this has all blown over.
But home isn’t an option. Home is on fire. Home will never be an option again.
Mari leans out just a couple of inches and checks the street.
Every hope that she’s been delicately holding in balance drops straight out. She’s a wet paper bag, and reality is a rock.
The first thought in her head, though she knows it’s absurd, is that she’s looking at a parade.
The road that divides the military housing complex from the graveyard is a little wider than her own, and with yellow lines to mark the lanes instead of nothing, but it’s not a highway or anything. If you’d have asked her this morning how many people could cram onto it at once, she’d have rolled her eyes and went back to checking her phone, which is how Mari answered stupid questions. Forcing a guess though, she’d have said maybe a few hundred.
Probably ten times that many packed the tiny street now, with more coming by the second.
The crowd was spilling off of the main avenue – the one that ran by the mall — and coming their way. It was hard to pick out any single person in that shambling wall of faces. They were packed together too tight, shoved all the way up against the cemetery fences on one side, pressed into the doors of the housing complex on the other. No screams. No creepy Halloween record moans or groans. Just flat, determined silence. Mari thought again of Diego’s zombie movies, but even that comparison wasn’t right. Something was different here. These weren’t the angry people she’d seen rampaging through Freedom Crossing. These were something else.
It was like they lacked even the most basic drive. The zombies, they at least wanted to eat your brains or whatever – so they walked toward you. They went somewhere. These people – it was like they were being dragged along by invisible chains. A guy with a faux-hawk stumbled headlong with the barely maintained balance of the very drunk. The girl next to him was bent deep at the waist, her long red hair brushing the street as she shuffled reluctantly on small, bare feet. All of them moving like there was a bulldozer at the back of the crowd, slowly inching the whole thing forward.
Leading the pack is a tall and skinny guy dressed in pajama pants and slippers. Polar bear print on the pants; snowflakes on the slippers. He’s shirtless. So lean Mari can count his ribs in the dark. Gawky ape arms and a too-long torso. A two week beard and severe bedhead – and not the sexy kind that takes hours of practiced styling. The tall guy moves differently. He’s slow and sleepy– walking like he just woke up to somebody ringing the doorbell. But his pace is more determined. He knows where he’s going. His movements are languid but fluid, like he’s strolling across the bottom of a pool. His gaze isn’t limp and directionless, like the others – he’s scanning the street before him, casually alert.
Mari tucks away before he sees her hiding spot. She starts pushing Lucas back the way they came, but freezes. The silhouette of a man, backlit against the open street, blocks the path now. His head tilted to one side like he’s listening to something really far away. He stands bolt-upright, posture so perfect it looks painful. Arms pinned to his sides. He’s not moving. He’s waiting.
Mari chances another glance down the road: The lazy man and his followers are still advancing, albeit glacially. There’s no way she’s getting up and over the wooden fences of the housing complex. Not with Lucas. He’ll barely walk; he sure won’t climb. It might be awkward getting him through the barbwire, sure to snag them both a couple of deep scratches, but it could be done. But then what? An empty field with nowhere to hide. More houses on the far side. More people. More things. She looks back to the shadow blocking the path. Its head moves, ever so slightly, trying to triangulate whatever it is he’s listening to.
God, she’s so stupid. It’s been on loop so long her brain just normalized it.
Lucas’ humming. He’s tracking Lucas by his song.
Mari feels her window closing.
The street: Crowd so thick they’re crushing themselves. When they reach Mari’s hiding spot, simple physics means they’ll spill over into the opening, right where she and Lucas are standing.
The alley: The listening man, honing in on Lucas like a bat.
The field: Naked, visible, nowhere to go.
She knows if she gives herself any more time to worry about it, she’ll freeze up.
Mari takes a deep breath and steps onto the sidewalk.
They move as fast as they can, but Lucas has a limit. It must look pretty stupid, some sprightly teenage girl and her idiot brother trying to power-walk past the zombie apocalypse. She expects to be overwhelmed any second. But it doesn’t happen. Mari can’t help it; she steals a glance.
The slow man swivels his head with the unnerving patience of an owl.
She sees his face. Hopes it’s just a trick of the diminishing light that he doesn’t appear to have any eyes – only sheer black pools enveloping each socket. When their gazes meet, Mari’s heart goes cold. Chills right down to her fingertips. She steels herself for action: A scream, an accusing finger, laser beams firing from his mouth — but no, he does nothing.
She and Lucas slip across the street and through an opening in the graveyard fence. There’s a spot where two bars are set a bit wider than the others. They haven’t been pried apart or anything – it’s just sloppy workmanship. And kids are like water: They’ll find any opening and flow right through it, so long as it’s a shortcut. To a kid, shortcuts take priority above all else — no matter how inconvenient, awkward, or dangerous.
If Mari hadn’t been so small for her age, she’d be stuck out on the street. But as it is, she and Lucas slide through the bars easily. It’s the only time she’s ever been grateful to be tiny.
She leads Lucas across the soft, squeaky grass, and they squat behind a huge tombstone with a weird looking cross on top of it. She takes another look: The lazy man watches the spot where they disappeared, but he doesn’t break stride. He just raises a hand and motions toward the opening in the fence. It’s a dismissive gesture, like you’d use to wave off a hovering fly on a hot summer day. One of the lead walkers — a younger guy in business slacks, wingtips and a tank-top — breaks off from the crowd; his pace only marginally quickened, moving stiff and pained. His arms hang limp at his waist and his head lolls with every step. He makes the shortcut gap and just stops there. He slumps, presses against the bars of the fence, and eases all his weight onto his forehead. Face smushed into the bars, neck bent painfully, he settles there.
Not moving or anything. He’s done. His job is just to block the entrance.
The lazy man and his followers flow on, an unbroken river of flesh. Apparently Mari’s small moment of relevance is over. It’s fine by her. She takes up Lucas’s hand again, and together they duck from tombstone to tombstone until they reach the eastern border of the cemetery. No wrought-iron fence here – this side butts up against an employees-only parking lot behind a strip mail. Simple chain-link does the job when there’s no need for ornamentation.
Mari slips behind a tree and surveys the lot. The power is still on over there. There’s an outdoor light mounted above the rear entrance, bare fluorescent — pale blue and draining. It casts long, lean shadows. The only cover she can see is a darkened space between a pair of rusty green dumpsters. It’s only a few feet from there to the skinny alley that opens right out onto the freeway. Or parkway. Or whatever – she forgets what it’s called when they run through the city like this. There are stoplights and turn signals like a road, but it’s still eight full lanes wide, not counting the median. Mammoth concrete pillars squat every couple hundred feet, supporting the real highway above. Streetlamps run either side, lighting the whole thing up clear as day. Only gravel decorates the wide median. Not even a shrub to shelter behind. Nowhere to hide, and an awful long way to run in the open.
Lucas is draining like an old battery. He can be shoved and cajoled into movement, but he gets slower by the second. With every stop they make, it’s harder to get him started.
Mari’s heart breaks, for the split second she allows it.
Lucas is a brat, of course, but every kid is a brat at his age. Lucas is better than most. He’s always been sensitive. No matter how many times she tells him off, he always ask if she’s okay when she’s clearly not. It’s none of his business, and she usually yells that right in his face, but mama and papa and Diego don’t even ask anymore. They just write her problems off as teenage drama and laugh behind their hands. But not Lucas. He never gave up on her.
She’ll never give up on him.
Mari lays her one good hand on his cheek. His skin cool, hers flushed.
“You are going to make it,” she commands.
Lucas blinks and his song hitches a little. That’s his only response.
Mari tries to pry the fence up with her one good hand, but it’s not even close. So she puts her butt against the chain link, and backs into it. With a lot of effort and a few painful snags, she manages to push the bottom of the fence out enough for Lucas to slip through. When he does, she drops to her stomach and lets the fence snap back into shape. The uneven metal takes a few more swipes at her back as it passes, and the shock from jostling her busted fingers makes her pee a little.
It’s official: Her favorite T-shirt has now been destroyed.
Just a few hours ago, her biggest concern was getting Deacon to autograph this bloody rag.
Mari retrieves Lucas’ small, limp hand, and gets moving. There’s no time for crouching, assessing, hiding. They have to cross the highway, then a good chunk of desert before they get to the airfield and safety. Lucas could shut down completely at any minute. She can feel him fading right now: He’s just the impression left after you stare at a bright light for too long. Blink and he’ll disappear altogether.
They skitter across the little parking lot and between the dumpsters. Mari does a quick scan — no movement. No cry of recognition. She ducks out and peers around the corner: The driveway is clear, but not the highway. A few bodies are scattered about there; some cars, stalled or abandoned.
Mari takes one last look at the graveyard. She was so scared of the idea when they first ran for the fence. But out here, in the light – this is worse. She feels a thousand eyes on her from every direction, but can’t actually find them.
Mari takes quick, purposeful strides. Lucas stumbles and trips behind her, a little dog being walked by an impatient owner. Through the alley, across the first four lanes and up on the divider. Red rocks crunch beneath her slipper socks, digging at her feet even through the thick bottoms. She pauses at the far curb. There’s a UPS truck parked diagonally across the lanes to one side, and two sedans meshed together by a fender-bender on the other. Their doors are open. One of them chimes a faint and useless alert.
The highway is clear, so she crosses it, but she can’t see into the desert beyond. The damn street lamps burned away her night vision. The idea of slipping beyond these islands of light and into the unknown makes her stomach clench. She advances slowly, pausing to let her eyes adapt. No point in charging out there blind just to twist an ankle or fall into a dry riverbed. That’s what the logic brain tells her. But that’s not really why she’s stalling. It’s that other thing: the animal brain — its reasoning less clear, but stronger.
When her eyes do finally adjust, Mari is confused about what they show her: The silhouette of a twisted, stunted little tree, standing dead center in a circle of dark, wet sand. All around it are mannequin parts. That’s what she thinks at first. Because none of this can be real.
Severed limbs and dismantled torsos litter the ground. A muscled and tattooed arm here, a girl’s smooth leg, still wearing her running shoes over there. A soldier’s whole upper body, sans limbs; blood-soaked camo, face twisted around backwards and buried in the sand.
Mari doesn’t get it. Killer trees?
She leans to one side, then the other, getting more angles, and her mistake becomes clear. It’s not a tree. It’s a person, or something like it. It’s very thin, and its posture so unnaturally broken that at first she took it for a withered little guajilo. Its legs are crossed, knees bent outward at painful angles. Its fingers are all twisted up into claws. Its skin looks wrong. Thin and kind of grey. It’s a sad and desiccated thing, and Mari’s first reaction is more pity than fear — but the ring of blood-stained dirt tells her that’s a mistake. She takes Lucas’ hand and backs away slowly, quietly, until they’re once again on the relative safety of the empty highway.
They still have to cross into the desert, but not here.
Mari gives the tree-thing a nice, wide berth. It brings her and Lucas right up close to that idling UPS truck. There’s blood on the floorboards and a couple of ragged smears on the pavement, but they don’t end at a body. She’s thankful for that, at least.
Once they’re suitably distant from the thing in the desert, Mari again sneaks out of the light. Hesitant. A stalking cat. Leaves plenty of time for her eyes to adjust. It doesn’t take her nearly as long to spot the next two creatures, lurking in the dark. These ones are clearly men. Big ones. One bald, shirtless, and well-muscled. The other is pretty fat, but it’s all beer belly and burly arms. Longer hair that hangs over his face. He’s not as bent as the others. Not flexible enough. Just kind of hunched over with his arms at his sides. A swirl of torn limbs and bloody carcasses surround each man. Mari watches the pair for minutes and doesn’t see a single twitch. They are utterly, inhumanly inert. She backs away again, returns to the nice, well-lit road. She’s done feeling safer in the dark.
Mari scours the UPS truck to make sure it’s clear, then tucks Lucas behind the driver’s seat. He stares at nothing, hums like a track left on repeat. Mari wonders if whatever changed those people in the desert is working right now, on Lucas… but she shakes the thought clear. For Lucas, the stasis started long before the black spot and the riots. He hadn’t been the same since that night he saw papa attacked. Everybody else in the world was learning about true violence and horror tonight. Lucas already knew.
Mari stares at the keys dangling from the ignition and has a crazy fantasy about jacking the truck. Hopping into the driver’s seat with its absent door, throwing it into gear, and just hauling ass across the desert to safety. She dismisses the idea automatically – another dumb little kid daydream that she should have outgrown already.
But she quickly circles back around: Why not steal the truck? What, is she gonna get in trouble? The thought is laughable. She’d love to live long enough to be in trouble at this point.
Lucas’ internal song grows fainter. His unmoored, roving eyes are sleepy. Even if he wasn’t also dealing with a dumptruck of trauma, all the running and hiding and stress would be exhausting enough for him. God knows it was exhausting for her. Mari felt hollowed out, like a bunch of small animals had snuck inside her body and ate everything away until there was just a shell.
Even if they could get past the lurkers in the dark, would the truck make it to the airfield? It felt close, in Mari’s head, but she’d never actually been there. Outside of her own, immediate neighborhood, Mari’s only real sense of place in this city came from a distantly remembered Google map, back from when they’d first moved in and she’d been surveying her new territory. The airfield seemed practically next door at the time, but that meant nothing. It could be miles. There were lights in the distance, across the lake of black sand, but how distant? What if they were like giant army spotlights, and actually super far away?
What’s the alternative though, hiding here and hoping nobody finds them? It didn’t work out great for the driver.
Mari gives Lucas a familial squeeze and then rounds the driver’s seat. She doesn’t actually know how to drive, but that’s not a big deal. The worst that can happen is them crashing and dying. Seems like a petty consequence right now. Besides, Mari gets the gist: There are two pedals. She knows what they do. There’s a wheel. She knows what that does, too. The shifter is politely labeled, informing her exactly where to put the little orange arrow if she wants the thing to go. Engine’s still running. Headlights on. She considers the seatbelt. It seems silly to buckle it, but it feels too alien to leave it hanging. She rolls her eyes at herself as she clicks the tab into place.
Mari wrestles the shifter from P into D – it’s harder than she assumes – and the truck starts drifting forward. She stomps on the brake and it jolts to a stop so abrupt that her teeth vibrate. She tries the motion a few more times, getting the hang of the pedal. Does the same for the gas. When she’s got a rough sense of how it’s gonna move, she hauls on the steering wheel for what feels like forever – the fact that she’s doing it with one hand doesn’t help – and gets the truck oriented toward the desert.
The headlights illuminate a gray and withered stump, watered by a circle of blood.
If she has to break through the lurker’s lines somewhere, she figures she’ll at least opt for the smallest one. Mari presses the accelerator, too hard, and jounces the back of her head off the seat. The truck lurches to life and wallows like a drunken bull. She hauls the wheel one way, only to realize it’s too far, and back the other. The front end is diving and weaving like somebody’s throwing punches at it, every little correction of hers just barely avoiding disaster. She’d planned on skirting by the thing in the desert, as far outside its radius as she could get. The truck has other plans. No matter how hard she wrenches it, every turn of the wheel brings them straight back toward the waiting creature.
Mari can see it’s a woman, now. When the headlights hit her and the engine roared, the old lady started unfolding with tiny, spastic jerks. It was like watching a flower bloom in timelapse. She has Sunday School posture now: painfully straight-backed, arms to her sides, feet together. The woman is ancient, probably sick, and totally naked. Thin hair the gray of driftwood, saggy everything, wrinkles giving way to deep folds. She wears a white plastic bracelet around one wrist, and a length of clear tubing dangles from one arm. She must have been in the hospital when whatever happened, happened. So even the sick and the dying aren’t immune.
The truck closes in on her like it’s on rails. Fifty feet. Thirty. The old woman surges into life: Her eyes fly open and in the same instant she breaks into a dead sprint, right at the approaching truck. Arms outstretched, arthritic fingers grasping, withered toes digging into the sand. Mari would never, in a million years, have guessed the old woman could move like that. She closes the distance in a blink, probably sets the world record for the geriatric 10 meter dash, if there is such a thing. No comical explosion of blood when the truck hits her. Barely a bump. She’s just gone. Like the engine ate her up and used her for fuel.
Mari keeps the gas pedal pinned until the bouncing threatens to send the truck out of control. The desert’s flat, but not that flat. She eases off as much as she dares, slows the truck to a modest, but still painful canter. She wants to hold a hand out for Lucas. Let him know it’s okay, or at least that she’s still here. But her good one is busy steering, and she gets the feeling that pawing at the kid with her mangled stub won’t exactly comfort him.
She focuses on the task at hand: Barely dodging obstacles as they come into view. It feels like a terrible video game. The controls are garbage and the pop-up is deadly. She’s sweating within a second. It feels like she’s been driving for twenty minutes and the lights of the airfield are no closer. She glances at the speedometer: It sure as hell doesn’t feel like ten miles an hour.
Mari blinks, and the clawed hand just appears, already locked around her wrist with the finality of a manacle. Saltwater gray, yellow nails, deep and bloody scratches. She’s still gawking at it when it yanks her out of the seat.
It feels like all the joints on the left side of Mari’s body have been pulled out of their sockets, simultaneously. The seatbelt digs into her neck, strangling her, but thank god for it: without it, the old woman would have ripped her straight under the truck. The lurker had been caught up in the front wheel well somehow. Most of her is still jammed up there – all Mari can see is one withered arm and a terrible, placid face. It would be, well, not better if the old woman were snapping or frothing at the mouth or swearing or something. But this is worse: No snarling, no spitting, no emotion at all – her milky eyes watch with sleepy disinterest as her gnarled hand tries to yank Mari to her death. Like the two are separate entities: The face does not care; the hand wants blood.
Mari frantically runs over ways she can fight back, and comes up with: Don’t.
Instead, she flails around with her foot until it kicks the gas pedal, then pins it to the floor. The engine growls like she just stepped on the tail of a sleeping tiger, but it takes a while for that to mean anything. The truck’s a behemoth; it speeds up gradually. Mari’s vision is going black. Choked out by a safety device. Is that ironic? She’s never quite sure…
The truck bottoms out, squeals in protest, then goes airborne for a second and crashes back down, mashing the old lady’s body further into the well. Her grip falters, but doesn’t release. A few more bone-rattling bounces, a metallic snap — the engine howls like a mad monkey after – and then comes the knockout punch.
Mari’s mouth tastes like teeth. All calcium powder and pain, like she just woke up after a nasty dentist appointment. Her forehead is beeping. She should probably do something about that.
Reason comes slow.
She looks around the cabin of the ruined truck and patiently waits for the world to start making sense. The beeps are coming from the dash. Some sort of warning chime.
Wait, was she driving?
The old woman…
Mari about chokes when she sees that wrinkled claw still there, clutching her sleeve. She gives her arm an experimental wobble, and the hand shakes with it. No resistance. She leans out of the cab as far as her seatbelt allows, and sees that the malnourished limb ends in a bloody gash at the shoulder. The old woman’s severed head sits face down in the dust. Silky white strands of hair fanned out all around it like a skeletal dandelion.
Mari pieces together what happened: The truck clipped one of those stubborn, prehistoric rocks that litter the desert around here, and the whole front end crumpled like marzipan. The bumper snapped all the way back to the wheels, turning the fender into a guillotine. Mari gags a little as she plucks at the papery fingers still locked around her forearm. They come away easy, but leave sickly yellow imprints on the skin beneath. It’ll hurt later, when she has time for it. She unbuckles her seatbelt and experiments with her various parts. They all move, though reluctantly.
She’s forgetting something. Still hazy from the crash.
Mari flips around the driver’s seat and finds her little brother sprawled in a pile of blood-stained packages. One of the bins came open in the crash, spilling its contents across the rubber floor. Something clipped Lucas’ forehead in the wreck, opening a wide but thankfully shallow gash on his forehead. He’s got one eye closed against the flow of blood. The other, lidded and murky, roves about in confusion. Mari digs a finger into one of the rips on her ruined T-shirt. She pries it wider and tears the whole bottom hem off in one ragged strip. She uses it to dab Lucas’ face dry, then cinches the rest tight around his wound. She almost laughs. It looks like one of those ‘80s karate headbands. Under different circumstances, Lucas would love it.
He blinks at her. She takes it as a question.
“Everything’s okay now,” she says, hoping that if Lucas buys the lie, then maybe she can, too. “We’re almost to the airfield.”
Her legs are rubbery and unresponsive. Feels like’s she stumping around the desert on stilts. Lucas isn’t doing any better – he keeps trying to sit down, right there in the dirt. She has to maintain constant forward momentum just to keep him upright. So she does.
Crossing the desert at night takes a year. A year of unseen thorns and banged shins, turned ankles and scraped palms. But finally those distant lights loom large, and the airfield is in reach.
Just beyond a fortified chain-link fence. Topped with razor-wire.
Right. It’s a military installation. Why did she think this would be easy?
No shoddy workmanship to exploit this time: The fence is secured, top to bottom, and made of stronger stuff than normal chain-link. It doesn’t even flex at her touch. She wants to fall down a hole and die, but self-pity won’t help anything. Which is a shame, since she’s really good at it.
But now is not the time.
Lucas’ hand is clammy and weak in hers. They trudge on, skirting the fence line, looking for an opening.
Another year of thorns.
For the millionth time tonight, Mari wishes she had shoes. Her novelty slipper socks feel wet. She hopes it’s just sweat. She knows it’s not.
At last they crest a small hill covered in slippery iceplant, and spot an entrance.
A single-lane maintenance road that terminates at a pair of locked gates. A big solid black box mounted between them. There’s a little one-man booth on the airfield-side of the fence, unmanned. The run-up to the gate is littered with bodies, but these ones aren’t so bad.
Isn’t that messed up? This afternoon, seeing one corpse would’ve probably sent her into fits. But now that she’s seen people pulped with pickaxes, lit on fire, torn into pieces – mere bullet wounds are almost comforting. Which is good, because these bodies are riddled with them. There are a few dozen corpses in all, most of them piled loosely about fifty feet from the gates, like they hit some invisible wall of death. Doesn’t take a genius to see what happened here. They all tried to rush the fence at once and got gunned down by soldiers on the other side. Mari hopes the guys with guns are still in there. Then she amends that wish, and instead hopes that they haven’t gone insane yet.
She and Lucas limp down the hill, across a little gulley full of chipped stones, and onto the maintenance road. Beside the gate is a green post with a yellow box. A single red button beneath a speaker.
She presses it.
And feels very stupid while she waits for a response.
Testing the gate, she sees the black box has two staggered bars running out to either side. A tiny red light blinks in the upper right hand corner. It’s a heavy-duty remote lock, and it’s sealed up tight.
Lucas, temporarily freed from Mari’s grip, sits down cross-legged in the middle of the road and slumps in on himself. Eyes almost closed. His humming song so faint she can barely hear it anymore.
Mari presses the intercom button again. It feels like turning the key on a car that won’t start; she knows it’s useless, but what else can she do?
She manages a full minute of patience before she sits down next to Lucas and starts crying. She feels bad about it – the only thing keeping her going was the idea of staying strong for him – and that just makes her sob harder. This was her only idea: Make the airfield. Find help. Find papa.
And now a mute speakerbox just pronounced their death sentence.
Big, sloppy, embarrassing, hiccupy weeps. Nose running, total loss of dignity. Mari doesn’t care. She lets the cry unfurl until she can’t even get air anymore. Then something settles on her leg. She clears the tears from her burning eyes and blinks down at a tiny little hand. Mostly limp. Barely there.
Some part of him is still present. Aware enough to see his sister crying, and set a hand gently on her knee.
She hugs him so fiercely that his back cracks. She laughs as she lets him go.
“Okay,” she says.
Mari stands and marches back to that arrogant little speakerbox and hammers the button like a little kid at a crosswalk. She gives it a few seconds. Nothing.
She hits it again.
Again and again and again and however many damn times it takes. She holds the button down and yells:
“I know you’re in there. I know you can hear me.”
She doesn’t know either of those things.
“If you don’t open this gate right now and let us in,” she says. “I’m walking back into town and waving down the first horde of monsters I see and I’m leading them all right back here.”
The speakerbox takes a minute to think.
“Okay fine,” Mari says, and turns to leave.
“Wait,” the speakerbox says. Its voice is full of crackles and pops, and sounds much younger than she expected.
Mari grabs the speakerbox in both hands. Breathless, she reels: “Help us, please, it’s me and my brother out here and my dad is in there he’s army we’ve been going all night there’s something really wrong out here we need-”
“Easy!” The speakerbox says. “The reception on this thing sucks. Talk loud and slow, right into the receiver.”
Mari looks, but doesn’t see any obvious microphone. She leans in, lips practically brushing the flaking yellow industrial paint.
“Let us in!” She screams, just as loud as she can.
“Ow,” the voice laughs. “I heard you that time.”
“Why won’t you help us?” Mari says.
“I didn’t… we didn’t know if you were normal,” the voice replies. “Sorry.”
She can only laugh at the most wholly inadequate apology she’s ever heard.
“Well we are,” she finally says. “Can you see us? It’s just me and my brother. We’re fine. Uh…no, we’re really not fine, but we’re not a threat.”
“Hold on,” the voice says. Then “Aw, hell. You really are just kids.”
“I’m going to buzz the gate. I’ve got a high-powered sniper rifle trained on you right now. When you hear the sound, you step through, turn around and hold it closed until there’s a thunk. You don’t do that, or you do anything else, and you’re dead two seconds before you know it.”
It should scare her, but the voice is so young. It’s like being threatened by a fifth-grader.
“Yes, sir,” she says.
Mari tries to drag Lucas to his feet, but he’s going Gandhi on her. Limp, non-violent resistance.
“Lucas,” she hisses. “Come on.”
He does not.
“Please,” she says. “Just five more minutes and this is over. We’re safe. Blankets and ice cream forever, I promise.”
She shakes his arm, lightly slaps his cheeks, but he’s gone.
There’s literally nothing left in her. Exhaustion in every form – physical, mental, spiritual – seeps through her pores. Coats her bones. Weighs her down. She feels like she’s walking on the bottom of the ocean.
But she remembers that little hand, near lifeless, resting on her knee…
Mari bends down and hauls Lucas up over her shoulders. She’s not strong, and he weighs half as much as she does. Couldn’t lift him on her best day. But this is her worst day, and somehow, she manages. She can feel her soggy footsteps leaving bloody prints. She muddles her way to the gate, waits for the buzz, and rams it open with her shoulder. Her one good hand holds Lucas’ arms, crossed wrist over wrist. Her bad arm is wrapped clumsily around one of his legs. It’s probably in her head, but she swears she can feel a tiny red dot burning on her chest. Waiting for a misstep. She kicks the gate closed, weights it shut with her body until she hears the thunk, picks the closest building, and starts walking.
It’s easily five hundred feet away.
It might as well be five hundred miles.
There will be time to think about how much all this hurts later. How impossible it seems that she’ll ever actually reach that ugly beige trailer, ringed in floodlights. There are more bodies scattered all around this side of the fence – most of them just random people peppered with bullet holes. Some of them are wearing army uniforms. Those ones are torn to pieces. Mari navigates a minefield of corpses, and thinks ‘it’s not the worst thing you’ve seen tonight. You can freak out about this later.’
Later. Not now.
Now is walking.
One foot and the other and that’s it.
A hundred feet to the trailer. Fifty. But the closer she gets, the more her knees bow. The further Lucas slides out of her grip. The harder it is to hitch him up again. Twenty feet from the trailer, she scuffs her foot just a little, and it’s all over. Mari falls, clipping both knees painfully on the pavement. Lucas slides off her back like water on leather. She doesn’t even have the strength to cry.
“You all right?” A familiar voice asks. It’s the speakerbox, given human form and devoid of static. He’s kneeling in the dark beneath the trailer’s metal staircase. Just a shadow.
She actually laughs at the question.
She gestures mutely at herself, then her brother, then the world at large.
“Is anything all right?” She replies.
“No,” the human speakerbox says. “Probably not.”
He stands and steps into the light. Mari’s heart drops. She wanted a soldier. Some grizzled badass with biceps the size of watermelons. Maybe an eyepatch. But this kid looks like he’s about her age. Sandy, tennis-ball-fuzz haircut and acne scars. He’s dressed in a gray jumpsuit with black boots. Wearing some kind of goofy hat – like an army helmet mixed with a sombrero. Dull green metal clashing with cheap white plastic. But he does have that rifle he warned her about.
They stand at odds for a stupid length of time.
“Well, do we look like a threat?” She asks, lip curled.
“No, right,” he says, and he literally hops to – physically jumps out of the standoff and jogs over to help her. “Sorry. Let’s get you inside.”
Inside is like a 1950s office designed by a prison warden. Unadorned, imitation wood-panel walls, green carpet so thin it bunches up when you drag your feet, plain metal everything – desk, cabinets, tables – every corner brutally sharp and just waiting for you to bang a shin on it. It smells like sweat and oil. That’s probably coming from the half dozen soldiers who mill about the trailer in various states of agitation, ranging from mild panic to barely controlled rage. They’re all way too young for comfort. Where are the old guys with battle scars, like in the movies?
There’s a blonde girl wearing her ponytail so tight it looks like it might snap off, four white guys that Mari can’t tell apart – square jaw, round chin, narrow nose, brown hair shaved short – and a black guy with thick glasses; their lenses reflecting colorless light from a rugged laptop perched on the only desk. He doesn’t look up.
The little guy with the rifle stands silent while the others glare at him.
It feels like Mari should say something.
“Hi,” she says, and it’s the dumbest she’s ever felt.
None of the soldiers respond.
The little guy leans his rifle against the wall, by the door, where a dozen other guns stand at attention. Lucas and Diego could have told you all about them – reeling off algebraic names and numbers; citing stats like they’re talking about football players – but they’re all just guns to Mari. Alien and vaguely worrying things.
The little guy takes off his goofy helmet and hangs it on a hook beside six others. Each with that same silly white ring around the base that makes them look like UFOs from one of Diego’s hokey ‘50s sci-fi movies. The ones with the little shadow guys that make nerdy jokes. He’s always trying to get her to watch them, insisting-
No. Was. He was always trying to get her to watch them.
Can’t think about that now. That’s for later.
The tension reaches a breaking point, and the little guy says:
“What was I supposed to do, leave them out there?”
“Yes,” one of the generic white guys answers. “That’s exactly what you were ordered to do.”
“What if they’re infected or something?” The blonde girl adds. “You just killed all of us.”
“They’re not infected,” the little guy says. “They’re walking and talking and not trying to kill anybody.”
“Some of them can still talk,” a different white guy says.
“Oh yeah?” Another one sneers. “You see a lot of them asking about the weather? They’re just animals.”
“No,” Mari says, and they all look at her like she’s a toddler trying to join a political debate. “Some of them can talk.”
“See?” The blonde girl laughs. “Even the kid says it was a bad idea.”
The little guy gives Mari a sideways look.
“My name is Mari,” she says. “This is my brother Lucas. We’re normal, I promise. Even the talking ones are still super crazy and like, killing people and stuff.”
“He doesn’t look normal,” one of the white guys says, nodding at Lucas.
He’s right. Lucas sat down on the floor right when they came in, and he’s still there now, head drifting toward his chest.
“He’s just exhausted,” Mari says. “He’s just…we’ve just seen a lot of bad stuff on the way here. Our brother…”
Diego. A dancing stick man in the middle of an inferno.
That’s for later.
“Sorry,” the little guy says.
The other soldiers suddenly find a bunch of different stuff to look at that’s not Mari or Lucas.
“I’m Randy,” the little guy says. “But my last name’s Gerikoff, so they uh… they all call me Jerk.”
“That’s the clean version, anyway,” the blonde girl says. “I’m Steves.”
And then it’s roll call. The white guys reel off:
The last one notices Mari’s hapless stare and adds: “You can call me James, if you want.”
She decides to mentally label them all as “Johnsons.”
The black guy is the only one who hasn’t said anything, so Mari looks at him. His laptop is so bulky it looks like a protective case you’d use to carry around six other, normal computers. The whole thing covered in thick black plastic, laden with purposeful grooves and serious latches.
“That’s Ken,” the little guy says, for him.
“Why don’t you call him by his last name?” She asks.
“It is my last name,” he answers, and Mari jumps. She looks over, but he’s already back to his screen.
Introductions are about all anybody can think to say.
After an awkward minute, Randy suddenly remembers that his guests are bleeding all over the place, and shepherds them over to a couch the exact color and texture of shredded wheat. He grabs a plastic first aid kit from its mount on the wall and cracks it open on the coffee table. While he’s wrapping her in a mummy’s worth of white gauze, he asks a bunch of questions about what happened and how she got hurt. But aside from the hand, which she’ll never forget – that crack she could feel down to her toes; Diego’s crazed unblinking eyes – she can’t recall how she got the rest. Scratches on her back and face. Her feet all scraped away. It’d be easier to list the parts of her body that weren’t messed up.
When Randy’s finished, her hand and both feet are bound tight, and there are sticky patches all over from a litany of other bandages. She doesn’t feel much better physically, but it helps not to see the wounds anymore.
Lucas is crunched up into a little ball, denting the farthest cushion of the couch. Arms wrapped around his knees. Eyes mostly closed. Not watching anything.
“What happens now?” Mari says, when Randy starts gathering up the medical supplies.
She just said today’s magic word, apparently, because everybody starts shouting at once.
“-should’ve gone with-”
“-wait for reinforcements-”
“-armor up and hit back with-”
“-not equipped to deal with this kind of-”
“-some kind of bunker here or-”
“Hey! Hey! Stop!” Ken yells, and to everybody’s surprise, they listen.
Even Ken seems taken aback.
“I ah…I think I can get it working,” he adds.
Just about everyone deflates. The relief is tangible. The only one still riled up is Randy.
“So what?” He snaps. “What then? We just take off?”
“Uh, yeah,” a Johnson says. “What else? You wanna hang out with the pyschos? Do some bonding?”
“We all want to help people,” Steves says. “But you saw what happened at the fence. We barely held them back, and there were three times as many of us then. What if the creepy guy comes back? You really think we can fight them off again?”
“What guy?” Mari asks, but she’s officially just background noise now.
“Most of ‘them’ are rotting by the fence,” Randy says. He points out the lone window, toward the gate Mari came through. “I hope he does come back, so we can finish the job.”
“What if he gets reinforcements?” A Johnson says.
“What guy?” Mari asks again.
“Then we’ll kill his reinforcements,” Randy says, half-sarcastically. “Why did you join up? Why did any of you? To run away when it all hits the fan? What was the training for, if we’re not even gonna use it? We’ve got the hardware. We’ve got positioning. We’ve got fortifications. Even if Ken’s right and he can get the Snake running – for how long? Huh? What happens when it breaks down? What happens when-”
“Then we deal with it,” Ken says. He snaps the laptop closed. It seals like a bank vault. “All the info is right here. There’s a whole car just for spare parts. It sure beats squatting in this…”
He reaches out and knocks on the wall of the trailer. The whole thing rings with the fragile warble of sheet metal.
“The trailer isn’t the only building here,” Randy says, but you can actually see him losing now. “We could pull back to the tower. Or one of the hangars.”
“You sure those are even clear?” Steves asks. “Last I saw, it didn’t seem like we were winning.”
Everybody shifts their eyes, agreeing to some unspoken statement.
“We got two,” Randy says. He points at Mari and Lucas, sitting on the most uncomfortable couch in history. “What if more come? Are we really not gonna be here to help them?”
“Are we?” A Johnson asks. “Seems like that’s up to the creepy guy and his friends.”
Mari bangs her good fist against the wall of the trailer. It bows out so far she thinks she might punch through it. They’re inside of a gong. When the noise fades, she finally gets to join the adult table.
“What. Guy?” She snips the words short.
Randy sighs, like it’s a funny story he got sick of telling a long time ago.
“When this first started, everybody was just running around like maniacs-”
“That’s not true,” a Johnson interrupts. “People were acting weird for days before it all went FUBAR.”
“It was the spot,” another Johnson says.
“How can a spot do all this?” A Johnson asks.
“If it’s not the spot, what’s with the dog cones?” The first Johnson steps over and picks a helmet off the wall. He shakes it so the thin white plastic rim bounces.
Mari looks to Randy.
“Some government guys came by a few days before all hell broke loose. Told us we weren’t supposed to look at the spot on account of we’d go blind or get eye cancer or something. They dropped off crates of these plastic disc things that snap around our helmets, to help keep us from looking up too far accidentally. Then they commandeered basically all of our hardware and most of the fighting divisions.”
“Great call,” Johnson says, gesturing out the window, presumably at the whole ruined world.
“It was just chaos at first,” Randy continues. “What was left of the base force started killing each other, themselves, everything. We tried to get a handle on it, but it was too much. Your CO would give you an order and you turn around to do it, but when you turn back you find him wrist deep in some grunt’s guts, giggling and tossing ‘em around like confetti.”
“We’re all that’s left,” Ken says.
“We don’t know that,” A Johnson says. “There could be others holed up like us.”
Quiet as fresh snow.
“It died down eventually,” Randy finally says. “But then this big mob shows up all at once. Walking together like they got a purpose. Leading them is this…this guy.”
“Old guy,” Steves adds. “Real nasty looking.”
The Johnsons nod.
“And he’s got like…I don’t want to say black eyes,” Randy says. “But more like-”
“Empty spots where eyes should be,” Mari finishes.
“You saw him,” Randy fills in.
“No,” Mari says. “I saw a different one.”
“Jesus Christ,” a Johnson breathes. “There’s more than one?”
“I don’t think the guy we saw was the same,” Mari says. “He was young and tall and skinny, and all the people following him were really slow and awkward. Like the things in the desert.”
“The ones out there definitely weren’t slow,” Johnson says. He doesn’t want to continue.
“We opened fire,” Steves says. “We didn’t have a choice.”
“They were unarmed,” Randy says.
“They didn’t need weapons,” Johnson adds. “Just their hands.”
“Didn’t even care about the razor-wire,” Randy says. “Went right up and over, shredding themselves the whole way. Didn’t faze them at all. Just kept running right at us. God damn, the looks in their eyes. Just pure hate. Every one of them looked at me like I just killed their kids or something.”
“We got through it,” Steves says, both to finish the story, and to comfort Randy.
“Yeah we did,” Randy says. He smiles at her. She smiles back.
There’s something else there, Mari thinks.
“But when it was over, the old man, he just walked away,” a Johnson says. “Like he didn’t even care that we won.”
“So that’s why we have to get out of here,” Steves says, like the whole story just proved her point. “He might be coming back.”
“If we’d left when you guys wanted,” Randy answers. “We wouldn’t have found these two.”
Mari blushes and hates it. She doesn’t like being a bullet point in somebody else’s argument.
“I vote we go,” she says.
Randy looks wounded.
“So you got yours and screw the rest, huh?” He says.
“It’s not like that,” Mari adds. “Our father, he’s army, and he’s in here somewhere-”
“Who’s he with?” a Johnson asks.
“First Armored,” Mari says, reeling it off automatically. “Support.”
“Gladiator,” Ken says, and he laughs bitterly.
“What?” She asks.
“Sorry, kid,” Ken says.
Mari gets a chill in her belly, the kind that always precedes something horrible. Your gut knows it before you do.
“What? Sorry about what?” Mari looks around to the others for help – she’s not sure how they could help, maybe they could shut Ken up before he says-
“Gladiator’s gone,” he finishes. “Brass took most of ‘me when they seized our hardware. The few that were left are all dead. If your pop was here this morning, he’s not now.”
“You don’t know that,” Mari says.
“I do,” Ken counters. He spins the bulky laptop around so she can see the back. It’s got a big ‘PROPERTY OF’ sticker that Mari refuses to finish reading.
“Ken was Gladiator,” a Johnson says.
“Is,” Ken snaps, and glares at the Johnson until he looks away. “That hasn’t changed.”
“But they can’t all be dead,” Mari says, careful to keep it from sounding like a question.
Stupid Ken answers anyway.
“There were only a dozen of us,” he says. “Not exactly hard to keep track of. We were working on the Snake when Collins walked up, singing. We laughed at first. Even clapped when he finished. He took a bow, then opened fire…”
Mari’s mouth is dry, but she can’t swallow to fix it.
“What’s your last name?” He asks her.
“Rodriguez,” she croaks.
He nods all sad in a way she’s seen too many times before. Usually while watching through the blinds as a soldier in formals talks to a housewife in her doorway. Just after he hands her the flag.
“Your dad was a good guy. He went straight after Collins when it started. Almost got him, too. He’s a hero, kid,” Ken says.
It’s funny how heroes are always dead, Mari thinks.
They all give her a minute of quiet before they start bickering again. They rehash the same points in different words like that’s the problem – if only they could find the right synonym, then everybody would suddenly agree with each other. Steves and Ken and the Johnsons want to get to whatever the Snake is, but after that they all have different ideas. Randy wants to stay right here, in case somebody else comes by needing help. Steves and the rest want to leave, Randy wants to wait. Steves and the gang want to strategically retreat, Randy wants to provide support. Steves and company say move out, Randy says-
Something in Mari snaps.
“We didn’t see anybody else normal out there,” Mari says. She says it quiet, but something in her tone cuts straight the noise. They all shut their mouths and stare at her. “Not alive, at least. And you wouldn’t believe how many of those things there are. All different kinds.”
“Nobody?” A Johnson asks.
Mari shakes her head.
“How many psychos?” A Johnson says.
“I don’t know,” she answers. “We live over by the mall. It’s not that far. And just between here and there? Thousands. More. And the black-eyed guy that we saw – he wasn’t just wandering around. He was sealing off exits.”
She searches her memories for a few military terms she picked up second-hand from papa.
“He was using the slow ones to stake out a perimeter, so the angry ones have a kill zone. They’re not stupid or aimless. They know what this place is, and they’re going to come back.”
It sounds more video game than authentic to her, but nobody calls her out on it.
“There’s nobody left,” Mari reiterates to them. Then, to herself. “There’s nobody left. I have to take care of Lucas. I don’t care what you guys do. We’re leaving just as soon as he can move again.”
“Maybe we can leave instructions,” Randy says, and somehow manages to look even smaller. “For anybody that comes by looking for help…”
“I think that’s a moot point,” Ken says. He’s turned around in his chair, looking out the one big window toward the gate.
The horizon is boiling.
Cresting the small hill just beyond the fence, backlit against the dusty light pollution of the city, thousands of writhing, grasping silhouettes approach.
Everybody huddles around the window in silence, like they’re watching a breaking news announcement instead of reality. This is just too big, too bad to be happening. The brain disconnects.
They gawk in quiet reverence until the first of the horde steps out of the shadows and into the floodlights. The man with the black holes for eyes. He’s older, but not decrepit. Not fat, but definitely stocky. The implacable mass hints that he used to be buff, back in his day. Maybe still was, beneath the rolls. Dark hair slicked back, thin strands skating across a prominent bald spot. Not trying to hide it or draw attention away from it. He’s wearing a dirty white tank top and boxers with faded blue stripes. Barefoot. His fists clench and unclench at his sides, like he’s itching for a fight.
He has a cruel face: Deep frown lines, forever-furrowed brow, hard-set jaw thrust forward. Mari practically knows his life story, just looking at him: Former military, and not happy about the former part. Forced retirement usually, sometimes honorable discharge. They skim around the base bars nursing straight whiskey; sit alone at local diners downing scalding hot cups of black coffee; plant themselves bolt upright on park benches and stare straight ahead. No longer part of the army life, but not knowing anything else. They’re like walking ghosts. And they’re always mad.
This one was something way past mad: Pure fury etched onto his face like god carved it into his skull on the day he was born. Lips just short of a snarl, nostrils flaring, eyes burning. Yet still in control. Not like the people that followed him, biting and snapping at one another, shoving, punching, scratching – hemmed into a rough formation by some unseen force, and clearly against their will. The old man stops in front of the chain-link gates and carefully surveys their length. He spots the trailer right away – it’s the only building lit up like a country fair, and full of stunned idiots, gaping at the approaching disaster instead of running.
He fixes them with those cold, black pools that used to be eyes, opens his mouth, and out comes something between a howl of anguish and a war cry. Mari’s nerves jangle up at the sound. She never imagined she could be the focus of such a deep and personal hatred. It makes her stomach twist.
You can almost see the leashes snap. The barely restrained mob surges forward in a wave of scrambling violence.
The noise. God, the noise. A stadium full of people, every one baying for your death.
But at least it wakes her and the soldiers from their trance. They trip over each other trying to be the first to get away. She bangs her knee on the metal desk — just like she knew she would from the moment she saw it — and it hurts worse than she thought. Sends a bone vibration all the way up to her skull.
The mob is up and over the razor-wire in a blink – mindlessly pulling at it with bare hands when it slows them down. Then biting at it, when their hands are caught. They tear themselves to pieces, but it doesn’t matter. More are coming, spilling up and over the thrashing bodies. Too many. The gates bow out at the top, then fold, then collapse entirely. The mob spills out like a liquid.
One of the Johnsons is already gone by the time Mari looks up. The only smart Johnson, she thinks.
The other three grab rifles and duck out the door. Quick Chinese firecracker bursts as they open fire. Ken doesn’t bother with a gun. He hustles his bulky briefcase computer under one arm and says:
“Get to the Snake.”
Then he, too, is gone.
Randy, Steves, and Mari idle. Each waiting for the other to act.
Randy snaps out of it first. He snatches up his sniper rifle and shoves Steves towards the door.
“Let’s go,” he says to Mari.
She just looks at the couch.
He follows her gaze, to Lucas – quiet little forgettable Lucas — all balled up in the corner like a scared pillbug.
“Get up, kid!” He says, and crosses over to pull at Lucas’ arm. The pillbug moves, but doesn’t unfurl.
“He gets like this,” Mari says. “He won’t move.”
Randy does half a dance between the door and the couch, caught between a dozen different plans, skittering away in every direction. Steves yells something from just outside the trailer, but its lost in the approaching din. He ducks his head out.
“Just go. We’ll meet you there,” he says.
Steves says something back.
Randy stands at the threshold like he’s getting ready to jump out of a plane. Nerves, doubt, determination, a clock, ticking.
Then he reaches out, grabs the handle, and slams the door shut.
He runs over to the crude metal desk and Mari is already there, shoving with her one good hand and all the might of her woefully small body. Together they get it upright, blocking the window. Next go the filing cabinets and table, hastily stacked in front of the door. Already there is banging on the other side. All across the walls. Pockmarks denting out where fists impact. It sounds like she’s sheltering under an aluminum roof in an epic hail storm.
The trailer begins to rock. Gently at first, just a rowboat on a windy lake, but it picks up momentum. Teeters from side to side. Her and Randy are just trying to keep their sea-legs as everything goes Poltergeist and throws itself around the room. Mari tackles the couch and crawls atop Lucas. She pins her arms around him, stuffs her face into the back of his hair. It smells like Froot Loops and dust. His breathing is shaky.
Randy falls and swears. A heavy thump, even more swears, then the trailer hits that sweet spot: Leaning back in a chair, arms waving, muscles flexing…
She knows they’re going over, but they linger on that precipice for so long she starts to doubt.
She shouldn’t. She should know better by now.
The trailer tips. Mari and Lucas tumble around like tennis balls in a dryer. The world is sideways, or upside down – did the trailer roll once and stop, or did it keep going? There’s no way to tell, just by looking. The room is a junkyard. Everything has gone everywhere. At least she’s still got hold of Lucas. He doesn’t look hurt.
Well, no more hurt, at any rate.
Mari tries to assess her own state, but genuinely has no idea if she was wounded in the fall. She’s basically just a collection of injuries now. Overlapping hurts, each vying for attention; the unique voices of all the burns and scrapes and broken bones are lost in the larger choir of pain.
From a haphazard mound of metal and papers, Randy groans. He digs his way out, zombie hand poking up from a grave of manila envelopes, and starts throwing stuff aside. He’s looking for something.
It takes a minute for Mari’s head to clear. To remember that’s not a storm outside – all that banging and scratching – it’s coming from the army of maniacs, still trying to claw their way in.
Randy finds what he’s looking for – his rifle, of course – and goes prone with it. A second later, a gunshot like the voice of god. She’s still reeling from the first when the second comes. She follows his aim and sees that the big bastard of a desk they used to block the window has come unmoored. It lies diagonally across the opening now, leaving triangular gaps on either side. Dozens of hands now shoved through them, blindly grasping at the air, banging on the walls, clawing at the metal. It’s slapstick. Like Daffy and Bugs trying to go through a door at the same time. They’re keeping themselves out, but it won’t last. Some are more insistent than others – bashing in the faces of their competition, biting their throats, gouging out their eyes – and they’re steadily wriggling through the gap. Randy sights on one and the thunderclap jars Mari to the bones. The thing’s head practically explodes. The bullet probably goes right through and does the same to the one behind it. But it doesn’t matter. The others just shove the corpse out of the way and pick up right where they left off.
Mari double-checks, but no – there’s only the one window in this sad little assembly-line building. No exit but through the bellies of those screaming monstrosities across the room.
Wait, do they eat people? She was assuming so, but maybe that was from Diego’s zombie movies. The mob might not actually devour her and Lucas when they get through. They might just bash her brains in, and tear Lucas apart like a pack of wolves squabbling over a rabbit.
It’s a thin comfort.
Mari tries to find calm. Tries to accept her fate. She looks upward, mostly by reflex. If there is a god, she doesn’t believe he’s literally in the sky or whatever. He could be anywhere, or everywhere — but staring meaningfully at like, the stapler, just doesn’t feel right. She gives Lucas one last squeeze. She’s just about to ask Randy to turn that rifle around and shoot her first (Lucas is so far gone that him having to watch her die probably wouldn’t even register, but she couldn’t bear the reverse) when she spots it and has to laugh.
The door is still there. Of course it’s still there. Why wouldn’t it be, you idiot?
The trailer had rocked backward, so now the front door is on the ceiling. Ten feet up from the floor, but a pair of bulky filing cabinets had shifted in the crash, forming makeshift stairs. Only six or seven feet between her and freedom. Too bad both she and Randy fell well short of that height requirement. Mari doesn’t know where they’d go, even if they did get out. The maniacs are everywhere. But just the prospect of dying under the open sky, instead of this crappy box, makes it worth a shot.
She has to yell Randy’s name a few times before he hears her. They’re both half-deaf from the gunshots. She points at the ceiling. He sees the door, and his eyes swell comically. He drops the rifle, beside her in a flash.
“I’ll boost you up,” he says.
Randy forms a cradle with his hands, Mari steps into it, and he hefts her with surprising ease. She balances, poorly — one foot wobbling in his hands, the other slipping on his shoulder — and flips the latch. The door shoves up and out, and there are the stars Mari never thought she’d see again. Operating on base human instinct alone, she very nearly jumps for it. But she remembers Lucas.
“How are we going to…” She says, looking at her inert ball of brother.
“Damn,” Randy says. “Damn, damn, damn.”
He chews his lip while he thinks. They both try to ignore the scrabbling sounds just a few feet away, and getting closer.
“You go up first,” he says. “I’ll hand him to you.”
That’s all Mari needs. She jumps, Randy heaves, and Mari practically sails through the doorway. She lands on her side and scrambles right back to the threshold, ducks her head in. She watches — upside down, blood flushing her cheeks — as Randy pokes, prods, and cajoles Lucas into movement.
“Lucas!” Mari says. “Lucas, come on! Please! We have to go!”
It’s not useless, but it lives next door to useless. Randy pulls Lucas to his feet and the kid stands, reluctantly. When they move it’s like a blackout drunk being helped home by friends. Randy pushes him atop the cabinets and locks his arms around Lucas’ legs, just under his butt. He lifts the boy up, toward Mari’s outstretched hand. But he can’t make Lucas take it. She could reach out and ruffle her brother’s hair, but that’s about it. She can’t get any purchase. Randy tries to shuffle his grip lower, lift the kid higher, but it’s not a matter of strength. It’s a matter of leverage. He’s doing all he can, and she’s doing all she can, and none of it is enough.
“Grab him!” Randy yells, through gritted teeth.
“I’m trying,” Mari says. “I’ve only got one hand!”
“Try harder,” Randy says. More like a plea than an admonishment.
“Lucas,” Mari charges her voice with every ounce of compassion, fear, and hope she can muster. “Lucas, please. I know, okay? I know how bad this is. I know you want to go home and hide until this is all better. But that’s not an option right now. Home is gone and I don’t think this will get better. But I will find you a safe place, if you come with me. I promise you that. All you have to do is reach up and take my hand.”
He doesn’t so much as twitch. Randy wavers. There’s a nasty metallic screech and a bang. The maniacs shriek with renewed passion.
“I know you’re in there, baby brother,” she says. “Remember earlier? At the gates? You reached out then and put your hand on my knee. That’s all you have to do now. Just the same thing, just reach out…”
“I know how you feel,” Mari says. “You’re thinking ‘does it even matter if I make it through this? Why bother?’ But this isn’t about you. See, Lucas, if you don’t take my hand, I’m going to jump back down there with you. I’m going to help Randy throw you through this door, and there won’t be time for both of us to get out, too. We would die. I don’t want to die. I want to live, and that all depends on you. I need you to save my life right now, Lucas. And it’s the easiest thing in the world: just reach up, take my hand, and save me.”
He looks up at her weakly. Mari can practically see the fog behind his eyes. He’s so pale. Looks like he’s already been dead for a day. But he slowly lifts one wavering arm to place his limp and fragile hand in hers. She snaps around his wrist like a snakebite, goes spread-eagle on the roof, trying to get maximum traction, and does the impossible. Straining so hard she practically hears the blood vessels bursting behind her eyes, can almost feel the individual fibers in her muscles snapping, she heaves Lucas up and onto the roof.
She laughs like she won the lottery.
There’s a clang beside her, but it’s just the rifle. Randy tossed it up first. His palms slap down on either side of the doorway and he comes rocketing up like he hid a trampoline down there. Then he lies on his back and joins Mari in laughing at the stars. Seconds later, the whole trailer shakes. A surge of mayhem from below. Randy leans over and glances down, inside the trailer, now filled to capacity with frothing psychopaths. Bleeding from countless wounds, eyes gone feral, screaming in blind rage. It won’t take them long to climb up. Randy rolls and comes up with his rifle, sights down it, ready to take the first comer. He jumps when Mari simply reaches out and slams the door.
They don’t seem big on reasoning. Let’s see them figure out how to work a latch.
Randy laughs again — at himself, with relief, in shock, everything. Mari smiles at him.
It fades when they both seem to suddenly realize they’re only ten feet up, cast away on a lonely metal island in a vast sea of murderers. Easily hundreds, if not thousands of the maniacs still vie to get at them. They flood into the trailer until it’s full; those on the outside punching, kicking and headbutting the walls in impotent fury. On their periphery, standing separate from the frenzy, the old man with black eyes watches them.
His expression is a mix of frustration and amusement. Eyebrows arched, teeth clenched, lips twitching.
Mari freezes. A cow standing on the train tracks, just watching as the locomotive approaches.
Randy still has his rifle, and he means to use it. Has it up and leveled at the old man, barrel rock steady, finger on the trigger. Mari steadies herself for the bang, but it doesn’t come. Randy squints through the scope, blinks, adjusts his grip, drops his eye to sight again. No good. He spins the gun around: Spiderweb cracks all across the lens. He looks at Mari like a lost dog.
Another anguished howl snaps them to attention.
The old man screams, fists clenched, neck craned, veins bulging out across his forehead like snakes beneath his skin. Again Mari is hit with a wave of hatred so intense it feels personal. It makes her queasy.
The maniacs thrashing in the trailer below freeze. One by one, they turn to face the black-eyed man. His breath runs thin. His scream dies out in a series of furious grunts. He takes a second to compose himself. Straightens his posture. Shakes out his hands. Cracks his neck. Then he nods once, and the crowd below recedes like the tide. They all pull back as one, and for a split second Mari’s actually relieved – they’re retreating!
Then they hunker down and sprint forward. A solid wave of bodies breaks against the trailer. Mari goes sprawling. She nearly slides right off roof, but catches herself at the edge. Lucas fares better, in his protective cocoon. Randy’s on his butt with a bloody lip. Must have caught himself with the rifle. Before he lost his grip on it. The gun is nowhere to be seen. Randy looks around like there might be a button he can press to fix this situation. Some way to hit rewind and take it back.
Keeping low, Mari scuttles back to the edge to assess. The mob is already retreating for another push. When enough of them hit some invisible line, they snap forward as one. Even though she’s ready for it this time, it still knocks Mari’s arms out from under her. She clips her chin on the roof. Something buckles in the space below. The supports of the flimsy trailer are giving out. The crowd recedes.
The space of a breath.
It won’t take much more abuse.
A distant, resonating roar. Not the old man. This sound is deeper, more present. Mari feels its vibrations play through the thin metal of the trailer. She turns, and doesn’t understand what she’s looking at. It’s a train. Barreling down the tarmac, where there are no rails. The whole thing lit up like a stadium — blinding flood and foglights all across the front; small but laser-bright spotlights down the roofline. The exterior is smooth and featureless black metal. Its engine screams to split the sky in half. The lead car banks off to one side, and the rest follow, undulating like a gigantic obsidian snake. When it was coming straight at them, Mari was half-blinded by the floodlights. But now that it’s at an angle, she can see the enormous, fortified wheels beneath each car. It’s like a train and a monster truck had a baby that grew up to be a tank.
Randy is on his feet, hooting and waving his arms. He looks to Mari with half a laugh, sharing some joke she never heard the punchline to.
“It’s the snake!” He says.
She doesn’t have a response.
“It’s a rescue!”
“They better hurry,” is all Mari can think to say.
The pair turn as one to watch the black-eyed man. It’s like he understands what’s happening – gets that he’s got a time limit now – and he’s not going to take any chances. The crowd backs up farther than before. Getting more of a run up. The old man’s face is a mask of barely constrained fury. He doesn’t make any visible signal, but Mari can sense when he pulls the trigger. A charge in the air, like the moment before a lightning strike. There’s a split-second delay, and then the mob charges. Mari closes her eyes. Just listens to the snarls grow louder. The last blow is much harder than the others. The groans and snaps from below are drowned out by the snake’s engine, but she can still feel them through her palms. And then she can’t. It feels like forever, how long she’s in the air. She pictures herself just spinning away into the sky like a cannonball. Cratering the dirt in a distant, empty patch of desert. Allowed to rest and rust and rot in peace. Instead she hits a wall and bounces.
There was no wall behind her a second ago.
Wind knocked out of her, she gasps up at a short expanse of smooth black steel. The snake is directly behind the trailer, not yet to a full stop, but slowing faster than something that size has any right to. There’s a two-foot gap between the edge of the trailer and the side of the Snake. Mari managed to hit the wall so hard that she rebounded to safety. If the impact had been any less violent, she’d probably be dead. Slipped over the edge and crushed beneath those mammoth wheels.
It’s…a difficult thing to be grateful for. If more of her bones aren’t broken, they’re at least bent. She feels like mush. Just a bunch of pudding beneath her skin. With as much urgency as she can muster, she turns her head to search for Lucas. Tries to quiet that voice inside her, running around slamming doors and flipping tables, screeching that he’s gone – surely gone — lost to the conveniently Lucas-sized gap between trailer and Snake. She steels herself to find an empty spot where Lucas used to be. Grief pouring into rage into relief into shame into guilt. Instead she finds Randy hunching awkwardly there. Fingers locked on the handle of the sideways door, toes of his boots damn near digging troughs into the metal roof. And beneath him: Lucas.
Randy covers the boy like a tarp.
He rolls away from Lucas and shakily gets to his feet. He gives Mari a worried look and she could kiss him. She takes back everything she ever thought about him: He looks like he could have been in her class at school, or at most, a year ahead. She wouldn’t have talked to him, if they met in the hall. Not her type. Too small, kinda goofy looking. Maybe not a full on dork, just below average in the most forgettable way. No way would she ever remember his name. That’s just wasted brain space.
But he saved Lucas.
Now Mari looks at him and Randy practically shines. If you asked her right now, she’d happily tattoo his name on her butt.
Wheezing and whistling, Mari crawls toward them, reaches out a trembling hand. Randy ignores it. He scoops Lucas up like you would a lazy housecat, takes two staggering steps, and heaves the boy up onto the Snake. Mari goes cold for a second, because Lucas disappears. Fear and worry set up shop in her belly – she won’t let Lucas out of her sight, never again – but she votes to trust Randy. He helps her to her feet and they hobble to the edge of the trailer. The small, darkened gap beckons to Mari like sleep. Formless and inevitable.
With Randy helping her, she jumps and grabs hold of the Snake, forearms flat, using the tension of skin on metal for grip. The stub of her bandaged hand slides uselessly. She goes to pull herself up and finds nothing in reserve. Bangs a knee coming down. One desperate foot blindly searching for purchase behind her.
It’s not even a big thing: Any ordinary day and she’d hop right across the tiny gap, using basic momentum to pull herself up without really trying. Such a trivial motion that you wouldn’t even think to worry about falling. But all of her strength is gone. The skin of her forearms squeaks and gives, starts to slide. She kicks and hauls with all of her might. All of her might is not very much at all.
Then hands on her hips, lifting. Mari channels all of her will into helping those hands — teeth bared, grunting awfully, all dignity and self-awareness abandoned – she doesn’t even flinch when they move down to her butt and start pushing. She crests the short rise like she just summited a deadly mountain. Every ounce of her has been burnt for fuel, and now she’s shutting down. She barely hits the tipping point, where her weight nudges over the axis, and she falls forward.
That’s why Lucas disappeared. A 12-inch thick ledge runs the perimeter of the car, and then it’s a three foot drop to the flat roof below. When she hits, she knocks her elbow and bites her tongue, adds a few checks to the growing list of pains, and does not care for a second. She wants to laugh — to release tension, to signal relief, or just because it really is funny that she’s still alive after all this. But she’s too tired.
Lucas is safe in body, if not in mind. Curled up beside her, his thousand-mile eyes watching something she hopes is a whole lot better than reality.
On the far side of the retaining wall there’s an unholy crash, followed by a rain of metal. Mari somehow hauls herself upright and props her chin on the ledge. Where the trailer used to be, there is now a wild tangle of broken steel and writhing bodies. It looks like the aftermath of a plane crash. And here come the rescuers, flooding over the wreckage, hurling debris aside, looking for…
Just one. They pull out a young man in a dull green uniform, stained with blood, caked with dust. A triumphant screech goes up, and the maniacs swarm over Randy like ants.
Mari slides down the wall and crumbles into a pile. Doesn’t even have the energy to shift her painfully-bent leg. She is hollow. A thin, brittle human shell, covering an empty space. She lets the numbness take her. She knows it’s better than the alternative.
Halfway down the car, a hatch opens and pale white light splits the dark. Steves pokes her head out and blinks to see Mari and Lucas there. Then she smiles. Then she stops smiling.
“Randy?” She says.
Mari can’t shake her head, so she just looks away.
Steves waits there for a long time, processing. Mari closes her eyes. When she opens them again, Steves is gone and two of the Johnsons are there instead. Looming over her like statues. They say a bunch of things and don’t get a response. They do it to Lucas, too. They talk to one another. One shakes his head a bunch and the other makes a lot of angry gestures. Angry gestures win, so the pair come over and hook their arms below Mari’s. Everything goes black.
Mari wakes up on a ship, skipping across a choppy sea. Her cabin is narrow, but tall and long. It’s crammed with bunkbeds or — what do you call it when there are more than two? The beds are stacked four high, industrial metal lockers between the rows. The floor is black rubber embossed with a complicated diamond pattern. The lights are set deep into the ceiling, and are mercilessly bright. Her thoughts are slippery, so she operates on instinct. She gets her sea-legs and goes in search of Lucas.
Moments later, she realizes where she must be. Inside of that train-truck thing the military guys called the Snake. Seconds later, she remembers how she got there. The shriek when those things found Randy in the wreckage. Punching, biting, stabbing with their hands….
No. That’s for later.
There’s so much for later that just the idea of later makes Mari feel like she’s standing in front of a landslide.
But that doesn’t matter. Later is for later. Now is for Lucas.
Mari searches three cars before she finds anybody else. One car that’s just green plastic crates, stacked neatly in locking metal shelves from floor to ceiling. A car full of expensive looking electronics – swiveling chairs bolted to the floor, keyboards built into consoles, monitors reeling off inexplicable information in text, graphs, and blocks of colors. A car where one whole side is a long, skinny kitchen – multiple ovens, stovetops, and sinks – and the other is a neatly ordered, tightly stacked pantry. All of the labels are pure white, with austere black text that simply states their contents, and nothing more. BEANS, they say. And, their point made, they say no more.
Finally, Mari slips through the flexible rubber hallway between cars and opens a door to find voices. Calm and measured, they’re discussing things that Mari is not prepared to understand right now. They’re just background noise. She walks straight past them as they make surprised noises and utter silly platitudes. She finds Lucas curled up at the bottom of a small bucket seat. It’s covered in hard white plastic, and bolted to the floor, but it swivels. She spins it around so he’s facing her, and puts her hand on his cheek. It’s warm in a worrying way, but his eyes are open, and his breathing is steady. Mari sits like that for a long minute before something occurs to her. She stands and runs to one of the soldiers. A black guy. She knows his name somewhere, but it’s not a place she can find right now. Already frustrated with words and all the stupid delays they’re causing, she skips right past the formalities and starts pulling his jacket off. He resists at first, but sees something in her eyes and begins helping her instead. Mari does the same to the next man, and the two others that come into the car, presumably drawn by her appearance. She has four coats now, all drab, patternless green, made of a stiff, but lightweight material that feels more like industrial panels than clothing.
Mari jogs back to the white chair and carefully layers the coats, one at a time, over the Lucas ball. When he’s completely covered and comfortably weighted down, she slides to the floor beside him. Mari slips her one good hand beneath the makeshift blankets and finds Lucas’ tiny, bird-like wrist. She wraps her fingers around it and feels his pulse, beating metronomic. It rebuilds her slowly, beat by beat.