ISBN (ebook): 978-1-61213-142-9
Pre-order from TWCS
Release date January 24, 2013
by Lissa Bryan
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“He’s still out there.”
Sam wagged his tail.
“What do you think he wants?” Carly asked Sam as she let the curtains fall closed. “Never mind. I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question because it’s probably nothing good.”
It had been a week since the Biker Guy appeared and set up camp on the sidewalk across the street from her apartment building. He was the first healthy person she’d seen in weeks. At first she wasn’t sure. His behavior was odd enough to make her think he was one of the Infected. Why would he set up a tent across from her apartment building when there was a motel right down the street? It made no sense. He would wave at her and smile cheerfully whenever Carly peeked through the curtains. He would be reading, cleaning a gun, or cooking over the fire he had built on the sidewalk, but as soon as she looked out the window, his head would snap up and he would stare right at her, as if he had some sort of weird sixth sense about when she was looking.
He was trying to starve her out, waiting until she had to leave, and then he would . . . what? She wasn’t sure.
She had a bad feeling she was going to find out very soon. She and Sam were out of food. Carly could have tolerated the hunger a while longer, but Sam had gone over to his bowl a few times today and batted at it with his paw, and she couldn’t stand the idea of the puppy being hungry.
Carly went to the closet and got out one of her dad’s golf clubs, the closest thing she had to a weapon. She’d taken it from the trunk of his car the first time she’d gone out. She slipped a steak knife in the back pocket of her jeans, though she wasn’t sure it would be effective if someone got close. Some of the Infected had seemed impervious to pain, and the little flimsy knife didn’t seem like it would inflict much damage. She thought about the long, wickedly-sharp knives her mother had hanging on the magnetic rack in her kitchen, but there was no way Carly could go back into her parents’ apartment.
Sam pranced by the door. He thought she was going to take him out. The apartment building was built in a square around a small, grassy courtyard where Carly walked him. Those blank windows staring like sightless eyes always made her nervous. There could still be Infected inside some of the apartments, which was why she tried to keep Sam’s visits outside to the early mornings and late evenings, when it was almost dark and less likely she’d be seen. He used a pan lined with newspaper the rest of the time, but the garbage hadn’t been picked up in months, and the newspaper machine in the building’s lobby was empty.
“I’ll be back soon, Sam,” Carly said. She knelt down and hugged him. He licked the underside of her chin as she stood. “Be good, okay?” She closed her apartment door after her and twisted the knob to make sure it had locked. At the end of the hall was a fire door that led to the stairs, and Carly took the three flights down to the ground level. She wished there was another way to get out, but her building only had one street-level exit, aside from the fire escape, and she wasn’t brave enough to try them. She had a pathological fear of heights that was so bad she would rather face the Biker Guy than try to climb down a rickety metal ladder.
She peeked out the window in the lobby. Yep. Still there. And currently staring right at her. She clutched the handle of the golf club like a baseball bat.
For a moment, Carly considered turning around, going back upstairs, and just hoping he’d leave before their situation became desperate, but she’d given the rest of the food to Sam yesterday and the little guy was growing. He needed to eat.
She had to do it. She had no choice. But she couldn’t force herself to open the door. Biker Guy got up from his seat on an overturned bucket and walked straight toward her. The guy was huge. Carly swallowed a gasp and backed up until her heels bumped against the stairs.
He was even scarier up close. Her dad had been six feet tall and this guy was even taller, built like a linebacker with heavily muscled, broad shoulders. He had tattoos on his arms and a scruffy beard on his jaw, which matched the dark, tousled hair on his head. His eyes were so dark, they seemed black. “Hello,” he said through the glass door.
Carly scrambled up the stairs to the landing and backed into the corner. Nope. No way was she going out there. She trotted back up the stairs to her floor, listening carefully for any sounds that might indicate he was forcing his way in, but she heard nothing beyond her own raspy breathing.
She took out her key ring, pausing when she saw the key next to her own. She bit her lip and looked across the hall at the door the key unlocked. The apartment belonged to Mrs. Lincoln, a retired elementary teacher. Carly had been in her class when she was in the second grade, and there had been a mutual affection between them ever since. Carly had a key because she ran occasional errands for Mrs. Lincoln and watered her plants whenever she was out of town.
She hadn’t seen Mrs. Lincoln since the start of the Crisis due to the quarantine, and she hadn’t answered her phone when Carly tried to call. Carly fervently hoped the elderly widow had gotten away before the Infection reached Juneau. There were supposed to be some areas in Canada that weren’t affected. Maybe she and her son had holed up in his fishing cabin in Vancouver.
She knew if she asked Mrs. Lincoln, she would encourage Carly to get what she needed from her cupboards, but it still made Carly very uncomfortable. It felt like . . . looting. It felt wrong. But she had a hungry puppy to feed and no choice unless she wanted to face Biker Guy. Carly gritted her teeth and used the key.
With her next breath, she knew Mrs. Lincoln hadn’t made it to Canada. Choking, gagging, Carly held her arm over her nose to try to block the stench. She held her breath as she darted inside to the little kitchen and opened the cupboards. Only a few cans remained inside. Carly felt tears gather, and she wasn’t sure if it was because of poor Mrs. Lincoln or her disappointment in the lack of food.
She took what was there. It would tide them over for a couple of days. She dashed back out into the hall and shut the door. An explosion of breath left her, a ragged sob which sounded horribly loud in the silent hallway.
Carly unlocked her own door and slipped inside. Sam bounced joyfully, as though she’d been gone for weeks, his tail wagging so hard he was hitting his flanks with it. She smiled at him and gave his ears a rub. He looked at her quizzically. “I’m okay,” she reassured him. “I’m okay.”
She didn’t have a choice but to be okay.
Sam wasn’t fooled. He leaned against her leg and looked up at her with a soft whine.
She felt tears sting her eyes. “You never met Mrs. Lincoln, but she was very nice. I just wish . . . I just wish she could have been with her son if she had to . . .” Carly couldn’t say the last word.
She turned away and began to sort the cans she’d found. There were kidney beans, beef stew, corn, and green beans. She fished her can opener out of the drawer and before long was pouring the can of beef stew into Sam’s bowl. He dug in with relish. Carly opened the kidney beans for herself and ate them right out of the can. She’d never been much of a cook before the Crisis, but since the electricity was gone, she couldn’t even warm up her dinner. At least the beans were filling, she thought. Pretty tasty, too. Her mother had always said, Hunger is the best seasoning. Carly cut off that line of thought abruptly.
She threw the empty cans into the trash and went over to sit down on the sofa. She stared at the blank screen of the television in front of her. Her watch no longer worked but she had learned to tell the approximate time by the shadows on the wall. Troy Cramer’s News Hour would be on right about now, she thought. During the Crisis, he had been the nation’s most trusted source of news. He had seemed indefatigable, staying on the air for inhumanly long stretches, especially toward the end, when he had been the last man standing. And there had been no one left to turn off the camera when he began raving in delirium. She was almost glad the power had gone off before she saw the inevitable conclusion. She would have felt compelled to watch, to be with him in his final moments, even in this remote fashion.
Sam hopped up on the sofa beside her and laid his head on her thigh with a contented sigh. He had a full belly, and Carly petted him as he drifted off to sleep. All was right in his world. Carly envied him.
His fur had been darker when she first spotted him on the sidewalk in front of her building, and his eyes had been blue. He was a lonely little puppy trying to tear open a trash bag, looking for something to eat. He must have remembered humans since he’d run right to Carly when she dashed outside to scoop him up. She had to take him in. She knew what would happen to him if she didn’t.
She’d named him Sam, after Frodo’s loyal friend in The Lord of the Rings, the last movie she and her father had watched together. And Sam had kept her going when giving up seemed like a much more attractive option. She couldn’t leave him with no one to take care of him. Until Biker Guy had arrived and set up camp across from her building, she had seemed to be the only person left in Juneau.
Two days later, they were out of food again, and Carly was faced with the prospect of trying to make it out to the store.
Carly went over to the window to peek out at Biker Guy. Still there. Yesterday, she had gathered all of her courage and gone down to the lobby door again, but he had met her there with another Hello, and she’d panicked and darted back upstairs.
He was looking up at her window. He waved and reached down beside his bucket to pick up something that looked like a large white sheet of poster board. He held it up, and she could see the words he’d painted on it in black: PLEASE DON’T BE AFRAID. I WON’T HURT YOU.
He dropped the top poster to reveal another beneath it: I JUST WANT TO TALK TO YOU.
Carly thought that was highly unlikely. Whatever this guy wants, it isn’t just a scintillating conversation.
He held up another sign: I’M REALLY A NICE GUY. HONEST.
Yeah, like he’d tell me if he wasn’t.
He grinned as he held up the last board: SURRENDER, DOROTHY.
Carly had to giggle, but it faded as she realized it was the first time she’d laughed since the Crisis. She retreated and let the curtain drop. Indecision gnawed at her. She had to get food, and that meant confronting Biker Guy, whether she liked it or not.
She decided to wait until the middle of the night, when he’d hopefully be asleep and wouldn’t see her leave the safety of her building.
Carly slept during the afternoon and evening, setting her wind-up alarm clock for after midnight when it would be dark. Well, as dark as it ever got in Juneau during summer, anyway. She sat up, and Sam, who slept at the foot of her bed, thumped his tail against the mattress. She could see the question in his eyes. Out?
“No,” she replied. “I can’t take you with me.” He was around three months old, knee-high with big, clumsy paws. He was still vulnerable, and it tore at her heart to think of someone hurting him. She told him to stay and went into her closet to change into dark clothing. She took her large canvas shopping bag, the steak knife, and her dad’s nine iron. As the old saying goes, God hates a coward, she reminded herself.
Carly patted her pocket to make sure she had her keys and then shut the apartment door behind herself. She crept down the stairs and approached the lobby door. Biker Guy was nowhere in sight. His fire had burned down to red embers. She took a deep breath and pushed the lobby door open a crack. She waited, looking around the dark and silent street. No movement, no sounds. Carly pushed the door open wide enough to allow her to slip through. She froze again, but nothing happened. So she set off down the street, walking as quickly as stealth would allow, with the nine iron over her shoulder like a soldier carrying a rifle.
The grocery store wasn’t far, but then again, nothing in Juneau was very far from anything else. Carly gagged at the smell of rotten meat, spoiled produce, and sour milk. The stink hadn’t dissipated at all since her last visit over a week ago, before Biker Guy had trapped her in her apartment building.
Her lantern was by the door where she’d left it. Carly picked it up and turned it on before she put it into the child seat of an empty cart, along with a fresh pack of batteries in case the lamp began to dim. Being in the dark in there was a terrifying thought.
Carly went to the dog food first and heaved the largest bag of puppy food they had into the cart. There was still plenty of that left, though the selection of human food left was slim. Troy Cramer had shown video footage of grocery stores all over the country cleaned out by shoppers or looters at the height of the Crisis.
Carly didn’t take time to make selections based on her preferences. She grabbed whatever cans were still on the shelf and dumped them into the cart. She’d been back in the stockroom on a previous visit. It was empty except for a few cases of bottled water.
A dark feeling of unease was stirring within her. What was she going to do once it was all gone? She doubted if what was left would last until the end of the summer. But surely things will be back to normal by then.
There was a gas station up the street. She wondered if she should check it to see if there were more groceries there, but it made her feel uneasy since she was already breaking quarantine to come here and the gas station was even further away. And after that’s gone, then what? Carly didn’t know. She’d expected the Crisis to be over by now and for things to be getting back to normal, and she wasn’t prepared for the world to be out of order for the long term.
She swallowed back a gasp when she heard something—a foot crunching down on the spilled rice that she had seen in the next aisle. She realized then she had left her golf club by the door when she picked up the lantern. She pulled the knife out of her pocket, her hand shaking.
Another step and a small sound, like a moan or a sigh.
Time to go. Carly pushed her cart toward the front of the store. Before now, she’d been diligent about writing down the UPC codes of the products she took and always left a check to cover the cost, but not today.
“Mother?” She recognized the voice of Merle Campton, who owned the automobile service garage. His mother had been dead for years. “Mother?”
Carly knew better than to answer. She hurried past the darkened dairy cases.
“Mother!” Merle’s boots clomped on the tile as he ran after her.
Her cart hit an unseen obstacle, and the jolt knocked the knife out of her hand. Carly looked around for it, but it must have skidded under a shelf as she saw no sign of—
“Mother!” Merle appeared at the end of her aisle and ran toward her.
“No, please, Merle, it’s Carly Daniels! Carly!”
Merle’s eyes glittered with eagerness. He ran toward her with his arms outstretched. Carly backed away, her own arms stretched out to ward him off. Her foot tangled around an empty rack of potato chips, and she fell with a short scream of surprise.
Merle’s face was the brilliant red of the Infected, and sweat beaded on his forehead. He was grinning merrily as he bent over to grab her. But the grin disappeared when Biker Guy swung the nine iron into the back of Merle’s head. Merle fell like a sack of potatoes onto his side, out cold.
“Important safety tip,” Biker Guy said, “weapons only work if you keep them with you.”
Carly tried to blink back tears. “Is he . . . Is he dead?” She reached over to check him for a pulse.
“Jesus! Don’t touch him!” Biker Guy lunged forward and grabbed her hand before she could make contact. “He’s one of them!”
“I knew him!” Tears spilled down Carly’s cheeks against her will.
Biker Guy glanced down at Merle. “If he’s not dead, he’s going to wake up with one hell of a headache. If he is, I’ve just saved him from a lingering and painful end.”
He used his grip on Carly’s hand to pull her to her feet. She tugged her hand from his and dashed away her tears. “I hate just . . . leaving him here.”
“Ultimately, it makes no difference,” Biker Guy said.
Carly didn’t want to admit the truth of that statement.
Biker Guy propped the nine iron on his shoulder. “What’s your name again? Harley?”
“Carly,” she said, correcting him automatically. He must have heard her shout it at Merle. “Carly Daniels.”
“I’m Justin Thatcher.”
She stuck her hand out for him to shake, an automatic courtesy. He took it in his own massive paw and gave it a gentle shake. “What were you doing here?”
“Shopping.” Justin gave her a small smile.
“In the middle of the night?”
“Yeah, just like you are. What a coincidence.”
Carly flushed. It was rather obvious she’d been trying to avoid him. “Thank you for helping me.”
He handed her golf club back. “Told you I was a nice guy.”
Carly grabbed her cart. “Yes. Thank you. Bye, now.” She rammed the potato chip rack aside and hurried up the aisle.
“I’ll walk you back,” Justin said.
“No need. Thank you.”
She could hear a smile in his voice. “No trouble. It’s on my way.”
Carly stopped at the register and pulled out her checkbook. She wasn’t going to itemize as she had on her previous visits; one hundred dollars should more than cover it. She clicked her pen and began to write.
“What are you doing?” Justin asked. He leaned on the conveyor belt beside her and grinned.
“Paying,” Carly said shortly. She signed the check with her loopy signature and slipped it through the slot in the cash register’s till. His grin faded when he saw the list Carly had been keeping on the shelf beside it.
She knew what he was going to say, and she didn’t want to hear it. She quickly stuffed the cans into her canvas tote. She put her arms around the bag of dog food and tried to lift it out of the cart, but the position was awkward.
“Let me get that.” He lifted it easily and tucked it under one arm. “You have a dog?” he asked. She knew why he was surprised. There didn’t seem to be many dogs or cats that survived. She hadn’t seen one in weeks.
“Obviously. Why else would I be buying dog food?” Carly pushed her empty cart up to the front and tucked it into the row with the others.
He shrugged. “Because there isn’t much food for people left.”
Carly blinked. “So you think I would eat dog food?”
“It’s food. It’s not like it’s dirty or anything. The FDA monitors it just like food for human consumption.”
“Gross,” Carly muttered.
“Before this is over, I’ll wager you’ll eat worse things than dog food.”
Tears stung Carly’s eyes. “Stop it.”
He nodded. “Okay. I’m sorry.”
They walked in silence back to Carly’s apartment building. “I’ll take that.” She tugged at the bag of dog food. “Thank you.”
“You sure you won’t let me carry it up for you?”
The thought was alarming. “No, uh, that’s not, um, necessary. I’ll get it.”
He transferred the bag to her, and she staggered slightly under its weight. She tried to fish her keys out of her pocket, mentally kicking herself for not doing so before he handed her the fifty-pound bag. He watched with an expression of slight amusement as she struggled and juggled and tried to keep her tote from slipping off her shoulder.
“Need some help?”
“I’ve got it.” She managed to work a hand into her pocket and then promptly dropped the keys. He bent to pick them up, and she panicked. He had the keys to her apartment now!
But all he did was unlock the lobby door and hold them out to her. She snatched them from his hand and darted inside, where she felt safe. He stood on the other side of the glass door and watched as she charged up the stairs as quickly as she could.
Carly was exhausted and out of breath by the time she reached the third floor hallway. She set down the bag of food with a grunt and dropped the tote beside it. She braced herself on the doorframe for a moment to rest. She used to use the Stairmaster at the gym. She shouldn’t be so tired, but then again, she hadn’t been eating much these days and that could explain why she felt so weak. She grimaced at the bag of dog food. She wasn’t that desperate yet.
Carly unlocked her apartment door and dragged the bag inside instead of lifting it. Sam danced around her in circles. He was obviously praising her skills as a hunter. She tore open the top and scooped out a bowl of it. She had learned from her dog-training book that owners were supposed to give dogs the same food all the time in order to avoid upsetting their stomachs, but Sam seemed to be thriving on his varied diet.
She put all the cans away, except for a can of ravioli she opened and consumed on the spot. Both she and Sam finished eating at about the same time, and they settled into their spots on the sofa together. Carly stroked Sam’s fur absently, thinking about Justin, the Biker Guy. He’d had her at his mercy in the store after he’d hit Merle, but he hadn’t tried to hurt her. Instead, he’d offered to carry her groceries.
It made her nervous because she wanted to trust him. Her father had warned her about that before he got sick. He’d said there would be bad people out there who would pretend to be nice so that she would let her guard down. He’d warned her to always be cautious, always be vigilant, and to trust no one. She was on her own, just her and Sam. That thought made her feel small and lonely, made her want to hide in her little apartment, where she felt safe from the huge world outside. But that safety was an illusion. The door to the lobby was glass; it would only take one rock to break down that barrier. And her apartment door was made of thin metal over a foam core—meant for insulation and sound-dampening, not for security. One well-placed kick and it would fail.
She hugged Sam and wondered—not for the first time—if she should move somewhere else. But where? The thought of leaving her home and everything familiar was terrifying. She wanted to be home when the world returned to normal. She just wasn’t sure how long she was going to have to wait for that, or how she would survive in the meantime.
He was cooking something. He had set up some kind of tripod over the fire, and hanging from it was a strange, small, circular, flat surface with arms at the sides joined over the top. He was using it as a frying pan. He looked up and waved at her. She ducked behind the curtains.
Carly took Sam down to the interior courtyard using the back stairs. He bounded out the door and sniffed around, looking for the exact spot while she watched the windows around them, growing more nervous by the moment, as she always did. She felt like a rabbit in the middle of a football field. No place to hide.
“Hurry up,” Carly said to Sam, but he was intent on locating today’s precise deposit location, using criteria only dogs knew. After he finally finished, Carly cleaned up after him and dropped the plastic sack into the overflowing trash can. Back inside, where it’s safe. Sam followed at her heels. Like his namesake, he was always cheerful and exuberant. His tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth as he bounded around beside her.
Carly filled his bowl with dog food again, but something strange happened when she went to fill his water bowl. Nothing came out of the faucet when she turned the taps. There was a strange clunking and sputtering sound, but no water.
She tried the bathroom taps with the same results. Nothing. Carly felt her heart sink. She knew nothing about plumbing, so fixing it was impossible, and she had no idea what she was going to do. She could get bottled water from the store to drink, but that wouldn’t help when it came to hygiene and flushing her toilet.
Carly considered her options for a moment and then went over to the window. She unlocked the top and slid it open. It would only open partway, as a safety feature, but it was large enough for her to stick her head out.
Justin looked up from his cooking and waved to her. “Hi, Marly!” he called.
“Carly.” She corrected him automatically. “Um, Justin . . . Do you know anything about plumbing?”
“My water doesn’t work.”
Justin stood, wrapped the handle of the skillet-thing in a cloth, lifted it off the fire, and set it aside. He walked over to stand beneath Carly’s window, craning his neck back to look up at her. “What do you mean, it doesn’t work?”
“I turned on the tap and nothing came out, and it made weird clunking noises.”
“The noises are from air in the pipes.”
“Oh.” That couldn’t be good. “How do I get it out?”
Justin shrugged. “I can’t tell you without looking at it.”
“Can you . . . can you at least suggest something for me to try?”
“Not without looking at it myself.”
Carly bit her lip. “Can you look at the pipes in the basement and fix it from there?”
Carly was on the verge of telling him to forget it, but then she thought about not being able to flush her toilet. “All right,” she said. “I’ll be right down.”
She left the apartment door slightly ajar and walked downstairs to the lobby. Justin was waiting by the door. She hesitated for only a moment and then pushed it open for him. He strolled inside and started up the stairs as if he knew right where he was going. With a small frown of concern, Carly hurried to catch up to him.
She opened the door to the third floor hallway, and Justin blurted out, “Jesus Christ!” He grabbed Carly by the waist and thrust her behind him.
Startled, she peeked around his side to see what had alarmed him so much. “Oh, that’s Sam. He must have pushed the door open.”
“Carly, where did you get him?” Justin asked, speaking slowly, never taking his eyes from Sam. Sam, for his part, simply stood there and eyed Justin with curiosity, his head tilted to the side.
“I found him outside, trying to eat out of the trash. He’s still just a puppy.”
“That’s no puppy,” Justin said. “That’s a wolf.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” Carly pushed past him, darting around the arm that tried to block her path, and went to rub Sam’s head between his fuzzy, triangular ears. “See? He’s gentle and friendly.”
“A wolf isn’t a dog, Carly. They’re not pets.” His tone was gentle, but firm, as though he were trying to get her to see reason.
Carly’s eyes flashed with anger. What did he think she was going to do? Say to Sam, Oh, sorry, you’re the wrong species, and toss him out to fend for himself? “I’ve had him since he was a baby. He wouldn’t survive out there alone.”
She knelt and hugged Sam. “It’s none of your business! Go away! I don’t care about the water now.”
“All right,” Justin said, trying to sound soothing. “Calm down. I won’t take him away from you, okay? Now, let me see your pipes.”
Carly hesitated. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.
Justin spread his hands, as if to show he was unarmed, harmless. “Carly, if I was going to hurt you, I would have done it by now, don’t you think?”
She’d had a similar thought earlier. But it was another long moment before Carly led him into her apartment and pointed at the kitchen. He went inside and opened the cupboard doors under the sink. “Hmm. Interesting.”
“I’ve never seen anyone put their cleaning products in alphabetical order.”
Carly sighed. She wanted to know how to fix her plumbing, not his opinion on her organizational skills. “Can you tell anything about the water?”
Justin unhooked the fat white pipe shaped like the letter J. He showed her the interior. “See? No water. Your pipes are empty, Carly. You used it all. The water is gone, and it won’t come back because there’s no electricity to run the pumps.”
“What am I going to do?” Carly wasn’t really asking him. She rubbed her forehead. Water had always been something that was just there at the turn of a tap. She had no idea what to do, and a sensation of dull panic churned in her gut.
“You can’t stay here.”
She had been thinking the same thing earlier, but hearing Justin voice it upset her. “This is my home,” she said. “I can’t just leave it!”
He was quiet for a moment. “What were you planning to do this winter? You don’t have a fireplace and the temperature is usually around freezing or just above. It’s not as cold here as most people think it gets in Alaska, but you could still freeze to death.”
She looked at him in confusion. It made little sense to her that Justin was worrying about winter when everything would surely be back to normal by then. Order would be restored, and the lights would be back on. Carly would be back to managing the souvenir shop, and the stores would be full of groceries.
“Go away,” she muttered.
“Go away!” she cried. Sam, sensitive as always to her moods and correctly identifying Justin as the cause of her distress, let out a growl and bared his sharp little milk teeth. Justin didn’t even glance at him.
“All right, Carly. I’ll go. I’ll be outside if you decide you want to talk.”
Justin nodded and pulled the apartment door closed behind him. Carly slid down to the floor in front of her silent refrigerator. Tears slid down her cheeks, and Sam licked them off gently. He wagged his tail, but Carly remained where she sat, unable to move or think.
Justin waved to her and called “Hi, Charly!”
“Carly,” she said. He didn’t seem to be very good with names.
“Would you like some oatmeal? I made plenty.”
Her mouth watered at the thought of hot food. She’d never particularly cared for oatmeal, but it sounded absolutely delicious. But still Carly hesitated. She hadn’t figured out what Justin wanted. He could be dangerous. Just because he hadn’t chosen to strike yet didn’t mean he was safe.
“I have coffee,” he called.
That sealed the deal. “I’ll be right down!” Carly called. She went into the bathroom and brushed her teeth, rinsing with water from one of the bottles she’d found by her door when she’d taken Sam for his last trip outside for the evening. She could only surmise it had been left by Justin—perhaps as a peace offering—though how he had gotten inside was anyone’s guess.
She thought it was very nice of him, especially after the way she had yelled at him yesterday. After she’d calmed down, she’d felt embarrassed about it. He was trying to help, even if he didn’t understand why she was so reluctant to even consider leaving her home.
Her wavy, caramel-colored hair was petulant at being denied its daily wash and conditioner treatment, so it frizzed and stuck out all over her head. Her vigorous brushing made things worse before she pulled it back into a ponytail. Her brown eyes were bloodshot from crying after last night’s bad dream about her parents.
Carly retrieved a bottle of maple syrup from the cabinet, just in case he didn’t have any, and put it into a small bag with a bowl, mug, and spoon. Justin appeared to be alone, so it would be silly for him to carry around extra dishware if he didn’t need it.
She put a leash on Sam and led him down the front stairs. Puppies needed to be socialized, according to the dog-training book Carly found at the grocery store. They needed to be around people in different types of situations in order to grow up to be friendly, well-behaved dogs. Sam was already very well behaved, though not due to any vigorous training on her part. He was sharply attuned to her moods and body language. All she had to do was look at him crossly to make him stop whatever he was doing, and he seemed to have a remarkable memory for those moments.
Justin had set up a second bucket as a chair for Carly. She sat down on it, and Sam lay down on the sidewalk beside her. “I brought some syrup.”
Justin smiled. “That’s great. All I have is sugar.” He already had enough dishes, made out of lightweight metal, and he scooped out a portion of oatmeal for her. “You might want to put your bowl under it since we don’t have a table. Those aluminum dishes can get hot.”
Carly did as he suggested and then drizzled syrup over her bowlful. “Thank you.” She handed him the syrup, and he did the same.
“No problem.” He put the bottle on the ground between them. Sam looked at it and licked his chops in temptation, but a glance from Carly made him lay his head back down on his paws with a sigh.
Carly picked up her coffee cup and inhaled with something akin to ecstasy. One sip and she was in heaven. “God, I missed this.”
Justin chuckled. “There’s plenty if you want more.”
Carly had to restrain herself from gulping down the rest of the cup so she could ask for another. She sipped the coffee and ate her breakfast in silence for a few minutes. Justin scraped the rest of the oatmeal out into a bowl and put it down in front of Sam. Sam looked up at Carly for permission before digging in.
“I thought about what you said,” she told Justin. “And I’m sorry I was so rude to you yesterday.”
He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, as I said, I thought a lot last night about what you told me, and—” Carly was uncertain of how to proceed.
“And?” Justin prompted gently.
Carly swallowed. “You’re right. I don’t know what to do about this winter. I mean, I’m sure everything will be fixed by then, but just in case . . . I need to figure something out. Like a kerosene heater or something.”
“You don’t have water.”
“I haven’t figured that part out yet. But I’m sure I’ll come up with something.”
She hated the pity in his eyes. She dropped her gaze down to her plate.
“You can’t stay here, Carly. It’s not healthy for Sam.”
She blinked. “What do you mean?”
“He shouldn’t breathe in kerosene fumes. It’s not good for dogs . . . or wolves, for that matter. It will be almost impossible to ventilate your apartment properly. Secondly, Sam needs space to run. He’s going to get a lot bigger before he finishes growing, and your apartment is just too small for him. He’ll be unhappy there.”
Carly hadn’t thought of that. She wondered what had changed Justin’s mind about Sam. Whatever had caused it, she appreciated the kindness.
“You’ll run out of bottled water very quickly. If you give him unfiltered water from a creek or river, he could get sick. He could get parasites, and you can’t take him to a vet.”
“I have nowhere else to go.” Carly had lost her appetite. She poked at the oatmeal with her spoon.
Justin sipped his coffee. As he did, the sleeve of his T-shirt slipped up, and she got a good look at the tattoo on his upper arm. It was a snake wrapped around a lightning bolt. “You were in Iraq?” she asked, surprised.
Justin froze. “How did you know that?”
“Your tattoo. My dad had a ring with the same symbol on it. He said it was the symbol of his army unit or something like that. He was in the first Gulf War.”
Justin looked at her sharply. “You said your last name was Daniels? Was your dad Carl Daniels?”
Carly nodded, her eyes wide. “Did you know him?”
“Not well. He was getting ready to retire when I joined up.” Justin shook his head. “Small world, huh?”
“I guess so.” Carly was remembering what her dad said to her once about the symbol; any man who wore it was like a brother to him, someone she could trust or rely on for help. “Is my dad why you’re here?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t know.” Justin poured more coffee into her cup and then topped off his own cup. “But now that I do know, I can’t just leave you here. You understand that, right?”
Carly cursed herself for saying anything. The firmness in his tone told her he wasn’t going to let this go easily. “What do you want, Justin? Why are you camped out in front of my apartment?”
“I told you why I’m here; I wrote it on the sign. I just wanted to talk to you. You’re the only sane human being I’ve seen in weeks.”
“You’re not from here, though, are you?”
He shook his head. “I’m from Nebraska, actually. Omaha. I was up here for the Deadhorse Rally. I got here earlier than expected and decided to take a detour and explore a bit.”
Justin was referring to the annual motorcycle ride from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, a town on the northern coast of Alaska, the most northern point on the North American continent riders could reach. It was supposed to be one of the most challenging and scenic rides in America.
“Where’s your bike?” Carly asked.
“I left it in Haines when I took the ferry here.” The ferry was the only way to reach Juneau as none of Alaska’s eleven highways led to the town. He smiled, and it was a bit wistful. “This is a beautiful area. For all the tourists you get, the forests are practically pristine.”
“I’m sorry about your bike.” Carly knew some riders were attached to their motorcycles the way car buffs cherished a classic automobile.
Justin merely shrugged. “I couldn’t ride it now, anyway.”
“Too loud. Everyone for miles can hear you coming.”
“The ferry isn’t running, so I’m stuck here.” Carly was relieved, in a way. It was a decision she didn’t have to make.
“You’re not stuck. There are plenty of boats. You could take one all the way down the coast.”
“To where? I have nowhere else to go.”
“You mean, like, Ketchikan?”
“No, I mean, like, Florida. That’s where I’m headed.”
Carly was bewildered. “Why would I want to go there?”
“The climate, for one thing. You wouldn’t have to worry about freezing in the winter, and you can grow food year round down there.”
“I don’t know how to farm.”
He shrugged. “Neither do I. We can learn.”
“I don’t understand why you think I’d need to. Pretty soon everything will be back to normal.”
“Jesus, Carly, look around you. Do you see society rebuilding itself?”
“It may take a little while—”
“No.” Justin’s voice was soft, but firm. “Carly, you have to accept it. Life as you know it is over. America is dead. There isn’t a president or police officers. No one will ever cash those checks you wrote. The power won’t come back on, not for a very, very long time.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said stubbornly.
“You don’t want to believe me, but you know it’s true.”
Carly stood, and her forgotten bowl of oatmeal tumbled off her lap. Sam was delighted and looked up at her for permission to eat it, but Carly took hold of his leash. She wasn’t looking at Justin, her face firmly turned away. “I’m going home now. Leave me alone. Just go away and leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that. Your father—”
“He’s dead,” Carly snapped. “And you just told me there’s no government, which means there’s no army either. Your obligations are at an end.”
She tugged Sam away from the pile of oatmeal and went back to her apartment building.
ΩJustin sighed as he watched Carly retreat to her apartment building. He’d taken a bit of a risk trying to jar her into accepting reality. She was still in shock, still in the denial stage. He had known as much when he saw the detailed list of items she’d taken from the store. She’d even calculated the tax on the non-grocery items. He could see a few cracks in the careful façade she had constructed to hide from the truth, and with more careful prodding, he might be able to break through.
He picked up her plate and bowl and washed them in the bucket of water he’d drawn from a nearby creek and purified with bleach. He needed to give her time to come to grips with the fact that the world she had known was gone, but it was already the middle of June. They couldn’t wait much longer if they were going to reach a more temperate climate before winter set in.
He’d known the moment he spotted her, almost two weeks ago, he couldn’t leave her behind. It just wouldn’t be right. But it was clear he was going to have a hell of a time convincing her to leave the only place she felt safe in this new, uncertain world.
His first indication that there was something wrong had been the fire. He’d been camping in the silent serenity of the hills around the sleepy little town. Sometimes the noise and bustle of the civilized world got to be too much, and he’d need to retreat for a while, to recharge his batteries in solitude.
He smelled the fire before he saw it. It was only once his curiosity had lured him in closer to the town that he’d seen the smear of black smoke besmirching the crystalline, blue sky. He’d frowned as he found a comfortable spot and pulled out his binoculars. Seemed like a hell of a big one, but he heard no sirens. Even when the sun had finally set for the night, he hadn’t seen any flashing lights reflected off the nearby buildings or the haze of smoke that hung low to the rooftops. Fortunately, the building had been far enough from its neighbors that the fire hadn’t spread, or the whole town might have burned.
That was when he’d taken the wind-up radio from his pack, and when he couldn’t make sense of the disjointed babble, he’d turned on his cell phone for the first time in over a month. Dozens of messages. He listened to them at first in shock and then in slowly dawning horror as he realized what was happening.
After that, he’d watched the town through his binoculars as he lay on a small bluff that provided an excellent vantage point. After a while, the only people he saw were the Infected, shuffling aimlessly through the streets like zombies, and soon they were gone, too.
He’d seen Carly by chance during one of his brief forays into the town, dashing from her apartment to the little grocery store, her eyes wide with fear and confusion. He’d watched her for a while to gauge how best to approach her. After checking her building for any potential threats, he set up camp in front and settled in to wait. Humans were social creatures, after all, and it was only a matter of time before loneliness would lead her to initiate contact. He hadn’t counted on the wolf pup, however.
Like most modern Americans, Carly was completely unprepared for survival in a world without technology. To people like Carly, food came from a grocery store, and its origins beyond that point were vague. Water came from a tap, safe and purified, and there was always a doctor to tend to any injuries with safe, FDA-approved medications. People like Carly rarely survived for long when the center did not hold. She’d armed herself with a steak knife and a golf club, for God’s sake! Still, he recognized a spark of strength within her that told him she was a survivor. She just didn’t know it yet.
He hadn’t lied to her when he’d told her he had an obligation to her father, an obligation that still held even if he was the last surviving member of what had simply been called “The Unit.” It was part of the oath. If a man should fall, the rest of them would take care of his family. He hadn’t even been aware that Carl Daniels had a family. Most of them did not. One of the things that made them so effective was none of them had anything to lose.
Justin poured himself another cup of coffee and sipped it while he watched Carly’s window to see if she would reappear. The first step would be to earn her trust.
Carly was dreaming of her parents again. She hated this dream and always tried to fight it off, but at least twice a week, her mind replayed the last weeks of her parents’ lives with horrifying, crystalline clarity.
Her mother, Gloria, had fallen sick first, but it had been mild, like a spring cold or a persistent case of allergies. Both Carly and her father had watched anxiously, and at the end of the week, her mother had actually seemed like she was getting better. Gloria had been in the kitchen, cooking dinner, when she’d collapsed to the linoleum. Carl had rushed in and scooped his wife off the floor, and she had vomited helplessly as he lifted her. She’d been burning up with fever. Carly had held her father’s gaze in a moment of silent, horrified communication. There was no denying she had the Infection.
There was still hope. The news had said over half of the people who caught it survived. Carly would wonder later if that was just a way of trying to keep the panic down, to keep the Infected in their homes drinking chicken soup instead of clogging the roads and trying to reach the already overcrowded hospitals.
The violent illness wracked Gloria’s body as her fever climbed to alarming heights. Then the delirium set in, and she talked to long-dead relatives, screamed that there were spiders crawling on her, and failed to recognize either her husband or daughter. Carl had to tie Gloria’s hands to the headboard to keep her from digging bloody furrows in her arms, clawing away the spiders only she could see.
They’d tried everything. They tried putting Gloria into a tub of cold water to bring down the fever. They’d given her aspirin, which was the only drug they had in their apartments. They tried to keep her hydrated, though every drop of liquid they put into her came right back up. Carl had tried to contact the hospital, but 911 rang busy. When he drove to the hospital to see if there was any way he could get Gloria admitted, he had come home pale, his eyes filled with the horrors he had seen there. He hadn’t mentioned the hospital after that.
And then one afternoon while Carly was sponging the sweat from her mother’s shivering body, Carl had looked at his daughter and said, “I have it, too.”
His illness seemed to progress much faster, or perhaps Carly had been so wrapped up in trying to help her mother she hadn’t noticed when he’d had the lightly symptomatic stage. Carl had known what was coming and faced it with calm stoicism.
“Listen to me, Sugar Bear . . .” He had used the nickname he’d given Carly as a baby. Carl looked over at his wife, who had slipped into unconsciousness so deep it was probably a coma. He smoothed the hair back from Gloria’s sweat-soaked forehead. Her breaths were shallow and panting. “We’re not going to make it.” Carl’s smile was gentle, even though tears glittered in his eyes.
“I don’t have much time, and I need to talk to you while I still can. I want you to leave, Carly. Get out of here and go home, and don’t come out for anyone. Understand? You stay inside, where it’s safe, until this thing is over.”
“I can’t. I can’t leave you.” Carly wouldn’t go, no matter how much he begged. To be honest, a small part of her was almost hoping she would become infected herself so this horror would all be over.
When she took small breaks to get food for herself, Carly watched the news, watched the world fall apart, live, in living color. Her mind replayed some of those images in her dreams. She saw the famous HOLLYWOOD sign ablaze from uncontained wildfires, the riots in Chicago, the refugees trying to pour out of New York across the Brooklyn Bridge, stopped by National Guard troops, and the horrible moment when the crowd had realized they were more powerful in their sheer numbers.
Carly took care of her parents the best she could. She tried to keep them cool, to pour liquids into them, and clean up the mess when those liquids came back up. Days blended into one another, and it seemed as if she had spent a lifetime in that room of suffering. Carly was so exhausted she started having small hallucinations herself. From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw tiny movements that made her jump and gasp. Her overwrought nerves reacted to the shots of adrenaline through her system, which made her more exhausted.
Her dream mercifully skipped over what had happened next. Sometimes it didn’t, and she was forced to relive their deaths. During the day, she could shove the thought away by force, but her dreams were uncontrollable.
Carly had clasped her parents’ hands together before covering them with the blanket and returning to her own apartment, numb with horror and grief. She’d tried calling 911 to report her parents’ deaths, but it always rang busy. It rang busy until the day the phone didn’t work any longer.
She woke with tears on her cheeks. Sam gave a soft whimper and crawled closer to lay his head on Carly’s stomach. His eyes were sad and sympathetic. She scratched behind his ears to show him she was all right and sat up on the side of the bed. Another day to get through.
Carly scooped out a bowl of food for Sam and went over to the window. She let out a gasp of distress when she saw Justin’s tent was gone. She was surprised at how upsetting it was. She spun, ran to the apartment door, and flung it open. Sam bounded after her, ready for his morning outside time. She skidded to a halt when she found Justin in a sleeping bag in the hallway. Relief washed over her, a feeling she didn’t quite understand.
Justin’s eyes opened, and he gave her a sleepy smile. “Morning, Darly.”
“Carly,” she said, too distracted by his presence to be irritated at him for getting her name wrong again. “What are you doing in here?”
“The mosquitoes were bad.” Justin sat up and yawned. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“I . . . uh . . . I guess not.” Carly wondered how he had gotten through the locked lobby doors. It was a thought that made her vaguely uneasy.
“I’ll take Sam outside for you, if you’d like.”
Carly hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she trusted Justin enough to let him take Sam, but not because she thought Justin might hurt him. Sam meant everything to her. Without him, she might have surrendered to her despair. He had given her a reason to go on, a listening ear, comfort, and companionship. Carly was reluctant to let him out of her sight.
“Just out to the courtyard,” he said. Carly was a little startled he knew about it, but she supposed he was the type of person who would explore the whole building and search for other exits. Her dad had been the same way. Thinking of him made Carly recall Justin’s tattoo and what her dad had said the symbol meant.
“All right. I’ll be right back.” Carly went into the kitchen and got a plastic shopping bag.
“What’s this?” Justin took it from her.
“To clean up after him. There’s a trash can—”
Justin shook his head. “Do you think that’s necessary?”
Carly blinked. “Of course it is. It’s rude just to leave it.”
Justin stuffed the bag in his pocket and said nothing.
“Out,” she said to Sam and pointed at Justin. Sam understood and trotted over to Justin with his tail wagging expectantly. Justin patted him on the head, and they started down the hallway toward the back staircase.
Carly left her door open, though it made her very nervous, and went into the bathroom to brush her teeth. She couldn’t help trying the tap again and was a little disappointed when nothing but air came out. She’d hoped Justin was wrong and the water would come back. She used her toilet, and with regret, she flushed it for the last time. She’d been trying to save that last flush, but since Justin was there, she was too embarrassed not to do it.
Carly heard the jingle of Sam’s collar before he bounded into the apartment. He stood on his back legs, bracing his front paws on Carly’s thighs, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. She gave him a hug and looked up at Justin in the doorway. “Thank you.” She meant that for more than just taking Sam outside, but she didn’t know how to express her gratitude for all of the things he had done for her. It wasn’t only the kindness of sharing his food and bringing her water, but also saving her from Merle and trying to help her figure out what she was going to do next.
Justin nodded. “You’re welcome. Do you have anything for breakfast?”
Carly considered his question. She had food, but not really “breakfast” food. “I have a can of condensed clam chowder, some cans of tuna and green beans.”
“How would you feel about coming with me to scout for supplies?”
“We can’t. We’re still under quarantine.”
Justin shook his head slowly. His eyes held a hint of sadness. “That’s not in effect anymore, Carly.”
“Are you sure?” Going to the grocery store was bad enough, and as far afield as Carly had ventured since the Crisis. She felt guilty for that, but after she’d gotten Sam, she felt she had to do it. She knew she couldn’t go back to the store down the street. What if Merle was still there?
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
Carly thought about it for a moment and decided it wouldn’t hurt anything, as long as they stayed far back from any people they encountered. And if they happened to run into Infected, Justin would be with her, and he seemed strong and smart.
She picked up her dad’s nine iron and got another steak knife from the kitchen while Justin gathered his own supplies. Carly flinched when he took out a gun and slid the top of it open. He checked something and let it slide back into place and then put it in a holster on his hip. On the other hip, he attached a wicked-looking knife in its sheath.
“Come on, Sam,” Justin said, and Sam trotted out behind them.
“I don’t know if we should take him with us.”
“He’ll be fine. And he’ll warn us if anyone tries to sneak up on us.”
Carly thought of all the ways the puppy could get hurt out in the world while snapping his leash to his collar. Justin looked like he was going to say something, but he seemed to change his mind.
The lobby door of the apartment building was still intact. Carly wondered how Justin had gotten inside without breaking the glass door or the lock. Justin held it open for her, and they stepped out onto the silent street. It was so quiet the rustle of the breeze through the trees across the street and the click of Sam’s nails on the sidewalk seemed loud. Carly stayed behind Justin, experiencing that awful rabbit-in-a-football-field feeling again, terribly exposed with nowhere to hide. Justin didn’t seem troubled at all. He strolled down the street, his stride casual, one hand on the strap of the backpack he had slung over one shoulder.
When they came to the corner, Justin glanced back at her. “This is your town. Which way?”
“There’s a Food Mart up the street about three blocks.” Carly pointed the way.
“Good place to start.” Justin sounded cheerful.
“I didn’t bring a lantern or a flashlight.”
“I have a couple in my bag.”
She should have known he’d be prepared. Carly glanced down at Sam to see how he was taking this new experience, and he seemed delighted by all of the new smells and sights.
The parking lot in front of the store still held a handful of cars. An elderly car with blooms of rust around the wheels was parked in front of the store, the driver’s door yawning open. Justin made a quick “stop” gesture, and Carly froze. He crept up and reached inside the car, but his broad shoulders blocked Carly from being able to see what he was doing. He backed out and motioned her forward.
“What did you do in there?”
“I checked the key to see if the battery was still charged. If it was, the person who owned the car might still be inside the store, but the battery was dead from the door hanging open.”
Justin shrugged. “One of the tricks of the trade.”
“What trade is that?”
“Survival.” Justin took off his pack and unzipped the top. He fished out two heavy metal flashlights and handed one to Carly. “These things weigh a ton, but they’re as tough as hell and can be used as a weapon in a pinch.”
Carly tried to imagine clubbing someone over the head with it and shuddered. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to do it, if it came right down to it.
The glass door was locked when Justin tugged on the handles. Without even blinking, he used the butt of his flashlight to smash the glass. Carly looked around the empty parking lot, as though someone might hear the shattering of glass and come running with the cops in tow.
Justin reached in through the hole he’d made and turned the lock button on the inside of the door frame. He pulled the door open and gave Carly a little bow. “After you, my lady.”
Carly bobbed a little curtsy with a small smile. “Thank you, my lord.”
“I could get used to being called that.” Justin’s grin was infectious.
“I wouldn’t count on it happening.”
“Ah, but a man can dream.”
“Can you lift Sam over this glass? I don’t want his paws to get cut.”
“He’s a lot tougher than you think he is,” Justin said, but he picked up the puppy and carried him inside before depositing him on the tile beyond the shards.
Carly pulled a cart out of the line and laid her shopping tote inside the child seat as Justin turned on his flashlight and shined it around in a swift arc. The vestibule was littered with discarded sales fliers. There was a corkboard beside the entrance door, which had been used to hold notices of garage sales and free kittens, but currently was covered with fliers asking people to call if they’d heard from missing relatives or had news about other cities where their loved ones lived. Carly had to look away from it quickly. It hurt too much to remember the desperation of those days.
“Stay beside me,” Justin said. Carly nodded. What happened with Merle was still fresh in her mind.
The store was in the same condition as the one near Carly’s apartment building, and had a similar stench. Carly gagged but continued inside behind Justin, her hand cupped over her nose. The shelves were almost bare, and what was left was in shambles. Cans and boxes were scattered on the floor. Justin picked up one. “Ooh! Jackpot! A box of Lucky Charms!” He tucked it into Carly’s shopping cart.
“Now all you need to find is a cow for some fresh milk.”
He shook his head. “Condensed milk or powdered milk will work just fine.”
Carly wrinkled her nose. “Powdered milk? Gross.”
Justin cast an amused glance at her. “You must not have gone camping much.”
“No, Mom wasn’t into that kind of thing. Dad took me fishing once, but that’s about as much as we enjoyed the great outdoors.”
“Well, trust me, powdered milk is great when it comes to weight, and when you’re carrying a pack for twenty miles, every ounce counts.”
“Jeez, you used to hike twenty miles? For fun?”
Justin chuckled. “I once did the entire Appalachian Trail, all twelve hundred miles of it.”
Carly grinned at him. “I once walked all the way to the Food Mart from my apartment building.”
“I’m so happy I could be part of the momentous occasion.” They entered the drug aisle, which was cleaned out of cold medicines and fever-reducing medication. It made Carly sad to see it, for it was silent testimony to the number of people who thought cough syrup could combat the Infection.
Justin tossed boxes of bandages, eye wash, and topical antibiotics into Carly’s cart, along with all of the bottles of iodine on the shelf.
“Peroxide stings less,” Carly said.
“It’s not for cuts and scrapes. You can use it to purify drinking water.” Justin had moved on to anti-diarrhea medication, of which he took every bottle and box.
“Expecting an upset stomach?”
“This stuff is going to be worth more than its weight in diamonds.” Justin waved a box of tablets before he dropped into the cart. “Trust me.”
At the end of the aisle, they approached the pharmacy counter. The place was in shambles, even more so than the rest of the store. Justin, surprisingly lithe for such a large man, jumped over the counter and began to read the labels of boxes and bottles, tracing his finger under the lettering.
Sam bumped Carly’s leg with his head, and she saw he had something in his mouth. She put down her hand, and he spat out a can of beans. “Good boy!” She rubbed his ears, and Sam wagged his tail, delighted. He started searching the floor beneath the shelves again.
“Are you on birth control?” Justin asked.
Carly felt her face flame and was glad it was so dim back there. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t be embarrassed. I’m asking because there’s a fuckload of the pill back here, and we should grab it if you need it.”
“No, I’m not on the pill,” Carly muttered.
“You’d better grab some of your girly shit while we’re here.”
Carly’s blush remained firmly in place at his words. She walked the few paces over to the feminine hygiene aisle and grabbed several boxes of tampons, which she stuffed to the bottom of the cart. She didn’t know why she was so embarrassed about it when Justin didn’t seem to be.
He came back with a small shopping basket filled with drugs.
“What is all that?”
“Antibiotics, mostly. A few pain-killers, though the junkies already got most of those. A couple other odds and ends.”
Carly wondered why he thought he’d need so many antibiotics. Maybe he had some health issues.
They collected what food was left on the shelves. Very little in the way of canned goods remained. Sam bumped Carly’s leg twice more with cans in his mouth. Justin stared. “Did you train him to do that?”
Carly shook her head. “I think he just figured out I want cans, so he’s bringing them to me.” Sam couldn’t differentiate between the cans, though. One had been a diet soda, which she opened and gulped down on the spot, only afterward thinking she ought to have offered Justin a drink. She flushed again and dropped the empty can, but he shrugged and said he disliked diet soda, anyway.
They went into the next aisle, and Carly struggled to push the cart past a fallen rack of batteries. Justin took control of it and swung the cart to the side with ease.
“Hard to believe I once went to the gym twice a week,” she said.
“You haven’t been eating enough. That’s what this is for.” Justin held up a can of powdered weight-loss shake.
“How’s that going to help?”
“You mix up a shake to drink along with what you’re eating. It gives you the extra calories and vitamins you might be missing.”
Justin headed back to the stock room but paused in the doorway and told her to wait where she was. Carly wondered what he’d seen but shrugged and spent the next few minutes in the health and beauty aisle, where she selected a few sticks of deodorant and some leave-in spray conditioner that might help contain the frizzy mess her hair had become. She saw a row of baby wipes and flung a few large packets into the cart. If she couldn’t shower, she could at least wipe herself down. It was better than nothing, she supposed.
Justin returned, carrying a case of liquor. Carly’s eyes widened. “Headed to a kegger this weekend?”
“Trade goods,” he explained and dropped the case into a second cart that had been abandoned nearby. “It’s a pain-killer, a disinfectant, and a good time, all rolled into one.”
They rolled the carts back up to the front of the store, and Carly pulled her checkbook out of her pocket.
“Don’t worry about it,” Justin told her. “Besides, I hate waiting in line behind someone who’s writing a check.”
Carly gave him a small smile. She knew he was joking to soften the reaction his words were bound to have, and she appreciated it. She considered for a moment and then put her checkbook back into her pocket. He was probably right. Even if the owner of the store returned, who would be at the bank to cash her check? “How are we going to carry all of this?” Her tote wouldn’t hold it all.
“We’ll just wheel the carts back to your place.”
Carly swallowed back a protest about stealing the carts when she considered the fact everything inside the carts was stolen as well.
“Is there a gun shop here?” Justin asked.
“On the other side of the bridge.”
“Care to take a stroll with me?”
Carly smiled at him. “Certainly.”
They walked down 10th Street toward the bridge. Sam trotted beside her, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. He looked happy, and it made her heart lighten a bit. “You said you were from Omaha. Is that where your family is?”
For a moment, Carly didn’t think he was going to answer, and she regretted asking the question.
“I don’t have any family.”
“Are they all . . . gone?”
Justin shrugged. “I’d imagine so, but I have no way of knowing for sure. I grew up in the foster care system and enlisted as soon as I was old enough to sign the papers.”
Carly didn’t know if she should she offer sympathy, or if she should—
“What about your family?”
“They’re . . . gone.” Carly’s throat tightened.
“I’m sorry. Were you close?”
“Very. My mom and dad . . . they were wonderful. But you knew my dad, at least a little bit, right?”
“He was my Arabic teacher for a few months, until he retired.”
That must have been the language her dad had been speaking in his fevered delirium the night he died. She pushed the thought away and blinked hard to combat the stinging in her eyes. Justin gave her a pat on the shoulder, his eyes compassionate. She felt a little closer to Justin, knowing he had a connection to her father, no matter how slight.
“How old are you, Carly?”
“Did you still live at home?”
“No, I had my own apartment upstairs. Mom and Dad were on the ground floor. So I still saw them every day and went downstairs for dinner all the time since I’m not much of a cook.” Carly gave a little laugh even as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “My mom worried I wasn’t eating enough vegetables and healthy stuff.”
Justin was quiet for a moment. “The men spoke highly of your father. He left the field around the time you were born and became an instructor, but his reputation as a brave man and loyal friend remained.”
“He never said much about his army days. Just that he was in the Middle East for a while.”
Justin nodded. “He couldn’t tell you, Carly. And you wouldn’t have wanted to hear it anyway.”
“How old are you, Justin?” Her dad had retired before her tenth birthday, so he had to be at least—
“Thirty-four,” he said.
She peered at him closely. Under that scruffy beard, his features still had a youthful cast, but that might have been because he usually had a mischievous grin and a wicked twinkle in his eye. Knowing him a little better, he didn’t look so scary. “Wow, you look younger.”
Justin cast her an amused glance. “You say that like you think I should have wrinkles and a cane.”
“No . . . you just look . . . young,” Carly said lamely.
“The virtues of healthy living.”
Carly giggled, though the sound of it was still unusual enough to give her a little start of surprise. “Nobody who gets that excited about Lucky Charms can claim to be a health nut.”
“Come on. I get to have one guilty pleasure, don’t I?”
“Don’t ask me. The only healthy thing I did was go to the gym to use the Stairmaster twice a week.”
“If your jeans weren’t so baggy, I could tell you if it had paid off or not.” Justin gave her an exaggerated leer, but she didn’t smile.
“They weren’t always baggy on me,” Carly said. Even if there had been plenty of food, her appetite had been virtually nonexistent for a while.
Justin shook his head. “You poor girl. I had no idea you had been hungry for so long.”
“I was afraid to go outside. It wasn’t just the quarantine. At first there were lots of . . . crazy people on the street. The Infected. Healthy people would try to walk past them quickly, and sometimes the Infected would just attack them without warning. I didn’t start going outside until I didn’t see anyone. And then it was scary that I didn’t see anyone, you know? I started thinking the government may have evacuated all of the healthy people out of Juneau, and I just wasn’t informed because they didn’t know I was in my apartment. I started wondering . . .” Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat before she continued. “. . . I started wondering if I was the only one left. I read this book once, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Have you ever read it?”
Justin thought for a moment. “I saw the movie.”
“The book is different.” Carly felt a stinging pain in her hands and realized she had both fists clenched tightly, her nails digging into her palms. “The main character, that’s what happens to him. He’s the only normal person left in the world. I kept telling myself there had to be other people, and things would go back to normal, but until I saw you, I—” Carly had to stop. Her throat was too tight to speak any further, but from Justin’s expression, he understood what she was trying to say.
They had come to the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. There was a roadblock of concrete lane dividers set up across the center of the bridge and lines of cars on both sides of it. Out in the harbor beyond, a few cruise ships floated where they would wait eternally to be cleared for docking. Carly considered the cars lined up behind the barriers. “Where were they hoping to go?”
“The problem with quarantine is most people think they should be exceptions to it. They think their circumstances are different, special. They have to go get a sick relative or a child. They have to go to the store or to the bank to get their money. Just a quick trip; they’ll be right back.”
Carly knew this was true. Her own father had broken quarantine to go to the hospital to see if he could get her mother admitted, and she knew some of her friends had ignored the order because they wanted to go be with their families. Her best friend, Michelle, had set out with her baby, Kevin, intending to drive to Anchorage, where her parents had moved after they retired. Carly sometimes wondered if Michelle and Kevin had made it, or if she had been stopped somewhere along the route, unable to travel onward and unable to come back to Juneau.
“Some people refused to believe there was a pandemic and thought the government was trying to ‘take over’ and turn America into a dictatorship.” Justin paused for a moment. A hint of a cynical smile tugged at his lips. “You know how it was, Carly. People didn’t trust the government for small things, let alone for something that affects their personal freedom.”
“But they had to know how dangerous it was. They could have been bringing the Infection to their friends and family.”
Justin shook his head. “The Infection had a long incubation period in which people were contagious but asymptomatic . . . People felt fine, so they ignored the quarantine orders, and the government was slow to enforce the quarantine. It was an election year, after all. By the time they got serious about enforcing it, it was far too late.”
An election year. Carly was sickened at the thought that politicians might have been willing to let people get sick and die rather than hurt their chances to keep their offices. She hoped it wasn’t true, but she didn’t ask Justin anything more about it. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
Her father had been concerned people were ignoring the quarantine orders. Carly remembered her mother teasing him for being such a Boy Scout about following the government’s directives because of his time in the military. Her father had just smiled and teased her back, but even then, Carly had known there was something he wasn’t telling them. In retrospect, she could see her father had known the situation was far worse than Carly and her mother had realized.
Carl had gone to the emergency town meeting to lend his voice in support of those trying to convince the mayor to isolate Juneau, but the mayor refused on the grounds that it was coldhearted. The ferry and airport had been shut down only about a week before her parents died, after it was far too late to do any good.
Justin startled her out of her thoughts when he put a hand on her shoulder. “I think you should keep your eyes on the sidewalk, okay?”
She followed as he started across the bridge, keeping as far away from the vehicles as possible, trying to pretend they didn’t exist. She kept her eyes glued to the heels of Justin’s black leather boots and kept a tight grip on Sam’s leash, clamped under her hand on the handle of the cart. Sam kept casting concerned looks up at her; maybe he could read the tension in her posture. Carly patted him on the head to try to reassure him . . . and to reassure herself as well.
She heard a bang from the other side of the bridge and jumped. It wasn’t loud, but in the eerie silence, it seemed exaggerated. She glanced around to search for the source of the sound, and she saw a small shack on the side of the bridge, built for the troops guarding the barricade. The door swung lazily in the breeze. Then she saw a pair of boots sticking out from behind the edge of the barrier and looked away. She caught sight of a car straight ahead of them, emitting a strange humming sound. The windows were blacked out with some kind of undulating material that had a dull glimmer to it. A trash bag, maybe? But as she got closer she realized it wasn’t a trash bag. It was flies. Thousands of flies covering the inside of the windows, and the sound of their wings was the humming she heard. They lined the edge of the small gap in the window, new arrivals and departures.
Carly gagged and fell to her knees at the side of the bridge. Up came the soda she had drunk in the store, and she continued to retch until her stomach muscles ached and quivered. Her head pounded. Behind her, Sam danced and whined, unsure of how to assist her.
Touching her shoulder, Justin put a bottle of water into her line of sight. She accepted it with gratitude and took a drink, which promptly came up again.
“Small sips,” Justin said. He sat down beside her on the curb. She felt his hand on her back, rubbing in small, soothing circles. She took a tiny sip from the bottle, just enough to wet her tongue, and her stomach decided to be gracious about it.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to look.”
The loss of electric power and telephones hadn’t done it. The empty stores and streets hadn’t done it. But the fact that human bodies were sitting in a car in the middle of a bridge finally convinced her Justin had been telling the truth. Civilization was gone.
There was no one left to collect and bury the dead. They would rot where they fell. Her parents’ apartment would be their tomb, but the more she thought about that, the more it seemed appropriate—almost like the pharaohs sent to the afterlife with all of their possessions. Her parents would rest surrounded by pictures of their friends and family and the items that had defined their daily lives. But the people in the car . . . A sob tore from her throat, louder than normal because she had been trying to hold it back. And then she was crying and unable to stop. Kneeling on the bridge over Juneau Harbor, she wept for a world that was dead and gone.
Justin pulled her into his arms and whispered soft, soothing things. He rocked her and let her cry against his chest until her sobs had diminished into hiccups. A wet nose pressed against her face, and Sam cleaned her tears off her cheeks. His amber eyes were strangely compassionate, as if he understood more about the world around him than an animal should.
“Better?” Justin asked, smoothing back her tumbled hair.
“Yes, I’m sorry, I just . . .”
“It was overdue. You needed to get it out.” His smile was gentle, and she gazed into his eyes, so dark brown they seemed almost black from some angles. Though the color should have made them seem sinister, they were warm and kind. She lost track of time for a moment, gazing into their depths before Sam jarred her back to reality by bumping her with his head.
Carly realized she was draped over Justin and struggled to her feet. Justin rose, as graceful as a ballet dancer, and took her hand. She held onto it long after they had finished crossing the bridge.
Copyright © Lissa Bryan, 2013