Straight Into Darkness excerpt: Prelude, Ch.1-2

Straight Into Darkness

by

Robert L. Slater

PRELUDE

Run, Baby, Run

LIZZIE SAT WAITING IN THE Provincial Utah Government Offices. They’d come for her father, Manuel Guerrero, first. In addition to herself, there were a dozen or more people folks sitting around waiting. As more were called she realized they were taking the able-bodied adults first. That made sense–prioritize the most important, most likely to help first. After a bit she wandered over to the receptionist, a young woman, a little older than herself, a brunette with some blonde highlights that looked like they might have been from time in the sun.

How long does this take?”

The girl shrugged. “It depends.” Her eyes swept the waiting room. “You ought to be pretty soon.”

Her father re-entered, nodded politely to the man who’d taken him inside. Lizzie hurried toward them.

The man pointed at the young man across the room and gestured for him to come.

Lizzie wanted to say, ‘Hey, I’m older. I should be next,” but she also wanted to find out what had happened with her father. “How’d it go, Dad?”

Fine. I get to do planning work until I’m fully recovered.” He made an ugly face. “Organizing supplies and searches. I suggested I could design victory gardens. He said he’d get back to me.”

Doesn’t sound too bad,” Lizzie offered. “You’re not cleaning toilets.”

He laughed. “Well, I’d rather deal with real shit than planning and organization.”

Not me.” Lizzie grinned. “I’d hate that, too, but not as much.”

Lizzie Gooden-Guerrero?” a female voice called from behind her.

Coming,” Lizzie called over her shoulder. “Wait for me?”

Of course, I don’t have to be to work until tomorrow.”

Lizzie kissed his cheek and spun, hustling to the lady with the clipboard.

The woman, her gray streaked hair pulled back in a low ponytail, stared over her reading glasses at Lizzie. “Come with me.”

Lizzie followed the woman, who reminded her of someone, as she turned abruptly and motioned her into a small cubicle.

Lizzie sat. The hand written name tag said Ms. LaFevbre.

La Fee Bray. Not Lafeeber or La Fever, please.”

Lizzie nodded, not trusting her smart-ass mouth. Would she get to be a Collector? Help dog-people and scavenge like Zach and Duke? She knew no women were allowed outside the city walls they were building out of Semi-Trailers and Panel trucks, but some got to collect inside. Jess was working with animals, Nev with elementary kids at the school and Rachael in a day-care. She smoothed her jeans like they were a skirt rather than picking at them with her flitting fingers. She smiled calmly at Ms. LaFevbre.

Well. You’re almost 18?”

Yes,” Lizzie nodded trying to not be too eager. “In January.”

Yes.” Ms. LaFevbre’s eyes scanned down the chart. “And you’re pregnant.”

That’s what the doctor says,” Lizzie made sure it sounded jovial and not sarcastic.

Married?”

What?”

Are you or were you married?”

No. What difference does that make?”

LaFevbre’s eyes strafed Lizzie’s face, narrowing in on her eyes. “I suppose it makes no difference now.”

Any issues with reading? Glasses? Dyslexia?”

No. Nothing. ADHD. Not currently medicated.”

LaFevbre pursed her lips and glared over her glasses. “You’ll be in school. Extra classes for childbirth and child rearing.”

Classes. That was it. La Fever reminded Lizzie of her stern second grade teacher, Mrs. March. Lizzie blamed her for not getting through the Louisa May Alcott books. Just the name March made her want to avoid school.

Lizzie’s heart sank. “I’m really good at collecting. Back home in Bellingham, my friend and I saved a baby and got him all situated.”

Well,” LaFevbre said bruskly. “I saw that on the paper. Perhaps you’ll learn how to raise him and he won’t be taken from you.”

Lizzie’s jaw dropped. Did she really just say that?

You will report to building Seven. The Career and Technical Services building.”

But…”

Since you are already pregnant,” the word came out like it was profanity, “You may arrive late and miss the first class on procreation. Report to Room 212 at 8:05 a.m. That is all.”

But, I don’t want to. “

One eyebrow raised behind the glasses. “Do you wish to eat?”

Yes, but-”

Your job is clear, No one else can do it for you. Have your baby. Then you may apply for other work.”

Lizzie gritted her teeth. The woman said ‘work’ like profanity, as if it was another four letter word. She stood. “Thank you, madam.” And she left, revving up for an explosion. By the time she reached her father it must have been fully visible on her face. His hands motioned, Calm down, but Lizzie had blown past him when she saw that.

The receptionist called, “Miss? Are you all right?” as Lizzie slammed the door behind her.

PART I

Safety In Numbers

1

* L *

LIZZIE SLUNK AROUND THE CIRCLES of light cast by streetlamps on the snow-scattered streets of Provo. Officials in The City had decided to leave them on, even in areas outside the new city limits, until the Collections were finished. As long as she could stay out of it, the light helped her find her way to escape.

The January cold bit through her layers of clothing. Happy Belated-fucking eighteenth Birthday, Lizzie.

Someone was following her. It could be paranoia, but paranoia had its place in this fucked-up post-outbreak world. Hell, paranoia had its uses in the old world. She ran down the center of the street, her feet stepping where the drifting snow might cover her tracks.

She rounded a corner and then skidded to a stop. In the distance, someone shambled—one of the “dog-people”—she could tell by its loping gait. It made her think of Spike, the first dog-man she’d known. The reason she decided to call him a dog-man was he had a spiked collar and the brains of really smart dog. Her breath caught as she thought of him. He had exchanged his life for hers. His heart was still human in the end, even if the virus had damaged his brain. This dog-person was a woman.

Lizzie ducked behind a car. The dog-woman shuffled along, past her street. The Collectors tried to pick them up whenever they were spotted; Lizzie still wasn’t sure why. They were probably taken care of and given menial labor jobs. Some were still capable of doing tasks if given explicit instructions.

The houses stared at her, each like a death mask. The overwhelming costs of the Flu pandemic reflected in their hollow eyes. When she decided it was safe, she continued on past rows of houses. Behind those empty eyes lay the dead–the hundreds of millions who didn’t survive. People like Mama and Jayce. Quiet forever.

The world had gone quiet. Which was why Lizzie had her own special word for the outbreak–the Quieting.

Clean up crews and Collectors had been this way already by the red and green spray paint tags on the houses. The only dead on this street were in her imagination.

The quiet of the snow was disturbed by a car engine. She slid behind a wooden fence, spying on the street through a knothole. A cop car rolled into view—one of The City’s finest. Out to serve and protect.

One question was on Lizzie’s mind: is he out here to serve his protection on me? Only Rachael knew she was gone, because Lizzie had left Saj with her. No one else should notice until Monday morning. They kept a closer eye on the Preggers like her, but all the sleeping and puking she did meant people didn’t check too closely. She should have had another day. She needed that day.

The cop stopped at the next intersection, turned a circle inside it, and stopped, idling.

The door opened and the cop stepped out, dark hair, buzz-cut and a bit of a paunch. He looked like a cop, not just someone who’d been given the job since the Quieting. That might make him better at his job.

Lizzie sidled up against the house, attached to the fence, and worked her way around back. A car door slammed–engine revved and moved away. She crossed the fence between backyards to the next street over, for good measure and ran into the officer.

Where are you going, Miss?” His hands grasped hers.

Her brain spun. Act dumb. She stared at him, trying to look confused. She cocked her head to the side and moved her mouth without any sounds coming out.

Don’t know your game, but you’re not one of them–”

Lizzie slumped. “Dog people?”

He relaxed and let go. She twisted and ran. Back the way she’d come.

Don’t do this, girly.” He huffed after her.

In moments her side started aching. He was too close, his breath came in bursts. Then up ahead she saw the dog-lady. She ran towards her and spun her around to face the cop. Lizzie pushed herself hard to get an extra burst of speed. She couldn’t hear the officer’s heavy breath so she hazarded a glance back. The officer was bent over helping the dog-lady stand. A moment of guilty tore at Lizzie’s heart as she ran on.

Her mission should have been easy. The night curfew meant no one on the streets, no one but patrols. Her mistake. She needed to get the rest of the way out of The City and into the suburbs quickly. The railroad track cut across her path. She headed down into the ditch beside it.

Lizzie stumbled along the rocks and discarded old railroad ties for a couple miles, her breath coming in ragged puffs, until she came to the next place the tracks crossed a street. She veered off onto the street again, giving up concealment for the luxury of easier travel. These streets were blown clean of snow,and she ran, ignoring the stitch in her side. But the pain grew until she was forced to slow to a brisk walk.

She clutched her side for a few more steps and then her hand slid down to her belly. Maybe the little guy couldn’t take all this excitement. She pulled out her phone and checked the directions.

It still amazed her how things like cell signal and GPS worked when there wasn’t anyone left running the utilities. Glen had barraged her with techno-talk attempting to explain. It left her with a headache, all she knew was a lot of stuff was automated. If he had said that in the first place, it would have been so much easier but that was Glen, tech-support teacher-man.

The hill ahead gave a good vantage point to watch her path and see if anyone followed. She hunkered down behind a parked car and watched through its snow-dusted windows. Her heart and breathing began to return to normal.

She twisted her scarf one more loop around her neck to keep it out of the slush. A Christmas present from Mannie, who hadn’t shared a Christmas with her since she was two. Christmas had been strange, but good. She missed Mama and Jayce, especially Jayce. She still wore his calculator watch, the one he’d gotten last Christmas. She still wished she had taken a few pictures with her when she had bugged out of Bellingham. Her cell phone with all the saved messages and memories was lost. Maybe that’s what she would do if she left Provo. Go back to Bellingham for her photo albums.

She scanned the distance. The only thing moving was her shivering self. She would kill for one drink and one cigarette. It would get her warmed up, and how much harm could that do? But the heat wouldn’t be real and she’d probably die out here like the little match girl.

Lizzie pulled out her phone and slid her nose across the screen to unlock it with out taking her bulky gloves. Saj’s toddler grin greeted her as it came to life. She would have new baby photos soon too. A new collection of memories–she would not let these ones go so easily.

The phone buzzed and startled Lizzie; it slipped from her fingers. She fought to grab it but only managed to bounce it off her thigh and onto her foot before it skidded across the road and into the snow.

Shit.

Maybe she better liberate another phone or two from houses on the way, and get Glen to set them up on the cloud. She pulled it out of the snow and wiped it off. The rubber case was scuffed, but the buzzing continued.

Hello,” she whispered.

Lizzie?” Glen’s baritone boomed in her ear. “You okay?”

Yeah, I’m fine.” she said in her normal voice. “I think someone’s following me. I’m about twelve miles away.”

So you made it three miles since yesterday? That’s all?”

Fuck you. Who’s pregnant, freezing her ass off, out here avoiding the Collectors and clean-up crews? Nice and warm where you are Glen?”

Uncle!” His breath wheezed out. “I’m just anxious.”

Yeah. I can tell.” Lizzie rolled her eyes.

When Glen hinted about this geeky mission, Lizzie had jumped on the chance to leave The City. It was the excuse she had been looking for. The walls closed in tighter and tighter every day as more “sensible” rules came down from on high. According to Glen she could get to this secret location and back to Provo in a few days, though she wasn’t exactly in the mindset of going back. It was supposed to be something she thought about while she made the trek.

This place ought to be amazing,” Glen’s voice raised a notch. “And if it’s far enough away from The City,” he hushed his voice, “maybe I can move in and get away from these idiots up here.”

Breeders giving you trouble?”

Daily. But maybe this place will be somewhere I can move shop and escape.”

Escape is a great plan,” she sighed. “Look Glen. I gotta go. Do me a favor? Next time I call you, ask if I’ve got my back-up phone yet.”

Back-up phone?” He chuckled. “Sure, Lizzie. Good luck.”

What’s so funny?”

Nothing. I’ll tell you later.”

Lizzie hung up. Clearly, no one was following her. She jogged along further, with her paranoia slightly sedated, her mind flitting to other worries. She still hadn’t had a chance to think about what she would do when she found this place. Should I stay, or should I go? Everyone who wanted her safe would still be overprotective. The walls weren’t going to disappear anytime soon–if anything there would be more and bigger walls as time went on. Did she really want to leave all the safety of The City? Probably not. When it came time to have the baby, it was the place to be–she was not the hairy-legs, live-in-the-woods type who could just squat and pop out a little bundle of joy. She wanted a hospital, doctors, and definitely drugs. Having this baby was scary enough without being alone and undrugged when it came.

As the street headed up an incline, Lizzie left it for the cover of a strip mall. She crossed the brightly lit parking lot quickly and turned around the corner of a warehouse.

Something black and solid slammed into her. She screamed, flailing her arms. The blackness screamed back, air whooshing from dozens of wings.

Birds. They took wing, leaving her stunned, staring at a body on the snow in front of her. Male, shirt undone. A bit of snow had blown up against his frozen limbs. His hands were grasping like stiffened claws; they lay at a strange angle against the chest, frozen and contorted like they’d been holding something when he died. His frozen flesh had been pecked apart by countless beaks, determined to get a meal from this meat popsicle. But the birds had not killed him. Neither had the plague.

The back of his skull was blown away. The Quieting itself had gotten him–the lawlessness of too few survivors and too many of them thinking they were in charge. His eyes were open, staring at a horrible angle.

Lizzie stumbled back. Tire tracks lead away in the packed snow. Her own footprints were all over the scene like an admission of guilt.

She commandeered the lid off a garbage can and wiped out her footprints so they would not be identifiable. Her gloves kept her fingerprints off the lid; she set it gently on the snow and renewed her focus on her mission. Taking a breath and trying to cleanse away yet another gruesome image from her mind. It didn’t work, just like every other time she tried to forget.

She went back to the street. Further up the hill a flash of light caught her eyes. The cop again? Or somebody else? Before she had time to react, headlights crested the hill and pinned her under their glare.

Dammit.”

Lizzie ran again as fast as she could. She tried to lose her pursuer by crossing parking lots, hopping fences and skittering down icy alleys. She wasn’t a champion runner like Nev, but she had street smarts. Not like some movie chick who ran down the middle of a straight road. Still, the headlights followed her.

Her foot sank unexpectedly in the snow, and she sprawled forward, her face planting in the powder. Her ankle throbbed as she hobbled in between the houses and then diagonally across a yard. She rolled down behind a snow-flocked hedgerow. The lights splashed across the windows of a house across the street.

She lay in her cushion of snow as still as possible, hot from her mad dash and the igloo effect of the impromptu snow cave she had nestled into the drift beside the hedge. Her heart pounded in her chest. No one could find her unless they found her tracks. Maybe she was safe.

The quiet of the snow settled back around her. She waited, trying to hold back her breath from billowing out clouds of steam. The car must have gone on past by now.

Lizzie crawled to her knees peeking over the top of the hedge.

Headlights flashed in her face.

Shit.

~Z~

Zach sighed, staring at the cereal in his bowl rather than his girlfriend. “Lizzie will be back.”

She told Rachael to take care of Saj.” Neveah’s eyes implored him. “What if she meant permanently?”

Yeah, but—” He was worried, too. Lizzie could be impulsive like no one else, and she wasn’t happy being cooped up in The City. “All right. I’ll check out her apartment and Mannie’s place. She’s only been gone a day. Probably needed to get away.” At Nev’s expression he added, “Temporarily I mean. Burn off some steam, you know Lizzie.”

I better come with you.”

You’re supposed to be at work.” He didn’t want Nev to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. She would never do it on purpose, but that wouldn’t stop Lizzie from taking something the wrong way.

Nev seemed to realize it, too. “Fine,” she said.  “Cause it’s so damn important to count the number of every damned toilet paper roll you Collectors bring in.”

Right!” Zach said, kissing her forehead. “We need to take care of the future, and wiping our asses is part of that future.” He kept his expression neutral as Nev rolled her eyes. “I don’t have a shift until tomorrow. It’s nothing. I’ll find her.”

Fine,” Nev said, laughing and punching him in the arm. “I know you’re just trying to keep me away from your other girlfriend.” She winced. “I mean–I don’t know what I mean. Please. Call me when you know anything.”

I will.” Zach pulled her back into his arms and held her. “I love you.”

Zach Riley. Be careful.”

So you want me not to drive on the wrong side of the street?” He slipped his winter coat on and grabbed his hat and gloves. She shoved him out the door. Outside the air felt too cold to snow. He unplugged the RAV from the charging line and climbed in and manually switched it to gas so it would warm up faster.

He went to Lizzie’s place first, and let himself in. Crusts of pizza still lay in a box. Some things never changed, even if the world did. He resisted the urge to clean up, glancing around for a clue as to where she had gone. Her back-pack was missing from the closet. As were her hiking boots. So she planned to be gone for at least a couple days.

In the bedroom, her laptop lay open on the bed. Zach thumbed the power button and got a weak flashing yellow light . He shoved in the power cable to charge it and pushed the power button. While it came back from the dead, he wandered into the kitchen. Flipping through the cabinets, he found the cupboards were mostly empty, but that wasn’t weird. Everyone in The City was on rations.

Lizzie’s art-pad lay open on the table. Random song lyrics and weird shapes adorned the page. In the upper corner was one word. ‘Glen.’ The computer beeped in the other room. Zach pulled out the phone Glen had programmed. The only one he accepted calls from. He thumbed through the contacts and dialed Glen as he walked back to the bedroom. Zach typed her password into the waiting laptop, Bu77$h!t, while he waited for Glen to pick up.

Zach? What’s up?

Where’s Lizzie, Glen?”

She didn’t tell you?”

Would I be calling you?”

Sorry. Right. Of course she didn’t tell you,” Glen said.

The computer finished booting. Zach hit the history button on the internet and scanned through the list.

She’s doing me a favor.”

Google maps. Zach pressed the screen. NSA Data Center. “You sent her to check out the Data Center?”

Yeah. If I’d known she wouldn’t tell you…”

You can pretty much trust Lizzie’s not going to tell anyone anything. Do me a favor, next time to you send the pregnant mother of my child out on a secret mission. Drop me a fucking line!”

Ouch. Yeah. No problem.”

Zach let the awkward silence hang for a moment, then said, “You all right, Glen? They treating you well?”

For a prison, it’s pretty good. None of them have a clue about technology, but they figure saving it’s important.” Glen chuckled. They’ve been bringing in food. I’m still collecting and organizing the knowledge of the ages; I just don’t get to leave.”

You seem to be in good spirits.”

Hell, they brought me Mountain Dew!”  His tone grew serious. “You’re going to go get her, right?”

Yeah.” Zach took a deep breath. Chasing Lizzie was practically a full-time job. “If you don’t tell her I’m on to her, I will see what I can do about completing your mission.”

Deal!”

So tell me, Glen. How good are you at GPS tracking?”

 

2

~ M ~

MANNIE GUERRERO PAUSED, HIS HAND on the cold metal knob of the door to the basement. He should go back, sit down and eat the tamales he’d thawed. The knob turned in his hand and the door opened into empty space and darkness. He maneuvered down the rough wooden stairs. The spiral fluorescent bulb quivered to life. A couple flashes and then a steady glow.

He remembered walking down stairs into basements doing clean up in Kandahar, Afghanistan, never knowing if he was going to find women and children or Taliban. Cabron. Pinche cabron. He gritted his teeth and clutched the stair rail.

At the basement floor Mannie glanced around the small space, the pile of blankets by the washing machine looked disturbingly like a woman’s body. He shook it off. Metal-framed shelving units lined the bare cinderblock walls. He pulled out two of the gallon jugs of distilled water and set them on the ground. A plastic bottle of vodka sat lonely on the shelf. The clear liquid sloshed as he jerked it out, and twisted off the top. He took a strong swallow. It burned going down. He needed the fuzziness that took the edge off the pain.

His newest wound itched where the bullet had entered near his collarbone and throbbed where it left a bigger hole in his back.

He didn’t know why he bothered to hide, the only person who cared about his drinking was him, not even Lizzie. Though to be fair she had bigger things to worry about.

Isabel cared–and she could always tell. Her sensitive tongue made her a brilliant chef, and also able to detect the liquor on his breath.

I have to stop this,” Mannie said, willing himself to dump the bottle down the round grate in the floor, but instead he upended the fiery liquid into his mouth again. It sucked the oxygen from his lungs and he took a moment to recover. He slammed the bottle back on the shelf and replaced the water bottle camouflage before heading back upstairs with heavy feet.

At the kitchen table, he dug into the tamales. Even freezer-burned on the ends they were tasty, but not as good as Isabel’s. Zach had found them in a freezer on one of his Collections. It was good to have a taste of home in this strange new place, even if it came with its own kind of loneliness.

By the time he’d finished eating, the buzz from the vodka was a pleasant hum at the back of his mind. He tossed the corn husks in the compost bin, washed the dishes and placed them in the drainer.

They didn’t need him at work. His ‘expertise’ as a Park Ranger had earned him the job of producing vegetables next year using The City’s park lands. It was mostly busy work right now, with a thick blanket of snow on the ground.

He pulled his Ranger jacket over his flannel and plopped the comfortable “Smokey the Bear” hat on his head, before heading out the front door. He wore it for work because he got a kick out of the fact that the forest service patch said Department of Agriculture.  The nearest park, the one he thought of as his, was mostly a kids playground with a large jungle gym. He had rows marked out, ready for digging in the spring as soon as the ground thawed. He already had plans for the old swing-set, as the perfect support for pole beans.

He checked to make sure all the lines were still tied to their stakes, and wondered if he could start some digging if he got an excavator. The lack of real work was only going to make the bottle in his basement more attractive.

As he rounded the corner of the park bathrooms, closed for the winter and most likely permanently, a small coyote squared on him, growling, and protecting his dinner. Mannie clapped his hands together. “Shoo, Yote!” The coyote hesitated and then loped off sideways. They were getting less and less fearful of the two-legged predators.

He inspected the dinner, a cat, with too much skin. He should pick it up–he was willing to live and let live in the backcountry, but he preferred to discourage predators from hanging out where humans would be working.  Wild Kingdom had become the norm. Eat or be eaten. The next few years would be interesting to watch from a naturalist perspective, but dangerous.

Hey, Mannie!”

Mannie froze. Not even an encounter with a coyote could compare with the adrenaline rush he felt at the sound of that voice–Jess, Lizzie’s best friend.

 

~L~

The glaring lights pinned Lizzie to the spot.  Then they snapped off and she recognized the white mini-suv.

Fuck. You. Zach,” Lizzie shouted, clutching her racing heart.

Nice to see you too, Lizzie.” Zach stepped out from behind the door. “Where you going in such a hurry?”

Fuck you, Zach. You scared the living shit out of me.”

Good,” Zach said, pulling a knit hat over his reddish-orange hair. His voice had that edge of anger she’d grown so used to. “Well, it would be good if it did any good.”

Lizzie walked to the electric RAV4, jerked the door open and slumped in the passenger seat.

Zach got back in, avoiding eye contact. He turned the RAV around and drove in the wrong direction.

Where are you taking me? Provo’s that way.”

Wherever you want to go.” Zach’s jaw tightened. “As long as you’re not going alone.”

I’m not alone. I’ve got me, myself and my baby.” She pulled her gloves off and sat on her cold hands. “How did you find me?”

A hiss of breath escaped from Zach that had nothing to do with the chill of the weather.

My baby, too, Lizzie.” Zach drove over the hill. “I checked out the history on your computer.”

Lizzie stared straight ahead.

Well?” He just couldn’t leave it alone. He had to pick at her like his favorite zit.

She kept her mouth shut.

When were you going to tell me?” He jammed on the breaks and the silent vehicle scraped to a stop. “You remember what you said in the hospital room, not long before you told me I was going to be a father? You remember?”

I’m not fucking stupid. It was a month ago.”

You promised me you wouldn’t go off on your own.” He let out an exasperated sigh, and punched the steering wheel. The horn blared briefly and Lizzie jumped.

Easy,” she said, looking out the rear window. “You don’t have to alert every cop and independent to our position.”

Jesus, Lizzie. What the Hell? I am going to be the baby’s father–I can’t be yours too.”

I never asked you to, Zach. Maybe you should have let the pills do their work back in Bellingham. Obviously, I am an inconvenience to your wonderful new life.”

Zach was silent. Lizzie sat back heavily in her seat and stared out the window, not sure if she really meant what she said.

Well, I didn’t. And now we’re here aren’t we?” he said, finally. “Yeah, things are sure as shit awkward, but Nev and I want to make this work–we even like having you around.”

Lizzie puffed in disbelief.

Who do you think wanted me to come out here and make sure you were ok? Nev is still your friend Lizzie.”

He took a deep breath and popped the RAV back into gear, and flipped on the GPS. “If you’d told me we could’ve done this on my day off. Without stressing me out.”

You’re taking me there?”

Hey, I owe Glen, too. Woulda been nice if you’d let me help.”

Lizzie thought about it as the streetlights whizzed by, then she said softly, “I don’t get to do anything. Go anywhere. Just sleep, eat and attend childbirth classes. I get so freaking bored hanging out with a bunch of pregnant women. You couldn’t possibly understand. You get to be a badass collector and leave whenever you want.”

He shrugged. “No–but Nev might. Give her a chance.”

Lizzie stared at her hands. It wasn’t that she was having the baby of her friend’s fiance that bothered her–they didn’t even know Nev was alive yet when it happened, and it was all a huge end of the world mistake. But despite nobody cheating on anybody and despite the fact she had never had any romantic feelings for Zach, she still couldn’t talk to Nev the same way anymore. That killed her.

You,” Lizzie accused, “and Nev and Daddy. Jess and the doctor. Hell, everyone except Saj and Rachael, are keeping me safe. I’m working on getting used to the idea of having a kid. I mean, Saj is a baby, and he’s mine, but he’s also got everybody else taking care of him.”

Lizzie–”

Please, Zach. Let me get this out. Maybe I won’t run away again. I know I’m eighteen. And in this brave fucking new world I’m an adult and that should mean I get to make my own choices. Having a kid scares the shit out of me. And being treated like I don’t get a say about my own life or my body makes me want to run.” Lizzie jerked her gloves off and held her fingers together, trying not to let them fidget with each other. She needed Zach to take her seriously–she couldn’t fall back into Crazy Lizzie stuff..

I understand,” Zach said.

I won’t jump off a cliff, but I might run away.” Lizzie stared at him. He had tears in his eyes. “Sheeze, Zach. I don’t want to hurt you. And I won’t hurt the baby. It’s just the way I am.”

Yeah, I know.” He sighed and his foot lightened on the pedal. “Things didn’t work out the way any of us wanted.”

You’ve got Nev. You wanted that.” Lizzie regretted how much jealousy she felt at those words. “I’m happy for you guys–I just wish I knew what I wanted.

 

~M~

Mannie turned slowly to Jess. “Hey. How’s it going down at the dog pound?”

It’s an Animal Shelter and Hospital, not the dog pound.” She cocked her head slightly when she corrected him, then bent to look at what he’d been examining. Her face was a little green when she turned back to him. “Coyote? Or dog?”

Coyote. Caught him in the act. Right out in the open.”

It’s still steaming.” Jess turned to him. “Shouldn’t we clean it up.”

Mannie sighed. “Yeah. I s’pose. I’ll go find a shovel.”

I’ll come with you. I can help.”

Fine,” Mannie agreed, walking away,. He pulled out his keys, opened the tool shed. He had everything laid out like he wanted it. He put his hand on the first two shovels and pulled them out together. He turned to hand one to Jess and nearly hit her in the face with the handle.

She shrunk back, wide eyed. “Just wanted to see what it was like in here.”

Be careful! Looks like a tool shed,” Mannie said. He reached over her shoulder and flipped the light switch. “Look all you want.”

Why couldn’t Jess find herself some young farmer boy and make him a good wife? She was the same age as his daughter, much too young to be waiting around for him. It wasn’t right. But he couldn’t help appreciating the gentle curve of her smile. He recalled all those nights on the road, when they were making the run from Texas to Washington to find Lizzie. All those nights she spent listening to an old man ramble. She had a spark of genuine kindness in her that reminded him of Isabel. He turned away to inspect the sharpness of a pair of clippers until he could blink away his tears.

You okay, Mannie?”

Mannie brushed past her. “No. Tired. Sad. Frustrated.”

Need some company?” she asked, quickly stepping out of his way.

No.” Damn it. Now he was going to feel guilty for being an ass. He strode to the dead cat and slid the shovel blade under its body. He didn’t want to bury it near the veggies, so he walked on until he came to a house with a big red X spray painted on the the door, no one would mind the use of the yard. A small plot of roses grown out of control looked like a good spot. It had been a really nice yard. Probably some retiree with a passion for roses. The beds along the fence and against the house were brimming with snow laden rose bushes, not awoken yet from their winter slumber, still frozen in the same state they had been before the end of the world–lucky them.

He plunged the shovel into the hard, snowy ground. He’d intended to throw the body in the trash. Burial seemed like a ridiculous waste of labor. He could have said as much, but he kept digging. He needed something to do anyway.

I’m sorry, Mannie. Was it something I said?”

No, Jess. It was nothing you said. I’m not good company, these days. Too much on my plate.” His chest spasmed. He grimaced and stood back motioning at the hole. “Dig a bit if you want. ”

I think you’re good company.” Her eyes teased him.

Mannie cringed at the flirtation, and Jess’ face fell. He panicked. He couldn’t stand the idea of hurting her. “I just feel powerless sometimes,” he blurted.

She nodded and stabbed her shovel into the dirt. “I didn’t come to bug you, Mannie.”  

Her smile was gone and its absence made his heart ache.

I went to see Lizzie.” She dug until her shovel hit hard pan.

That’s probably deep enough.” Mannie used the shovel to lift the cat’s body into the hole.

Rachel was there with the baby. Lizzie was out. I thought maybe she’d be with you.”

He stood out of the way as Jess went to work filling the hole; a girl unafraid of a little work and dirt. “Nope. Haven’t seen her.”

I can finish up here,” Jess said, “if you want to go back to being alone.”

Thanks.” But he didn’t leave.

When Jess finished tamping the soil down with her boots, she came around the patch of dirt until she stood uncomfortably close. She pulled his work gloves out of his pocket and slid her hands into them, adjusted the fingers one by one, and turned on her heel to pick a few roses for the grave.  She tied them into a cross twisted together with wire. “There.”

That’s nice, Jess.”

Thanks.” She picked up her shovel and walked back to the tool shed.

Mannie followed with his shovel. “Look, I didn’t mean to be rude,” he called after her. “If you’re hungry, I’ve got some leftover tamales. They’re pretty good.”

Thanks, Mannie. But I’ll give you what you asked for, not what your guilty conscience is offering. “See you later.” She walked off the way she’d come.

Mannie sighed, he missed her already, and for that reason he was relieved she was gone.

Thanks for reading this far. STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS will be on sale as of September 1st. Please order it at your favorite local bookstore or online at any major retailer. If you want a signed copy you can order it and ALL IS SILENCE from Village Books in Bellingham for $0.99 shipping. 

 

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What if Death Forgot You?