/ Language: English / Genre:sf

The Seven Habits

W Rose

Bosley Coughlin can travel through time. And the future does not look good.

Through a heady cocktail of drugs and the occult, Bosley slips through time and space and glimpses The End. Cities lay in ruins, and those who still cling to life hide in the rubble like frightened animals. Walking carcasses shamble through the debris exacting a horrible fate upon any living they find.

This horrific future is the only world fourteen year old Ocean has ever known. Starving and alone, she struggles for even the most basic of necessities: food, water, shelter, love…

In the present, Bosley stumbles across Clarice Hudson and soon realizes that she is much more than a simple shop girl. One by one, she displays the seven symptoms of the contagion that will bring Bosley’s world to an end and create the nightmare Ocean calls home. Clarice may hold the key to stopping the coming apocalypse and sparing Ocean from the atrocities of mankind’s imminent future… but only if Coughlin is willing to push beyond every notion he’s ever held about right and wrong.


William Todd Rose

THE SEVEN HABITS

CHAPTER ONE

Infective people are everywhere, man. They pass you on the street, rub up against you at the bus stop and walk out of bathrooms without washin’ their hands. They sneeze, they cough, they fuckin’ breathe the same air you and I gulp down to fuel our energy starved cells. We’re just lucky it ain’t airborne, ya know?

But God forbid ya put the moves on that cute brunette with the nice ass who’s been giving ya the hungry eye all damn night. Next thing ya know, she’s got her tongue shoved down your throat and these microscopic terrorists are waging molecular jihad all up and down your circulatory system.

Sad part is that sexy little bitch doesn’t even realize she’s a carrier. None of ‘em do. They go about their business like there’s no tomorrow: workin’, partyin’, tuckin’ their precious little incubators in for the night so they can slip off into the shadows and exchange infection with some unsuspecting host. Kissin’ and fuckin’, suckin’ and swappin’ juices—it’s the perfect recipe for contagion. See, that’s the places these toxic little bastards just love to congregate. Warm, moist, and dark… may as well be walking around with a friggin’ petri dish surgically implanted in your crotch.

But me? I know things, man… and I make damn sure to keep my fluids to myself. You won’t catch ol’ Bosley Coughlin stickin’ his prick into a full-blown hot zone. Not after the shit I’ve seen.

See, I’ve become what you might call dimensionally unstable. I pass through time and space like smoke through a screen, man. Sometimes the Eye of Aeons just opens up in front of me and I see all those disembodied hands squirmin’ and writhin’, clawin’ at that smoke-like fire they’re trapped in; they grab onto the edges and start pullin’ them back, forming a dark hole in the center no bigger round than a roll of toilet paper. They just keep yankin’ and tuggin’ and that pupil just keeps gettin’ larger and larger—a dinner plate, a manhole cover, the front tire of an eighteen wheeler—eventually all those things look like tiny polka dots compared to that circular void, man. The reds and blues and oranges pulse out from it, wavering in the air like heat above the sidewalk, all flickering and pretty and hypnotic. Before long, you can’t look away from this aurora pupillae any more than you could turn your face from God.

And that’s when the wind starts suckin’ at ya. It rustles your clothes and hair and somehow blows both hot and cold all at once, beads of sweat leak out from pores even as chillbumps tingle your skin, you get this flutterin’ in your belly, like you might want to toss your cookies right then and there… but at the same time you feel ravenous, like you could eat for days and never fill the hollow pit that’s become your stomach.

Before long that breeze is like a flippin’ twister. It pushes at your back with the invisible hands and pulls at ya from the front, makin’ ya stumble and stagger as you’re pulled closer and closer to that unblinking Eye.

If you try to scream, your voice is devoured by the darkness before it’s even had a chance to rattle your vocal chords, and you can struggle to hang onto reality with all ya got… but within seconds the gravity from that pupil is so immense that your molecules seep right through your fuckin’ skin, man. Oh yeah, it hurts like Hell, you better believe it. It burns, it throbs, it aches, it feels like millions of tiny fangs ripping and shredding the nerve endings exposed after your skin’s done been peeled back layer by layer with a paring knife.

Next thing ya know, you’re fallin’ and flyin’ and all these sounds swirl around you. Cries, laughter, whispers, the lull of forgotten languages, the hiss and crackle of cosmic radiation burnin’ through the cosmos. It’s probably what God hears when He’s wrapped up in the middle of all those prayers being hurled at him. And there’s this smell dude, that is literally everywhere. It’s a scent like a new beach ball, fresh from the package, so thick you can taste that shit.

And then poof… just like that you’re freed from this prison of flesh.

See, I’ve seen planets our scientists don’t even know about, man. Lifeforms that make you teeter on the chasm of madness ‘cause you just can’t wrap your thoughts around how something like that could defy all known natural laws and still exist. Methane oceans, mountains of diamond and rust, skies that look more like thin, veiny membranes… it’s all out there, as oblivious to us as most of us are to it.

I’ve also shifted back and forth through that illusion we call Time. In the Eye of Aeons there’s no such thing as past, present, and future, dig? There’s just this endless state of Now with all these so-called linear points overlappin’ and co-existing. The closest I can come to doin’ it justice and making you idiots understand, is to compare it to those Russian matryoshka dolls. You know the ones, right? Kinda shaped like a peanut, all brightly colored with rosy cheeks and painted kerchiefs around perfectly circular faces?

You open up one and there’s another, a smaller doll, nested inside. So you open that one too and be damned if there’s not another one of those fuckers inside it. Before long you’ve got all these matryoshkas clustered around ya like a pack of rabid grannies and they just keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s what Time is, man, only size doesn’t come into play since that’s an entirely different set of dimensions. But you get the general idea, right? Maybe not. But it doesn’t really fuckin’ matter now, does it?

The point is, I know how the pyramids were built because I was there when the slaves were haulin’ those giant slabs through the blistering sun. I’ve seen the muck and mire bubbling like pools of hot tar as singlecelled organisms subdivided with the dream of someday pullin’ themselves outta that ooze. I’ve floated in the vast nothingness that was before all things. I’ve witnessed the beginning, man.

On the flip side of this metaphysical coin, I’ve also been through Omega. Not the end of everything, mind you, not yet. Just the death of this inconsequential little species that inhabits a tiny speck of dust on a display case in the mansion of the universe. A speck of dust we call Earth, man. And let me tell ya, brother… we ain’t got much time left.

Oh yeah, that’s it. Roll your eyes. Trade your snide little glances and your smug half-grins. I can hear your thoughts, you know. Once you’ve been through the Eye of Aeons, everything is possible and nothing’s prohibited. See, you’ve got this little carnival barker in your head shouting into his megaphone at the milling crowd: that’s right folks, step right up and prepare to be amazed at the depths of depravity and insanity that can haunt a once healthy mind. See the twisted synapses and shattered receptors with your own two eyes… and I can hear it all, mother fucker. So laugh if it makes you feel better, if it makes you feel safer. Yuck it up, goofster. Your opinion doesn’t mean jack to me, man, ‘cause I look around and all I see are corpses who don’t realize they’re dead yet…

But, anyway… where were we? Oh yeah, we were startin’ at the end, right? Let this blow your mind, man: tufts of grass sprout through cracked concrete and ivy clambers over rusted hulks of metal that vaguely look like cars. And all these buildings surrounding us? These gleaming monuments of steel and glass that strive like Icarus to touch the sun? Nothin’ but mounds of rubble and mountains of debris that roll across the landscape like droppings from The Thing That Eats Worlds. Smaller structures, they’ve fared a little better. Some of ‘em still defy gravity with their crumbled walls and timbers turned to cinder by a fire that raged so long ago even the smell has faded.

And it’s so fuckin’ quiet, man. More quiet than this planet has ever known. Not even the birds are singin’… because they know something’s out there. Their instincts tell them to stay still, to hide in the cracks and crevices of our fallen society, to pretend they’re nothing but shadows clustered in ruin.

You know how ya step outside now, and you get blasted with a wave of smells? There’s the clouds of exhaust belching from cars and motorcycles and buses; the scent of fried food driftin’ from restaurants and minglin’ with cigar and cigarette smoke, and that hot asphalt odor from where they’re pavin’ down at the corner of Seventh and Emereson… On top of all this, you’ve got perfumes and deodorants and hairspray and sour sweat thrown in the mix. All that? Gone, man. In its place is this stench so thick it gets lodged in the back of your sinuses like a little nugget of rancid mucus. You wanna gag but somehow the air gets trapped inside your throat; like your body knows that once it’s been expelled, you’ll just have to breathe in another lungful of that greasy rancor.

It’s how those mass graves in Cambodia smelled the time I found myself lying in the bottom of that putrid pit of Hell, only a hundred times worse. Until you’ve smelled shit like this, words simply can’t describe it, man.

Again, I know what you’re thinkin’… everyone’s dead, right? Shit, man, if only it were that simple, but it’s not. Nothin’ ever is, right? ‘Cause there’s still a handful of people left alive, see. They’re burrowed down into the shadows like frightened animals, huddled together in little knots of humanity, and pissin’ all over each other because no one wants to risk going out in the open to drain the vein.

They’ve got these tattered rags draped over their bodies, all covered in grime and filth, only if you look close enough, you see these faded patterns—Hawaiian print, Nike swoops, images of rock stars manifesting like their souls somehow got trapped in this dry-rotted mess of fibers. And as shredded as these clothes are, they still manage to engulf the emaciated bodies of their owners.

See, these people have wasted away to mere skeletons, man. Remember that Ethiopian famine back in the eighties? That’s what these poor bastards look like. Bulbous heads precariously perched atop spindly necks, collar bones all sharp and angular above ribs that you could play like a fuckin’ xylophone. Their arms and legs are like shriveled sticks poking outta the remnants of their clothes and there’s always a swarm of flies buzzing around; those little bastards know they won’t have to wait much longer for the buffet to open its doors.

Funny thing is, despite all this these people still want to live… They’re starvin’ to the point that their cells are devouring themselves. They’re shivering in fear and knowing old age is as much a thing of the past as the corner hotdog stand. They’ve got so much shit caked on their ass it’s like someone took a trowel and spackled the hell outta that crack. But they find some reason to take another breath, to live for just a minute longer. And you think you’ve got it bad, because you don’t know how you’re gonna make that mortgage payment next month? Fuckin’ candy-ass pansy….

Yeah, that’s right, I said they’re afraid. They’re fuckin’ terrified, man. They’re not alone in this God-forsaken cesspool that used to be civilization, see? They know if they so much as even fart, their miserable little lives will be over like that. It’d be like tossin’ a goldfish into a blender.

It ain’t bad enough that these poor bastards are so hungry their own waste is startin’ to look good, or that something as small as the common flu could fill their lungs with pneumonia as fast as if their heads were bein’ held underwater. No… on top of all this shit, these sons of bitches have to be worried about being hunted, man. The wrong place at the wrong time and they’re bein’ torn into like barbecue at a fat-ass convention.

You ever wonder what it’s like to be eaten alive? To have teeth tearin’ your skin away like strands of taffy? It’s some fucked up shit, cats. Doesn’t matter how hard you fight… there’s just too many of those bastards clawin’ at ya. You can scream, but there ain’t nobody gonna come to your rescue. The more ya fight, the weaker you’re gonna get… ‘cause your blood’s gurglin’ out so fast that Old Faithful would hang its head in shame. If you’re lucky, you pass out before ya get to see your own guts eruptin’ outta the hole that used to be your stomach. They kinda blossom, man; like they’ve just been waiting for the chance to burst outta all that fleshy packaging.

I know all this because I was fuckin’ there when the shit hit that proverbial fan. I’ve seen things, man… horrible things. Things that would make you wanna duck beneath that cluttered little desk and never come out again.

But that’s not the worst of it. I ain’t just seen things. I’ve got first hand, eye witness knowledge. See, when that ‘ole Eye of Aeons pulls me in, I’m not just some formless puff of smoke driftin’ around like a lazy cloud. Believe you me, sometimes I wish I were. That ain’t the way this whole dimensionally transcendent thing works, man. Fuck no.

Once I’ve crossed over, I get drawn into another body, dig? Like water down a toilet. Just swirls me down and next thing I know I’m sittin’ in the back of this other dude’s consciousness and there’s a couple moments where I’m always real panicked like. It feels like I’m wrapped so tightly in wet gauze that I can’t so much as wiggle my big toe, and it’s because I ain’t got a toe, man. I’m like those perverted thoughts that go through your mind when you see a nice piece of tail struttin’ her stuff down the sidewalk. You’d never admit to thinkin’ this shit… all those humiliating things you wanna do to her, the holes and crevices you’d like to cram yourself into. But the voice is still there. Whispering in your subconscious this litany of phrases that start with Bitch and end in whore.

What if that’s not really you? What if that’s some dude who’s been stuck out in the ether so long that he’s forgotten what a real woman feels like? Sure, he might still be there when you’re putting it to your wife or girlfriend… but that’s a muted sensation, man. See there’s a difference between direct experience and something you’re feelin’ through someone else’s body. The perception’s all jacked up. It’s like trying to watch a movie through layer after layer of cheesecloth.

I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ more. Not unless you slide one of them there cigarettes my way. You give me a smoke and a light and I’ll tell ya more than you ever wanted to know. I’ll tell ya about survival, the food chain, infection…

If you throw in a cup of coffee, I might even tell ya what you really wanna hear. The reason you’ve got me locked in this little room to begin with: Clarice fuckin’ Hudson.

CHAPTER TWO

The wind moaned through the city like a collective wail from the spirits of those who’d died upon her streets. Though faded by time and the elements, blood still stained the sidewalks and alleys in a hazy testament to a history of violence.

When she was younger, Ocean used to squint at the splotches until pictures had begun to emerge; birds, rabbits, round faces with their tongues stuck out, and nice plump cats roasting over an open flame. They were darker back then, lending themselves more easily to the fallacies of imagination; now they were nothing more than vague, rust-colored blemishes.

Not that Ocean was able to fritter away her time with the games and distractions of childhood, anyway. Three moons ago, she’d felt the cramps seize what her mother had always referred to as her musn’t-touch. Days later, her first flow had begun; nothing more than a trickle really, but enough to drive home that she was no longer a child. As a woman, she was now expected to provide for her own needs. She could still shelter with her mother if she chose, but the older woman was free from the obligation of sharing any food or water that happened to come her way, and she was not the least bit shy in letting her daughter know this. The woman had grown progressively cruel ever since Ocean’s father had died; the fact that her little girl was now an adult seemed to free her from whatever obligations had previously kept the worst of her tirades at bay.

This was why Ocean was sometimes tempted to return to the stained sidewalks and allow the world around her to dissolve into shifting patterns of fancy. It would be so much easier not to think about the little knot in her stomach that somehow felt hollow and painful all at the same time, the hunger that was her constant companion.

It had been an entirely different world back then. While not exactly abundant, it’d still been possible to pry dented cans of food from the piles of brick and broken glass like a prospector working a seam. The contents of the cans were usually congealed with a thick, jelly-like substance that coated the roof of her mouth with a musty grit and slid down her throat as easily as snot. But it had been nourishment, and there had been enough to keep them strong, to ensure that they could fight or run or climb rusty towers and then work their way along a route of half-fallen poles and crumbling rooftops back to safety.

Now, those memories seemed like remnants of a dream she may once have had. The smooth flesh of pre-pubescence had been replaced by skin as dry and cracked as drought-baked earth and her once silky hair hung in scattered clumps, so thin that her scalp showed through like a mirage. Even when she was able to find food, swallowing wracked her throat with sharp, needle-like pains that made it seem she were being punished for her continued survival. Everything hurt, in fact. The slightest movement caused her joints to feel as if they were grinding against each other and her muscles ached like she’d been beaten with a stick. Sometimes the world seemed to grow hazy, as though a dense fog had descended over the ruins of the city, and her eyes would throb with agony as she tried to peer through the misty haze.

Even now, the simple act of lying on her back caused her spine to feel like the concrete had somehow managed to strip away the layers of tissue beneath her filthy smock. Small pebbles were like knives plunged between vertebrae and the sun overhead jabbed her eyes with cruel claws. She had to remain as motionless as the chunks of concrete surrounding her, no matter how bad the torture became.

Her jaw hung open and the air just above her was thick with the buzzing of flies. They darted about erratically, swooping and swerving and changing directions without rhyme or reason. Only her green eyes tracked their movements, watching this troupe of aerial dancers with what she hoped to be the most minimal of movements.

Within seconds, Ocean felt one crawling across her upper lip. It’s tiny legs tickled and her arms tensed as she fought the urge to reach up and flick it away. Even that undercurrent of movement caused the insect to take to the air however, and it rejoined the dark cloud that swarmed around her head. Inside, she felt like crying as frustration squeezed her in its vise-like grip, but as her mother had so often reminded her, tears were nothing more than a waste of water. Instead, she took a breath though her nose so slowly that her chest didn’t seem to rise at all.

Gotta stay calm…

Soon, the fly—or one just like it—returned. It crept across her face, the movement feeling like the tip of a feather faintly brushing against her cheek, making the corners of her mouth want to twitch. This time Ocean was able to subdue her instincts; she remained perfectly still and allowed the small creature to explore her face with its hairy appendages.

Just a little further…

The tickling sensation moved from her lips and become muted as the insect crawled across her tongue. Ocean snapped her jaw shut and the fly responded with panic. It buzzed through the inside of her mouth, ricocheting off the soft lining of her cheeks and brushing the ridges just behind her teeth with its wings. She swallowed hard, ignoring the little vibration in the back of her throat as the struggling insect was carried down into her gullet. Then all the little movements disappeared and Ocean opened her mouth again, resetting the trap for the next unsuspecting victim.

Seven flies later, Ocean began to smell them: that putrid reek that seemed to seep through the molecules of the air like a spreading cancer. The stench blossomed slowly; at first it was only enough to make wrinkle her nose as if her nostrils were trying to close up with an instinctive reaction. Shortly after, she realized that she had begun breathing exclusively through her mouth in an effort to further shield herself from the invading odor. Experience had taught her that before long the smell would be so thick and rancid that it would flood her mouth with its greasy, thick pungency. The stink would taint what little saliva still moistened her throat and would rise like waves of putrid gas, leeching into her sinus passages as if the smell were actually emanating from somewhere deep within her own body.

And by then it would be too late. There would be nowhere left to run and the suffocating smell would wrap around her like a moldy funeral shroud.

It was definitely time to move on.

She sat up slowly, dispersing the nebula of flies into a scattered throng of dark specks. Peering above the slab of concrete closest to her, she saw a street with clumps of grass sprouting through the cracks in the pavement. Shards of wood and chunks of brick littered the ground amid glass that sparkled in the sun where a telephone pole had snapped in half and crushed the remains of a car that had been skeletonized by fire so long ago that no trace of ash remained. There was no sign of movement out there in the wastelands… not yet.

Ocean scrambled to her feet and, for a second, the world around her swooned. She closed her eyes, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet as her hand clutched the jagged edge of the concrete. This had been happening more and more often lately. When she moved, it would sometimes seem as if it took reality a few seconds to catch up with her and during that time, she seemed to float and drift like her soul had become untethered from her body.

In addition to this, she had come to suspect that she wasn’t alone in her own head. Sometimes it felt as though there were someone else in there, someone who looked out through her eyes and saw the world as if from a great distance. She suspected that this other presence was what caused the lag in her perception of time. In those few brief seconds, she felt her experiences overlapping with those of the intruder’s and all the sensations of life were filtering through two observations.

Of course in the same light, Ocean also suspected sometimes that she wasn’t real, that she was nothing more than the leading character in someone’s dream. If she only managed to stay alive long enough, the dreamer would eventually awaken and free her from the torment of life. It wouldn’t be like dying. She would simply wink out of existence with no pain or regrets or remorse.

Until that happened, however, she had to keep her ass alive. Which meant she needed to get moving… and now.

Ocean zigzagged through the wreckage of a society she’d never known in a slight crouch, staying low and moving as quickly as her weakened system would allow. Every few minutes, she’d duck behind the crumbled remains of a building or some formless hulk of metal. She’d remain as still as her surroundings, listening for the slightest sound with her head cocked to the side, sniffing the air like an animal. The stench was still present but not as thick… which meant she was heading in the right direction. How many screams had she heard because people who thought they were heading to safety were actually delivering themselves into the clawing hands of death? Too many to count, and she was determined not to be one of them.

Ocean picked her way through burnt-out buildings and dilapidated walls, through labyrinths of girders and old billboards that had crashed to the ground. The smell got fainter and fainter until there was nothing more than the reek of her own body wafting up to assault her nose. In time, she came to a tangle of vehicles that blocked the road ahead. The rusted, metal frames looked as if the cars and trucks had been fused into one another; bumpers ensnarled with fenders, hoods crumpled into fractured engine blocks, a myriad of spiderweb cracks like ghosts on dust covered windshields.

Squeezing into the gap between a dented, partially open door and the side of an ambulance, Ocean squirmed across the backseat of a car, taking care that the springs poking through the tufts of stuffing didn’t rake across her skin. After baking in the sun all day, the interior of the vehicle was so hot that condensation had begun beading up on the windows and she took a moment to lick them clean; she could taste the grime from the glass coating her mouth in an oily sheen… but the liquid also soothed the sandpaper-like feeling on her tongue and, for the time being at least, relieved her gums from the pressure that made it feel as if they were attempting to squeeze her yellowed teeth right out of her head.

After slaking her thirst, she continued crawling through the maze of automobiles until she came to a car that had withstood the ravages of time relatively well. What looked to be a mound of filthy rags, were actually clothes, piled into the floorboard and a threadbare sheet was rumpled across the backseat. In the space between the seats and the rear window, a collection of small figurines had been lined up. They were all glass and almost exclusively animals: rabbits with severed ears, gouged dolphins caught in mid-leap, even a bear whose head was precariously balanced on its shattered neck. Ocean looked at them and smiled, as always.

This was her room and had been for as long as she could remember. Her father used to bring the little animals back when he’d go foraging for food and supplies and she could remember tugging at the hems of his pants, bouncing from one foot to the other, as he playfully kept the newest addition just out of reach. He’d been a good man, her father. He’d tell her stories about the way the world used to be as he tucked her in for the night, and would sing what he called one hit wonders and blasts from the past softly while puttering about their shelter.

She missed him. Sometimes so badly that it felt as though something were deep inside her, eating away all the things that made life worth living. But at least she still had Mama; even if the older woman had become more cold and distant and mean, she wasn’t entirely alone… and that somehow helped.

Ocean squirmed out the other side of her room and practically fell into a circular clearing formed in the very center of all those wrecked vehicles. A tarp had been strung overhead as long as she could remember, forming a ceiling of sorts, and the setting sun filtered through the canvas, tinting everything under it with a bluish glow.

Ocean’s mother was crouched on the far side of the clearing with her back to the girl, and her head snapped around when she heard her daughter enter.

“I’m home, Mama.”

Her mother glared at her through eyes that looked like they had receded into her skull. The older woman’s face was sharp and angular, the frown which pulled at the corners of her mouth only made those features even more defined. She said nothing, but pulled her hands tightly to her chest and angled her body even further away from the young girl.

“There’s some rotters somewhere over by the… what’s that?”

Her mother crouched lower, anger sparking within her eyes.

“Nothing,” she snapped. “Go to your room, you fuckin’ bastard.”

Ocean stepped to the side of the clearing and her mother quickly shuffled away, shielding whatever it was she clutched against her chest from her daughter’s view. Ocean craned her neck and felt curiosity warm her chest and neck.

“What is it? Is it something of Daddy’s? Did you—”

“I said it’s nothing!” The older woman was trembling now and she snarled at her daughter like one of the wolves that sometimes prowled through the city. Strands of spittle dangled from the few teeth remaining in her mouth and her nostrils flared wide.

“Go the fuck away, Ocean!”

The words and tone stung Ocean as if her mother had physically slapped her across the face. At the same time, her own brow furrowed and her body tensed; she bit her lip to keep from snapping back at her mother, but her hands balled into her fists by her side. Now, it was a matter of principle… When she felt as if she could speak calmly again, her words came out in clipped, short busts.

“You got something. What is it, Mama? What are you hiding?” Ocean continued circling around the wall of twisted metal surrounding her, stooping slightly so her head wouldn’t brush against the tarp.

“I said go the fuck away, you nosy little cunt! Mind your own damn business!”

Her mother had turned and looked as if she were seconds from pouncing. Clutched to her chest was a brown, furry body with small, dark eyes and a hairless tail tapered to a point. Her mother was now shaking so violently that tremors passed through the animal’s limp body as if it were actually still alive.

“You’ve got a rat! Where did you get a rat?”

“It’s mine, you understand? It’s fuckin’ mine.”

Her mother’s face had twisted into a gnarled mask of rage with wide eyes and small pupils. She squeezed her prize so tightly that it’s body seemed to balloon out on either side of her grip.

“Go find your own, you little brat!”

Ocean’s stomach rumbled and she found that she couldn’t take her eyes away from the creature. She studied its coarse, short hairs; the single droplet of blood congealed on wiry whiskers… the rounded ears and little black feet.

“There’s… there’s enough for both of us right? I’ll trade you something… anything. Tell me what you want.” Ocean’s mouth flooded with metallic-tasting saliva and she constantly ran her tongue over her lips as her voice quivered. “Tell me and it’s yours. Just a bite. Just a taste. Please, Mama? Just a little… “

“Fucking die! I want you to fucking die and leave me the Hell alone! It’s mine!”

The words stopped Ocean in her tracks as effectively as if she’d walked into an invisible wall. Her mouth hung open and tears welled within her eyes as she struggled to find words.

“It’s mine, mine, mine!”

Even though she felt as if everything within her had suddenly shriveled and died, Ocean still found herself unable to pull her gaze away from the dead rat. It shimmered through the tears that began to trickle from the corner of her eyes, and she swallowed painfully.

“Mama… “

Fuck you!” The woman wrenched a piece of metal from the grill of a car and held it before her like a sword as she rose to her full height. With her other hand, she held the rat by its tail and dangled it slightly behind her body, shielding it like she would a small child from a predator. “It’s… fucking… mine!”

Spittle flew from her mouth with each word and her lips had pulled back into a sneer. Every muscle in her body looked tense, bulging against her thin skin as if trying to break free.

“Mama… I…”

Ocean watched as the rat plummeted toward the ground and for a moment struggled to make sense of what was happening. Why would Mama just drop it? Was she leaving it for her, maybe? Was she…

Ocean became aware of an inhuman, guttural scream only seconds before her mother’s body crashed into her own, and then she was tumbling backward, the base of her skull thudding against the concrete with enough force to make her jaw snap closed painfully.

The older woman scrambled over Ocean’s small body, scratching bloody furrows into her shoulders and neck, screaming so loudly that her shrill voice caused a quiver in her daughter’s eardrums.

Mine, mine, mine, mine!”

She was throwing punches now, driving her fist repeatedly into Ocean’s nose and mouth with flat, wet smacks. Ocean squirmed below her, writhing and twisting like a headless snake, trying to buck her mother from her body. The other woman had her pinned squarely, her knees pressed painfully into Ocean’s collarbones.

Mine! Mine!”

Her mama gripped the jagged length of metal in both hands and raised it above Ocean’s throat.

You can’t have any, you greedy little bitch! It’s mine! Just fucking die, you ungrateful whore! Fucking die! Die! Die!”

Her arms trembled, and Ocean grew perfectly still, eyes focused on the sharp edges of the metal. She tried to say something, to say anything that would keep the weapon from being plunged into her neck… all that came out was a choked sob that gurgled deep within her throat.

CHAPTER THREE

Now that’s a damn good question.

If everything I say is true, then what makes me so flippin’ special? How come the Eye of Aeons doesn’t open for just any Joe Schmoe walkin’ down the street? I’ve got to confess man, that’s something I’ve invested a lot of hours in. You know how many nights I’ve spent, tossing and turning, as I’ve tried to figure out the answer to that very question? Shit, there was a time when I was getting two, maybe three, hours of sleep a night. Tops.

The best I can figure, it’s because I’ve done drugs, man. A lot of drugs. Sticky purple pellets of opium all wrapped up in foil pockets that you can fashion into a little pipe if you’re hard up, hydroponic reefer so fine you can see all these crystals clinging to the bud like it’d been flash frozen or some shit, pills of every imaginable shape and color… fuck, it was like a pharmacological rainbow jumped straight down my throat. And acid, man. Lots and lots of blotter dissolved on this tongue of mine, believe you me. I’d shotgun down the OJ, cause vitamin C really kicks that shit into overdrive and all these doors I never even knew where there started flyin’ open in my mind. Fact is, I was high so frickin’ much that sobriety was my altered state, man.

Don’t get the wrong impression, though. I wasn’t just another sorry-ass son of a bitch searching for a way to escape the mess his life had become. I wasn’t some doped up loser just lookin’ for the next fix. Fuck that shit, man. I had goals. I had plans. All those drugs were just an end to a means, if ya can dig that.

See, I used to live with this cat by the name of Johnny Necessary. Swear to God, that was the dude’s real name. Look it up, if you want, he’ll be in that there computer of yours. Picked up on possession about three, four years back. Tall guy, shaven head, goatee. Got this excited little quirk to his eyes that makes it look like he’s always going through REM, even when wide awake. Makes some people nervous ‘cause they feel like there’s always something going on in that mind of his, that he’s constantly sizing things up and forming schemes that don’t involve them. Never bothered me much, though.

Me and Johnny, see, were what you might call like-minded individuals…. No, I don’t fuckin’ mean enablers, man. Enablers are for people with problems, people who’ve got a monkey shittin’ down their backs and whisperin’ in their ear. We weren’t like that. We were fuckin’ pioneers, man. Visionaries, even. The Wright Brothers of Instant Zen, you might say.

See, me and ‘ole Johnny weren’t just recreational users, man. We had this wild idea that you could totally destroy the ego. Just wipe it all away like a faulty equation on a chalkboard. And when you’re staring at a blank slate, everything is possible. You can fill that space with anything… anything, man. You can have you everything you ever wanted but were too afraid to ask for. All you gotta do is start fresh. Just like a newborn baby, but one who has a lifetime of experience waiting to shape his personality and mind.

Don’t look at me like that, man, it happens all the time. You just don’t realize it. When you were giving me that cigarette earlier, I noticed the Semper Fi tat on your forearm. So you should know what I’m talkin’ about. Why the hell do you think they give you cats such a hard time in basic? They’re breaking you down, man, crushin’ your ego beneath the heel of a combat boot that just keeps comin’ down again and again and again. They even shave your heads, try to make you look as much like one another as humanly possible, strippin’ your individuality like ethanol on shellac.

And once they’ve totally broken you… then they rebuild you into the perfect marine. They can form you like you weren’t nothing more than a little lump of clay.

That’s so negative though, ya know? Me and Johnny, we wanted a more positive experience. I never wanted to kill anyone. I never wanted any of this shit I’ve been through. But you know what they say about the best plans of mice and men, right?

Anyhow, there was one small difference between Johnny and me. See, he was trying to do all this with just the drugs alone, but me, I’ve always been into the great mysteries, ya know? Astral projection, mysticism, astrology, mind over matter. I didn’t really identify myself with any one particular belief system or practice. The way I see it, all these different schools of thought are like that parable about the blind Indians who stumble across this elephant. One of ‘em touches the tail and says, ‘Oh, it’s a rope’, another touches the leg and says, ‘Oh, it’s a tree’ and so on and such.

Well, God is that elephant, man. Everyone thinks they’ve got the one clear picture because they’re limiting their understanding to a fixed set of perceptions. I wanted to see the whole damn animal, dig? So yeah, I did it all—Santeria, Golden Dawn, Freemasonry, Thanateros, Wicca. I panned each of them for the little nuggets of truth hidden in all that other worthless silt, and eventually, it all came to a head.

See, there was this dude Johnny knew. Real lanky guy with long hair and these little John Lennon glasses. I never could remember this cat’s name and wouldn’t tell ya if I could. He supplied most of the valley with their shit, but he was a good guy. Wouldn’t sell to kids, stayed away from the really fucked up stuff, and always smoked one out of his own stash with ya. Quality fuckin’ individual. He’s forgotten more about drugs then your whole narc squad ever knew, man… a walkin’ fuckin’ encyclopedia, that dude was. Which is why I just called him Professor Weed.

So anyhow, Professor Weed stopped by our pad this one night to hook Johnny up with this new shipment of chronic sativa that had come into his possession. He’s got the baggie out on the coffee table and he’s hunched over the tray, rolling up a nice fat one with his bangs all down in his face, when he looks up at Johnny.

“I’ve got something The Dude might be interested in as well.”

See, that was one of the funny things about Professor Weed. He always spoke to Johnny as if I wasn’t even in the room. And he always called me The Dude because he said I reminded him of Dude Lebowski.

What’dya mean, who the fuck is that? The dudester? El Duderino? Ain’t you ever seen The Big Lebowski? Shit, you guys gotta get some fuckin’ culture….

So anyhow, like I was sayin’ before I was so rudely interupted, Professor Weed says he’s got something I might be interested in. Says it’s a new strain of acid that’s brewed up by these monks out in the Mojave desert. Called it Liquid Enlightenment and said that through every step of the process these dudes were performing rites and rituals to instill it with arcane properties. Told Johnny he could hook me up with two or three hits if I was interested.

So I told Johnny ‘fuck yeah, I’m interested, man’ and he relayed the message like a kid caught between bickering parents. Two days later, I’ve got three tabs with these little infinity symbols watermarked in the middle of each one. I put two of them on the tip of my tongue and just kinda leaned back, smokin’ a cigarette and waiting for the doses to dissolve. Johnny, he took the other one. I’d offered to halve my second one but he had to work in the morning and didn’t want the acid to cancel out his pre-shift joint.

About thirty minutes later, that shit had really kicked in, man. By this time, I’d moved out onto the front porch and was just stretched out on the couch we had out there. I was watching the leaves on this old tree that stood in our front yard and they were so awesome. It was like I could see this faint aura around each one, like a golden glow that pulsed with the energies rushing through that elm.

Everything was so clear, so fuckin’ hyper-real. One point, I’m racked out there—just kinda controlling my breathing and meditating—when I begin to hear this beautiful music. It was like there was this angel hovering just over our roof and it was ringing tones and textures from the atoms and molecules of everything, man. Each note hung in the air with this perfect clear pitch, trilling and droning into eternity, overlaying the next note, and blending together into a chord that seeped down through my body and vibrated my soul.

So eventually I open my eyes, right? And I see this little night bird sitting in the limbs of that tree and he’s just warbling away. The bird was the angel, dude. His song was the music of the spheres and something about this knowledge made me feel like every cell in my body had just been stroked with the finger of God.

I rush into the house and Johnny is there doing this chalk and charcoal portrait of his mind on butcher paper. He was always trying to map out his psyche, see, because he had to understand where each of the roads lead before he’d be able to divert them. So I snatch away this piece of white chalk and run back out onto the porch and I felt so fuckin’ alive, man, so fuckin’ connected.

I get out on the porch and I start scrawling these veves all over the floorboards… a veve? It’s this complex symbol, man. Voodoo houngans draw ‘em in cornmeal to represent all these astral forces that are spiraling around out there and they kinda act like beacons for the loa. See the, loa are these spiritual beings that….

Shit. You’re getting me totally off topic, man. The point is, I drew these veves all over the damn porch and I was channeling my energy into each line, each dot and swirl. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t just drawing the ones I knew. I’d branched out into these geometrical shapes and patterns that had just as much power, just as much energy… only these were coming from somewhere inside me.

Finally, I stood up and started calling on the Watchtowers, man, the directions, the elementals. I invited them all in and could feel myself opening to them, unfurling like the petals of the moon flowers that crept all up and down our hillside. I could feel the energies surging into me, manifesting in my blood and coursing through my entire body. It was like a black hole had suddenly opened up somewhere within me and it was pulling everything in, man.

About this time is when I noticed how these dark clouds had crept across the sky and they kinda flickered with the glow of lightning that was just out of view. A wind was blowing and it felt like the universe was kissing me softly, running its cool fingers through my hair. I could feel the moisture in the air, could smell that fresh scent that pre-rain spores release, and I knew that this wasn’t just something that was happening to me.

I was part of it, man. I knew that I was just this little strand in the giant web of everything, and I wanted to experience it all. The cool grass between my toes, the wind rustling my pubes, the feeling of bare skin when those first, fat drops of rain finally started falling outta the sky.

So I took off all my clothes, right there on the porch. Left them in this rumpled pile and went running down the steps, across the sidewalk, and into the backyard. You’re never really free until you’re naked, ya know? You’ve never really experienced life until you’ve done it without all the hang-ups and impositions society tries to choke us with. If you’ve never danced nude to the rhythm of rain pattering on leaves, then you’ve never truly been alive.

Anyway, I’m out in the backyard, doing this little tribal two-step, when I hear howling way back in the hills. Sounds just like some giant wounded beast and it stops me in my tracks. I’m standing there listening to this sound, ya know, and all of a sudden all that zen just vanishes. I’m like Adam in the Garden of Eden, realizing his nakedness for the first time and feeling the shame warm my chest and cheeks. I wanna run to the porch, put on my clothes, go back inside where its bright and safe and protected, ‘cause I’ve got The Fear, now.

I’m listening to this moaning sound coming down off the mountains and it seems like it embodies every fucked up thing that’s ever existed. Violence, doubt, rage… it’s all there, whipped into a frenzy by the coming storm and fueled by the anger of the Earth and how her children have betrayed her. I can see the pines way back there swaying back and forth, the wind is really blowing now, driving these little stinging bits of dust into my eyes and peppering my bare skin with what feels like tiny pinpricks.

But I can’t move. It’s like roots have spread out from the soles of my feet and anchored me to the ground, ya know?

And then I hear this really loud popping and cracking, like the world’s largest .22 had been set to fully automatic somewhere back in those woods, and it just keeps getting louder and louder. That old wind is blowing stronger now and the pines are all bent toward me like they were bowing before the approach of some fearsome demon. So this image forms in my head, man. I see this dark and formless force racin’ down the hillside. It’s leaving splintered trees in its wake and kickin’ up these little tornadoes of dirt and dead leaves. All the forest animals are scurrying away, running and hiding, seeking shelter from the evil that crackles like static in the air.

And me? I’m right there in its path, man. It’s chargin’ through the woods, howling so loud I can feel it reverberate in my chest and head, and I know… I know… that within seconds it’s gonna be all over me like a skunk on peanut butter. It’s gonna slam into my body and poison my spirit with all that malevolent energy. It’s gonna wither my soul, drink my tears, and feast upon all that succulent fear and pain. It’ll consume me within seconds and scour the earth for more hapless bastards to feed on, growing stronger as its darkness claims the land.

Fuck that.

I broke through the paralysis and took off like a spooked deer, running straight across the yard. Took the porch stairs in two strides, and forgot all about my pile of clothes layin’ over there. I streaked by Johnny and ran to my bedroom, slamming the door shut behind me only seconds before I dove into bed. I pulled those sheets up over my head and I was shakin’ so bad I coulda washed an entire load of laundry if someone had tossed me into a tub of water with some detergent.

I just wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep, ya know? To pretend like none of this had ever happened and wake up in the morning to tell Johnny all about the fucked up dream I’d had.

But you can’t sleep on acid, man. Everyone knows that. So, instead, I tried to picture this protective ball of white light encircling me like I was a baby chick inside an egg of pure energy, only every time I started to get a fix on it in my mind, the white light was shredded into these long strands and pulled away like cigarette smoke through a fan. I’m shivering, sweating, crying, and my heart is hammering in my chest so loudly that I can only faintly hear Johnny on the other side of my door saying, “Dude, you wanna hit this? Hey, man, you wanna hit this?”

I feel like a damn fool now. Hindsight being twenty-twenty and all, I realize there wasn’t some all-powerful, dark entity willing itself into existence back there on the hill. I was just having a bad trip and letting all my negativity bubble to the surface where it tainted my perceptions, man. No, I realize now that what that was—the howling, the wind, the trees snapping like they were nothing more than dried twigs—I realize that it was just the Eye of Aeons opening up for the first time.

So that’s why I’m so fuckin’ special, man. That’s why it swallows me time and time again. Because I opened myself to it. I sought it out. I called for it.

If it hadn’t been for that night, if it hadn’t been for Professor Weed and his Liquid fuckin’ Enlightenment, I never would have known about The End. I never would have known about Ocean. And I most certainly wouldn’t have known about the seven signs, man.

What’s that? Oh yeah… right. I haven’t mentioned the signs yet, have I? Well, as you can probably guess by the clever name, there’s seven of ‘em. They’re like guideposts or even a checklist, if you will. These days, just about everyone exhibits at least a handful. So you gotta be sure. You gotta be positive. ‘Cause only the true infected display all seven traits, see? And that’s how you can tell who’s gonna spread the contagion that levels our world, man.

Ocean may seem like she’s out there in some distant point on mankind’s timeline. She may seem to be this hazy spot somewhere in the future, but she’s not. She only fifteen or twenty years away. Tops.

The virus is already among us, see? The seeds of apocalypse have been sown and, even as we sit here having our little rap session, those microscopic buggers are out there, dividing and subdividing, slowly changing our genetic blueprint through mitosis. It’s spreading faster than you can imagine, infecting more and more people every day. The end really is nigh… the human race really is doomed.

And Clarice fuckin’ Hudson? Well, she had all seven signs, man. See, she was dead a long time before she met ‘ole Bosley Coughlin. You can write that in your little black book in big, block letters and underline it.

She was a dead woman walking. And I’m simply the man who recognized it for what it was.

CHAPTER FOUR

Ocean’s mother drove the shard of metal down with a growl. Summoning what little strength she had, the young girl rolled her shoulders with a savage jerk, throwing her attacker’s center of gravity off just long enough for the weapon to clang ineffectually off the concrete. Seizing the opportunity, Ocean raked at her mother’s eyes with her hands, feeling a soft squish as her index fingers drove into the moist orbs.

Her mama’s hands flew instinctively to her face as she yowled with pain. Adrenaline gushing through her veins, Ocean found a strength she never realized she possessed and she thrashed on the ground. Her mother toppled over as if she were nothing more than one of the glass figurines in the car, and now it was Ocean’s turn to grapple for dominance. As she pulled herself over her mother’s squirming body, she drove her knee between the woman’s sagging breasts, throwing as much of her weight into the blow as possible. The air whooshed out of the woman’s lungs and left her gasping for breath… but it wasn’t enough to drive the fight out of her entirely.

She grabbed a handful of Ocean’s hair and yanked so hard that it felt her scalp were about to be pulled right off her skull. At the same time, the other woman’s free hand was scrambling across the concrete, her fingers clutching and grasping at the empty air.

Tears streamed down Oceans’s face, cutting paths of clean skin through the filth and grime. She was vaguely aware of her own shrieking voice. “No, Mama, No… stop it! Stop it!”

“Bitch! Slut! Little fuckin’ whore!” The woman’s hand finally found the object it sought and, with an inhuman roar, she rammed the end of the twisted scrap of metal into her daughter’s arm.

Ocean screamed as the pain shot from her elbow to shoulder. Undaunted, her mother continued to stab again and again as blood spurted from the puncture wounds, to spatter against her face.

She’s going to kill you, she’s going to fucking kill you, you have to do something. DO SOMETHING!

Ocean buried her face into her mother’s neck, just as she had done when she was very small and had awoken from a nightmare where the rotters were about to get her. Only this time, there was no comfort to be sought in the warm skin, no reprieve from the anxiety and fear; there was only one last chance at survival.

She sank her teeth into flesh, clamping down so tightly that her mouth was immediately flooded with the metallic tang of blood. Her mother screamed and thrashed, still jamming the metal into her daughter’s body.

The pain caused Ocean to throw her head back and there was a wet, ripping sound as the skin seemed to peel away from her mother’s throat. Something warm and sticky sprayed over the girl, but she was terrified to the point that the most real thing was that voice in her head chanting: she’ll kill you, she’ll fucking kill you, you know she’ll kill you….

Spitting the rubbery chunk of tissue from her mouth, Ocean plunged her face toward her mother’s throat again. Chewing, ripping, snot bubbling from her nose as her tears mingled with the blood, she tore away flesh and muscle again and again until it dawned on her that she wasn’t being stabbed any longer. In fact, her mother was sprawled motionless across the ground, a dark pool seeping away from the ravaged remains of her neck.

At that moment, all of the fear and rage that had propelled her simply seemed to vanish. She collapsed over her mother’s body like a cast off rag doll, her back hitching with sobs as she pressed her face into her mother’s chest.

“Mama… Mama, talk to me… please, Mama. Please!”

She wasn’t sure how long she laid there, clutching her dead mother in her arms as though she could somehow squeeze life back into those now useless lungs. Eventually the crying tapered off and the throbbing pain in her arm seemed to fade; Ocean’s entire body, even her mind, felt numb. It was like all of her thoughts had poured out of her head with the snot and tears. She was nothing but a hollow, empty vessel as she stared into the distance, seeing nothing.

At some point she must have drifted to sleep; the next thing she knew her body was covered in dew and thin tendrils of fog crept across the ground like miniature phantoms. She could see through the windows of some of the wrecked cars encircling her and the fog was thicker on the other side. It was a roiling, gray veil that made the ruined city appear fuzzy and indistinct. She thought she could see a dark silhouette out there, beckoning to her with outstretched arms.

“D-daddy?” Even cloaked in the morning mist, she could recognize his general shape and outline. “Daddy!”

Her heart fluttered with hope as she raised her head and a smile crept over her face. The smile faded however, as quickly as the image of the man in the fog, and she was left with only her mother’s cold, still body beneath her.

Ocean scrambled backward and pulled her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms tightly around her knees as she rocked back and forth. She was shaking her head, silently saying no again and again, and she could feel the tears returning. Mama was gone. Mama was gone and now she was entirely alone in the world.

The blood had dried on her face overnight and her skin felt stretched too tightly over her skull. She was sticky and dirty and wanted to throw up, but could only wretch and heave as traces of bile stung the back of her throat.

“You’ve got to do the rite of the dead,” she told herself. “You’ve got to give Mama the rite.”

The strange yet somehow familiar voice in the back of her mind whispered again. What? She was going to kill you! You had to do what you did, even if she was you mother. She doesn’t deserve any type of burial ritual, don’t you get that? Mothers don’t try to kill their own daughters…

Ocean wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and stood, brushing the dirt from her clothes. She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath of cool, clean air. The clearing within the circle of cars was so silent that there was a faint ringing in her ears, so she cleared her throat and spoke her thoughts aloud.

“I’ve got to do the rite. Mama did it for Daddy. And I have to do it for her. That’s all there is to it.”

She walked across the shelter and felt as if she were moving through a dream. Somehow, her arms and legs didn’t feel as if they were actually connected to her, like she were going through pre-programmed movements that she was powerless to control.

She snaked her index finger through a dark hole in the trunk of an old Cadillac until she felt the little lever dig into her skin. After a slight flex, the trunk popped open with a click, and a musty odor wafted out from the interior. Her father’s things were folded neatly inside, his glasses atop the stack as if he might someday come back to lay claim to them. But I’m not here to think about Daddy… not now.

Reaching into the darkness, her hand closed around cold, smooth metal. She raised it tentatively, surprised at how heavy the slender rod actually was.

“I’ve got to do this.” Even her own voice sounded as if it were coming from someone else, as if there were someone standing just behind her shoulder who narrated her thoughts.

“It’s the right thing to do.”

The trunk closed with a thud and she walked back to her mother’s body. There, she dropped to her knees and placed one palm against the woman’s cheek.

Cold, so cold, people shouldn’t be so cold….

Ocean thought she would just be able to lightly push her mother’s head to the side, that it would roll over slowly and easily. But the muscles had stiffened during the night and she had to put her weight into it. Finally, there was a sound, something between a pop and crackle, and the woman’s head rolled to the left.

Ocean pushed the thin locks of hair away from her mother’s face, revealing the little dip of skin between the corner of her eye and her ear.

She took the tire iron in both hands now and took a deep breath. She held it… counted to three… and then drove the beveled tip down into her mother’s temple. The crunch of the bone seemed to rise up through the metal and tingle her palms. There wasn’t as much blood as she expected, nothing more than a dark sludge that oozed slowly out of the hole.

Ocean practically leaned on the tire iron, driving it deeper into her mother’s head and, when she was satisfied it had gone far enough, gave the entire thing a twist by pulling on the end that was bent at an angle.

“Rest in peace, Mama. Rest in peace.”

Standing, Ocean took a final look around the only place she had ever called home. The rising sun was just beginning to filter through the tarp which usually infused their living area with an almost magical quality. On this morning, everything looked as flat and one dimensional as some of the paintings she’d found scattered through the debris of the city. Whatever had imbued this space with light and emotion had fled during the night, running far, far away from the horrors it had witnessed.

She knew she couldn’t stay here any longer. There were too many memories… too much pain.

“Goodbye, Mama… I… I love you, Daddy.”

She didn’t know where she would go, but there had to be somewhere, out there. Somewhere safe where she could try to put all this behind her. She would take her figurines and the few clothes she owned and make her own way in the world, now. There really was no other choice.

She was just beginning to squirm into the backseat of her room when she paused for a moment. Crawling back out, she ran across the clearing and scooped up the dead rat her mother had dropped the night before.

At least she wouldn’t be hungry. Not for a while, at least.

The rest of the day passed in something of a daze. The once familiar gridwork of streets and landmarks were nothing more than a blur that existed in some fuzzy dimension outside her own body. Ocean was aware that her belly was full and that the greasy taste of rat still lent its tang to her saliva, but other than that, she was numb. She drifted along aimlessly without even the odd voice in her head to keep her company.

Even though it had been left back in the clearing, she could feel the weight of the tire iron in her hand.

By the time the sun had begun its descent in the sky, the first traces of normality had begun to reassert themselves. It started with the slow realization that she had no idea where she was. None of the buildings looked familiar; the faded graffiti on the walls and buildings that still stood were not the recognizable loops and swirls of her childhood… the names of streets on their bent signposts sounded foreign and usual.

But maybe that was for the best, a fresh start, a new area. She’d have to be more careful, of course. She didn’t know all the hiding places in this section of the city, all the secret places that she could scuttle through in an emergency.

The smell hit her, almost as though her thoughts had conjured it into existence, thick and stagnant, forcing its way into her mouth and nostrils, filling every inch of the hollowness she still felt inside.

She could hear them. That shuffling scuffle and scrape. So close.

Her body tensed and the rat seemed to sour within her stomach.

How the hell could she have allowed herself to get so close? Where the hell had her head been?

She turned to run and felt the fear squeeze tightly around her neck… they were there… right behind her.

There looked to be between fifteen to twenty rotters in the pack. They walked forward with a limping gait, stretching out their arms as if they could somehow claw their way to her even more quickly. Hints of bone contrasted with dark, shriveled flesh, somehow looking brittle yet leathery at the same time. One of them had a jagged, gaping hole in its chest and slivers of broken glass jutted out from its face at odd angles. Mummy-like carcasses that had dehydrated slowly in the sun, wheezing with escaping gasses, reaching out while their teeth gnashed and clacked… they stumbled toward her.

Shit.

Ocean spun around. She was still weak, but her rodent breakfast had given her system a shot of protein so maybe she could get away from them and—

Another group of rotters shuffled around the corner, blocking her only path of escape.

You shoulda kept the tire tool, damn it. Why did you drop the tire tool?

The rotters were closing in quickly, tightening the ring about her as Ocean spun in slow circles, hoping to see some chink in their offensive, some way that she could break through the cluster of walking corpses that surrounded her, but there weren’t any.

They were packed so tightly together that by the time she pushed one out of her way, three others would already be grabbing at her shirt and hair. She knew exactly what they would do, she’d seen it countless times before. They way they’d tear into her flesh would make what she did to her mother’s throat look like play acting.

She wanted to scream for help, to shout until it felt like her vocal chords would snap beneath the strain, but that wouldn’t do any good. Even if there was anyone around to hear, they wouldn’t come. They’d stay safe within their hiding places, would remain as silent and still as possible, as they alternately whispered a prayer for the person screaming and gave thanks that it wasn’t them out there.

No… she was on her own, with a pack of rotters rapidly closing in, nowhere to run and nothing to fight with. She was staring Death right in the face, for the second time in as many days, only this time, she really didn’t see a way out of it.

She would die out there on the street; maybe at some point in the future, some little girl would sit and envision pictures from the stains her blood would leave upon the dirty concrete.

Maybe it was what she deserved. She had, after all, killed her own mother hadn’t she? She certainly deserved to be punished for such a horrible act. She’d killed her mother and stole the dead woman’s rat—maybe this was the universe’s way of setting things right.

Ocean closed her eyes, bracing herself for the first touch of rough, decaying flesh, for the first scratch and bite. The first flair of pain.

She readied herself for death.

CHAPTER FIVE

I know what you’re thinking. It’s written all over your faces—dude’s seen too many Romero films, read too many books by David Moody and Eric S. Brown. You’re thinking Hollywood nightmares have fed my delusions, right? But that’s only because you haven’t been through the Eye of Aeons, man. It’s because you’re not willing to admit, even for a fraction of a second, that this cosmos is far stranger than your narrow little minds give it credit for.

You cling to linear time, you bow before the altar of flawed science and religion, and subscribe to this view of reality that society has this unspoken pact to accept The Way Things Are. Once you’ve stepped outside those prefab boxes, once you’ve risen high enough to tell it’s not even a box at all, not really, then—and only then—can you start seeing the true nature of things.

You guys are even worse than your average citizen. You know why they used to call you black and whites? Because that’s the way you see things, man. In the eyes of Johnny Law, everything is either right or wrong, good or bad. It’s rigid, inflexible, and not at all in accordance with the natural order of things.

There’s all these gray areas, see? All these ethical dilemmas that just aren’t as clear-cut as your ordinances and statutes would like them to be. Out there, in the real world, things get fuzzy really fast, and you just kinda bumble along, trying to do the right thing as best as you can.

Say for example you got all the money in the world. I mean, you’re so loaded someone could swipe a card down your crack and your ass would spit out hundreds. So you’re just loungin’ around the mansion one day, doin’ whatever the fuck obscenely rich people do, and there’s this knock on the door, right? Turns out to be a bunch of pasty scientists out there, and they’re sayin’ how they’ve had this breakthrough… they’ve discovered the cure for cancer or some shit, dig?

But they ain’t got the funding to distribute this miracle drug to the masses, so they’re going door to door, selling these boxes of prepackaged brownies to raise money. Yeah, that’s right… they’re having a fundraiser just like the fuckin’ girl scouts. This is a parable, man, so roll with me, okay?

So anyway, as I was saying. You know you’ve got enough bread that you could single-handedly scarf up every box they have to offer. Your billions could rid the world of one of the worst blights ever known to man, but there’s a catch, man… there’s always a catch. See, you happen to know—through your various business contacts—that the tasty treats these geeks are hawking are produced in some third-world sweatshop. I’m talkin’ the type of place where they’ll lop off a finger if they even suspect you might be carting some of that product home via armpit express to feed your starvin’ family.

So what do you do? Do you condone child labor and so many human rights violations that even Amnesty International would say whoa, man, now that’s fucked up? Or do you condemn millions of people to a drawn out, agonizing death?

Now that’s a morally ambiguous brownie, man, but that’s the weight of the decisions I’ve carried around on my fuckin’ shoulders, see? That’s the shit I’ve gotta deal with and yet you have the audacity to sit there and judge me? To write me off as some damn lunatic who can’t tell the difference between the fantasies in his mind and what’s real.

Well fuck you, man… fuck you. I know which way the wind blows and I know it’s blowin’ with the fires of Hell and it’s gonna consume us all. Burn us down, man, to cinders and ashes. And we’ll be the lucky ones, oh, you better believe that. The people who come after us? They’ll only wish they’d had such an easy death.

So what did I decide, then? I decided to buy those fuckin’ brownies. You choose your battles and I picked the devil I knew, man. I mean, I’ve been in Ocean’s head, dig? I’ve heard her innermost thoughts, all those little secrets we’d never dream of telling another soul, and I’ve seen her for who she really is.

And if there’s any way that I can spare that poor girl even a fraction of the bullshit and pain she’s been through… if there’s even the slightest chance I can save her ass, you better believe I’m gonna take it. I mean, I love her, man.

Don’t look at me like that, you sick bastard. Jesus, she’s can’t be older than fourteen, man. I don’t mean I love her in a hey, I’ve got some free candy and puppies in the back of my van kinda way. It ain’t like that at all. I wanna protect her, see? I wanna make sure she never knows heartache or loss, to shelter her from all the suffering and sorrow and regret. I want her to laugh and play and run. I want her to be a fuckin’ kid. Is that so wrong? To safeguard the ones you love? If it is, then lock me up and throw away the key, dude ‘cause I’m guilty as friggin’ charged.

Being dimensionally unstable gave me a way that I could help her, see? When you’re not restricted to past, present, and future you get the big picture. You see things develop like a time-lapse film. You witness how everything falls into place. And that’s how I learned about the seven signs, ya know? Because I’ve been all over that timeline.

Clarice fuckin’ Hudson. She was just one of the brownies in those boxes, man. She was a threat to Ocean, ya know? To humanity, for that matter.

See, I was in the Dollar Bonanza… you know, that place in the mall where you can get just about anything for a buck? Yeah, the one right between the shoe store and that shop with all the goth kids milling about. That’s the one, man.

Anyways, I was in Dollar Bonanza trolling for victims, right? Shit, dude… I’m just fuckin’ with ya. You shoulda seen the look on your faces. Priceless.

I was there looking for shaving cream, man. Razors and shampoo. Normal stuff. I was wonderin’ if there would be some way I could take one of those little glass penguins or a kid’s book with me through the Eye of Aeons, ya know? Inside, I knew it was a losing battle since even my own body couldn’t cross over. But it was a nice thought, dig? One of those things you’d like to do, but know you never will.

So I’ve got my basket hangin’ off my arm and it’s practically overflowing with junk. Most of it I didn’t really need. But you know how those stores are. You go in for the bare essentials and come out with a miniature zen garden, three shot glasses with snotty little bunnies on ‘em, and a DVD or two of old Kung Fu flicks. I take my place in line and at first, I’m just looking around at the candy and the sunglasses and shit. Taking a few steps forward every couple seconds and then finding something else to divert my attention.

Something about the clerk caught my eye, man. Not in a sexual way, either. Don’t get me wrong. She was cute and all. Had these stawberry blond ringlets wisping over this round face with high cheekbones. Eyes like sapphires. And even beneath that lime green smock you could tell the bitch had a nice rack. So okay, maybe at first I was a little aroused. I mean, I’m a man, ya know? I respond. Even against my better judgment. So I’m checkin’ out her tits and I can’t help but notice the name tag pinned to her apron: Hi, my name is CLARICE ask how I can help.

But then I noticed how she had these little beads of sweat on her brow, right? I look a little more closely and I notice there’s these wet stains spreading across the armpits of her white blouse. Wasn’t long before I realize her entire body was practically shimmering in a sheen of sweat. The strands of hair hangin’ down the back of her neck? Drenched, man. I mean, they’ve got the air conditioner pumped up so much I’m practically fartin’ ice crystals. I got my sleeves rolled down and the woman in front of me is trying to warm herself by rubbin’ her hands up and down her arms while she talks to her husband or boyfriend or whatever. We’re all fuckin’ freezing. But this chick? She’s sweating like a whore on payday, man.

Let me tell ya, I lost that chubby real damn quick.

See, that’s the first sign, man. The infected… their bodies are undergoing changes at a molecular level, see? You know how much energy it takes to alter just a single sequence of DNA? You could power a small town for a week. Energy excites molecules, right? Hopped up molecules create friction and friction builds heat. On top of all that, you’ve got your own body tryin’ to fight this shit off. The infected are like these walking nuclear reactors… and they sweat. Good God, do they sweat.

I get my ass outta that line real quick, believe you me. I just sit my basket on the empty counter to my right and hightail it out the door. I don’t want her touching my shit, man. I don’t want her fingers all over my can of shaving cream. I mean, I’m gonna be sprayin’ that foam out and spreading it all over my face, ya know, and then scraping a razor across it? One little nick and next thing I know I’m buying stock in Degree antiperspirant, if ya get my drift.

But at the same time, I keep thinking about Ocean. I see her driving that tire iron into her mother’s skull, feel her confusion and pain and emptiness. All the conflict raging inside her, justification versus guilt and all that shit. And it pisses me off, man. No kid should ever have to experience that.

So I get to the little brick wall on the other side of the waterfall and I get this idea in the back of my mind. A way I can help that poor little girl, and maybe everyone else at the same time, man. The future is malleable, man. Things can be changed if you’ve got the balls to see it through. I was positive of that.

So I kinda lean against the wall with the spray of water splashing against the back of my neck and I watch this chick, man. I mean, I really study her, ya know? I see how she drags the items across the scanner and stuffs them into the open mouths of the plastic bags like a mama bird feeding her chicks. I watch as she keeps mopping her brow with the sleeve of her shirt, fanning herself with her hand when she can catch a moment. I keep picturing all those nasty little bastards surgin’ through her bloodstream, eating away at her humanity, slowly changing her into a harbinger of death.

I’m not a psycho, ya know? I’m wrestling with myself. I’m thinking she’s got a family, dude. She’s someone’s daughter. There are people out there who fuckin’ love her. And this other part of my mind? It just sees a biochemical playground, a spawning ground. It stares at her the way you’d look at a maggoty slab of meat when you were expecting steak. And those scientists are just knocking on the door of my mansion—hey, mister, wanna buy some brownies?

You know what really made the decision for me? It wasn’t even Ocean, if you can believe that. Nah, man, it was all these people around me. It was the harried looking mother running after the kid in the blue overalls. It was the teenagers makin’ out in front of Dark Desires without a care in the world. The janitor emptying trashcans. The rent-a-pig giving me the hairy eyeball from over by the escalators.

I looked around and all I saw were these decaying carcasses, man. These rotters, to use Ocean’s word for it, pushing their strollers and laughing in small groups while an orange balloon slowly drifted toward the ceiling. They were all dead, each and every one of them. And they had families too, right? They had people who loved them as well.

So right then and there, I decided to shell out the cash and buy every fuckin’ box of brownies being pushed at me. I’ll take them all.

But I had to be sure, you know? I didn’t want to condemn this shop girl just because she maybe had a glandular issue. Or a touch of the summer flu. No, if I was gonna do this thing I had to be absolutely certain.

There are seven signs, man, and before I did anything drastic, I needed to make damn sure she had each and every fuckin’ one

CHAPTER SIX

Ocean was surprisingly relaxed as she stood with her eyes closed, breathing in short gasps so she would inhale as little of their stink as necessary. She heard the rotters’ footsteps scraping against the asphalt, could imagine flakes of decayed skin drifting to the street like a blizzard of scabs. She could picture their hands reaching out for her; bony fingertips like ivory claws jutting through flesh that seemed to be perpetually sloughing off the cord-like mass of muscle, their teeth, yellow and brown and fuzzy with mold, whispered promises of infection and death in the rasp of gas over vocal chords.

But at the same time she could feel the rays of the sun warming her arms and face. There was just the hint of a breeze, enough to rustle her hair in a way that took her back to a time when everything had been simpler. The ruined city and the rotters who roamed it had always painted her view of life, they were just as much part of her reality as the clouds in the sky. But things had been better back then… hadn’t they?

Her hand thrust into the loose pocket her mother had sewn onto her top and she ran her fingers along the smooth, glass belly of a pig.

It wouldn’t be long now.

She had to cherish these few remaining minutes. To truly experience all the things she’d been too distracted by hunger and fear to appreciate.

How good it felt to breathe….

The rhythm of her heart….

Even the sound of her voice, so small and otherwise insignificant in the relative quiet of the afternoon. “I’m so sorry, Mama.”

She listened.

She waited.

She lived. If only for a few seconds more.

A savage cry echoed off the crumbling buildings and Ocean’s eyes snapped open as her body jolted with shock. The rotters closest to her were turning away, as if the introduction of this new sound held greater promise than the silent girl before them. Through the gaps between their bodies, she could see something moving, nothing more than a dark blur, really. Now that the echoed shout was fading, she was aware of another sound. It was a dull thud and sharp whack merged into a single noise, preceded time and time again by a swish that reminded her, somehow, of the toy Daddy had made her when she was very small.

He’d taken what he’d called fan blades from one of the cars and attached them to a metal rod. When the wind blew hard enough, the flat vanes would start to spin and the sound they made was very similar to this one.

As she watched the rotters move toward the source of the sound, Ocean saw a head tumble into the air. It almost seemed to rotate in slow motion as it arced skyward; she had ample time to notice how the face looked like it had been chewed away at some point in the past.

Then she saw him, spinning like a tornado of rage, kicking back the rotters closest to him with leaps and growls, a whirlwind of constant motion and violence. In either hand, he held the curved blade of a sickle. For the most part, the metal was pitted and flaked with rust, but the inner edges had been honed to perfection and gleamed as brightly as the reflection of the sun on a car’s mirror.

Surrounding him in a vortex of carnage were arms and legs, slabs of flesh cleaved from torsos, splinters of brittle bone, fingers, chins… and, of course, heads. Those heads fell like a grisly rain, trailing the thick, black blood of the rotters in their wake and bouncing across the street like pebbles that had been dropped from the hand of a giant.

Within seconds, there was only this strange man with his dark hair and clothes, standing within a ring of dismembered body parts, breathing heavily as he switched the sickles so that they were both clutched in a single fist. With his other hand, he reached toward her, his blue eyes seemed to flare with passion as he spoke.

“Come with me if you want to live.”

Ocean had been so caught up in the man’s flurry of destruction that she had entirely forgotten the rotters who were creeping up behind her. The man’s gravelly voice seemed to pull her away from the edge of a precipice, as the reality of the situation hit her with an almost physical force and everything around her was thrown back into sharp focus.

She felt a hand tentatively grabbing at the back of her blouse and she leapt forward with a shriek, reaching out at the same time. The man’s hand enveloped her own with it’s roughly calloused palm, and he yanked her forward so hard that pain exploded through her shoulder.

Then they were running. He moved through the rubble of the streets like the deer had before they’d been hunted to extinction—bobbing, weaving, leaping over piles of debris, his long hair fluttering in the displaced air. She stumbled and scrambled, trying her best to match his pace and to keep from tripping over her own feet. In her mind, she saw her hand slipping out of his as she tumbled to the ground, and he just kept running until he was nothing more than a tiny speck in the distance, leaving her panting, waiting for the rotters to claim her as their own.

Her lungs felt as if they were on fire, the muscles in her legs quivered and ached, yet somehow she managed to hang on to that firm hand; somehow she found the fortitude to keep running, to keep up with her savior.

The unfamiliar streets passed in a blur, yet Ocean got the impression that this man’s trajectory wasn’t as random as it first appeared. He moved with the quiet confidence of someone who knew exactly where he was going, precisely were to turn in the circuitous route they were taking.

As if in reply to this thought, his voice boomed out. “Corduroy! I’ve got a breather!”

Ocean, feeling she could barely draw in enough breath to support life, was shocked at how smoothly the words flowed from this stranger. If she hadn’t been with him every step of the way, she never would have guessed that he’d been running for blocks.

In response to his call, the street was filled with a metallic, grating sound. About half a block away, one of the metal disks that were embedded every so often throughout the city, seemed to levitate above the ground. As they drew closer, Ocean was able to make out the hands that lifted it into the air, and shoved it to the side, where it dropped with a loud clang. By then they were standing directly in front of it.

Before her feet, Ocean saw a perfectly round, perfectly dark hole. She could vaguely sense something moving down there and assumed it was who the man had called Corduroy.

“Down, down, down!”

The stranger’s tone left no room for argument. Taking a deep breath, Ocean jumped into the hole feet first and braced herself for the shock of impact. She’d expected something hard and cold, but instead crashed into the warm, fleshy mass of the man who’d removed the manhole cover. He grunted and fell to the ground with a thump.

What the fuck?”

Ocean scrambled to her feet and tried to apologize, but could only gasp for air. She leaned forward with her hands on her knees, gulping her lungs full of the cool, damp air. She glanced up to see the sickle man descending down the side of the wall, but light streaming in from the hole blinded her with its glare. She was able to squint just enough to make out the metal rings embedded into the concrete. A ladder? There had been a damn ladder?

The man with the dark hair cupped his hand beneath her chin, tilting her head back so she was looking into his eyes. He pursed his lips and raised a finger to them before taking her hand again.

The one called Corduroy glared at her through the semi-darkness; she returned his gaze just long enough to realize that his face was twisted with dark burns. It was so bad that, had she saw him in any other circumstance, she would have assumed he was a rotter. One of his eyebrows looked as if it had melted over his eye, causing a permanent squint, and she thought he looked older than the man who’d come to her rescue.

He climbed up the rungs, the sound of metal scraping over asphalt again assaulted her ears. After that they were plunged into a darkness more complete than any Ocean had ever known.

She felt the man’s now familiar hand take hers again, wondering briefly why it caused her stomach to feel as if every fly she’d ever eaten had suddenly come to life to flutter around in her belly. He was leading her again, deeper into the darkness this time, and at a much slower pace.

She could hear Corduroy behind her, his footsteps light and quick, and a dripping sound from somewhere far away. The entire place smelled old and musty and she began to wonder if she’d really died back there on the streets. Perhaps this man and his companion were actually angels, and even now, were leading her through the lightless void of death. They’d gone underground which of course meant she was going to Hell, but that was exactly what she deserved wasn’t it? After what she’d done to her mother…

She stretched her free hand into the gloom, needing to feel something solid, something real. Her fingers brushed over what felt like coarse stone, damp as the morning dew. Excitement drove away the pangs of remorse and guilt. She wanted to lean out and lick the cool beads of moisture from the wall until her tongue was raw and bloody.

“There’s water where we’re going.” The man’s whisper echoed in the darkness. It was funny how he seemed to know exactly what she was thinking, exactly what she needed… There was that strange fluttery feeling again, and why did her face and chest suddenly feel so warm?

“Food. Clean clothes. It’s not much further. But we have to stay perfectly quiet from here on out. Understand?”

She nodded her head quickly and then mentally scolded herself. Why was she being so foolish? He couldn’t see her any more than she could…

“Good. Shhhhh.”

After a while, Ocean’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness. She could make out the walls of the tunnel she was walking through; it was strange how she’d seen those disks in the streets every day of her life, and it had never occurred to her—not once—that there could actually be something down below.

What of this man? Now that she actually had time to think, she realized he wasn’t like anyone she’d ever met. He was tall, strong—the sleeves of his shirt practically rippled with muscle when he moved. He was more like the way people used to be. Back before the Food Wars her father had sometimes told her about…

Oh God, what must he think of me? She was a walking skeleton, only one step removed from the rotters he’d saved her from. Her hair was sparse and thin, not all full and silky like his, she was caked with filth and she suspected that she probably smelled bad as she looked.

For some reason, these thoughts made her eyes burn with tears and she heard her Mama’s voice say, in the back of her mind: wasted water. That made it even worse. She wanted to slip away from the man’s grasp, to run so deep within these tunnels that he’d never be able to find her.

She wanted to curl up on a bed of dry leaves, and simply waste away.

He squeezed her hand gently and she was pulled along on a current that roiled with emotion. Everything had been so simple the day before. Life was hard, but at least it had made sense. Now, it seemed as if she had slipped into a bizarre dream where her heart and conscience fought one another in a battle for dominance. They exchanged blows so rapidly that it physically felt as if the world were spinning around her. She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, to praise her good fortune or damn herself.

None of this would have happened if Mama were still alive. She’d be laying in her room, perhaps playing with her collection of glass animals as she thought about her father; she’d wonder where the next meal would come from, how she would manage to find some clean water to ease the burning in her throat.

Instead, here she was, with the promise of food, of drink, of something other than the grimy rags that wrapped her wasted frame, and her mother was still back there, staring up with eyes that would never see again.

Ocean stopped as suddenly as if she’d been turned to stone; her stomach twisted into painful knots that seemed to climb into her chest and wrap around her heart. She pulled her hand away from the stranger, hugging herself as she doubled over. She squeezed her eyes shut so tightly that the tears which had been threatening to fall were forced out, and she began to shiver with delayed shock.

Mama is dead, truly and really dead. There was a tire iron sticking out of the side of her shattered skull and her blood was everywhere; on the ground, in her hair, on her clothes. Oh Jesus, Mama’s blood is on my clothes, and what if that means her ghost is here too, what have I done, Good Lord, what have I done? My own mother, I killed…

The stranger’s breath was warm in her ear and she felt herself pulled into his arms. He hugged her just like her Daddy used to, allowing her to bury her face into his chest as he stroked her hair and whispering the entire time. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. You’re safe now. You’re safe…”

She didn’t want to cry. Not in front of him, of all people. She tried to suck all the pain back inside her, to store it away in some dark and secret place within her soul. That only caused a low moan to tremble out of her throat, and she pressed herself even more tightly against the reassuring solidity of the man’s chest.

“That’s okay. Let it out, let it all out. That’s a good girl.”

It took a while, but eventually she composed herself. She wiped away the tears and snot with the hem of her shirt, trying to look anywhere but into his eyes when he asked if she was sure she was okay. She wanted to show him that she could be strong, too, that she wasn’t just some frightened little girl who’d foolishly wandered into a pack of rotters. They walked on in silence, with him leading her by the hand once more, and she taking in every detail of the journey. Every so often, they’d pass little rectangles of light, shining down from up near the ceiling. She knew what they were, of course. After heavy rains, she and her mother used to hold cans inside them, to collect the water that flowed down into the darkness. Even with that experience, she’d never thought to ask where the water they couldn’t catch went.

As they scurried through the tunnels and past the drains, she sometimes caught glimpses of feet. More like silhouettes, really; there wasn’t much daylight left on the surface and detail was washed out in the coming shadows. She knew instinctively what they were: rotters. And here they were, passing right underneath them… she’d had to cover her mouth to keep from giggling the first time this thought had bubbled up in her mind.

After what seemed an eternity of walking, Ocean become aware of a faint scent drifting though the darkened tunnel. The aroma immediately set off a rumbling in her stomach so loud that Corduroy must have heard it, for he started chuckling behind her. The smell was maddening and her mouth began to water as it grew in strength. They were cooking. Cooking meat. How long had it been since she’d had hot food? Six, seven moons maybe? She remembered losing the flint and how angry her mother had been with her. She spent days searching on hands and knees for that little stone, but it seemed the earth had opened up and swallowed it whole. From that point on, meat—when they were fortunate enough to find it—was raw and bloody.

“Just about there,” the stranger said. “In time for dinner, too.”

He wasn’t whispering anymore and Ocean had forgotten how

rich and deep his voice was; and now his words caused tiny shivers to tingle along her spine.

“I’ll need to introduce you, of course. What’s your name, darlin’?”

She couldn’t suppress the grin that spread across her face.

“Ocean.”

“Well, now… I think that’s just about the prettiest name I ever heard.”

Ocean felt like hiding her face within her hands and giggling but managed to resist the impulse.

“I’m Gauge. Corduroy, you’ve met already. There’s two more of us, Levi and Pebble. I think you’ll like Levi. She’s a little older than you, of course, but she’s a sweetheart.”

Ocean tasted a bitter flavor in her mouth and noticed that the muscles in her neck and shoulders had grown tense.

“She’s been with me since almost the beginning…”

“What about Pebble?” The words came out more quickly, and much more sharply, than Ocean had intended and she felt herself blush in the darkness. Corduroy snorted a laugh, but Gauge seemed unfazed by the question.

“Pebble? He’s… different. Doesn’t really talk much. Or at all, now that I really think about it, but I don’t think you two would have much in common. He’s just a little kid.”

Ocean felt as if her chest were inflating, smiled like she’d just seen the most beautiful rainbow on the most perfect of mornings. Just a little kid. She savored every syllable of the words, repeating them over and over in her mind. So he knew somehow, that she was a woman, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, he seemed to understand her in a way no one ever had.

Gauge led them through a gaping hole in a wall and Ocean suddenly found herself standing in a cavernous room. Square in shape, it had brick walls that reached up to touch a ceiling that seemed to curve gently inward like the inside of some massive dome. The top of the ceiling was so high that only the silhouettes of pipework could be glimpsed through a gloom that gradually darkened into a space as black as the night sky.

With no windows or openings to the outside world, the entire chamber would have been obscured by darkness had it not been for rows of candles that flickered from all sides. The candles were housed in containers of every imaginable shape, size, and material—the tops of tin cans glowed with hidden fire alongside glass bottles, large globes that looked as if they’d been scavenged from lamp posts, and ceramic cups with broken handles. Behind each candle were shards of broken mirror, amplifying and scattering the light so that the brick walls danced with shadows.

A few candles where clustered on the floor, but the majority of them had been placed between concrete supports that jutted out from the walls at regular intervals. The space between each column formed an alcove of sorts and the group who lived there had taken advantage of that feature. Somehow, they’d managed to wedge pieces of wood and old street signs into these otherwise empty spaces, forming shelves that were nearly twice as high as Ocean was tall.

For a moment she simply stood in the mouth of the tunnel as her eyes darted from feature to feature in an attempt to take it all in. Across the room, and directly caddy-corner from her, looked to be another tunnel leading out of the chamber. The interior wall that ran parallel to it had places where bricks had been knocked out, leaving gaps that made it look as though the wall were a puzzle with missing pieces.

The largest hole was closest to the other tunnel, and it was big enough that Gauge and Corduroy could have passed through shoulder to shoulder, still having enough room to flex their elbows. Several feet away was a smaller opening, this one leading down to the soot stained floor, and a fire crackled within it. The smoke from the orange and yellow flames curled upwards and disappeared into the remains of a broken pipe that looked as though it had once been entirely encased within the brick. The light from this makeshift hearth illuminated the other through another hole, just enough for Ocean to see walls that looked as if they were made of dirt. Pieces of root and stone were embedded into the hard-packed earth and the young girl quickly deduced that the room had been dug out by hand.

The third opening on this particular wall wasn’t as wide as the first, only having just enough space for one person to pass through. Without the benefit of light, however, this once concealed its secrets in darkness.

The other walls of the chamber fared better. She could just make out the hint of another opening halfway along the wall to her right and the one directly across from her only had a single hole punched through it. The interior of that one was also hidden from view, but because they had hung a heavy blanket on the other side, which caused Ocean’s curiosity to burn as hotly as the flames in the fireplace.

Dozens of questions flew through her mind, but refused to pass through her mouth. She simply stood there, mouth agape, as she turned her attention to a large, wooden table that dominated the center of the room.

At the table sat a small boy, his face as round and pale as the full moon, with a mop of red hair hanging down in front of his eyes. He cocked his head to the side as he took in the newcomer and something about the way his ears peeked out from the sides of his head reminded Ocean of a monkey.

“Pebble,” Gauge said. “This is Ocean. She’s going to be living with us.”

The boy blinked twice but his expression remained as impassive as the cobblestone floor. The blinks must have meant something to Gauge however, because the man frowned and shook his head. “Now, Pebble… give her a chance. Ocean is nice, you’ll like her. You’ll see.”

Ocean stepped toward the table with her hands in her pockets. She smiled at the boy, wanting so badly to make a good impression, and he looked up at her. Again, he blinked twice but this time his brow furrowed, and his mouth reduced itself to a thin, tight line.

“Hi, Pebble.” She wasn’t really used to meeting new people and wasn’t exactly sure what to say. Instead, she thrust her hand into her pocket and pulled out a little glass chimp with a missing tail.”I… I want you to have this.”

The boy immediately brightened, and he blinked once, very slowly, as he reached out for the figurine. From behind her, Ocean heard Gauge’s laughter echo through the hall and she took a long, slow breath through her nose.

At the same time, a woman appeared through one of the many holes that gaped in the walls of the room. She was wearing what appeared to be a shirt so long that it came down to her ankles, only it was tied around the waist with some sort of purple ribbon. Her hair was dark and long like Gauge’s, and she smiled when she saw Pebble playing with the glass animal.

“Well, it looks like someone has made a new friend.”

Ocean tried not to stare at the tray the woman carried.

“You’ve come on a special night. We eat well around here. But only this well every few months.”

Sitting atop the tray was one of the largest chunks of meat Ocean had ever seen… other than in dreams, of course. It was pale white with tendrils of steam rising from the top and little rivers of clear juices ran down its side. On either side of the meat were two metal cans with faded labels.

My God, do these people actually have canned food?

Ocean shook her head as if she half expected to wake up at any moment. She wanted to be polite but the food drew her gaze like her body drew flies.

“My name’s Levi.” the woman said, as she placed the platter upon the table. “Don’t be shy. Come, have a seat. Oh, and be a sweetheart and grab that those cups over there, won’t you?”

Ocean followed Levi’s line of sight. There was a small recess in the wall and lined along it were four metal goblets sitting atop a tray similar to the one that beautiful, beautiful meat was resting upon.

“I guess we’ll need to find another one now, huh?”

“She can share mine for tonight.” Ocean caught her breath at the sound of Gauge’s voice and closed her eyes for a fraction of a second. “Her name’s Ocean, by the way… and I think she’s just a little overwhelmed right now.”

“No… No, I’m okay. I’ll get them.”

She scurried to the alcove and reached for the cups, anxious to show Gauge how well she would fit in. Her hands were trembling worse than she realized and, as she reached for the second goblet, she somehow managed to bump against the platter. It slid from the alcove and though she scrambled to catch it, it seemed to bounce off her hands. It hit the floor with a loud clang, amplified by the dome shaped ceiling so high above.

Almost immediately, Ocean heard a thin, warbling cry from one of the other rooms. It was tentative at first but quickly grew in strength and soon echoed through the room. At first, Ocean didn’t understand what she was hearing. She stopped, mid-crouch, with her arm stretched toward the platter and simply listened to the cry.

“Shoot.”Levi sounded disappointed, but not angry. “You woke the baby.”

Baby? Baby?

It had been years since Ocean had heard, or even saw, an infant. People just weren’t strong enough for it anymore. There were barely enough nutrients to support one life… much less two. On the surface, at least. Down here, there was apparently life; fresh and new and crying so loudly that, in her world, it would have drawn the rotters to it within minutes.

The room shimmied through a veil of tears as the infant continued bawling.

No, not again. I won’t cry, damn it. I won’t cry…

“I’ll take care of it.” It was Gauge’s voice. “You’ve been slaving over the oven all evening. You set the table and I’ll put Baby back to sleep, okay?”

Ocean felt as though the floor had dropped out from under her feet. Levi. Gauge. The baby… It all made sense—how could she have been so stupid? To think that someone like him would ever be interested in her?

Ocean saw her reflection in the silver platter—the oily tangles of hair, sunken cheeks, and hollow eyes, the little cracks at the corners of her dry, flaky lips. Even compared to Corduroy with his disfigured scars, she looked like a monster. She was stupid and ugly and…

“Come on and eat, sweetheart. Don’t worry about that, I’ll get it later.”

From the other room, the baby continued to cry but she could hear Gauge’s voice, singing softly. There was the scrape of chair legs against the floor, Corduroy saying something in a nightmare voice about how good everything smelled….

At that moment, Ocean decided. She would be beautiful, too. She would eat and drink and wash. She would wear clean clothes… pretty ones like the ones Levi had on, and she would be helpful and she would grow strong.

And then, one day, Gauge would see her as the woman she truly was. He would hold her hand like he had in the tunnels and sing to her in the same soft voice that was slowly lulling the baby back to sleep.

She walked to the table, hoping the others couldn’t hear the gurgling she from her belly, and smiled.

She would be happy here. She’d make sure of it.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Now that security guard was really starting to freak me out, man. He tried to play it off like he was just walkin’ the beat, ya know? Only he just kept circlin’ this particular cluster of stores like I was the nucleus at the center of his existence. It seemed like every time I stole a look at him, the dude was starin’ me down. Got to the point that there were some pretty crazy ideas runnin’ through my head. Like maybe how he can see right into me, how he knows exactly what I’ve been thinkin’ about over here and can see all the dark designs swirlin’ around in my mind.

I start getting all fidgety… chasin’ this itch that starts at my neck and then runs to my arm before tryin’ to hide on the side of my belly. And I know this probably just makes me look even more suspicious, right? But what can I say? I was scared, man. I was fuckin’ terrified. Shit, I didn’t even know if I had it in me to do these things I’d been thinkin’ about. I mean, I’m a pretty easy goin’ guy, ya know? Never bought into that whole violence scene. So yeah… maybe I was a little bit on edge. But who can blame me, right?

Anyways, I stroll down into that little sunken area on the other side of the falls… the one with all the benches and that coffee shop set up in the center? I plop my ass down so I can just see past the cascade of water, pick up a newspaper someone had left layin’ around, and try to play it cool. Just an average dude readin’ the sports section. Nothin’ to see here, cats. Move right along.

But the entire time I’m actually watchin’ the shop girl from the corner or my eye like I was Dian Fossey or some shit. I musta sat there about an hour, hour and a half. After a while, the rent-a-pig kinda wandered off so I was able to focus my full attention on Clarice fuckin’ Hudson, ya know?

So I’m listening to the roar of the falls and breathin’ in that scent of fresh ground coffee… man, is that a beautiful aroma or what? That place makes a kick ass cuppa joe, believe you me. Anyways, I’m sittin’ there watchin’ her and I notice how every time she has more than a few seconds between customers, she reaches down beneath the counter and comes back up with a handful of food. Ah hell, man… I don’t know what kind of food. I was a ways off, dig? Cheez Its, potato chips, could been manna for all I fuckin’ know. I swear, the things you guys choose to focus on… blows my mind, man. It really does.

See, the whole point of this little narrative isn’t what she was eating, man. It’s that she’s stuffin’ this shit in her cheeks like a chipmunk stockin’ up for winter. I mean, that musta been a bottomless fuckin’ bag of whatever ‘cause that girl just kept shovelin’ it in. She wasn’t no porker, either. Hell, you know. You’ve seen her… well yeah, most of her, I guess. But you get my drift, right?

So, like I said, she’s wolfin’ down her little snacks for close to two hours when this shirt and tie guy comes along and starts chatting her up. She’s nodding, shaking her head, wiping the sweat off her face with her hand. Then she takes a look at her watch and stuffs her red apron under the counter while Shirt And Tie takes her place at the register.

She walks outta the Dollar Bonanza and I give her about a minute or so and then just kinda stand up casually and start followin’ this broad, right? I tail her to the escalators on the other side of the mall and we ride all the way up to the third floor and I keep thinkin’ about all these people around her. People who have no fuckin’ clue. I mean, this chick could potentially be infested with thirty-one different flavors of crinkum. And you’ve got dudes giving her the once over, dykes undressing her with their eyes. Hell, they probably thought that sweat made her sex….

Crinkum? You know, man… disease. Like an STD and shit. Picked that up back around the turn of the century. No, not the fuckin’ disease, man… the term. I swear, sometimes I think you two get a kick outta pokin’ me with your little verbal sticks. Do you wanna hear this shit or not? ‘Cause I can just shut the fuck up right now and not say another word.

That’s what I thought.

So anyways, here I am following Ms. Clarice fuckin’ Hudson across the food court and, since it was lunch time, they’ve got this guy in a tux sittin’ over at the baby grand. He’s ticklin’ those ivories and the music kinda drifts through the lull of the crowd, weaves in and out of the static sound the falls makes as it flows over the edge of its trough. Real mellow, classical shit. Gives the whole scene this art film quality, ya know? Like I can’t believe I’m actually doin’ this and there’s probably a director hiding with his camera crew in the back of Steak on a Stick, just waitin’ to yell cut.

So the chick walks up to the counter at Burger World and I’m acting like I’m checkin’ out some of the menus from those other paragons of fine dining, but I’m actually still watchin’, ya know? Still trying to figure this shit out.

So this sweaty little shop girl orders two super-size value meals, man. And I’m not talkin’ about those flat, meat pancakes they try to pass off as burgers either. Fuck no. Triple stack with cheese, lettuce, tomato, the optional bacon. Bitch gets it all. Now keep in mind that she’s been eating for nearly half her shift already. Me, I’d be about ready to split wide open by then. But not this lady, no. She eats every last bite and even fuckin’ licks that gooey cheese off the wrappers, if you can believe that. Hell, I half expected her to shove those down her gullet too.

When she goes back to work, she rings herself up a purchase and guess what? More fuckin’ food, man. Ha! This time I know what it was—she got one of those little bags of cotton candy and three boxes of banana moon pies. And by the time she left for the day, there wasn’t anything left but wrappers, cardboard, and this little dab of marshmallow cream on the corner of her mouth.

But did that keep her from stoppin’ by the theater on her way out and gettin’ one of those huge tubs of popcorn? Damn right, it didn’t. I could see the butter glistening on that shit from twenty feet away.

Haven’t you been listening to a fuckin’ word I’ve been sayin’, man? Do I hafta spell it all out for you in big block letters and bright yellow crayon? Good Lord

Okay, then. Let’s just recap a little here so you retards will be brought back up to speed, okay?

First sign: profuse sweating. And why is that? Anyone? Anyone?

That’s right, man. Give yourself a fuckin’ gold star. They sweat because they’re going through these changes, and the sweat is produced by the heat from the energy required to rewrite someone’s genetic code. But energy can’t be created or destroyed, man. It can only change form, right? So she’s burnin’ up all this energy realigning chromosomes and shit… and it’s gotta be replaced, ya know? Otherwise her entire system will just break down. What good is a pathogen without a host, man?

See, that’s the second sign right there. This ravenous fuckin’ appetite without so much as adding on a pound. Hell, if it didn’t mean the end of everything we know, you could make a killing off that shit in the diet market.

So, Clarice fuckin’ Hudson has now ticked off two of the seven on this little checklist, and in my heart, I know. I fuckin’ know, man. Bitch is infective. But just havin’ that gut feeling isn’t justification enough. You gotta have empirical evidence. You gotta have facts.

I figure I gotta keep doggin’ her, right? Which isn’t hard. She drove this titty pink Volkswagen Bug with a sticker on the back that said It’s Not A Choice… It’s A Child. Which is kinda ironic, don’t ya think?

What d’ya mean, how so? Fuckin’ Ocean, man. It’s like the universe was sending me a message through that bit of bumper sticker philosophy. ‘Cause just thinkin’ about what I had in mind still made me nervous, dig? I wasn’t used to all this cloak and dagger shit. Hell, I encode envelopes for a living. I sit at this little desk for hours on end, looking at these pictures on my monitor where people have scrawled the address so bad the computer can’t read it. I type shit like PE and three states away this piece of mail gets sprayed with a barcode and goes on its merry fuckin’ way. Might just be a day in the life for guys like you… but for me it was foreign territory, right?

So it was like that sticker was reminding me that Ocean wasn’t an option, dig? That she was going to be born and the quality of her life could very well depend on how I handled this Clarice Hudson situation. And it was already too late for that chick, anyhow, there’s no cure for what she had, ya know?

See, this was what went through my head while I was sittin’ outside her apartment. I was half-listening to some right wing windbag on the radio, watchin’ her windows, checking the time every five fuckin’ minutes, tryin’ to figure out exactly how to do it.

Now see, man… when you call it pre-meditated it tells me that you’re still not understanding. You’re still confusing habeas corpus with doing the right thing, and a lot of time—as I believe I’ve mentioned before—those two concepts can run afoul of each other. I mean, give me credit, man. I didn’t go marchin’ up there to do the dirty deed just because she had two fuckin’ signs. Now that woulda been criminal, ya know?

So anways, it’s gotten dark and I’m thinkin’ maybe it’s time to piss on the fire and call in the dogs. Pack it up for the night and head on home, right? And just as I’m about to turn the key, what happens? Her front door opens, man.

She comes traipsin’ down the sidewalk in this low cut, white blouse that’s clingin’ to those tits of hers like a needy lover. Got this tiny skirt that barely covers the cheeks of her ass, black heels and matching bag, hair teased like a geek in a locker room. I mean, this bitch looks hot. Both figuratively and literally, ‘cause even from my car, I can see that sheen of sweat, man. That byproduct of contagion.

I follow her downtown and find myself in this little hole in the wall called Blue Moon. Not the Blue Moon, mind you… just Blue Moon. This is the type of joint that’s got Bob Seeger on heavy jukebox rotation, little Christmas lights all strung along the ceiling, and cans of Vienna Sausages for sale right alongside the overpriced Bics and antacids. Couple of pool tables in the back…

She’s down at the end of the bar by the video poker machines, kinda leanin’ over it like her bosom’s tryin’ to get a good look at all the bottles lined along the back mirror. The bartender’s this short, blonde chick with frizzy hair and she lines five shot glasses in front of Clarice fuckin’ Hudson and starts fillin’ ‘em up with something or other. Don’t ask me what, ‘cause I’m a beer man, myself.

Well, the leading lady in this here little drama throws those shots back like a sailor on leave. Bam, bam, bam. Hardly takes time to breathe between each one. She holds up three fingers and, after the bartender brought me a piss warm Bud, knocks back another trio.

You can bet your ass that by this time she’s caught the eye of every dude in this joint. The pool balls have stopped clackin’ around, there’s this chick throwin’ daggers at her boyfriend with her eyes, an old man who’s not too shy to sit there massagin’ his nutsack while he drinks her in.

This guy who looks like he’s probably in the place on a forged ID plops a few quarters into the juke but his eyes are all over Ms. Hudson when he’s selectin’ the songs. I figure he was probably goin’ for Lynrd Skynrd or some shit but got so distracted by this hard drinkin’ hottie that he somehow queued up Lady Gaga. Bad Romance, it was.

So the music really kicks in after that little Vedic sounding chant at the beginning and the bass is thumpin’ so loud that you can’t even hear the chirps and bleeps from the poker machines. Now our dear Clarice must’ve been a little monster, because she’s out there just gettin’ down. She’s movin’ her body to the rhythm like she was born to work the pole—tossin’ her head back, gyrating those hips as her hands trail along the curves of her body. She’s got her eyes half-closed and in the dim light it almost seemed like I was watchin’ a woman fuck the shit out of an invisible lover.

Now, you know these little dives. Their idea of air conditioning is a ceiling fan hidden up in the rafters that moves slower than a herd of turtles in tar. These places are stagnant, man, which is why they always got that ghost of old beer and stale cigarette smoke hauntin’ the air. No circulation at all.

You better believe by the time the songs fades into the next, this chick is drenched. I mean, her hair’s literally drippin’ with sweat, right, and her blouse looks like wet tissue paper that’s been plastered to her body. You can see right through that shit, too. Those pink nubs sittin’ in the center of these dark aerolas… you could see it all. If I didn’t suspect she was a weapon of mass destruction, I probably woulda shot my load right then and there.

So she starts walking toward my end of the bar, right? And she’s not so much as even a little off kilter, I mean, this chick coulda passed every sobriety test you guys threw her way.

I look down into my suds, tryin’ to play it off like maybe I can find the answers to all my problems somewhere in the bottom of that mug, but my heart’s just poundin’ away like a rabbit on crack. I’m startin’ to sweat a little myself and I want to take a sip of that beer so bad… to calm my nerves, ya know? But I’m afraid if I so much as lift it from that scarred counter, my hands will tremble so bad that it’ll slosh all over the place.

Just be cool, I tell myself. She’ll go to the juke, pick of a few songs, and then wander back down to the other end. Just stay cool, dude.

I could smell her before she even got close to where I was sittin’. It was this heady combination of perfume and deodorant mixed with the slightly sour smack of body odor, but, for some reason, that smell is kinda sexy on a woman, ya know? Why the hell is that? One whiff of a chick’s sweat and most guys pop a boner—or at least a semi—on the spot. I had to keep picturin’ these fuzzy little virons swimming around in all that perspiration, like minnows in a stream, to keep that shit in check.

Then I get this creepy feeling. You know how you can just sense when someone is lookin’ over your shoulder, man? It’s not like they’re touching you or anything, but you know they’re there. Almost like you can feel them rubbin’ up against your aura or something. Most times, it’s nothing but an annoyance, but when it happened at that little bar? I felt the hairs on the back of neck bristle and I just sat there for a moment, watching the bubbles pop on the head of my beer as this hard little lump formed in the back of my throat.

She musta still been a little winded from dancing, cause I could hear her breathing, too… and all I could think was what if this shit is airborne, man?

I realized, for some reason, that she just wasn’t gonna go away. So I looked up at her. Kept thinkin’ about all those nasty little buggers running amuck in her body to keep my eyes from simply stopping at chest level. By this point, I feel like I just wanna bolt out through the door and keep on runnin’ ‘til the sun came up. At the same time, though, it’s like every muscle in my body was suddenly petrified. Even felt like stone, now that I think about it. Cold and hard, immovable as a fuckin’ boulder.

So there I am, face to face with the enemy. With this woman whom I have no doubt will help bring about the destruction of my species. I’m lookin’ into those blue eyes, just waitin’ for her to make the first move. Believe you me, I just about jumped outta my soul when she parted those pouty lips of those and said in this calm, even tone: “You’ve been watching me.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

The flavor of the savory juices in the meat still clung to Ocean’s mouth. She’d chased it down with enough water that her throat no longer felt as though it were coated in finely ground glass. She’d felt guilty, drinking that much, but every time the cup she shared with Gauge was emptied, either he or Corduroy would refill it from a large, plastic bottle.

Her stomach felt as though it were three times the size it had been only hours earlier. At first there had been cramps… little jabs of pain that felt like someone was sliding a knife between her abdominals. But she had eaten her way through them, dissolving those sharp pangs with flavor and succulence.

After eating, Pebble had curled up on one of the large cushions and was making the glass monkey hop along the hills and valleys of the fabric. Levi went to check in on the baby, and Corduroy remained seated at the table, following Ocean with his good eye. There was something about the man which made him slightly different than the others. During dinner, she’d been shocked to see that his plate was piled with pale potatoes, carrots, and little green balls that she’d never had before… but none of the steaming roast with its trickles of clear juices. Who the hell doesn’t eat meat? she’d wondered as she shoved another bite into her mouth.

The thought made her uneasy for reasons she couldn’t understand. At first she tried to tell herself that it was simply his appearance but, in reality, Ocean knew it wasn’t his burnt and twisted face or the way he barely passed as human. She had grown so accustomed to such things that, in the world she had always known, the other three would have been looked upon as the freaks. With their shiny, flowing hair and unblemished flesh, they would have stood out among the diseased and starving.

No, it wasn’t the scars, but rather something about the way he looked at her. As if his eye were constantly sizing her up…

Gauge, on the other hand, seemed to delight in showing Ocean around her new home. His eyes twinkled like clusters of stars as he showed her the room that had been cut into the earth, which he called the kitchen, and then explained how a large metal box had been shoved into the hearth to cook their meat.

“But it gets so hot that you can also fry stuff on top of it. Have you ever had an egg, Ocean?”

“Once… “ She remembered her father finding the nest in the limbs of a tree. He’d shimmied up the narrow trunk and when he returned, held this little oval in his hand that was as blue as the sky on a cloudless day. He’d told her to tilt her head back and open her mouth. When she did, he tapped the shell lightly against a rock. The contents inside had slid into her throat and she remembered him smiling down at her as the yellow goo oozed out of the cracked shell.

“It tasted kind of funny,” she continued. “It was kind of slimy and Daddy didn’t have to give me it all. He coulda just gave me a little taste and saved some for himself like Mama always does.”

Mama. Dead and alone, mouth hanging open as the flies had their revenge.

“Well, you’ve never had them the way Corduroy makes them. Actually, you probably won’t even know you’re eating the same thing. I’ll show you the cages where we keep the pigeons in a bit. I think you’ll like them, sweetie.”

Sweetie. A single word chased away the tightness that had bound her chest when the image of her mother materialized in her imagination. Sweetie.

She felt light and airy, like a cloud that had drifted far into the sky. As she looked up at Gauge, her whole body seemed to sigh and that strange sensation was in her stomach again. Almost like a tickle, but from the inside.

She wanted to say something, to say anything, but the words had fled from her mind. She could only look at that wavy dark hair, the stubble covering the dimpled chin, and grin to the point that it felt as if her face would split open.

“Umm… you got something… “ Gauge bared his teeth and tapped on them with his fingernail. “Right there.”

Ocean’s tongue subconsciously passed over the sliver of meat that was stuck between the gaps of her teeth.

“I know… I’m saving it for later.”

Gauge’s laughter was rich and deep, its echoes seeming to mock Ocean as they repeated into infinity. She felt her face flush and her smile melt away. Somehow, she felt smaller now, as if she were shrinking and would continue doing so until she was so small that the scrap of food in her mouth would crush her like a toppled building.

Then Gauge placed his hand on her cheek, his palm was warm and rough. The touch light but carrying a sort of charge that made it feel like her heart would momentarily stop beating.

“Ocean, honey… you don’t have to do that anymore. You’re with us, now. Come on. Let me show you something.”

He led her by the hand, back into the large room where they had eaten and guided her to the other side. Standing before a dark hole in the wall, Gauge looked into her eyes for what could have been a few seconds or an eternity before speaking again.”We call this Heaven.”

Pulling a candle from the rickety table that sat beside the opening, Gauge led her into the darkness beyond.

Ocean gasped as she stepped into the room, her jaw dropped open as if she were back on the street, hunting flies. She spun in a slow circle, her eyes wide and round. For some reason, she felt as dizzy as if she’d whirled around as quickly as her feet could pivot.

“What… where… how… “

Gauge laughed again as she struggled for words. This time the sound seemed so hazy and distant that embarrassment would never be able to find her. Ocean pressed her hands against the side of her face, blinking rapidly, as if she could somehow steady reality.

In the flickering orange glow of the candle, walls of cans were revealed. They were stacked atop one another from the floor to the ceiling, and formed long rows with just enough space between for someone to walk. A lot of them were nothing more than silver cylinders, but some still had yellowed labels wrapped around them. Some of the pictures she recognized from childhood; yellow kernels of corn, orange disks of carrots, mounds of spherical peas. But others were strange to her, there was something that looked like the moss-like strands that covered the bottoms of stagnant pools. Something else that looked almost like little white brains. And there was even some that had pictures of dogs on the labels.

“I… I never knew you could get dog in a can…”

Gauge chuckled and shook his head slowly. “No, sweetie, it’s not dog in the can… you have a lot to learn, my dear.”

She pulled her eyes away from the cache long enough to glance at the tall man beside her. “Where… where did you get so much?”

Gauge sighed and closed his eyes as he rubbed the bridge of his nose between pinched fingers. “Do you remember the Food Wars, Ocean?”

“Not much. I was pretty small back then. Bits and pieces…”

Gauge put his hands on her shoulders and turned her gently so that she was looking directly at him again.”Okay, a little history lesson then. When people realized that things just weren’t going to go back to the way they were before, we got scared. I wasn’t much older than you back then, but I remember everything. People fighting in the streets over a single tin of tuna. Bashing each other’s heads with rocks. Stabbings. Beatings.”

“Daddy told me about that. He called it man’s inhumanity to man… but I never really understood what he meant.”

Gauge’s face looked pinched now, and he seemed to be looking through Ocean rather than at her, as if he could see some distant point beyond her, causing his eyes to glisten with wasted water. “Some people still had guns back then. Ammunition. If you had guns, you had power. So these gangs started forming. All the people with the guns broke off into little groups. And they started stealing from the people who didn’t have any guns.”

He closed his eyes now and his face seemed to drain of color. There was a slight quiver to his voice and Ocean took his hand with a gentle squeeze. “It was a massacre. One long, bloody, stupid massacre. Men, women, children, the old, the sick. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but the food.”

From the other room, Ocean could hear Levi talking softly to Pebble. Corduroy was whistling some tune that seemed to start and stop again at random intervals. In the soft lull of Gauge’s voice, those sounds seemed as unreal as a dream.

“After a while, these gangs had just about all the food. So then they started fighting each other and left everyone else to starve while they stockpiled their loot away. The more food you had, the more people wanted to join your gang. The more people you had in your gang, the more food you could get. It was a viscous circle.”

Gauge took a deep breath and opened his eyes again, scanning the room slowly. “This was the hideout of The Butchers of the New Dawn. This is where they piled up everything they took from others. Levi and Corduroy… they think this room is called Heaven because it’s the promised land. Where the rivers flow with milk and honey.”

Ocean felt her own eyes stinging as the pain in Gauge’s voice seeped into her heart. She wanted to hold him, to stroke his hair and chase away the nightmares like her father used to do for her. She could only chew on her bottom lip, could only hold his hand in hers and listen.

“But me? I call it Heaven because I look around and all I see are the souls of all those people. The people who died for these precious little cans. Just so I could eat…” He closed his eyes again and let his breath escape so slowly that it almost sounded like the wind. He bowed his head for a moment, then forced a smile as he looked at Ocean again.

“Okay… wow. I didn’t mean to… you know…”

“It’s alright.”

Ocean saw her mother again, saw herself stepping over the woman’s lifeless body and crossing the clearing, saw the rat’s body as she picked it up and how she’d sat down, right then and there, and bit into the coarse hairs of its coat. The little squirt of blood as her teeth punctured it’s flesh… and the entire time Mama simply laid over there. Motionless. Unfeeling. “You do what you have to in order to survive. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

And, at that moment, Ocean wanted nothing more than to simply believe in her own words…

After they left Heaven, Gauge continued the tour. She saw the baby for the first time, a little bundle of life squirming beneath his blankets as his balled fists rubbed against his rosy, peach fuzz cheeks. She’d wanted to hold him in her arms, to feel his tiny feet kick while little bubbles of spit gurgled from his mouth. In the end, she just touched his gossamer hair lightly and smiled as he cooed.

From there, Gauge showed her a little room with a dark hole in the floor. The room smelled like the frothy water of the waste bucket she’d had to empty for as long as she could remember. There was a large white bowl of water sitting in the corner beside a pile of ripped fabric. Gauge explained to her that it was called the bathroom, and that anytime she needed to relieve herself, she should simply let it fall down the hole.

They’d have to make a new one soon, he said, because it was getting pretty full and would need to be filled in soon.

By the time he was leading her through some of the other tunnels and telling her how these would be the means of escape if they needed to leave in a hurry, the shock of everything had worn off. Ocean skipped ahead of Gauge, listening to his words as she scampered from one new thing to the next. She was smiling and happy and so excited that, for a while at least, memories of her mother ceased to haunt her every time she blinked.

Gauge was so wonderful… so patient and kind as he explained how things worked to her. He often laughed at some of the questions she asked, but the sound no longer burned her cheeks with shame. No, now it was a different kind of heat that blossomed in her chest when he’d throw back his head. Something warm and nice and cozy… Ocean saw a metal door up ahead, embedded into the wall of a tunnel. She ran to it, wondering what marvels were hidden behind it’s rusty facade. “What’s in here?”

Gauge had run after her and was by her side as her fingers closed around the iron handle. “No!

His hand shot out like a striking snake, smacking against Ocean’s face so hard that her body spun around. She tripped over her own feet and fell to the ground, pain radiating from the red hand print that covered her cheek.

He loomed over her, his face looking just like her mama’s had right before she’d attacked—lips drawn back into a sneer, lines and creases molding his features into gnarled knots of rage. He jabbed his finger toward her, his voice booming through the silent tunnels. “You are never to open that door. Understand? Never!”

Ocean pulled herself into a tight ball and crossed her arms over her head. Each word hit her with as much force as his hand had, causing her body to jerk with each sharp syllable.

“I swear to God, Ocean, if you ever… and I mean ever… go into that room… “

Her body hitched with sobs and her knee throbbed from where it had banged against the stone floor when she fell. The side of her face felt like it was on fire and there was a high pitched ringing in that ear. None of that hurt as much as the barrage of words raining down upon her.

“I won’t, I swear, I’ll be good, I promise… “ She babbled and sniffled and choked back tears as thoughts burst like sun bloated corpses in her mind.

He hit you. He fuckin’ hit you, that son of a bitch…

No! It’s okay, they’ll kick me out, they’ll make me go back, I don’t wanna go back out on the streets, I don’t wanna. I can’t, I just can’t, not after all this…

He hit you!

Please, no…

At some point, Gauge had stopped yelling and he now crouched beside her. His hands smoothed her hair, working out tangles when they ensnared his fingertips, and his voice was a low whisper.

“Ocean, sweetie… I’m sorry I slapped you, okay? But maybe that just shows how important this is, honey. You can’t ever go into that room, okay?”

Fuckin’ prick…

No, no… he saved me. He took me in and shared his food and water. He’s good, he really is. I know he is. I should’ve asked before I tried to…

“Can you promise me that? That you’ll never go in there? You promise me that and we’ll just pretend this never happened. Nobody has to know, okay?”

Ocean nodded her head rapidly, eager to get back into his good graces. She forced the other voice into the back of her mind and refused to argue with it any longer.

“I… I promise.”

Gauge pulled her into his arms and laid his cheek on top of her head, rocking slowly back and forth. Ocean sniffled and clutched at him as if she were afraid he would vanish if she didn’t hold tightly enough.

“I’m sorry I hit you, honey. Forgive me? Okay? It’s been kind of, well, a difficult day.”

Ocean nodded and positioned her head so that it was resting on his shoulder. The feeling of his arms around her, so firm and strong, made her feel more secure than she had since her father had died. As long as he held her, she was safe, nothing could hurt her. Even the tingling in her cheek slowly faded in his embrace.

But, for some reason, she still found she was unable to pull her gaze away from that forbidden door.

CHAPTER NINE

What could I say? I just kinda gulped, ya know, and felt like the walls of Blue Moon were closin’ in on me. Like with that security guard at the mall. I got it in my head that she knew what I had planned for her, and she just stood there with that flimsy shirt drying cool on her back, waiting for me to either confirm or stammer out some half-baked denial. I wanted to say somethin’, believe you me, but I was like Ocean when she saw all that food, ya know? There just weren’t any words.

So there I am, feeling like a little boy who’d just been caught peekin’ into the girl’s shower room. But Clarice fuckin’ Hudson, man? What’s she do? She just leans forward, smiles, and puts her hand on my thigh.

“I’ve been watchin’ you, too,” she says. “How about you buy me a drink and we get to know each other a little better?”

I couldn’t help it. I jerked my leg away from her touch so fast you’d have thought she’d just poked me with a hot needle. It was only a second of contact, but I felt like I needed a shower, dig? I wanted to scrub my skin in scalding water ‘til it fuckin’ bled, man, and this single word keeps repeating in my mind like a Buddhist mantra—contamination, contamination, contamination…

She musta seen somethin’ in my eyes, or maybe it was just the way I recoiled so quick, ya know? Because she snatches her hand back and this real stern look comes over her face.

“What?” she demands. “You think I’ve got cooties or somethin’?”

Me? I still don’t know what to say. It’s like the words just got stuck somewhere in my throat, dig? And I can feel ‘em in there, all hard and edgy like I’d tried to swallow a rock that was too big to pass through my pipes. She’s lookin’ as disgusted as I feel, and kinda glances around the room as if to say can you believe this guy? Then she leans in so close that the alcohol from her breath stings my nose, I can feel the heat just rollin’ off her body and she’s right there with all her fuckin’ mutagens streamin’ outta her pores, and she half-whispers to me.

“Let me spell it out for ya, lover boy. You buy me a drink and you’re gettin’ laid. I’ll ride you until the sun comes up and leave you beggin’ for more. So what’s it gonna be? You gettin’ lucky tonight or what?”

You know how many nights I’ve dreamed about some chick saying that kinda shit to me, man? How many dead soldiers were tossed into the toilet in little wads of Kleenex? And it has to be a fuckin’ carrier, ya know? Hell, I wouldn’t have touched that dollymop if my prick were made of latex…

There’s only two letters that change condom into condemnn and e. As in, I ain’t havin’ n-e of that shit, man.

Clarice fuckin’ Hudson is just standin’ there with her hand on her hip, waiting none too patiently for some kinda reply. So I mumble something about how she ain’t my type, ya know? And it was like I’d just slapped her in the face and called her a cunt or something.

“Look, asshole, a sure thing is everyone’s type,” she says.

So I’m feelin’ like a mouse that’s been backed into a corner by the big, scary cat, right? People are startin’ to stare and the last fuckin’ thing I want is for someone to put my face and this chick together, ya know? My synapses are firin’ like photons on The Enterprise, man, and before I know it the words just come gushin’ outta my mouth. I didn’t think about what I was gonna say or nothin’. I just opened my mouth and there they were.

Two little words. I’m gay.

I don’t know. Maybe part of me thought that would diffuse the whole fuckin’ situation. Instead, she just gets this hard, mean stare in her eyes. It was like she was picturin’ me splayed out on one of those little wax slabs you dissect frogs and shit on. Her jaw’s all tight and I can see this little vein throbbing on her temple. I swear to God, I thought this bitch was seconds away from deckin’ me, right?

Instead, she just kinda clears her throat and next thing I know there’s this glob of concentrated infection splashin’ down into my brew. Who the fuck does that, man? Spit in a dude’s drink cause he turned ya down?

Well, I practically jump off my bar stool ‘cause I got the image in my head of that tainted beer splashin’ all up in my eyes, my nose, my fuckin’ mouth. She just glares at me, says fuckin’ faggot and storms off.

Well… yeah, man. Fuckin’ listen to me for once, why don’t ya? Of course that ain’t the Clarice Hudson all her friends and co-workers described. I’m sure she used to be a nice lady. Probably saved a baby seal for Jesus or some shit. But that’s what this virus does, dig? It changes people, and not just on a molecular level either. I’m talkin’ like split personality shit. They say things they wouldn’t normally say, do things they never would have dreamed about doin’ in a million years. ‘Cause it’s controlling them, man. It’s makin’ them do what it wants them to do.

No, that is not a load of bullshit, man. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. September 2009 edition of American fuckin’ Naturalist. Look it up, if you don’t believe me. There’s this fungus in Thailand, right? It likes to call the underside of leaves on the forest floor home. It’s picky, though, dig? It only likes the northwest side of plants. So it infects these carpenter ants that live way up in the trees, see, takes control of their brains—scientists don’t know how—and makes them go down to the ground and latch onto these leaves. Through the whole journey this fungus is killin’ the ants, ya know. But, once the bastard is dead, it keeps right on growin’ inside its body, only it leaves the muscles that control the mandibles alone. That way the ant is still there, clingin’ to just the right spot on this damn leaf. Don’t take my word for it, man. Look that shit up. Get a little education.

Anyways, this virus is doin’ somethin’ like that to Clarice fuckin’ Hudson, man. It’s manipulating her into situations where it’s exactly where it needs to be to thrive and grow… and there’s nothin’ that poor girl can do about it.

I mean, I’ve just confirmed three and a half of the signs, man, that’s half the fuckin’ checklist. I’m more certain than ever that… yeah, I said three and a half. Because three doesn’t divide evenly into seven, Einstein. Okay then, let me spell it out. Again.

One: you got all that sweating, right? Two: outrageous fuckin’ appetite. The third sign was the alcohol, man… remember how I said she slammed those shots but wasn’t even wobblin’ when she came up to me? That was important… that’s what you shoulda wrote down in that little book of yours. God is in the details, ya know.

The way I figure it, her stomach musta been colonized with those little bastards. The invaders break down the alcohol into acids see, and then feed off that to fuel the transformation.

So she can down all this liquor, right, but instead of gettin’ corned outta her head, sobriety just keeps plaguin’ this chick. And, of course, they want her to drink, man. They need those perfect conditions for incubation.

So that gives us three, right? Which means we still have that half to account for.

Pop quiz, assholes… what’s the primary objective for any life form? Give up? It’s to ensure the survival of its species, man. Divide, multiply, and conquer. That’s why all these people in piss poor countries still keep churnin’ out babies even though they barely got enough to feed the ones they already got. It’s why the Catholic church really doesn’t believe in birth control. There really is strength in numbers, dig? The more of you that exist, then the greater chance there is of passin’ things on, whether it be genes or ideology.

Now, I want you to do me a favor, okay? Look at me. I mean, really look at me. What do ya see, man? Kind of a scruffy lookin’ guy with bloodshot eyes and this beard that would make a moonshiner say now, that’s a fuckin’ beard! Wrinkled clothes… shit, I probably got a pretty strong cloud of B.O. that I’ve just kinda gotten used to. Sometimes, I forget the little things, ya know, like combing my hair, brushin’ my teeth, bathin’ and shit.

I know I ain’t grotesque. I ain’t like that Corduroy dude. But I’m no prize winner either, dig? Kinda chicks who are into me are the ones who are so fuckin’ blitzed outta their minds that they think they’re givin’ head on ZZ Top’s tour bus.

Clarice fuckin’ Hudson? She was a looker, man. She coulda done so much better than me. Any man in that bar woulda gave his right nut just to finger-fuck her shadow; I just happened to be the first dude she passed. Didn’t matter if I was Brad Pitt or some pensioner wonderin’ how his teeth got in the bottom of his brew. To her—or more aptly, the things controlling her—I was just an incubator.

Sex appeal’s got nothin’ to do with contagion.

‘Course this is all just theory and conjecture, mind you. I don’t know for certain that it is a virus, ya know? It could be a bacteria or some shit. I mean, I’m just an armchair scientist, right, and I’ve been thinkin’ lately that maybe the virus, or whatever it is, isn’t working alone. I’m sure I’m right about all the molecular construction going down… that part just makes sense. But what if this is something that’s always been there, man? Some little strand of latent DNA, some sleeping chromosome that just needed a kick in the pants to get in gear. See, that would explain how quickly this shit goes down.

I’m kinda babbling here, aren’t I? My original point was promiscuity, that drive to just fuck anything that moves. That’s the fourth sign, but I was only countin’ it as half because there was this slight chance, this little sliver of probability, that the bitch actually coulda been attracted to me for some strange reason. I don’t know, maybe she had a fetish for dudes who looked like they were one step away from shopping carts and soup kitchens.

‘Course, I also knew this put a major fuckin’ kink in this plan of mine. She’d seen my face, man. Worse yet, I’d pissed the bitch off. A woman can forget casual encounters like a guy can forget anniversaries, but she don’t ever forget the cat who insulted her, ya know?

So, somehow I gotta figure out how I’m gonna verify these other signs, dig? I gotta stalk this lady and she fuckin’ knows me now. Talk about a sticky wicket.

How the hell do you kill someone who just might see it coming?

CHAPTER TEN

Ocean glanced over her shoulder, peering into the gloom of the tunnel for even the slightest hint of movement. Nothing but an inscrutable darkness met her gaze; she glanced back at the door, chewing the jagged edge of her thumbnail. Another quick glance, and she reached her hand tentatively toward the metal, as if half expecting it to be so hot that her flesh would sizzle and burn. When she finally made contact though, the rough metal was cool; she felt as if her intestines had turned into a writhing knot of worms.

Despite the damp chill that permeated the subterranean passage, beads of sweat moistened her brow, yet her mouth was so dry that the backs of her sinuses felt raw. Her eyes felt as if they were only moments away from cracking like over-baked clay.

If he even saw her just standing there, Gauge would be furious. He’d warned her about the door, had demonstrated its importance with the force of his hand. And she’d promised him, hadn’t she? She’d sworn to stay away from that room, to leave the secrets it held safely behind the steel and rivet door. She didn’t really want to break a promise. Especially one made to him.

It was like the door possessed some sort of mystical power, though. It called to her imagination through the twisting tunnels, pulled her toward it like a rotter to life, demanding she approach. Just to feel the rough texture of the metal beneath her fingertips, to listen past the sound of her own heartbeat whatever stray sounds that might filter through its bulk. There was never anything more than the drips of condensation echoing through the network of passages, and her own shallow breathing.

What treasures lay on the other side? Even more food than what she’d already seen, secret stockpiles that could feed an army for a hundred years? Clear pools of water that rippled softly causing webs of light to dance across a dark ceiling?

She had to know.

The handle was smooth and firm in her trembling hands, the latch clicked softly as her fingers curled around the lever.

He’ll be mad, he’ll be so mad… Only if he knew, and how would he? The others were tucked in their bedrolls, their heads sinking into the cushions as dreams flittered just behind their eyelids. She’d have just a quick peek, just a little look, and no one would be any wiser.

Ocean closed her eyes and stood as motionless as the broken statues that littered the city above. She listened for the shuffling of feet, for her name to be called out.

Nothing…

No one will ever know…

She willed herself to push the door, to simply extend her arm and let it swing open., but it was as if every muscle in her body had somehow frozen. She even had to remind herself to take a breath every so often.

Could she really do it, could she really break his trust like that? They’d been so good to her these past few months. They’d welcomed her into their home, had fed her more food than she’d ever dreamed existed, had taught her how to collect water from the drains when the world overhead was soaked with rain. They’d even entrusted her with Baby, allowing her to tend to the infant’s every need.

Don’t. Don’t do it. Just go back to bed.

She remembered how she was when Gauge first found her. More dead than alive, so hideous that even her shadow seemed to cringe from her approach, eating flies in a desperate attempt to fill that hollow void within her sunken belly.

Now, her hair had actually begun to grow back, and her skin was free of the filth that had coated it like grains of sand. Levi had even taught her how to use this little tool called a razor to make her legs and armpits as smooth as Baby’s tiny feet. She was getting pretty and she knew it. Still not as pretty as Levi… but she had noticed a change in the way Gauge looked at her, as if he were truly seeing her for the first time.

Think of Corduroy, then. Think of him and open the damn door already… While it was true that the others—even silent Pebble—had gone out of their way to make her comfortable, there was something about the way the burned man looked at her when he thought she wasn’t looking. Something that made her feel the way those flies must have when her mouth snapped shut.

His good eye seemed to study her every movement with cold calculation and she was sure she saw a glimmer of something when she talked with the others. Much like the sparks of anger that had leapt from her mother’s eyes when…

Don’t think about Mama. Think about Corduroy.

He never talked to her, not like Levi and Gauge did, at least. They were full of laughter and good-natured teasing, teaching her old songs their parents had handed down. They would tell stories, describe their dreams in such vivid detail that Ocean almost felt as if she had actually been there.

But Corduroy only answered her questions in gruff bursts where the words almost seemed detached from feeling. His voice was harsh, something between a gurgle and a hiss that caused chills to creep along her arms. Gauge told her once that it was because of the fire, that the flames had scorched the inside of Corduroy’s throat as much as the outside. He was actually lucky to be alive.

Still, he gave her the creeps. The way he was always watching over her, always lurking in the shadows, trying to approach her when he thought she was cornered and alone.

Do it, then. Open the door.

Ocean bit her bottom lip, placed her free hand against the metal, and pushed as gently as she did when rocking Baby’s cradle. Nothing more than a slight flexing of the muscles.

The hinges creaked as the crack between door and wall grew wider and she stopped, whipping her head to the side. Surely they’d heard. It seemed so loud in the silence, like the screeching of a hawk.

Her heart raced like the feet that she felt sure were running toward her even now. She had a sick feeling in her stomach, like she’d get when she had that first morsel of food after going days on nothing more substantial than insects.

At the same time there was a sense of excitement that she couldn’t explain. She knew what she was doing was bad; a part of her almost hoped to see Gauge’s form emerge from the darkness, to feel the bite of his anger, for him to punish her for this like she should have been punished after she’d killed her…

Ocean gulped and waited for the thunderous fury of the man whom she’d only recently admitted to herself that she loved.

Again… nothing.

She took a slow breath through her nose and looked back toward the door, at that gap of darkness that seemed to pull her into its gravity. Was it really worth it? Even if nobody ever found out, she would know. She’d know that she betrayed him, that she’d done the one thing he’d specifically asked her not to. Could she really add that to her list of sins?She hung her head so that her now-round chin rested against her chest.

No… she couldn’t.

Let’s just to back to bed.

She eased the door shut as slowly as she’d opened it, not wanting to risk another squeal from the hinges, as an odd mixture of relief and regret flooded her body. She’d never know what laid on the other side… but at the same time, she’d kept her word to Gauge, and maybe that was the most important thing anyway, to honor those who you lo—She heard it, some slight noise from the other side. A sound almost like the rustle of dry leaves.

Something was moving in there.

For some reason, the image of her mother appeared in her mind. Not as she’d been in life, but a decaying caricature of the woman who’d lost a husband and raised a little girl. Flesh sloughing away from bone, milky green pus oozing from blackened swells of flesh that pulsed with built up pressure. Despite the tire iron rammed into her now-festering skull, Mama shambled along, shedding a trail of scabs and clumps of hair to mark her passage. Her mouth opened, revealing a bloated tongue and teeth that had been chipped and cracked on the bones of the living.

She shook her head, like she could fling the thoughts from her imagination. No, she’d given Mama the burial rite. The woman would still be laying under the blue tarp as—

The sound pulled Ocean from her thoughts. It was softer this time and without further thought, she opened the door entirely.

She’d imagined a large room on the other side, one piled with supplies and other goodies. Instead, there was nothing more than a long, narrow hallway. On either side of the hall were a series of doors, each one made of wood with little barred windows set in the center. Some of them hung open and others were entirely shut.

One, however, had a heavy wooden plank resting in little brackets bolted to the wall. She’d never seen anything like it before, but it wasn’t hard for Ocean to figure out the purpose. Whatever was on the other side wouldn’t be able to get out, not without someone lifting the piece of timber from this side.

She felt as though she were moving through a dream as she stepped into the hallway, like her feet were actually floating slightly above the concrete floor. Even the smell of the place somehow seemed detached from reality, a slight mustiness mingled with a stink that reminded her of the pit they relieved themselves in.

But there was something else as well. Something she couldn’t quite place.

She approached the locked door slowly, as if it might swing open at any moment. Feeling dizzy and scared and exhilarated, part of her mind whispering that it wasn’t too late, that she could still just turn back, pretend she’d never laid eyes on that hall.

But could she? Could she really? Even if she wanted to, Ocean wasn’t entirely convinced that she could stop her feet from carrying her ever closer to that imposing door. Whatever she’d heard had to be hidden behind it. She wanted so badly to see…

She was only slightly taller than the window in the door and she stood for a moment, holding her breath, staring at the row of metal rods set into the sill. Behind it was a backdrop of perfect darkness, but the smell was stronger now. She heard the rattling noise again. Ocean cupped her hands over her eyes and peered through the gaps between the bars.

She felt as though some invisible force had pummeled her in the stomach, bile stinging the back of her throat with bitter acidity. Her entire body trembled with half formed thoughts ricocheting through the confines of her skull.

No… wait, I don’t… no, no, no… understand. What?

Tears brimmed in her eyes and she wished she’d never opened that metal door, had never seen this cursed hallway, that everything could simply go back to the way it had been before.

Can’t, never, I just don’t… She turned and fled, her footsteps echoing off the floor, not caring that the metal door she’d been warned about clanged shut behind her.

She hugged herself as she ran, telling herself that it had been a trick of light and shadow. It’d been dark in that little room, after all, and she did have a powerful imagination. Daddy had always told her so.

Oh, Daddy, I need you so bad. Daddy, Daddy, I need you.

By the time she’d made it back to the main hall, she’d slowed her pace a bit. She struggled to control her breathing as she slipped beneath the covers of her pallet. She lay there, crying softly, staring at the wall. She tried to understand what she’d seen on the other side of that wooden door, tried to comes to terms with what, exactly, it could mean and why it had yanked such a powerful response from her soul.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Something like that will shake a person up, let me tell ya. I hightailed it outta that bar, trying my best to just blend in with the shadows of the night. Just another average joe going about his business, nothing special about me, folks. Part of me wanted so badly to believe it, I wished to God that I’d never heard of the Eye of Aeons, that I coulda just looked at Clarice Hudson and thought fuck yeah, my man… tonight’s your night!

For a second, I even cursed the day I’d ever taken up my little stay of residence in Ocean’s head. In that moment, with all those nighttime people stumbling along sidewalks and hailing cabs, laughing and practically undressing one another on the corners… in that moment, I just wanted to be like them.

Then I got this kinda sinking feeling in my bowels and I felt like I’d taken everything that poor girl had ever been through and flushed it down the crapper. I mean, I kinda brought this whole dimensional instability thing on myself, right? I went searchin’ for something exactly like what I got. But Ocean? She never asked for this shit, man. She never wanted this. It was just the lot in life that she happened to draw and she did her best to make the most of it. Fuck man, her society may have considered her a woman just ‘cause she started raggin’, but she was still just a kid, man. And she was makin’ choices a kid shouldn’t ever have to make.

Yet here I was, pissin’ and moanin’ because I was scared, because I was confused and didn’t know what to do anymore. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right at all. Clarice fuckin’ Hudson, and others like her, were out there condemning this poor girl to a lifetime of torment. And I just wanted to forget it all, to pretend like I didn’t know what was loomin’ just over that dark horizon we call the future? Fuck me, man. Fuck me.

By the time I got home I was good and ready for a long slow kiss from the bong, if ya know what I mean. I just wanted to ease back into my skin, to gain a little perspective for a while. ‘Cause, like I said earlier, I was in something of a pickle, ya know? That little slattern routine at Blue Moon really threw a kink into things. Fouled shit up bad. So hell yeah I wanted a buzz, man. Wanted one worse than I ever have in my life.

Problem was I couldn’t find my stash, see? I mean, I’ll admit that I’m not the greatest housekeeper in the world. I’ve got dishes piling up in the sink, four bags of garbage clustered ‘round a trashcan that looks like a landfill, piles of clothes all over the fuckin’ place. Empty beer bottles that belch out clouds of gnats if you’re stupid enough to pick one up… But I always knew where my bag was, man, top right hand drawer of the dresser, tucked away in this wooden box that’s got all these vines and shit carved into the wood. But not this time, man.

I dumped that box across my bed as if I really thought maybe my half ounce might be hidin’ beneath the rolling papers or that little baggie that has all the screens in it. Lots of receipts in the box, lots of old letters I’d started to write but never actually got around to sending, but not so much as a stem or even a seed.

Maybe I did smoke it all, smart ass. Maybe I fuckin’ did. Shit, I don’t know. I mean, this has been a rather unusual time in my life, dig? When time and space don’t apply to you anymore, you can never tell what you did or didn’t do. Things get jumbled up here in the old noggin’. The point isn’t what happened to my weed, man. The fuckin’ point is that I was out and jonesin’ like a mother fucker.

Now I got my connections but most of ‘em are honest, hardworking guys who just sling a little herb to supplement their sorry excuse for a paycheck, ya know? They got wives, kids, the whole nine to five routine. I can’t just call them up at one o’ fuckin’ clock in the morning and ask if they could spot me a thirty. That’s not cool, man.

But there’s this one cat I know… we’ll call him Steel, okay? Because he’s fuckin’ hard, that’s why. You don’t fuck with this dude, dig? He’s a bad ass, man. Got all these faded blue prison tats up and down his arms and eyes that don’t look like they ever knew the meaning of compassion. Fucker shanked this other guy once ‘cause the poor son of a bitch tried to welch on a couple hundred he owed. Didn’t kill him, but messed him up real good. Bastard never did get the sight back in his right eye.

So I only deal with Steel in emergency situations, ya know?

Has to be pretty dire shit before I hook up with the likes of him. As fate would have it, as they say, I didn’t really see that I had much choice in this situation. As long as you got the bread, you could call this dude. He’d leave his mother’s funeral to deliver the goods.

So that’s exactly what I fuckin’ did. I called up Steel and within the hour he’s sittin’ on my ratty little couch with this fat sack and at that point I just want to be alone. I just wanna smoke up, turn things over in my head, and try to figure shit out.

But there’s a certain etiquette that comes with a pot deal, ya know? I mean, you’re expected to burn one with the same fucker who just sold the shit to you. Kinda like an unspoken rule and one of the little perks of bein’ a dealer I suppose. Personally, I think it’s fucked up. I mean, who buys a value meal at Burger World and shares the fries with the clerk just because he’s the one who hooked you up with the food, ya know?

Anyhow, we suck down a bowl or two and I’m thinkin’ that the dude will leave now. But for some reason, and why I don’t know, he’s just wantin’ to hang out for a while. He’s got his head leaning back, lookin’ up at the water stains on the ceiling, and he’s talking about this bitch he fucked up because she was screwin’ around on him. And I start getting this idea, right?

I tell the dude I can dig exactly where he’s comin’ from ‘cause I suspect my lady’s been getting a little on the side, too. I’m actin’ all pissed about it, or at least as pissed as you can get when you’re head’s all swirlin’ in a cloud of herb.

“Shit, man,” he says. “Just get rid of the whore.”

And he ain’t talkin’ about breaking up with her, either. He goes into all this detail about how you can take an oil filter from a car and turn it into a ghetto silencer. Telling me how it can be modified to muffle all the expanding gas when that trigger is pulled. He says it only takes a little bit of work and lays it all out there in the open, how you gotta make sure there’s no brackets or fixtures at the top end that could fuck with the bullet, how you can fill the filter with water and then drain it to further baffle the shot, all the shit you need to build the damn thing.

But me? I tell him I want to be sure first, and he’s kinda lookin’ at me like I’m a big pussy, but I got this dude’s number, see? I know what motivates him. There ain’t nothin’ this cat wouldn’t do for a few greenbacks. Meth, junk, coke… he’d sell ‘em to a preschooler if the cash was there, man.

So I tell him how if I knew for certain, I’d make her sorry she ever spread for anyone but me. I’m layin’ it on thick, too. Talkin’ about how I thought about hiring a PI to tail the broad but I was worried a gumshoe might put two and two together if she should disappear shortly after he wrapped up his investigation.

“Shit, homes,” Steel says. “I’ll hook you up, man. I’ll get some dudes on that bitch and if she’s puttin’ out you’ll fuckin’ know. And then you just do what you gots to do and nobody’ll think twice.”

So there it is, man, you can beat two birds in the bush with the one in your hand or some shit like that. Not only did I end up with some pretty primo stash, but I solved my little problem about our dearly infected Ms Hudson…

The next few days were pretty much business as usual, ya know? I went to the REC site, put in my required hours, smoked a lot of weed, and only got pulled into the Eye a time or two.

It was always there in the back of my mind, every time there was a knock on the door, I’d get this nervous little feeling in my stomach, wondering if it was Steel with his report. Phone goes off and I’ve got it answered before it’s even had a chance to finish the ringtone. And I’m tryin’ to keep myself busy, ya know? Trying to find ways to pass the time.

I make a trip to the hardware store, pick me some different sizes of flex couplings and PVC bushings, and then skirt on over to Pronto Auto for a selection of oil filters. Why so many? ‘Cause I didn’t trust myself to get it right the first time, man. Which is kinda funny, really. You give a stoner the right tools and he can build anything, ya know?

So anyways, eventually Steel does show up and he’s got this little smirk on his face. He glances down at all the oil filters on my coffee table and kind of nods the same way someone else might if they were appreciating a piece of art that happened to be layin’ there. “Hate to tell ya this, homes, but your bitch? Certifiable whore, man. Hell, that cunt puts out so much you could probably drive a Mac truck up her pussy and still have room for clearance.”

Only he wasn’t sorry to tell me. I could tell by that little gleam in his eyes.

“Mean as hell, too. Shit, man, I saw her lay into this dude down at that shopping center near East Lamont? He just barely bumped up against her cart with his and this crazy whore’s all over him. Scratching his face to beat all hell, kicking him in the nads over and over. He wasn’t the only one, either. Seemed like if she wasn’t fuckin’ them, she was flying off the handle and beatin’ a fucker down. Yellin’ all this fucked up shit, too. Like all her words were getting mixed up.”

He was obviously relishing this, and I was a captive audience.

Your kill ass I’ll. She actually said that, can you believe that shit? First I thought it mighta been because she’d done gone postal on those fuckers. But it just got worse and worse. Got to the point where nothin’ coming out of that dick suckin’ mouth made any sense. Crazy fuckin’ bitch, my man. You’re better off without her. Damn psycho.”

And there it was. I’d expected four since I’d already had half of it accounted for anyways. But Steel just comes along and dumps number five and six right into my lap. Uncontrollable rage, muddled thinking. It’s like their rational minds are already shutting down, you know? As if they’re devolving into creatures of pure, primal instinct.

“You want I should take care of this little problem of yours? Special rate, seeing as I know you and all.”

I can’t remember exactly what I told the dude. I felt all breathless and shaky, like I’d popped too much speed or something. It was somethin’ about how this was personal… that kinda shit. That it was something I had to do myself but I’d keep him in mind if anything ever came up in the future. And he kinda laughed, only there wasn’t any real joy in it.

“But there is somethin’ I may need your help with, though.” I tell him.

He just stands there with his thumbs hooked in his waistband with this thin little smile stretched across that face of his.

And me? I’ve already checked off numbers one through six, man. I’m thinkin’ that maybe I don’t wanna wait around for that seventh sign, ya know? Besides, by then it’d be too late.

“I’m gonna need a gun.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

She must have retreated into the safety of sleep at some point during the night; Ocean remembered squeezing her eyes shut as if she could somehow force the memories of what she’d seen out of her mind. When she opened them again, she was facing the brick wall near the section that served as her bedroom. She could hear Gauge and Levi talking softly, their voices nothing more than a rhythmic lull occasionally punctuated by laughter.

Judging from the crackle and pop of burning wood, they were probably in the kitchen, most likely preparing breakfast. That she hadn’t been yanked from her dreamless slumber by rough hands and furious accusations let her know that Gauge had no clue she’d opened the forbidden door. What she’d seen on the other side was still her little secret, a mystery that she’d have to unravel on her own.

Or just forget about, she thought. You can just pretend it never happened. You didn’t sneak into that room, you didn’t see anything. You couldn’t sleep so you took a walk. Down the south tunnel, yes, but you didn’t stop at that door. You didn’t open it. You took your walk and came right back to bed. Would they be able to tell? Would they see the deception written across her face as clearly as the writing on the metallic signs bolted to the walls in the tunnels? Would they know somehow?

Ocean watched the light from the hearth flicker and dance across the wall, trying to keep her breathing as steady as possible. It was best to pretend she was still asleep, that would buy her a little time, at least. Maybe she could actually convince herself that it really hadn’t been anything more than a bizarre nightmare.

Maybe by the time the great chamber filled with the aromas of cooking food, the events of the previous night would already have started to fade. She’d rub her eyes as if they still felt gritty from sleep, eat her breakfast and go about her daily chores, just like she always did. She’d chew some of the food into a pulpy mush which she’d then feed to Baby. She’d clean any messes the infant may have made during the night, and tidy up her sleeping area. It would be just another day underground.

You can’t just pretend that it never happened, part of her mind insisted. You can’t!

A memory of her father flashed through Ocean’s mind. He’d taken an old piece of rope from the trunk of one of the cars and tied a white piece of cloth in the very center. Then he’d used a charred two-by-four like a pencil, scratching dark lines of soot against the pavement. Her father had made two different lines, each one parallel to the other but spaced far enough apart that she could have laid between them.

Next, he’d told her to take one end of the rope and he took the other. Each of them stood behind one of the lines, facing one other, with the rope taut between them. The white cloth was centered almost directly between the lines. Ocean remembered her mother rolling her eyes from the other side of the clearing.

“This is called tug-o-war,” her father had explained with a smile. “It’s a game I used to play when I was your age, honey.”

To Ocean, a new game was almost as much of a treat as the squares of dark food her father sometimes found, the kind that seemed to melt into sweetness upon her tongue. She’d jumped up and down, and wanted to clap her hands but, since she didn’t know the rules yet, she was afraid that dropping the rope might mean that she would lose. Instead, she chose to nod her head.

“You pull on your end of the rope, and I pull on mine. The first person who gets the flag over their line wins. Got it?”

Her father grunted and groaned as his face screwed up into an exaggerated grimace, and Ocean had pulled on her end of the rope so hard that she would have went tumbling backward if he’d suddenly let go. The heels of her shoes dug into the concrete and, even though she now realized her father hadn’t been pulling with all of his strength, her eyes were focused on that little white flag. She watched it inch toward her father’s line and set her jaw in grim determination as she edged it back toward her own. For close to ten minutes, the white strip of fabric shifted, back and forth, between the two. Finally, he let her win.

Now, so many years later, she knew exactly how that white flag would have felt, if it could. To be pulled in two opposite directions with the fate of the game hanging in the balance; to know that, sooner or later, one side would exert more force, destined to win out over the other. The only difference was, this wasn’t some silly little game her father had taught her. This was real. This was life.

A shuffling sound behind her made Ocean’s breath catch in her throat and, despite her attempts to feign sleep, her body stiffened.

Corduroy, she thought. It’s him.

At first, the burned man had been nothing more than an oddity. The fact that he didn’t eat meat was enough to make him stick out like a human in a pack of rotters. But he also had these fits, which Gauge called seizures. He would collapse to the ground or slump over the table, his eyes would roll back in their sockets so that only the whites were visible. Every muscle in his body would twitch and jerk so violently that his head and shoulders lurched and flopped.

One time, during a particularly violent storm, Ocean had seen one of the undead walk through a pool of water as lightning sizzled through the air and struck the street. The way Corduroy moved when in the grip of these seizures was very similar to the jerky dance that rotter had performed.

Over time, his curiosity had deepened into something far more sinister. Ocean noticed the way his good eye seemed to follow her no matter where she went. If she was rocking Baby, he was watching. When she came out of the bathroom, he was watching—always with a stare that seemed as cold and hard as the brick floor beneath their feet.

Soon, he began trying to approach her… but only when she was alone. He’d glance over his shoulder almost nervously, as if half expecting to see Levi or Gauge creeping up behind him. There was something sneaky and furtive about the way he walked toward her, something that always made her immediately dart away to the company of others, a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.

It was natural that her reaction to the sound behind her was the skin on the back of her neck to feel as if it was creeping toward her scalp. Fear even twitched her eyelid, and Ocean chastised herself for behaving like a child. Instinct may have told her that the wariness she felt around Corduroy was justified, but that didn’t mean that every unexplained sound was him sneaking up on her. The noises she heard behind her were much too soft for a large man. Even if he’d slipped off his shoes, he would make more noise than that. Since she could still hear Gauge and Levi in the kitchen, it stood to reason that the shuffling was coming from Pebble.

That was what logic told her, but fear has a way of overriding even the most rational of arguments and Ocean knew she wouldn’t breathe easy until she saw with her own eyes that there was nothing to worry about. At the same time, though, she wasn’t quite ready to give up her ruse. She wanted the others to think she was asleep for as long as she could possibly get away with it. Once she was able to calm that tinge of unease, she’d be able to think more clearly, to figure out exactly what she needed to do or say to ensure Gauge never knew that she’d broken the only real rule he’d set down. She’d have to play this off as carefully as a famished rat approaching a sleeping child.

She smacked her lips several times and mumbled thickly, in what she hoped was a reasonable impersonation of the sounds her mother used to make during the night, and rolled over to her other side, pulling the thin sheet closer around her. She mumbled again, forming nothing more than random words. Slowly, she lifted her eyelids until she could just peek out through the lashes.

Pebble scampered around the room. Ocean could tell by his flaring nostrils and pouting lip that something had upset him. He moved quickly, sorting through mounds of dirty clothes, getting down on his hands and knees to peer beneath the shelves, and even looking into the glass containers that housed the flickering candles. The more he searched, the more frustrated he became. He stamped his foot on the ground and balled his fists as he clenched his teeth in aggravation. The shuffling turned into angry stomps as he spun in a slow circle, his eyes scanning every shadow in the room.

It was funny how often things went missing down there. With everyone living, sleeping, and going about the business of life in one large chamber connected to a handful of small rooms, it would seem like nothing could be misplaced for long. As Ocean had come to discover, that simply wasn’t the case.

The first thing she’d noticed had gone missing were the dirty rags she’d been wearing on the day she’d first been brought here. After Levi had given her some clean clothes and shown her how she could use rope and string to make them fit better, her old garments had simply disappeared. She wanted to look at them one last time, to try to see past the bloodstains that darkened the fabric. To remember a more innocent time, back when her mother had pulled the needle and thread through the cloth, smiling at Ocean as she explained that someday she would learn to sew, and be able to make her own clothes.

When she hadn’t been able to find her things, she assumed one of the others had simply thrown them out. But when she asked, each person claimed not to have seen them, either.

After that, some of her newer clothes went missing as well. Not to mention the random candles, pieces of flint, and even several pairs of her underwear. It happened so often that Gauge had begun to tease Pebble, telling the little boy that their home was haunted by the ghosts of The Butchers of the New Dawn and that, even in death, they couldn’t stop stealing.

Judging from the way the color drained from the boy’s face when he heard this, it was obvious that Pebble didn’t doubt it for one second. And now, it seemed, those same ghosts had spirited away something of his.

Ocean’s eyes followed Pebble as he moved about the room. Each of them had one corner of the room that served as their own, personal area. Ocean’s was just outside the nursery, Gauge and Levi were positioned away from her feet and beside the North tunnel. Directly across the room from them was Pebble’s area and, this morning, his normally neat piles of belongings looked as if a tornado had touched down in the center of them. Clothes and toys were strewn about, his bedroll was in such disarray that it looked like it had been thrown into the air at some point. This didn’t stop the child from rooting through the wreckage again. When this additional search proved fruitless, he marched across the room toward the entrance to the South tunnel.

This was where Corduroy kept his things, and was directly across from Ocean’s sleeping area. As her half-closed eyes followed Pebble’s trajectory, they came to an abrupt stop. She immediately closed her eyelids, feeling as if something in her stomach had just leapt to the side.

He’d been sitting there on his little rectangle of foam, staring directly at her. As motionless as the bricks behind him.

Corduroy.

Even when Pebble passed by, his gaze never faltered. He didn’t glance at the boy, didn’t give any sign that he’d even noticed, in fact. He simply sat with his legs crossed and, in the brief second she’s seen him, it felt as if his eye had shot a dark sliver into the core of Ocean’s soul. Her blood chilled, causing a shiver to tingle her spine.

She tried to remember if she’d gasped. It felt like she had, but she couldn’t clearly remember doing it. If she did, then he’d know that she was faking it, that she was really awake and had caught him staring at her.

But had he really been doing that? Her eyes had only fallen across him for a fraction of a second before panic demanded that she snap them shut, after all, maybe it was just a coincidence. He could have been looking around the room and she might have noticed him at the exact second his gaze turned in her direction. Really, why would he just sit there watching her sleep? It didn’t make any sense. Then again, nothing that man did seemed to make sense. There was something about him that was so different from everyone else that it made her feel exposed and vulnerable, almost as if he could see right through her clothes.

No, she thought, it has to be nothing more than bad timing and I’m getting myself all worked up again for no reason. It was no different than imagining the sounds of Pebble’s search were actually the burnt man creeping toward her. Imagination and fear were getting the best of her, that was all. Still, she had to be sure.

She opened her eyes much more slowly than she had the first time, wanting to ensure that she was peering through the smallest slit possible. Just in case.

And there he was; in the exact same position, he hadn’t moved an inch. Staring across the room… at her. Unblinking, motionless.

Ocean struggled to keep her breathing in check. She wanted to take deep gulps of air to match the rhythm of her galloping heart, knowing if she gave in it would be obvious that she wasn’t sleeping. He’d see the rapid rise and fall of the sheet covering her, and he’d know. And what would happen then? Would he be content to continue watching her silently or would…

Corduroy extended an arm and pointed the gnarled flesh of his index finger in her direction.

He knows… he knows I’m not asleep

He curled it slowly, beckoning her to rise from her bed and go to him. There was no smile on his face, no expression what-so-ever. Just that blank, cold gaze that made Ocean feel like a frightened animal, cowering in the corner.

When she didn’t immediately respond, he repeated the motion. This time, his movements were more jerky, impatient.

He glanced toward the kitchen as Levi’s giggle echoed through the chamber. There seemed to be something desperate about his actions now. As if there were some pressure building up inside him, seeping through his burnt pores, filling the room with a cloud of ominous foreboding. Scowling, Corduroy repeated the gesture a third time.

Ocean flopped over onto her side so that she was facing the wall again and closed her eyes tightly. Maybe if she continued pretending that she was asleep, he’d begin to think that he was mistaken. Maybe he’d believe that—

She heard him stand and her pulse quivered in her neck. A slight tremor began jiggling the muscles in her calves and it felt as though the temperature had suddenly dropped twenty degrees.

She heard the crackle of the fire, and Gauge’s laughter in response to something Levi had just said. None of it offered any type of warmth as she listened to the shuffle and scrape of his footsteps against the brick floor. Footsteps that were drawing closer with each passing second.

Go away, just go away, I’m sleeping, I’m really sleeping, you think I’m sleeping, right?

She imagined she could feel his shadow fall across her, its weight pressing down like a load of rocks on top of her. At the same time, a tightness gripped her bladder, making it feel as if it had been days since she’d last relieved herself.

Ocean could hear him breathing now, that distinctive rasp and gurgle of air passing through his deformed throat.

Go away! She wanted to scream, to cry out for Gauge so loudly that her voice would echo down every tunnel for miles around. Her throat was as tight as if it were being pinched by an invisible hand… besides, what would she say? Corduroy hadn’t actually done anything, after all. The man could always claim that he was simply coming over to wake her up, and maybe that was all there really was to it. Maybe he was just trying to get her to rise and shine, as Levi always said.

But, if that were the case, why had he silently motioned to her with his finger? Why did he seem nervous and on edge, as if he were up to something? Why was he hovering behind her right now, breathing harshly, but otherwise not making a sound? Not even moving.

She could picture him squatting just behind her back, close enough that she could smell the sour bite of body odor.

Then, her eyes still squeezed shut, she felt a hand grab her forearm so roughly it was like a metal band had just cinched around her muscles.

Corduroy jerked Ocean to her feet and spun her around roughly, pulling her tightly to his body, his lips parting, warm breath tickling her ear. At that moment, all doubt vanished… Ocean knew that something wasn’t right.

The scream that tried to work its way through her throat was shoved back down as one burnt hand clamped over her mouth.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Now, Steel told me it would take a few days to get me a piece. Maybe even as long as a week. He also told me to keep cool, lay low, not to do anything stupid like running out to the corner pawn shop and pickin’ up a nine for a couple hundred less than I was payin’ him.

“What I’m getting you,” he told me, “is clean. Un-fucking-traceable. They can run all the ballistics they want and never get so much as a squeak out of that database of theirs. And, if you follow my instructions to the T, they’ll never have a barrel to match ‘em to either.”

So I tried to do just that. I went to work, pecked away at the keyboard in my little cubicle until it felt like my fingertips had been bludgeoned into stubby little nubs. I tried to make like it was just any other day, but the entire time, I had this weird feeling down in the pit of my stomach. Almost like the Chinese I’d picked up for lunch wasn’t quite up to health codes and I was comin’ down with a bad case of the Hong Kong Dog. Only I knew it wasn’t that, ‘cause there wasn’t any cramps or rumbling or any of the usual stuff. Not so much as even a gurgle down in the ‘ole G.I tract.

By the time I got home, man, that feeling had mutated into some gnarly shit. It still had that diarrhea piquancy to it, but, at the same time, it also felt like someone had released a jar full of moths down my throat and my stomach was the light drawing them in, if ya dig where I’m comin’ from. So I packed the bong good and tight, ya know? I mean, I had to practically cave my head in just to get the water gurglin’, dude. But once I finally released the carb, that shit shot down my throat like liquid silk. No coughin’ or anything… And let me tell ya, that Steel can get his grubby-grubs on some primo herb, man. Smoothest shit I ever had the pleasure of burnin’.

Anyhow, weed usually has this medicinal effect on me, see, and I—

No, you fuckin’ smart ass, for your information, I don’t have glaucoma. Nothin’ wrong with these peepers, believe you me. I see everything. Including how you’re tryin’ to shake me up with all these dumb-ass questions. You’re tryin’ to see if there’s any pennies left in the ‘ole piggy bank. But if ya don’t hear that rattle, it doesn’t mean that my inner child’s done run off to the candy store, man. Maybe it means that pig has had so much change shoved down his gullet that everything’s packed too tight to even so much as clink. Ever think abut that, mother fucker? No, of course you didn’t. Why am I not surprised?

See, when I say weed had a medicinal effect on me, I just mean that it calms my system, dig? A little spot of indigestion or queasiness and it’s entirely gone by the time the munchies set in. That’s why they prescribe the stuff to chemo patients, man. And I’d much rather put a little THC into my system than any of these mad scientist concoctions they call medicine, ya know? Damn, half the time you end up with something twice as bad as what you took the fuckin’ meds for.

Only, it didn’t work this time. Instead of gettin’ all mellow and into my subconscious flow, I start squirmin’ around in my chair. Before ya know it, I’m thumbin’ through magazines like I was lookin’ for money tucked between the pages, just rifling through these old back issues of Discover and Scientific American. But I’m not reading them, not even lookin’ at the pictures. Like my hands needed somethin’ to do and that was the best they could come up with, see?

I start to get frustrated because it also feels like I really am lookin’ for something, man. Like I know its in these old magazines somewhere, so close that I can practically smell it. Only I won’t know exactly what it is I’m searchin’ for until I actually see it. Then I get this idea that maybe it ain’t even in those periodicals at all. Maybe I’m just sittin’ there in my little shithole apartment and pissin’ away my buzz when I should be expanding my parameters, ya know?

So I just kind throw all the mags into this big pile on the floor and, since my hands don’t have anything to keep ‘em busy, apparently my feet decide it’s their turn to join in on the fun. They start tapping away at the floor like I was playin’ the kick drum in a thrash metal band. The cheap glass in my window starts rattling around in the panes like it’s makin’ them nervous or something.

Then—just like that—I gotta be doin’ something. Anything. So I hop up outta that chair and start pacing back and forth, so much that I’m surprised I didn’t make the carpet even more threadbare than what it already was. Not to be outdone, my hands apparently jump back into the fray ‘cause I’m lighting one smoke after another and suckin’ ‘em down like I was tryin’ to earn my merit badge for emphysema or some shit. Which, of course, doesn’t help my damn nausea in the least bit, so then I’m queasy and light-headed, and feeling as wired as if I’d downed half a bottle of No-Doz.

Part of me knows what it is. Hell, I’ve never been good at waiting for anything. I fuckin’ detest standing in lines, man, and stoplights make me wanna pull the hairs right outta my beard in big, bushy handfuls. Don’t even get my ass started on the DMV. That place is like a circle of Hell so heinous that even Dante couldn’t see it comin’.

So within an hour and a half or so, I was prowlin’ through my pad like a caged tiger, like the place had somehow gotten smaller than it already was, ya know? Like the cracked plaster walls were inching a little closer every time I turned my back, pushing all my junk toward me. Kinda like that trash compactor scene in Star Wars, man. I had all this garbage and second-hand furniture feeling like it was tryin’ to squeeze the air right outta my lungs, suffocating me with stale smoke, beer, and that musty odor you sometimes get in old thrift stores.

And, all the while, I got this beast stretching its tentacles through the murky waters of my mind, just waitin’ for the right moment to coil around my leg and pull me under.

‘Cause I can’t seem to get Clarice Hudson outta my head, see? I look at the poster with Einstein stickin’ his tongue out, try to breathe with intention and empty the ‘ole noggin’ of everything that’s clutterin’ it up. But what am I really thinkin’ about? Those plastic tumblers they sell at Dollar Bonanza and how this bitch has probably touched each and every one with her sweaty little fingers.

Some people drink outta those things without rinsin’ them out, man. Healthy people. Innocent people. Might as well just inject them with ultra-concentrated contagion right then and there, for what it’s worth. Then I notice this empty cup from Meat World peeking at me out of the garbage and I get this image of her shoveling all that food down her throat: starve a fever, feed a cold, and founder infection.

And I know Steel’s right. I gotta hang loose, chill the fuck out, and hope he can get the damn roscoe a helluva lot faster than he said he could.

But this chick is doggin’ me, man. I can’t so much as turn a corner without her infected ass pouncing into my thoughts. Yeah, I realize that probably does sound a bit obessive, but if you woulda been in my shoes, you woulda done the same damn thing, mother-fucker. Guaranteed.

So I think maybe I’ll watch a little TV, right? Something to distract me. I plop my ass down on the couch, dig the remote out from between the cushions, and press up on the duct tape covering the back so that the batteries will actually connect with the posts. Apparently the last time I watched the tube, I’d left it on one of those music channels. Nah, man, not like MTV or anything. They don’t even play music anymore, anyway. These are the ones that are on channels like 836, 837, and so on. Kinda like radio through your television… I can tell by that stupid look on your face that you still don’t have a clue what I’m talkin’ about. Get yourself some digital cable, then, you get the full package and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Anyhow, the point is that it’s on this music channel, right? And what the hell do you think is playing when that screen lights up, man? The Cowboy Junkies. Acoustic cover of Blue Moon. Can you believe that shit? Blue fuckin’ Moon. Of all the damn songs… Shit, man, it was like I couldn’t win.

By this time, I’m so worked up that I hurl that remote at the wall with everything I got, and it shatters into half a dozen shards of plastic. I spring up off that couch like it had a built in ejector seat, and if you thought I was pacing before, then ya shoulda seen me this time. I mean, I coulda walked down to the East End and back four times over. I musta been stompin’ around pretty hard or something, ‘cause that old prick who lives downstairs is just bangin’ away at his ceiling with a broomstick or some shit, ya know? For some reason, my eyes kept darting to that digital clock I’d made from a potato and a glass of water as if I were trying to catch it in a lie.

Now when I’ve taken too much speed, I can sometimes ease myself back down with the right tunes. I just gotta crank the volume so loud that it almost seems like each note is forming itself from the air itself. Like all those molecules zipping around can ring out tones and timbre when they bounce off each other.

It can’t be any of the heavy stuff, ya know? Dead Can Dance usually works, most of Enigma’s stuff. But as I thumbed through the stacks of CDs on either side of the entertainment center, I realize that none of them felt right. I’d picked up Toward the Within, which is probably the greatest live album ever recorded, and only get as far as the second verse in Rakim before I’m already searchin’ for something different.

After trying four or five different discs, I finally realize that I’m not just tryin’ to stumble across the perfect music to soothe the savage beast… I’ve got somethin’ specific in mind. QNTAL. They kinda do this medieval-goth thing. Haunting female vocals with lotsa lyrics in Latin, all these archaic instruments that I ain’t heard since stoning witches was all the rage. Really groovy stuff, man.

The problem is, I’ve only got one of their albums, and it’s not exactly playable anymore.

See, a coupla months back… or was it a couple weeks? No, it was definitely months, I’m positive of that. I think. Anyhow, at some intermittent point in the past, I let this whore borrow it. Now, I ain’t trying to be misogynistic or nothin’. Princess is literally a whore, man. Just because she spreads for pills instead of cash doesn’t change a thing. So, against my better judgment, I let her borrow this disc, right? Soon as I did, I kicked myself in the ass, thinkin’ she would probably lump it in with a bunch of boosted CDs and see what she could get at the pawn shop for the entire lot. About fell over when she actually returned it, case and all. But anytime you’re dealin’ with Princess there’s always gonna be a problem—whether its her pukin’ on your junk when going down or some pissed off dude tryin’ to beat your ass ‘cause he thinks you’re her pimp—something is gonna go wrong.

In this case, I didn’t realize what it was until the next time I was ready to play that disc man. I put in the CD player and the fuckin’ thing just kept spinnin’. I could hear it whirling around in there, kinda clickin’ every few seconds, but the damn thing would never play. So I take it out, thinking there’s probably dried mustard on it or something and it just needs a good cleaning.

Why mustard? Because the bitch lives on that shit, man. She’s got more condiment packages on her floor than used rubbers. Grabs handfuls from every fast food joint she passes and eats it right outta the damn package. Now, I can’t say for certain that it’s all she eats, but this chick is so skinny that it’s like humping a skeleton, so it wouldn’t really surprise me.

You’ve done gone and got me off topic, again. The reason I even brought up Princess and her mustard fixation in the first place is because of the CD, man. Remember? Anyhow, I flip the disc over so that I’m lookin’ at a funhouse reflection of myself on the shiny side, right? Only it ain’t mustard that’s causing the disc not to load, that stupid bitch used the damn thing as a coke mirror, man! It’s not just scratched, it’s fuckin’ gouged. You can see where the razor chopped up the cocaine as clear as day… felt like I was looking into the Grand Canyon, let me tell ya. And it wasn’t just one, you cut coke and you really gotta work it, get that shit as fine as possible before it explores the inside of your nose. And, before you ask, I knew it was blow cause I could see it wedged way down in there, man. Once I licked it and the tip of my tongue went numb, there wasn’t a lick of doubt about what that girl had done.

So, because of that, I was in a bit of a bind. I was so wired that I needed the QNTAL to bring me back down, only I couldn’t listen to it because some crack whore doesn’t know the first thing about respecting personal property. Which put me even more on edge than I already was.

About this time, I glanced at my clock. Fifteen ‘til eight. If I got my ass in gear and traffic wasn’t too bad, I could just make it to the mall in time to hit up Dark Desires before they closed up shop for the night. Most bigger chains don’t carry QNTAL, but I was pretty damn sure they would. So I snatch my keys off the rickety table by the door and hightail it outta there. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, I was already feeling better, if you can believe that. My heart rate was easing back down to a non-hummingbird level and I felt the tension start melting outta my muscles like I’d popped a Xanex or something—

Well, of course I was actually going to the mall so I could check up on Clarice Hudson, man. Shit, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure that one out. Though I sincerely applaud the effort. Really… I do. You keep up the hard work, big guy, and you’ll show the other kids that you really did earn that gold star, yet.

Now, I don’t wanna tax your minds too fuckin’ hard, so let me just spell it out for ya in big, block letters. Here’s how the shit went down, man…

By the time I reached the mall, that place was nearly dead. They were so close to closing that the parking attendant had already called it a night. The booth was empty and the striped arm that they use to keep cars from just driving right in was locked in the up position. Now, I coulda parked on Level One and just went in through the set of doors practically right across from Dark Desires. But if I did that, then I wouldn’t have any reason to walk by Dollar Bonanza, right?

So I tell myself that I’m gonna park up on Level Two and go all the way down to the other end because I want to see if that new bookstore has opened yet. Even then, I realized I was lying to myself, man. They’d had so many signs plastered all over the place that I would have to have been brain dead not to realize when the grand opening was. But, if reality is nothing more than an agreed upon set of observations and opinions—and if I was more than willing to accept my own deceit—then who’s to say that wasn’t the real reason I went so far out of my way?

Okay, ya got me there. I’ll give you the point for that one. I hafta admit, it sounded iffy, even to me… but when you’re lookin’ for justification, fuzzy logic is better than no logic at all. Ya know? You tell yourself what you wanna hear so you can do whatever it is you wanna do but know you shouldn’t. And that’s what makes the world go around.

Anyway, I pull into my space and, even though I’m the only fuckin’ car in sight, I make damn sure there’s not any handicap signs or shit like that around. I mean, what’s five extra feet of walkin’ compared to havin’ irrefutable evidence that I was in the vicinity of Ms. Hudson’s place of employment the night after our little altercation at Blue Moon? So, in a way, I was partially taking Steel’s advice… I was staying cool. It was just the layin’ low part that was giving me problems.

So I’m riding down the escalators and the mall has practically closed up for the night, right? They’ve already turned the waterfall off and they’re not even piping in that synthesized bastardization of classic songs that usually gets lost in all the hubbub anyway. I can hear shoes squeak somewhere down on the other end of the second floor, things banging around up near the food court, and the drone of a floor polisher. Most of the shops have got those cage-like doors partly lowered and, at that time, I don’t see another soul in sight.

Which gets me to thinkin’ that maybe this wasn’t such a hot idea. I mean, I’m not exactly a wallflower, ya know? I stand out like a shark in a tank of guppies. Even more so when all the little fishies are nowhere to be seen. Shit, man, I didn’t know it would be like that, I figured the place would be as busy on a week night as any other time. That they’d have to practically shove all those frenzied consumers out the fuckin’ door. Goes to show how much I know about marketing, I suppose.

Part of me wanted to turn back right then and there. Don’t even bother gettin’ to the bottom of the escalator, it told me. Just walk back up this thing, go home, watch some Discovery Channel, and go to bed.

Problem was, in my current state of mind, that small voice sounded like a pussy. I mean, what the hell was it afraid of anyway? Sure, Clarice Hudson was one toxic bitch, but I would be keepin’ a safe distance away. I wasn’t exactly gonna stroll right up and ask how being infective was workin’ out for her, ya know?

So despite the fact that my stomach was flip-floppin’ like a nervous acrobat, I just kept right on trucking. Pushed my hands into my pockets, looked around at all the stores with what I hoped to be an expression of bored detachment. I wanted to play myself off as some dude who was just waitin’ around for his girlfriend to get off work, dig? Hell, I even started whistling a little tune because I figured the most conspicuous people are the ones who try their damnedest to look inconspicious.

Up ahead, I could just make out the Dollar Bonanza. Because of the angle, I couldn’t see their signs or anything, but I’d been at that mall often enough to know where it was.

I had to tell myself to keep strollin’ along at the same pace, right? To not even break stride in the least bit. And it wasn’t because I wanted to get there more quickly, exactly the opposite. That little part of my mind was whisperin’ again, practically begging me to turn back before it was too late.

But I don’t think I could’ve. Not even if I’d been one hundred percent committed to the idea. ‘Cause it felt like something was pulling me, right? Like Clarice fucking Hudson was this irresistible force and I was as powerless to stop as an iron shaving in an MRI chamber.

I still tried to play it off like it was all part of some grand scheme, ya know? Hell, I didn’t even know for certain whether or not our dear Clarice was even workin’ that night. For all I knew, she could already be out there, surprising some unsuspecting horndog with the gift that keeps on giving. So it wouldn’t hurt to just take a leisurely stroll past her store, right? Yeah… that’s what I thought, too. Or, at least, wanted to believe I thought. That distinction needs to be made, I think.

So the Dollar Bonanza is looming closer with every step, and the whole place is still empty, which is really starting to freak me out a little. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been there when the place was packed, but it felt like I was walking through the world’s largest mausoleum, man. Like maybe all those clerks were sprawled in the middle of toppled displays while their lifeless bodies slowly cooled to room temperature.

Even the clanging from the food court had fallen silent, but I could still hear the whine of that floor buffer, only it didn’t rise and fall in pitch like it would if someone were actually pushin’ it around. It was just this constant drone, like it was sittin’ in one place.

I tried to tell myself not to be such a pansy ass. There was no way that everyone in that place could’ve bought the big one all at the same time. No way that I could be the only living soul in a mall full of corpses. Just wasn’t fuckin’ logical, man.

But that didn’t keep the chillbumps from creepin’ up my arms as I got closer and closer to that store. I should at least see someone, ya know? Some tired looking dude with ruffled hair and drooping shoulders. A part-time student pushing a vacuum through a store. Hell, man, even a sound would’ve set my nerves at ease. Something like a laugh or the murmur of a conversation, but there wasn’t anything but the clack of my own footsteps against that polished floor.

I got to where I could see the display racks of Dollar Bonanza and realized I was holding my breath. My throat was so tight and dry… but I couldn’t have kept that whistling facade up even if it hadn’t been.

When I saw the shadow appear in front of the Dollar Bonanza entrance, my heart just about turned to ice, man. I still couldn’t see who, or what, was casting it and my imagination filled in the details all too readily. Mottled skin streaked with blood, maybe a few gashes displaying now useless organs, that vacant stare from eyes that never blink. Pupils that never dilate.

Rotters.

But that was absurd. I mean, what are the odds that that this bitch’s infection wiped out the entire mall on the same fuckin’ night? At the same fuckin’ time? I’m no mathematician, but it’d be astronomical, dude. Probably run a better chance of hittin’ the lottery on the same night you’re struck by lightning.

And I knew this, yet, I still couldn’t shake that feeling of impending doom. That cold certainty that things were about to go horribly, horribly wrong.

By the time I got to the front gate of Dollar Bonanza, my hands were clenched into fists, and it felt like my nutsack had hopped up into the safety of large intestine. My heart was palpitating and I didn’t want to look up from the floor, didn’t want to see whatever was waiting for me in that entrance.

I mean, it’s one thing to plan this shit out, ya know? To tell yourself that you’re Bosley fuckin’ Coughlin - Zombie Exterminator Elite and Champion of the Future. However, it’s a whole different ball game when it comes time to put thought into action. It’s like the difference between playing cops ‘n robbers and walking in on an armed robbery in progress.

So yeah… I was scared. Ain’t no shame in admittin’ that, dude. But there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to make a choice. Is he gonna sit by, with his thumb up his ass, and simply allow things to happen? Or is he gonna grow a pair and take control of his own fuckin’ destiny?

Let me tell ya brother, my time to make that decision had finally come.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

It was probably just her imagination, but with the rough and leathery flesh of Corduroy’s burned palm pressing against her lips, it seemed as if the taste of singed flesh flooded Ocean’s mouth. It thickened her saliva and made the back of her throat feel as if something had been left there to rot and sour. Her teeth gnashed at the skin, hoping the man would jerk his hand away long enough for her to scream, for Gauge to come running to her rescue, sickles flashing in the flickering light of the fire, his long hair flowing as his eyes blazed with indignation.

But Corduroy didn’t even so much as flinch, despite the fact that she could feel a fold of flesh slip between the gap in her front two teeth.

Maybe he couldn’t feel pain. Maybe the fire that had distorted his skin had also melted his nerves away, leaving nothing but a contorted mass of scars that were no different than a beetle’s shell. Or was he just that determined? Had his mind seized upon her so intensely that he could endure things that would make an ordinary man howl like a speared dog?

“Stop squirmin’, damn it! I’m taking you and you’ll fuckin’ thank me for it later!”

His voice was a low hiss and he tightened his grip on the back of Ocean’s head while the other hand pushed against her mouth so roughly that her teeth scraped against the inside of her lips. The taste of blood seeped across her tongue, the tangsharp. Rather than frightening the girl into compliance, however, the taste caused her panic stricken mind to react with the most primal of impulses.

Bleeding, oh God I’m bleeding, oh shit…

Her hands pummeled his chest with a series of dull thuds as she tried to twist and pull her way out of the man’s grasp. Part of her kept expecting Corduroy to slam her head against the brick wall or cover her nose as well as her mouth, shutting off her breathing entirely. Instead, he merely grunted as he fought to keep the young girl pressed tightly against his body. Again and again, his mouth darted toward her ear, but Ocean thrashed so violently that her hair was like a mass of tiny whips lashing out against his lips.

“Stop fighting and make this easier for both of us.”

Ocean kicked as hard as she could and connected with Corduroy’s shins firmly enough that her bare toes felt like they’d curled underneath themselves. Flares of pain shot through her foot. The man’s grip on her never loosened, the only sign that he’d even felt her attack was a slight widening of his eye.

She tried biting again, harder this time, clamping down on his hand so violently that her entire head trembled with the effort. A sharp intake of air let her know that Corduroy was, indeed, capable of feeling pain… but instead of pulling away, he simply set his jaw, and the entire time, his words haunted Ocean’s thoughts. I’m going to take you…

Like hell you are!

She’d fight until every muscle in her body was ripped and torn. Would bite until her teeth sank through tissue and shattered against bone. But she would never—ever—let this disgusting sack of burnt meat force his way into her. And, with God as her witness, she most surely would not thank the bastard for it later.

Let’s see how you like this, rotter breath.

Ocean jerked her right knee upward, at the same time, she grabbed Corduroy’s shoulders and allowed her body to drop, dead weight, toward the floor. Caught off balance by this sudden change in tactics, he also began falling toward the ground, at the same moment her knee buried itself into his crotch. The air rushed out of his mouth in something that was half grunt, half moan and his hands released the young girl, preferring instead to cup his testicles.

His body slumped to the floor as he pulled his knees up close to his chest, rolling onto his side. His good eye was clenched shut and the grimace that covered his face made the shadows in his gnarled burns seem deeper. He rolled back and forth, breathing heavily through his nose. Cough-like groans passed through the same lips that had so recently whispered threats to the girl who now towered above him.

Asshole!” She punctuated the curse with a sharp kick to his ribs and then, fearing that he might somehow muster the strength to get back up, she darted toward the entrance to the north tunnel. She’d closed half the distance when she heard Gauge’s laugh echo from the kitchen. The sound of his voice made her skid to a stop as she twirled around.

It was strange, but after realizing she wouldn’t be able to scream for help, Ocean had entirely forgotten about the others. It was as though the world had grown smaller, as if she and Corduroy were the sole inhabitants of a planet no bigger than the room that served as Baby’s nursery.

There had been no sounds other than the two of them grappling for dominance. In her mind, the struggle had been loud enough to call the dead, as her father used to say. If Gauge and Levi had continued cooking just yards away, then obviously it hadn’t been any louder than what Pebble had been when searching for whatever it was he had lost.

Ocean wanted to run to Gauge, to press her face into his solid chest and wrap her arms around his waist. She wanted to feel his arms encircling her, to let tears flow from her eyes while she blurted and sobbed her way through the whole story. And he, of course, would gently push her away as he stormed out of the kitchen, his booming voice echoing through the tunnels with Corduroy’s name. She wanted this so badly that her legs jerked and twitched with pent up energy, longing to run to the man who would surely be her savior once again.

Or would he? Would Gauge and Levi really believe her story? After all, she’d only been with them for a short time, whereas Corduroy seemed firmly entrenched within their little family. With no witnesses, it would be her word against his, wouldn’t it? He could always make up some lie, some reason that she might be angry enough to try to turn the others against him.

Who would they believe? Some girl who was only barely a woman, a relative stranger in their midst on top of that? Or someone who was trusted enough to journey topside with Gauge? Someone who’d been with them for God knows how long?

It was true that Ocean felt as if she and Gauge were growing closer every day. Since her hair had begun growing back and her cheeks started rounding out, she thought he looked at her differently. Sometimes, she’d catch him looking at her out of the corner of her eye. Not in the same way Corduroy did, though. Gauge’s expression was soft and tender, the corners of his lips pulled into that little grin that had the power to make her feel as if her body had become weightless. When they spoke, his little nicknames for her were becoming more and more frequent: honey, sweetie, darling, dear.

But what about Levi? If Ocean had noticed this change coming over Gauge, then surely the other woman had as well. Did she see all the little squeezes that Gauge gave Ocean’s hand, the way he’d place his palm against the side of her cheek and stare into her eyes with a smile? If she did, was she jealous? Enough, perhaps, to believe whatever ludicrous tale Corduroy might spin to get his ass out of trouble?

And then there was the real question. If it came right down to it, who would Gauge pick if he were forced to? Ocean, or Levi?

While Ocean knew exactly how she felt about the dark-haired man, she wasn’t entirely convinced his feelings for her were as strong. If Levi demanded that he make a choice, there was a good chance that he would elect to keep things the way they’d always been. It would be much easier, after all, to forget a girl he liked but barely knew, than to give up someone who’d spent years with him.

The sound of Corduroy’s breathing snapped Ocean’s focus out of her own head. The burned man had staggered back to his feet and, even though he was still hunched over with his hands pressed to his groin, he turned his head slowly to look at her.

Without another thought, Ocean dashed to the opposite side of the room so that the large table was directly between them. She could see Gauge’s legs through the crackling flames of the open hearth and the swish of Levi’s dark dress as she swiveled back and forth on the balls of her feet. Corduroy was already hobbling around the table and he crept as if his scrotum pulsed with agony every time he scissored his legs for another step. He also seemed to be gathering strength every second, standing a little straighter the closer he came to her.

Though she didn’t know what it meant, she held a closed fist in front of her face and slowly lifted her middle finger so that it was the only one pointing up. She’d seen her mother do that when she was really angry. Often enough to know that it was something bad, perhaps even some Old World magic, like the Evil Eye that her father had told her about. Then, without a second glance, she ran across the room and ducked into the jagged hole that served as the entrance to the kitchen.

Since it was much smaller than the chamber they slept and dined in, the kitchen area was so hot that the air felt thin and hard to breathe. Gauge and Levi were both so drenched in sweat that their long hair was plastered to their skulls. They each held a small rectangle of tin in their hands, the pieces of metal were normally used to help coax flames back from a mound of embers, but now the pair fanned themselves with them as if even a warm breeze was better than none at all. They stood nearly shoulder to shoulder, but Gauge stepped to the side when Ocean entered, and smiled at her. If Levi noticed, however, she hid any emotions it may have stirred and continued dumping roots into a dented, metal pot with her free hand.

“Good morning, sweetheart. You sleep well?”

Ocean nodded her head, but remained silent. She still wasn’t entirely sure whether she should tell the others about the confrontation in the main chamber. She was afraid that the words would simply spill out if she so much as even parted her lips, and once the story was out, there was no taking it back. She would have to live with the consequences, whatever they may be, for the rest of her life.

Just like opening the door. There would be consequences for that, too.

She tried to push the thought from her head, but it still caused her stomach to feel queasy. With everything that had transpired between her and Corduroy, she’d almost managed to forget about the little room and what she’d seen the night before.

Only yesterday, life had seemed so simple. So perfect. She hadn’t doubted her standing with the group in the least bit and spending the rest of her life in this subterranean hideout had been a foregone conclusion. She’d grow old with these people, would watch Pebble and Baby grow into adults, and deal with any type of fallout that might come when Gauge finally realized his feelings were stronger for Ocean than they were for Levi. Corduroy had been an irritation… someone who she definitely didn’t trust on an instinctual level, but she hadn’t really thought he was dangerous. That he was capable of—

“—and potatoes for breakfast. Should turn out pretty good with the wild onions Cord brought back yesterday.”

Ocean watched as Levi took the pot and carried it to the hole in the wall that served as their hearth. Since they weren’t baking or frying anything this morning, the large metal box with the folding door had been dragged out of the fireplace and set to the side. Entirely focused on the pot, Levi’s shin banged against the blackened, make-shift stove and she cursed as water splashed over the sides. The drops bubbled and hissed on the hot bricks and the older woman glared at the container as if it were to blame for her misfortune. Still grumbling, she slipped the handle of the pot onto the tripod, then pushed the entire contraption backward so that the pot hung directly over the licking flames.

Gauge was laughing at Levi’s scowl and he put his hand on Ocean’s shoulder as he winked at the young girl.

“What do you think, honey? Think clumsy Levi there would last a couple months topside?”

Levi repeated the same gesture that Ocean had given to Corduroy and the woman’s eyes narrowed playfully.

“Seems to me, there was a time when Mr. Patterson was a bit clumsy as well.”

Though her words were delivered in a light singsong, the smile disappeared from Gauge’s face as quickly as the smoke from the fire curled into the broken pipe that served as a chimney. His grip on Ocean’s shoulder tightened and she felt his body stiffen in response to the words.

“Not funny, Levi.”

Gauge’s voice was as cold as his stare and, despite the emotional turmoil that still raged within her, Ocean’s curiosity was so great that she had to ask.

“Who’s Mr. Patterson?”

Though he answered her question, Gauge’s eyes never strayed far from Levi.

“Nobody. Mr. Patterson is dead. He died a long, long time ago.”

To Ocean, the tension in the room was nearly as thick as the pungent aroma of the wild onions. Levi, however, seemed oblivious to the change that had come over Gauge. She continued speaking with a wry smile and sparkling eyes, her voice lilting with mock admonishment.

Nobody? Don’t let him fool you, Ocean. Mr. Patterson is a great man… and if he tries really hard, some day he might even become a good man.”

For some reason, this statement caused Levi to giggle but Gauge was clearly not amused. His grip on Ocean’s shoulder was so tight now that it felt as if her bones were grinding against one another. Part of her wanted to twist away from the pain that radiated through her neck and back, but another, stronger part was afraid to remind him that she was even still in the room.

That part remembered the sharp sting of his hand lashing out in anger, the rage that had burned in his eyes so fiercely that it could have instantly evaporated all of the water in the now boiling pot.

“That’s enough, Levi.”

“Mr. Patterson is—”

“I said that’s enough!

Gauge’s voice rolled through the kitchen like a clap of underground thunder, it’s echoes fleeing through the tunnels outside, as if afraid that the darkness that overtook the man might be turned on them next.

Levi’s jaw dropped open and she stared at Gauge like a woman who’d just seen a flying rotter. She blinked several times before placing her hands on her hips and cocking her head to the side.

“For God’s sake, Gauge… lighten the fuck up, why don’t you? I was just playing.”

“Well, maybe you should just leave the damn playing to Pebble, you ever think about that?”

The couple’s eyes were locked together, neither one willing to be the first to look away. Out of the corner of her own eye, Ocean saw Corduroy lumber into the doorway. He’d been drawn in, no doubt, by Gauge’s shout, but his eye didn’t look at either Levi or Gauge. Instead, it stared directly at Ocean from beneath a heavy brow. Though he remained completely silent, a clear message was delivered in both his posture and expression: don’t you say a word, not a damn word. Not if you know what’s good for you.

Ocean tried to look away, but Corduroy’s presence almost seemed to demand her attention. She wasn’t able to stare him directly in the eye as Levi was doing with Gauge but, at the same time, she felt compelled to sneak quick peaks in his general direction.

“Fuck you, Gauge… I don’t need this shit.”

The water in the pot boiled so rapidly that the entire thing swayed back and forth on its tripod. From the nursery, Ocean could hear Baby’s thin wail. Usually, that would have been enough to send her rushing to the infant’s side, but on this particular morning, the child’s cries didn’t elicit the same surge of nervous panic that it normally did. Instead, Ocean remained trapped between Gauge’s painful grip and Corduroy’s hard stare, positive that Baby would be safer in the other room than he would be in the kitchen.

“Maybe you should try a little gratitude once in a while, bitch.” Gauge spat the words from his mouth as if they were saturated in bitter venom that needed expelled.

No one else said a word. No one moved.

But, in the back of Ocean’s mind, a small voice whispered. It wasn’t the same voice that used to accompany her thoughts and make her doubt her sanity. No, that voice hadn’t been present since the first night underground. This, she quickly realized, was her own voice, and the message it delivered left no room for argument. Tell them about Corduroy.

Tell them now.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

‘So I’m standin’ in front of the Dollar Bonanza, lookin’ at this human shaped shadow that’s creeping across the floor toward me, and feeling like I’m about to piss my pants. Every muscle in my body wants to just keep moving without even lookin’ up. Just keep on truckin’, go out the Harrison Street entrance, circle the block, and make my way back to the car.

Because, on some level, I don’t feel like I’m ready for this, ya know? Hell, I haven’t even got the gun from Steel yet, the closest thing I’ve got to a weapon is this little pen knife I use to scrape the resin outta my bowl. How far do you think something like that is going to go into the brain? Far enough to drop an undead son of a bitch? Fuck no, man. It was like I showed up for my first day of lion training class in a suit made of gazelle meat.

On the other hand, if my fears were warranted, if this dark shadow really did belong to one of Ocean’s rotters, then wasn’t I screwed no matter what? I mean, I’ve seen these things, man. They’re fuckin’ savage. No morals, no conscience, no regrets or squeamishness; they’re the perfect killing machines, driven by the primal desire to feed, to hunt. Killing is just this thing that they do, right? As natural to them as breathin’ is to us. So if you have any hopes of keepin’ your ass alive in an undead world, you hafta devolve to their level. No hesitation. No doubt. Just that ingrained instinct to survive.

So I braced myself and slowly raised my eyes.

First thing I saw was a pair of scuffed, pink sneakers, shoe laces tied so loosely that it seemed the dirt stains on ‘em might be the only thing keeping the bow together. There was a cat-shaped logo on the tongue, so faded that it looked more like the leaves at the bottom of a teacup when you’re scrying.

Above those were the cuffs of a pair of faded jeans that lead up these skinny legs. A wide black belt cinched over a green tunic covering perky tits that looked like they were smugglin’ raisins led to a long, graceful neck.

Before I know it, I’m lookin’ directly into her eyes—Clarice fuckin’ Hudson. For a second, I just seem to freeze. Our eyes are locked together, neither one of us moving or saying a word. I’m positive mine probably look like they’re about to pop right outta my skull, because it feels like my blood pressure decided to hold a convention somewhere back in the sockets.

But hers… hers are dull and glassy, registering no emotion what-so-ever, and they’re so bloodshot that it looks like she’s spent the last thirty-six hours on a nonstop crying jag.

Maybe it’s because she’s not wearing any makeup and doesn’t have her hair all done up, but she looks like a completely different woman than before. Her face is pallid and somehow longer, as if the dark bags under her eyes are so heavy that they’re causin’ the flesh to slide right off her skull. Her cheeks have this sunken look, like they’re caving in or some shit. She looks hollow and used up, nothing more than a withered husk of a woman. I mean, if she’d picked up some dude and he woke up next to her this morning, he probably thought he’d been drunk enough to give a mercy fuck to a terminal cancer patient.

That sweat is just rolling down her face like a reverse fountain of youth. Every drop seems to leech more and more color from her complexion, and it makes her hair stringy and unkempt.

For a fleeting second, I actually feel sorry for the bitch. Can you believe that? I mean, she never asked for this. All she wanted was to pay her bills, maybe get married someday, have a pack of little fuckin’ Hudsons running around. To enjoy life with as little stress and tears as possible. You know… the same things most of us want. But here she was, slack-jawed and as expressionless as the mannequins in the display windows of Debutante Or Bust. Nothing more than an empty shell.

I’d be doing her a favor, right? Setting her free. Just like Ocean had done with the death ritual for her mother. I mean, I wasn’t able to keep this woman from coming back in the first place, but the least I could do was see that she was able to maintain a semblance of dignity in her death, ya know?

All of this went through my mind in the amount of time it took to part those dry, cracked lips of hers, but as soon as I saw the slightest hint of the pearly whites hiding in that maw, it all disappeared like flash paper. Those were the teeth that would rip off chunks of flesh, man. The choppers that would gnaw their way through a throat like a rat chewing its way out of a garbage bag.

And I was fuckin’ pissed.

This raspy wheeze came outta her throat about the same time that I was clicking open the blade on the little knife in my pocket. I knew it wasn’t much, but if I just rammed that fucker straight into her eye and pushed with everything I had… well, maybe it would be enough. Maybe it wouldn’t. But I wasn’t gonna find out by just standing around gawking at her all damn night, now was I?

Just as I was about to slip the knife outta my pants, I saw this single bead of sweat crest her eyebrow, right? It rolled right over that little bump and trickled down into the corner of her eyeball. She raised her hand slowly and kind of rubbed at it with her knuckles as I let that knife drop back down into my pocket.

Why the hell did I do that? Because corpses don’t sweat, mother-fucker, she wasn’t a damn rotter. Not yet, at least. She was just so eaten up with infection that she musta been runnin’ off auxiliary power by this point. Or maybe the bitch was simply exhausted from fuckin’ like a nympho at a sex addict support group all flippin’ night. You’re the detectives… you tell me.

Anyhow, our dashing Ms. Hudson clears her throat, but when she talks her voice still sounds as old and tired as the cosmos anyway. It’s so soft that I have to strain to hear, even in the silence of the mall.

“Uh… we’re, um, closing. Mall opens nine lives.”

She blinked as a confused look crossed her face, then kinda held her head in her hands like they were the only things keeping it from rollin’ right off her neck. “I mean… nine. Mall. Opens. At nine. I’m not, uh… not…”

Tears shimmered in her eyes as her lips tried to form words that her mind refused to share. By this time I’d taken about twelve steps backward. My plan was to just ease my way outta there while she struggled to make sense of the train wreck of thoughts that musta been going on in her head.

“I’m not cistern.” She said this last part with this little under current of pride, ya know? Like she’d dredged the darkest recesses of her brain and came up with the answer to the Daily fuckin’ Double or some shit.

“I’m not cistern! I’m… not… cistern!” There was this weird blend of panic and relief in that hoarse voice, and her face kinda lit up.

And just like that, I was back to feelin’ sorry for the broad again. A part of me wanted to go up and just wrap my arms around her, to hold her so tightly that even she would be able to decipher the message. You’re not alone, honey, I’m here. Hell, man… at that moment, I wanted to protect our poor Clarice just as badly as I wanted to keep Ocean safe and sound. She seemed so lost, frightened, and innocent that it was easy to forget she was actually damned.

I actually even took a step toward her, if you can believe that. I knew the lady was infected. I knew all it would take would be a single tear in my sinus passages. A drop of sweat against my lips if I kissed her forehead like I wanted to. But, I… uh… I had to stop myself, man. I had to keep a safe distance away and try to send this healing, white light to her. Even though I knew, deep down, that my minuscule amounts of energy would never be enough. Not for her. For her it was too late. Ya know?

Our eyes met again, only this time, she was kinda blurry. I was tearing up like a weepy little bitch… right? I tried to say her name, but it came out as kind of a choked little sob at first. It was important for me to let her know that, even if I couldn’t save her, I could at least try to do what I had to with as much respect as possible. And I don’t know… maybe it was because I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Maybe it was because I was coming down. Or maybe it was just the moment, ya know? But I honestly got this feeling that, had we met under different circumstances, I could have really dug spending some quality time with this chick. So yeah… I wanted to say my piece while there was still a slight chance that she might be able to understand.

“Clarice, I…”

She arched an eyebrow and her forehead wrinkled as she cocked her head like a curious puppy. “Know?”

That single word caused my voice to catch on the tight little knot that had formed in the back of my throat, so I tried again. “Clarice…”

“Know?”

Her eyes were scanning my face, right? I could almost feel them taking in every hair of my beard, my heavily lidded eyes… the little scar I got on the bridge of my nose when I was nine and crashed my bike into a tree. And then something changed, like we were standing in a field instead of the entrance to Dollar Bonanza, and a cloud just passed over the sun. Like her features darkened, if that makes any sense.

At first I thought maybe they were starting to shut off the lights in the place, but the racks and aisles at her back were just as brightly lit as when I’d first come up, so it wasn’t some sort of environmental variable. No, this shit was emotional. Physical, too.

It was physical, see, because every muscle in her body seemed to jerk simultaneously. Almost as if the floor had just shifted under her feet. Now she seemed tense and agitated and I thought maybe she was starting to get frustrated again, right? I mean imagine going from a rational, thinking person into someone who can’t even control their own mind. Something like that is bound to be an emotional roller coaster, ya know? So I tried again. “Clarice.”

Know.

At first, I thought it was the same question she’d been repeating, only with a sharper edge to it. But then I noticed how her fingers flexed like she was squeezing invisible stress balls, how her lips were pulled back into this snarl that looked more animal than human. Her pupils got so fuckin’ wide, man, that you could barely see the irises surrounding them.

That’s when I knew some part of her had recognized me. A part of her that was less than thrilled with our last encounter.

“No.”

Then I realized that it wasn’t a plea anymore, it was a flat statement of fact.

“No, no, no, no!”

She was breathing so heavily that her shoulders almost seemed to bob around her eyes and her movements had become less languid. Before, she’d seemed as if the last ounce of her energy was about to leak out through one of her overactive sweat glands, but now everything was done in these quick jerks. If you ever touched an electrical wire to the muscles in a frog’s leg during biology class, then you’ve seen how abrupt the resulting movement is.

And that also means you’ll have a pretty clear picture of how Clarice Hudson was moving.

So I get this bad feeling way down in my soul, right? Almost like I’ve just brushed up against a creature of immeasurable evil on some alternate plane of existence. I got the fight or flight reflex kickin’ into overdrive and my hand has dropped back into my pocket without me even being aware of it.

I was running my finger along the smooth metal, trying to get an estimate of the blade’s length by touch alone when that bitch growls at me, man. Literally fuckin’ growls at me.

My stomach kinda sinks when I realize that my pen knife’s not gonna to cut it, dude. No way that blade is goin’ back far enough to do any major damage, especially if she’s in full on attack mode. Most I could hope for is to blind one eye before she’s scratching that infection right into my blood stream.

So I do what any sane, rational man would. I run like my ass is on fire.

Those giant potted plants, gum ball machines and photo booths, all the stores and merchandise—the shuttered carts that look like little gypsy caravans—all that shit is nothin’ more than a blur around me. My feet are smackin’ against that floor so quickly it almost sounds like a drum roll. Before I even get halfway to the elevator I’m already huffin’ and gaspin’ like a pervert caller. I mean, my idea of exercise in putting in ten frames of Wii Bowling. I ain’t used to this shit, man.

At the same time, though, I know that if I even so much as slow down, I’m a dead man. I can hear that infected bitch behind me, see? I can hear her footsteps clattering through the mall and, from what I can tell, she’s not so much as even… Well, I was gonna say breakin’ a sweat. But we know that’s not true, right? Let’s just say this chick was fast, man. I mean, she’s still growling and it seems like its getting closer by the second. So that fuckin’ tortoise can suck it, man. Slow and steady wins the race, my ass… if that sack of virons wants a piece of me, then she’s gonna have to damn well work for it.

In my mind I got this picture of her leaping from trash cans to the wire benches, scampering up the sides of walls, dropping to all fours with her arms and legs being nothing more than a blur. ‘Course I know that type of shit isn’t really goin’ down, she’s running just the same as I am. But those kind of images have an emotional impact, ya know? They cloud the mind, make ya do stupid shit… stuff like lookin’ over your shoulder when you should be watching where the fuck you’re going.

See, when I was checking to see how close she was, I had just enough time to notice how it seemed her entire face had been devoured by a sneer. Then my shin banged against something that felt like metal teeth and my body’s tumbling forward. My chin bangs against one of the escalator steps hard enough that it cuts right through the fuckin’ skin, man. But I ain’t got time for that shit, I’m scrambling up the escalator, trying to keep moving and get back onto my feet all at the same time… the irony that I was the one on all fours wasn’t lost on me, either.

She musta careened into one of the trash cans at the bottom or something because all of a sudden I hear this loud bang that echoes like a gunshot. I don’t take time to look, though. I’m back to my feet now, right, and I know that every second I’m still alive gets my ass one step closer to my car.

That bitch recovered from her wipeout pretty damn quickly because I can hear her racin’ up the escalators just about the same time that I make it to the top and start hauling ass toward the book store.

Just then this dude seems to pop up outta nowhere. One minute I’m focused on the exit and the next this big dude in a referee shirt is blockin’ the way.

“Hey!” he hollers out to me. “Hey, you! Stop!”

Now this guy looks like he might actually have played some football at some point in his life and I don’t wanna tangle with him. All I wanna do is get to my car, get the fuck away from the mall, and then maybe go home and have a heart attack.

But Mister Referee isn’t budging. In fact, he’s got his knees bent, his hands up like he’s playing forward line or whatever the hell they call it, and he’s bobbing his head back and forth like he’s tryin’ to plot my trajectory.

You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the good witch tells the rugrats they can come outta hiding and all these munchkins start poppin’ up all over the damn place? Well, that’s what that mall was like, man. All of a sudden, you’ve got people pokin’ their heads outta every store, craning their necks in an attempt to see what all the commotion is about. So besides having this crazy broad practically breathing down my neck and a shoe store referee blocking my only means of escape, I now had an audience as well.

I knew I couldn’t turn back, ya know? The second I did that, Clarice fuckin’ Hudson would be all over my ass. And, to tell the truth, I would much rather take my chances with the ref, at least that dude didn’t seem to be infected yet. So I did the only thing I could… I just kept right on running.

Right as the referee was looming before my field of vision, he kinda dropped down lower, into this crouching stance. And, somehow, I knew exactly what he was planning. Maybe I picked it up from all the football my dad used to watch, or maybe it was that survival instinct I mentioned earlier. Shit, I don’t know how I knew, but I was absolutely certain that within two or three more steps, he was gonna try to clip me at the knees and take me down. And, as you can imagine, that was something I wanted to avoid at all costs.

You know what they used to call me when I was a kid, man? Toad. Know why they called me that? Well, I was in better shape back then and even though I was always the last one picked for teams, I was also the last one standing when it came to dodge ball.

Fuckin’ dodge ball man, what kind of sadist designed that particular piece of equipment? I mean, it’s bad enough that you’ve got these over-inflated projectiles whizzing at you. But to texture them like that? That shits stings worse than a patch of nettle, man, and I’ve always had this aversion to pain. I developed this knack, see, for just jumping right over that cruel, red ball. I’d hop into the air, spread my legs wide, and it would zip right under me. This same particular skill set also came in handy when playing Leap Frog. Which is where I actually got the nickname from.

So, even though it had been a couple of decades since I last had to call upon this gift, that’s exactly what I did. He made a dive for my legs, just as I knew he would, and at just the right moment, I launched myself into the air, pushed off his back with the palms of my hands, and leap-frogged right over that mother-fucker.

Now, Newton tells us that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted on by an outside force. Well, Mr. Referee was the object in motion, and Clarice fuckin’ Hudson? She was the outside force, man.

I looked back just long enough to see the two of them crash into one another like the Keystone Cops or something. They were all tangled up on the ground, arms and legs flyin’ everywhere, and that’s when I knew I was gonna make it. By the time she detangled herself, I’d be halfway to the car. No way she could cover that much ground in such a short amount of time.

So I’m running down the little connector hallway that leads from the mall to the parking garage and they’ve already closed the doors that kind of divide the corridor into separate little pieces. I remember thinking that if they’d locked them as well, I was fucked, but when I threw myself against that metal push bar thingy, the door flew wide open and then banged shut behind me.

By the time I’d run through the second one, I’ve got this stitch in my side. Feels like someone keeps jabbing me with a knife and I was running with my hand pressed against my ribs, favoring the other side when I throw myself against the doors and what have you. But then it occurs to me… that bitch isn’t chasing me anymore.

If she was, I’d hear her busting through those doors as well. But everything back there is silent, so I think that maybe I can slow down for a second and get my wind back, ya know? I mean, I’m close enough now that I could bolt to the car and be locked inside before she even made it through the second set of doors. Hell, for all I knew she was beatin’ the hell outta Referee for getting in her way, and since I have a kind of early warning system, her chances of a sneak attack are nil.

Now, part of me felt like laughing because I’d done it. I’d really done it. I’d stared the infection in the face and emerged unscathed. I was alive, disease free, and knew that the next time I saw Ms. Clarice fuckin’ Hudson I’d be better prepared. So yeah, those endorphins were going crazy and I just wanted to cackle with relief, but all I could really do was stand there with my hands on my knees and pant as I struggled to catch my breath.

After about a minute or so, I decided not to push my luck. Best to get while the gettin’ is good. So I start walkin’ down the hall and I pass this little inset door that has a sign on it that reads The Brass Candle, which reminded me that I needed to pick up more candles and incense at some point during the next couple days. Funny what will go through your mind in the wake of a super intense experience, isn’t it? I mean, here I was, just moments after being chased through an empty mall by a plague-ridden sack of infection, and I was thinkin’ about meditation and shit.

Anyway, I was debating the merits of Nag Champa versus sandalwood as I pushed open the glass door and stepped into the parking garage. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention, but the garage at the mall is like a rapist’s wet dream. You got these little pools of light, some of which are flickerin’ like they’re about to wink right outta existence, and a little ambient glow from the rest of the city… but for the most part shadows just cluster everywhere in these tight little packs, man. It’s so dark that someone could be lurkin’ just behind the silhouette of that van. Or behind one of those concrete support columns. Or even the big green box that emits a hum so low it almost seems like it’s comin’ from somewhere inside your own head.

On top of all this darkness, the security cameras are mostly for show. I’m sure a few of ‘em might still work, but—with the economy bein’ what it is and all—management has cut a few corners to keep the overhead down, ya know? No, man… it’s true. I know this cat who made a killing last Christmas. Dude learned the security schedule and between the times when they were makin’ their rounds, he was sliding a slim jim into windows, poppin’ the locks, grabbin’ the bags of goodies from the back seat, and a week later returned all that loot for cash. If those cameras were on the up and up, they woulda nabbed his ass within the first fifteen minutes. He did this shit all weekend long, see?

But I’m gettin’ away from the point, again. Said point being that I’d just stepped into this gloomy, under-secured area when I heard this bang behind me. Now, it wasn’t like the double doors I’d crashed through, those had a distinctive boom-like quality when they flew open. No, this was similar but sounded more solid, ya know? Like the door was forged from a single piece of metal rather than being hollow inside.

I kinda spin around to see what’s up just in time to see the door in one of those alcoves bouncing off the wall like it was trying to close itself again. There’s a blur of movement streakin’ outta that door and I only have enough time to think oh, shit before that blur is crashin’ into me.

Bitch hit me so hard that all the air kinda whooshed outta my lungs. She’s got her claws hooked onto my shirt and we’re falling backwards, and when I hit that concrete it was like everything went black for a split second. If it would knocked me plum out, I probably wouldn’t be here talkin’ to ya today, man. But it was more like reality disappeared just for the amount of time it took for my head to ricochet off that concrete.

Clarice fuckin’ Hudson is all over me, man. Her eyes had this wild look like she was hopped up on meth or something and spit was just sprayin’ outta her mouth as she half-growled, half-shouted words that woulda made a sailor blush. And she’s yankin’ me up by my shoulders and slamming me back down like she was playin’ a game of jacks and my head was the ball.

Every time my skull cracked against that floor, I got these flash bursts of light that exploded in my field of vision. Then that darkness would come surgin’ back in like the waves of a dark sea. But the pain cut through it all and pulled me back just in time for my head to be slammed down again.

By this time, I got this ringin’ in my ears and everything else doesn’t exist. There’s just me, this crazed bitch straddling my body, and a floor that even I can tell is starting to get a little sticky.

Because I’m bleedin’, that’s why, asshole. The human body wasn’t designed to withstand this shit. I mean, it was like that whore was tryin’ to break through the concrete with nothin’ more than my head. And I can feel these tiny pebbles and pieces of grit grinding into the wound, tearin’ away at the crags of meat each time my head smashed down again.

And that infective cunt is kinda chanting now—die, die, die, die.

There was no doubt in what was left of my mind, man, that’s exactly what was going to happen. In an empty parking garage, without even the benefit of security bein’ able to see what was going down, I was gonna have my head caved in by the snarling animal on top of me.

And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Ocean felt the words swell inside her. At first, nothing more than a nervous flutter in her stomach and heart, but those undulations formed a pressure that seemed to push out against her skin, as if her body were filling with escaping gas. At the same time, she grew lightheaded and the world rushed away from her at a speed much too great for her to follow. She was going to do it, she was really going to do it. Whether or not Gauge and Levi believed her no longer mattered, she simply wanted to expose that bastard Corduroy for the monster he truly was. To show him that he simply couldn’t get away with what he’d tried to do.

As Ocean drew in a deep breath, she couldn’t help stealing a glance in his direction. Though her eyes appeared glazed by anger, a crooked grin skewed her face. She wanted to stick her tongue out at him, to show him her middle finger again, or simply spit in his general direction. For some reason, he didn’t seem quite so big now, in fact, he looked like an empty husk of a man, just some pathetic old relic who was so ugly and deformed that he had to force himself on young girls. Though half his stature, inside Ocean felt as if she towered over this wretched creature and, if she were perfectly honest with herself, she had Levi to thank for that.

Seeing the other woman stand her ground against Gauge’s anger, refusing to back down, had ignited something within the girl. Though she had wiled away countless hours wishing that she was tall and strong like her beautiful counterpart, dreaming that it was her arms wrapped around Gauge through the long hours of the night, she’d never really viewed the woman as anything other than competition. True, Levi was kind and funny and probably could’ve been almost like an older sister to Ocean if Gauge hadn’t been wedged between them. And so the younger girl had always kept her distance, refusing to get too close to the very woman whose heart she planned on breaking someday.

It was ironic that now, with all the fear and uncertainty of the morning coming to a head, that Ocean should find a mentor in her. That she was able to draw strength from the olive-skinned enchantress in a way she’d never been able to with anyone else. This same strength is what allowed her to look Corduroy directly in the eye as she parted her lips to speak.

At the same time the words formed in her throat, Gauge pulled his hand away from Ocean’s shoulder and drew it back into a tight fist as he glowered at the woman who stood defiantly across from him.

“You don’t wanna do that.”

Corduroy’s voice cut through Baby’s keening like a commandment from some ancient demon, and Ocean felt them hit her with an almost physical force. In her mind, she’d expected him to plead with his eye or perhaps slink away when he realized what she was about to do. She’d hoped to see him humiliated and defeated, broken down and battered by her impending allegations.

But he didn’t seem worried in the least bit. In fact, it was almost like this new threat was more of a warning. As if he knew what the outcome would be if she told the others now.

Was he that secure in his place here? Did he have some secret power over Gauge and Levi that Ocean wasn’t privy to? The surety and courage that had previously made Ocean feel as if she could rip bricks from the wall with her bare hands, now dissipated as quickly as the steam from the pot of boiling water.

Deep down inside, she didn’t want to leave. Nor did she want the others, even Levi, to think that she was a liar. She remembered how she used to feel when her mother would accuse her of making stuff up, how she’d feel so small and insignificant for days afterward. Even if they didn’t force her to pack her things and go, she’d still have to live with that withering feeling, the illogical guilt for something she hadn’t even done. Could Gauge ever love someone like that? Someone whom he thought was petty and spiteful and vindictive?

All of those thoughts flew through Ocean’s mind at once, in the amount of time it took for Gauge to snap his head in Corduroy’s direction. At first, he seemed to challenge the burnt man with the way he puffed out his chest and tilted his head, but then he looked at the fist that was cocked back to his shoulder, then at Levi, and then back to Corduroy.

Gauge’s hand relaxed and his entire body seemed to slump forward. With a sigh, he rubbed his eyes and shook his head like a man awaking from a dream.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t want to do that.”

Gauge’s eyes shifted to Levi again and then he closed them lightly before sighing again.

“Come on, Cord. What do you say you and me go get the tools out of the south tunnel? We’ll get that new latrine dug.”

Corduroy grunted a reply but his gaze never strayed from Ocean. Was it just her imagination or was there something smug buried beneath all those scars? Something that knew the power that had infused her was now no more tangible than the earthy smells of breakfast that filled the room. She cast her eyes at her feet and didn’t look up again until he and Gauge had both walked silently out of the room.

“Sorry about that.” Levi mumbled. “Gauge can be a bit of an ass at times. He’s been through a lot.”

Ocean could still hear Baby’s warbling cries from the other room and her muscles longed to go to the infant boy, but something kept her rooted to the spot as firmly as if she were one of the wooden supports sunk into the floor. Besides, Levi was Baby’s mom… why shouldn’t she occasionally tend to the child’s needs? Not that Ocean minded taking care of Baby, she loved feeling his tiny body kick and squirm against her own and hearing the gurgling laugh when she’d make funny faces at him was enough to make her heart feel so full that it seemed it would shatter into a thousand pieces.

But on this particular morning, Ocean was tired. More tired than she’d ever been, as though all of her energy had leaked out when she’d come crashing down from the height of courage and confidence. Now, she simply felt beaten and spiritually bruised. If she held Baby, his tears would coax out her own ‘wasted water’ and she was so very, very tired of crying. All she wanted was some time to think, to piece things together… and thinking of her mama earlier certainly hadn’t helped things either.

“I am grateful, don’t get me wrong. I mean, if Gauge hadn’t come along when he did… Well, he literally saved my life. He’s taken care of me all these years. Sometimes, though, his temper gets a little out of hand. That’s all.”

Levi grabbed a thick piece of cloth from a hook on the wall and walked over to the fire. Wrapping the fabric around the handle of the pot, she lifted it from the tripod and carried it back to the long table that lined one wall.

“You hungry?” she asked hopefully.

Ocean shook her head silently.

“No… I don’t suppose any of us really are, huh? If Cord hadn’t come along when he did… well, I’m not sure how all this would’ve turned out.”

The mention of his name caused memories of the attack to crash against Ocean’s mind and the waves of emotion that followed made her swoon as the room grew blurry and dim.

“Hey… you okay?”

Levi’s voice sounded as muffled as if she were on the other side of the wall Ocean leaned against for support.

“Just… hot… in here. Hard to breathe.”

Levi took Ocean’s elbow gently and guided her toward the door. Her other hand pressed lightly on the young girl’s back, as if afraid she might topple at any moment.

“Come on… let’s go sit at the table. It’s cooler in there.”

As they left the kitchen the sound of Baby’s crying grew louder and inwardly Ocean cringed. She knew she should be in the nursery, that she should be rocking and singing to the little one, perhaps changing the cloth that was swaddled around his waist. But there was still something within her that demanded she take some time for herself and she found she was powerless to resist its impulses. Why the hell doesn’t Levi just go and take care of Baby? Why did she have to act like she couldn’t even hear the infant shrieking?

Levi helped Ocean onto one of the wooden chairs and then pulled one out for herself.

“Baby…” Ocean said. “Baby’s crying.”

Levi glanced at the nursery and shrugged her shoulders.

“It’ll shut up soon enough. Right now, we have to worry about you.”

Though it wasn’t the first time she’d heard Levi say things like that, Ocean couldn’t help but to gawk at the woman with wide eyes. Maybe it was because her own mother had turned into such a cruel, callused bitch, but she simply couldn’t comprehend how someone could hear their child cry and brush it away so easily. Why in God’s name couldn’t Levi show a little warmth and compassion to the very life she’d brought into the world?

“Anyhow, like I was saying, Cord has this way of keeping Gauge in check for the most part. It’s weird really.” Levi had raised her voice to be heard over the wailing infant and twirled a lock of dark hair around her finger lazily. For Ocean, this was the last straw. She pushed her chair away from the table so abruptly that the legs grated over the brick with a squeal and stormed across the room.

Baby’s nursery and the kitchen shared a wall, though the infant’s room was no bigger than the interior of one of the cars that used to make up Ocean’s home. As such, the the doorway was much smaller than the entrance to the kitchen and she had to stoop to keep from banging her head. Once in the room, she marched immediately to a crib that seemed to defy gravity, with bulges of silver tape and coils of wire around wood that looked about to crack at any moment. Baby lay on a long piece of foam covered with a thin blanket, his tiny hands and feet pummeled the air, his red face screwed into an expression that looked like a walnut.

“Shhhh… it’s okay… everything’s okay. Ocean’s here, Baby. Yes, she is. Ocean’s here.”

The infant was always heavier than she expected, no matter how many times she lifted him, and Ocean hoisted the child to her hip with a grunt. She sniffed the air but couldn’t smell any traces of poop and the cloth wrapped between his legs seemed dry. Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she patted Baby’s back, making his cries seem as if they were rapidly starting and stopping, and continued whispering in his ear.

“It’s okay. I’m here, Baby. I’m here.”

Within ten minutes, Baby’s crying had subsided and his small thumb was wedged into his mouth. She walked out of the nursery carefully, so as not to trip when going through the doorway, and returned to her place at the table.

“What’s wrong with him anyway?” she asked as she rocked back and forth in her chair.

“Who? Baby? I don’t know. You’re the one who got it to stop crying.”

Ocean stiffened, but somehow managed to keep the irritation she felt from seeping into her voice.

“No… Corduroy.”

“Oh, him. What do you mean?”

Ocean knew she’d have to pick her words carefully. Part of her wanted to know more about the man, as if by having knowledge about his life she could somehow have a modicum of power over him. She knew it didn’t make any sense and there was no way she could learn anything about him that could give her any sort of leverage. But at the same time she felt compelled to ask. The trick was in not seeming to eager, to make it appear as if she were just making small talk.

“Well, to start with, how did he get burned?”

“Says he doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember a lot about life before… you know, all of this. Gauge thinks it was the fire. That maybe it boiled his brain or something.”

Levi laughed as she leaned forward and propped her chin in her hands.

“Saying it like that, it sounds kind of silly. But to do that much damage to his body, it would have had to have been one hell of a fire. Hard to tell what something like that would do to someone’s mind. That’s why he doesn’t eat meat, by the way. The burns. They’re in his throat as well as on the outside. He just can’t swallow anything that’s not very soft.”

Ocean ran the tip of her finger along Baby’s cheek, feeling the tickle of the downy fuzz that lined his soft skin.

“Is that why he has those fits, you think? Because of the fire, I mean?”

“Probably.” Levi shrugged. “Maybe there’s something to Gauge’s brain boiling theory after all.”

Ocean held her breath and looked down at the child bundled in her arms. Baby’s diminutive fist clutched her shirt and his nearly transparent eyebrows arched with each slow breath he took. When he was sleeping, Ocean was content to hold the infant forever. She loved looking down on his round face and bowed lips that for some reason reminded her of the statue back home. Her father had told her once that it was called a cherub and that, back when the world was still alive, water had flowed from the bucket tucked under its arm and collected in a pool at its feet. You weren’t allowed to drink the water, but that was okay, because back then if you were thirsty, all you had to do was turn something called a spigot and fresh, clean water would come right out of your walls. If anyone else had told her this, Ocean would have suspected they were teasing her. But not her father…

For what was about the millionth time, she wished that he were there, that she would look up and see him striding out of the north tunnel with his coarse, reddish beard and blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. He would take care of her just as he always had. Corduroy wouldn’t so much as look twice at her and would certainly never dream of laying his grotesque hands on her.

“He scares me sometimes.” Ocean admitted as she watched Baby sleep. “Does he ever scare you?”

Levi wrinkled her brow and leaned back in her seat.

“Cord? No… he’s like a brother to us. Actually, I can’t imagine living down here without him. I know all those burns probably creep you out a little, but he’s really nice once you get to know him.”

Levi’s answer told Ocean everything she needed to know. It was good that she hadn’t blurted out the truth, that her intended conversation had been cut short by Gauge thinking Corduroy’s comment had been intended for him. She’d just have to make sure that they were never alone together and a witness was always close by. But still… some of Levi’s answers had planted seeds of curiosity in her fertile mind.

She thought about her father again. What was it he used to say when he’d watch the rotters from rooftops? To beat your enemy, you’ve got to understand them. She’d heard that so many times that memories of the phrase sometimes crept into her dreams.

“Wonder what’s taking the guys so long. It’s not like they had to go far for those tools.”

“Maybe Gauge is taking time to calm down.’

Ocean’s voice was as soft as Baby’s snores. Mentally, she was going over the night before once again, trying to recall if she’d seen any tools once she’d opened the heavy, metal door. She couldn’t remember anything that looked as if it could be used to dig a latrine… but what if they were in one of the other little rooms? One like the door with the barred window…

Had she left any clues behind, anything which would have betrayed the fact the someone had been in there last night? Maybe she’d left footprints in dust or dropped something as she rushed out?

She pulled Baby more tightly to her and closed her eyes as she tried to will away the shivers that tickled the back of her neck.

Was there evidence? Would they know?

“And where the hell did Pebble run off to, anyway?”

Levi’s question merged so seamlessly into Ocean’s thoughts that at first the young girl was confused as to why she was wondering about Pebble at a time like this, but then she realized the voice hadn’t been her own, after all.

“Uh, he was looking for something earlier, I think.”

Levi bolted out of her chair as a stern frown pulled creases into her cheeks.

“I swear to God… he better not have went into the tunnels.”

Without another word to Ocean, Levi darted out of the room and left the young girl staring blankly into space.

Maybe Pebble had gone into the room. Maybe Gauge and Corduroy had found him there and that’s why they were taking so long. Had the little boy been given the same warnings she’d been? Ocean was positive that he had. After all, what she’d seen last night would have to remain hidden from him as well, wouldn’t it? If Ocean herself couldn’t quite come to grips with what it all meant, then surely a child would be even more confused.

And, if he had slipped through the forbidden door in search of whatever was missing, there was a chance that any trace of Ocean’s presence may have already been wiped away. If he didn’t realize what was behind the barred door, he’d tear through the place just like he’d done searching through his own things.

But why would he look there to begin with? If the little hallway lined with doors was truly off limits, then there would be no reason for him to think of searching there, not in a place he’d never been before. It just wouldn’t make any sense.

Ocean realized she was grasping at straws in an attempt to relieve some of the weight that made her heart heavy. She forced herself to take a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then exhaled through her nose. Though she didn’t want to admit it, there was truly nothing she could do. They would either find evidence that she’d broken Gauge’s cardinal rule and knew the secret that was hidden away in that musty little corridor… or they wouldn’t.

Either way, it was out of her hands. Worrying until her head was throbbing wouldn’t change any consequences that may or may not stem from her disobedience. As hard as it was, she had to put that little room out of her mind and focus on something that she had more control over—Corduroy.

Was it really possible that she could completely avoid the man? A lot of times, life underground crept along at a slow and leisurely pace. Without the sun moving across the sky to help keep track of time, they simply ate when they were hungry and slept when they were tired. Everyone had their own chores to attend to: cooking, washing, mending clothes that had become ripped and torn, and knocking chunks of soot from the pipe that channeled the smoke from their cooking fire out of the chamber. These tasks usually took a minimal amount of time to complete and then they’d be forced to find ways to amuse themselves.

Pebble had his toys. Gauge and Corduroy spent a lot of time playing a game that seemed to involve moving miniature horses and castles around a board. Levi always had her nose in books bloated with mildew, and Ocean, of course, had Baby.

There were also times when it seemed like everything that could go wrong, did. The gutters that they’d fastened to the walls of the tunnels would collapse beneath the weight of the rain that poured through the drains. They would suddenly realize that they were nearly out of wood at the same time that Pebble’s antics would send cans of food clattering to Heaven’s floor. During these times, their little home would bustle with activity, like an anthill that had just been crushed under the foot of a passing rotter, they would dart off in all directions, each person tending to a separate minor emergency on their own.

How long would it be before Pebble, Levi, and Gauge were busy in the tunnels while she and Corduroy remained behind? A week? A month? Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. Only this time, he would be more wary of the young girl and would, undoubtedly, be more prepared.

To beat your enemy, you’ve got to understand them.

Ocean’s gaze drifted to the entrance of the south tunnel. This time her mind wasn’t preoccupied with what might be transpiring further within its depths. This time, she was looking at the neat stacks of folded clothes bordering a mound of blankets on the floor. The pair of muddy boots that were held together by the same silver tape as Baby’s crib. The bulging duffel bag with it’s rope strap.

Corduroy’s things.

His secrets.

I bet he remembers more than he lets on, Ocean thought. I bet that son of a bitch remembers just fine.

She slid out of the chair with her back arched so as not to jostle the sleeping infant in her arms. The last thing she needed was for Baby to wake up again. There was always a chance, albeit a slim one, that his cries would draw the others back to the main chamber. She had to move as fluidly as possible, to be as patient as she’d been back when she’d had to trap flies for food.

Raising Baby to her shoulder, she settled his bottom in the crook of her left arm and his head lolled against her neck, then she crossed the room as silently as the ghost that Gauge blamed all the missing items on. Her footsteps were nothing more than a soft shuffle as she crossed the space between the table and Corduroy’s bedroll.

She stood there for a moment and craned her neck as her eyes peered into the darkness of the south tunnel. She watched for anything that seemed to be moving down there, listening for voices wrapped up in conversation that would grow louder the closer they came, but there was nothing more than the plinking of condensation dripping from the rounded ceiling.

Ocean lowered herself to a squat and balanced on her toes in front of Corduroy’s duffel bag.

To beat your enemy, you’ve got to understand them.

With one final glance at the tunnel, she pulled the zipper back as slowly as she could. The air in the chamber suddenly felt as thin as it had in the hot kitchen and she took quick, shallow breaths. With a trembling hand, she reached into Corduroy’s bag and searched through its contents like a blind person.

Her fingertips felt something coarse and thick, something else that was softer than anything she’d ever touched… and then a texture she knew all too well. It was so slick and cool that her fingers seemed to glide over its surface as if it were made of ice, but that smoothness quickly gave way to a dip that felt rough and jagged.

She jerked her hand out of the bag and stared at the little glass monkey with the missing tail. Pebble’s monkey. The one she’d given him on that first night and probably what he’d been searching frantically for earlier. But what was it doing in Corduroy’s bag? Why would a grown man take a toy from a little—

The color drained from Ocean’s face and her eyes grew wide as the realization hit her. It was Pebble’s monkey, true. But it hadn’t always been, before that first night it had been her monkey.

She plunged her hand back into Corduroy’s bag again and yanked out handfuls of belongings, no longer worrying about everything being in the exact same place it had been before she started snooping around. At first there was nothing more than the burned man’s belongings. Folded pieces of paper with words scrawled across them—ink so faded that the words seemed to be disappearing—a pair of rusty scissors, balls of twine, old shirts…Then, as she neared the bottom of the large bag, everything changed. Now she was pulling out tins of food, the can opener that had taken them nearly two weeks to replace, the grimy rags she’d been wearing when Gauge had first rescued her, and every single pair of her underwear that had ever gone missing.

The room seemed to close in on her as she saw all of her personal items mixed in among his. She teetered on the balls of her feet and had to put one hand on the cool floor to keep from toppling over. Now she truly understood, the man was so completely and utterly obsessed with her that he felt compelled to steal all of these objects. All of these things she’d touched or worn or possessed, he stockpiled them all in some sort of personal shrine.

Her father’s voice echoed through her mind again… To beat your enemy, you’ve got to understand them…

How could she understand someone who was not only dangerous, but obviously insane? How could she ever hope to beat someone who would be as relentless and focused as a rotter on the trail of the living?

Ocean realized that she would never be able to simply avoid him. He would stalk her like a predator, would always be lurking in the shadows or just around the corner, waiting for just the right moment to pounce again.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

So I could feel consciousness slippin’ away from me, right? Now that’s an odd feeling. It’s almost like you haven’t slept for days and keep nodding off in the middle of a movie that you’re watchin’, only you’re playing the leading role in the film and you’re tryin’ to come to grips with how they can just write you outta the scene like that. Sure, you feel the panic eatin’ away at ya, and somewhere deep down inside, all these regrets and misgivings come bubblin’ up. All these things you woulda liked to have done or seen. All those missed opportunities. At the same time, you’re kinda detached from it all, like maybe the last time your head was pounded on the pavement, it jarred your soul loose and set it adrift in your mind.

This part of me watched everything through a hazy veil. Clarice fuckin’ Hudson was waverin’ in and out of focus, but I could still see the change that came over her. The snarl just kinda melted away from her face and her mouth hung open like a trapdoor. That weird energy that seemed to sizzle in her eyes, man? Gone. She raised her hands up in front of her face and just sat there on my chest, blinking at them like she couldn’t understand what they were doing attached to her wrists.

Her eyes flickered down to me and I’m sure I was moaning or something, and I was definitely trying to wriggle out from under her while pressing my hand into the wet, bloody tangles of my hair. I wasn’t so much tryin’ to stop the bleedin’ as I was protecting the wound. Even teetering on the brink of unconsciousness, see, I knew that if just a drop of her sweat or spit fell into that gash I was as dead as if she woulda continued bashing my brains out.

So, anyhow, Clarice fuckin’ Hudson kinda scrambles backward until she’s sittin’ on the little curb where the parking garage meets the entrance to the mall. At some point she’d managed to get some of my blood on her hands and she kinda absentmindedly wipes the sweat from her face and leaves this big ‘ole smear across her forehead and eye. She looks like she’s about ready to turn on the waterworks again. I’m staggerin’ to my feet, right, ‘cause at this point, I just want to get as far away from that mall as humanly possible. Shit, I woulda set up base camp on Pluto if I coulda. At the same time, I don’t really wanna turn my back on this bitch, ‘cause she might snap back into infectious mode at any second, ya know?

About this time, a security guard kinda steps outta the shadows, right? I don’t know how fuckin’ long he’d been there, but I got to assume that he just showed up on the scene. Otherwise, he woulda pulled her off of me before she turned my head into Hamburger Helper. I’m still a little woozy, but I’m tryin’ to focus on this dude because I feel like I need something to anchor me to the here and now. Something concrete, that I know is real.

That’s when I notice that it’s the same guard who was starin’ me down on the day that I first started this whole Clarice Hudson chapter of my life. He’s got the sleeves of his blue shirt pushed up and on his forearm I can see this scar, right? Not like from a knife wound or anything. More like tribal branding, if ya get my drift. The ridge of pink flesh is in the shape of a figure eight, and that’s mainly what I’m focused on, because somehow that seems like the most real thing in the world. It was like his scarification was the only thing keeping me up on my feet. Like I said earlier, it’s weird what the mind will seize on when given half a chance.

By this time, Clarice is bawlin’ her eyes out and she’s kinda looking from her bloody hands, to me, and then back to her hands again. And the entire time, she’s just whisperin’ so softly that you can barely hear her over the rush of traffic down on the boulevard. “Why? Why? Why?”

Me, I know the score right away. She’s trying to come to terms with what’s happening to her, right? I figure she was, on some level, aware of everything that had been going down. She saw herself chasing me, saw her frenzied attack… but couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it. Kinda like she was a passenger in her own brain.

That guard, though? All he knows is that there’s this woman sitting on the curb of his mall with blood streaked across her face and lookin’ like she might be in shock or some shit. And, even though she’s questioning her inability to control her own actions, he interprets it entirely differently, man.

His hand drops to the pepper spray on that shiny belt of his and you didn’t have to be dimensionally unstable to see what was going to happen next. In his mind, he just stumbled across an attempted rape or mugging, and I’m the scumbag responsible for this crying, disheveled woman.

“You!” he hollers. “Don’t move!”

His voice echoed through the parking garage like it was God himself barking out the command. But do you think I’m about to stand there and try to explain all this shit away? You think he’d believe it was Clarice Hudson who fuckin’ attacked me? No way, dude. He’s makin’ his own flawed conclusions based on the limited set of evidence before him.

So what did I do? I take off like the devil himself was after my soul, man. I’m headin’ for that spiral down ramp because I know if I go for my car this dude will have my license plate number, right? And I can hear him callin’ out behind me.

“Stop! Stop right there!”

I glance back over my shoulder, just to see if he’s givin’ chase, but he’s back there speaking into his radio. The way I see it, this little party is about to get a lot more guests. By the time I make it to ground level, I’m positive there’ll be a shit load of other guards waiting to nab my ass. The cops will probably be along shortly as well, right?

I’m running down the ramp and thinking about how royally fucked I am, all because I couldn’t keep my ass at home and lay low like Steel told me. At the same time, I’m thinkin’ that there has to be some way outta this shit, ya know, because if I get picked up then there ain’t nobody out there looking out for Ocean. For mankind as a whole, even. So I do the first thing that comes to mind without really puttin’ too much thought into it. Just acting on impulse, ya know?

See, what happened is that I vaulted over the side of that ramp like I was an Olympic gymnast on the pommel horse, man. My legs and torso swing over the side and, next thing I know, I’m fallin’ through the air. Of course, this coulda turned out really bad. I mean, I wasn’t that high up, but all it woulda taken was for me to land the wrong way and my ankle woulda snapped as easily as a Dollar Bonanza pencil.

As fate would have it, I ended up in a dumpster piled almost to overflowing with crushed cardboard boxes, packing peanuts, and books with their covers ripped off.

You can imagine, I didn’t take a lot of time pondering how lucky I’d been to have such a cushy landing, fuck no. I scramble outta that dumpster with these little bits of Styrofoam clingin’ to my hair and beard, and hit the ground running.

By this time, I can hear police sirens in the distance, right, and I can tell by the Doppler effect that they’re gettin’ closer every second. There’s no doubt in my mind that a description of me is being broadcast to every flatfoot and prowler in the city. APB, BOLO—whatever the hell you guys are calling it these days—I’m positive that if I stay on the streets, I’ll be in cuffs within the hour.

I duck back in this alley, right? I just wanna catch my breath for a sec and try to figure this shit out, but that siren I mentioned earlier has been joined by another and I can still see the mall from where I’m at, ya know? Hangin’ around that place would be stupid on a stick, so I keep moving, kinda peekin’ around corners before dashin’ across streets and slipping into the next alleyway.

The back of my head is throbbing, I wince every time my feet slap against the pavement, and I’m feeling kinda sick to my stomach now. But I gotta keep right on running. No other choice.

By the time I’d gone six or seven blocks though, I’m spending more time crouched down behind dumpsters and pressing into shadows than I am actually makin’ tracks. Seems like there’s a cop car on just about every street and they’re cruisin’, nice and slow like. Checkin’ out passersby, that kind of shit.

So what do ya do when the fuzz thinks you’re a would-be rapist and have laid out the dragnet? Where could you possibly go to find even a modicum of safety. Me?

I head down to Price Square.

Because that’s where all the homeless are, that’s why. I figure once I’m there, I’ll just kinda blend in, ya know? I mean—let’s face it—all of the disenfranchised basically look alike, and they all look like me.

Gettin’ there was a problem, though. I was sure one of you cops were gonna see me darting across the street, sooner or later, or you’d start searchin’ the alleys once I didn’t turn up on the avenues. If I could just make it to where I had in mind, I knew I’d be home free, but I had no earthly idea how the fuck I was gonna get there.

Now, this is the point in the story where Ocean helps me, if ya can dig that. Ironic, no? Here I am doin’ all this shit in an attempt to spare her a life of suffering and she comes to my aid.

How so? The sewers, man!

I think about Gauge and Corduroy leading her through that network of tunnels with those rotters just overhead, and the undead bastards never had a clue. So I find me a manhole cover back in one of the alleys and dig out this piece of metal from a dumpster. It took a lot of grunting and muscle, but I finally pried that cover from the ground and climbed down the rungs of the ladder.

The sewers in Ocean’s time are dry, man. There’s still a lingering odor, but there hasn’t been a toilet flushed in years. Me, I’m not so lucky. I’m sloshin’ through brown water up to my knees and I have to continually yank my feet outta the sludge that’s built up on the bottom. Place smelled like one of those outhouses they put at campgrounds, after the summer sun has been bakin’ everything inside, and I keep reaching out for the walls to keep from slippin’ in this shit. The walls are pretty damn nasty themselves, they’re slick and gooey and there’s these little things that look like stalactites… only they feel kinda like jelly, or congealed snot. I didn’t even want to think about what I was putting my hands into.

And, damn, it was dark down there, man. I basically had to focus on these rectangular slices of light from where the glow of the city filtered through the drains and walk until I’d reached one. I’d peer out through the drain, try to figure out where the fuck I was from a very limited view, and then make my way to the next one.

I musta been down in those sewers for close to forty-five minutes, man., but eventually I figured I was pretty close to Price Square and should get topside again. I was startin’ to feel lightheaded and my heart was just pattering away in my chest. At the same time, it seemed like it was gettin’ harder and harder to form a complete thought. I didn’t know if this was from my head injury or from breathin’ in clouds of methane… but, either way, I didn’t like the options. If I passed out down there, man, I probably woulda drowned in raw sewage. They woulda found my body pressed against the grating at the treatment plant and it would been all she wrote for ‘ole Bosley Coughlin.

I ended up scaring the hell outta this group of Asian kids when I popped that manhole cover and pulled my sorry ass back onto the streets. This was over by the public library. Not that small annex over on 32nd, but the main one that has that fountain going at all hours of the day. You better believe I headed straight for those gurgling cascades of water, man. I stood under that sculpture of a cherub with the stream comin’ outta the cask tucked beneath his arm while all the muck that had coated me tainted the water brown.

After I thought I’d washed most of the shit off of me—and I’m being literal there—I made my way to New Horizons. It’s this little shelter about a block or so away from Price Square, see? They took me in, bandaged my head, put some hot food in my belly, gave me a pocket-sized Bible, and put me up in a cot for the night. You better believe that laying down never felt so good. Every muscle in my body ached and even though I’d had a bath of sorts in the fountain, I could still smell the lingering stench of sewage in my nose. I kept thinkin’ about how none of this ever woulda happened if I’d just listened to Steel, ya know? I mean, the dude may be something of a prick, but when it comes to this underworld stuff, he really knows his business.

Now, I’d be lying if I tried to say that I wasn’t also thinkin’ about Clarice fuckin’ Hudson, man. While I listened to the street people snore and mutter all around me, I kinda replayed the entire scene over in my mind. Not the chase or the attack, but those brief moments in the mall when I’d actually found myself feeling sorry for her. When we stood there facing each other like two opposing generals who’d realized the enemy wasn’t quite the monster propaganda made them out to be.

And, as I pulled that scratchy blanket up to my chin, I made a promise to myself—I would never underestimate that bitch again.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Ocean could feel Corduroy’s gaze like a hot coal on the back of her neck. He was seated at the table in the main chamber, leaning back in the chair as if he had nothing better to do than watch her pace back and forth, Baby crying on her shoulder. She tried to make sure she was behind the wall of the nursery as much as possible, away from his line of sight. Even then she knew he was still out there, sitting at that damn table like some sort of sentinel.

He knows I was there, somehow he knows, I can just tell.

Baby’s screeches made her eardrums feel as if they were about to shatter so she bounced lightly on the balls of her feet while rubbing his back gently. She closed her eyes and tried to sing to him, but her mind kept returning to the night before and she stumbled over the words.

The door with the barred window. The little room beyond, newspapers wadded into tight little balls and…

“Shhh… it’s okay, Baby. It’s okay, honey.”

Somehow, Ocean felt more like she was talking to herself than the squirming child pressed against her body. She wanted so badly to just forget everything that had happened since last night, to pretend that it had all been a dream. But how could she? Even if she could somehow push Corduroy’s attack to the back of her mind, did she really believe she’d be able to forget that she’d seen behind the forbidden door? And what did it all mean anyway? Why exactly was there a—

Someone was in the room with her. It wasn’t so much that she heard him, it was more like a cold shadow had fallen across her skin, coaxing the bumps beneath the fine hairs on her arms.

Her eyes snapped open and she froze in place for a moment, entirely forgetting the wailing infant in her arms. At the same time, her breath caught in her throat with a sharp gasp and the walls of the room seemed to press in around her.

Corduroy stood in the doorway with his arms folded across his chest. The scarred and twisted flesh of his face was stretched as much as it could be into a tight lipped frown and something about his posture made it seem as though he were purposely blocking the entrance, cutting off her only means of escape.

“We need to talk.” His voice was low and raspy, almost inaudible beneath the warbling cries of the baby. Yet somehow the words still had the power to make Ocean shift her gaze to the floor, as if she’d discovered something of intense interest on the tip of the black slippers Levi had given her.

“I gotta… I have to tend to Baby. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, he won’t stop crying and I’ve tried—”

“That kid’s the least of your worries.”

Ocean felt as though her entire body had just been doused in freezing water. He really does know, how does he know? Did I leave some kind of clue?

Corduroy stepped closer to her and Ocean involuntarily took a step backward. Her back was now pressed tightly against the wall and she felt slightly dizzy, torn between the desire to cry and run.

“In fact, I wouldn’t plan on gettin’ too attached to him if I was you.”

She glanced up for a fraction of a second and then found herself scanning the room as if a doorway through which she could flee might magically appear. The nursery was so small, no bigger than the interior of the car she used to sleep in really. Even if some sort of escape route did present itself, Corduroy would have no problem blocking her way with a simple sidestep.

“I wouldn’t plan on gettin’ too attached to anyone.”

The words hung in the air like a thinly veiled threat, and the trembling which wracked Ocean’s body punctuated Baby’s weeping with a slight vibrato. She was trapped, and that disgusting rotter of a man was so close now that she imagined she could almost smell the ghost of charred flesh.

“Cord! This latrine isn’t going to dig itself.” Gauge’s voice boomed out from somewhere beyond the nursery and Ocean finally found the strength to look her accuser directly in the eye. She wanted to appear defiant and challenging, to convey with a gaze that she wasn’t afraid of any punishment they could possibly dole out. But, at the same time, the thought of never being able to see Gauge again, of not hearing his laugh or feeling the warmth of his hand on her bare shoulder, caused her to feel as though her heart shattered into a thousand pieces. Her vision wavered through a cascade of tears, but she tried to stand as straight and tall as possible.

“Corduroy!”

The older man angled his head slightly and called back over his shoulder. “Keep your pants on… I’m comin’.”

He took a final, long glance at Ocean and jabbed his finger toward her. “This conversation isn’t over, girl.” And, just like that, he was gone.

Ocean tried calming Baby, but it was as if the infant could sense the tension that pinched at the girl’s neck and shoulders. After what felt like hours, Levi came into the nursery with the offer of taking the little boy off her hands, if she’d help the men with the latrine. Torn between the fear of what Corduroy had told Gauge and the dull ache that throbbed in her head from Baby’s incessant crying, Ocean finally relented. She relinquished the little bundle into Levi’s arms and trudged out of the room.

She walked toward the sound of digging slowly, as if partially afraid that it wasn’t a new toilet being constructed at all, as if it were actually a grave that she would be lowered into after judgment had been passed and her sentence pronounced. That was silly… they wouldn’t kill her for what she’d seen. Would they? They might banish her back to the surface, back to that foodless world of rotters and ruin. But kill her?

I’d rather die. I’d rather they kill me, I really would.

And, if she were brutally honest with herself it was what she deserved. Shouldn’t there have been some sort of punishment for what she’d done to her mother? Shouldn’t she have been made to suffer for her sins? But, no—she’d been rewarded. She’d been clothed and fed, introduced to a world where the fear of violent death was as far removed as the stabs of hunger. And she’d met him, the only person in the world who she’d never want to have think an ill thought of her. To have all of that dangled before her and then yanked away would be far crueler than any execution.

Well, maybe that’s what you get, because of Mama. Maybe that’s exactly what you get.

Ocean stood in the doorway for a moment, watching as Gauge plunged the shovel into the floor. His muscles rippled with each thrust and he grunted softly while Corduroy replaced the full bucket of dirt with an empty one. He was so handsome, her Gauge, so perfect in every way. She’d miss him the most, even more than the food and clean clothes. Even more than—

“Hey, beautiful,” Gauge panted as he looked up, “I didn’t hear you.”

Despite the fear and uncertainty, Ocean still felt a gush of giddiness wash over her. He thinks I’m beautiful.

Corduroy looked at her with a steady gaze. His good eye gleamed with a coldness in the candlelight, shadows flickered over the gnarled remnants of his face.

She swallowed hard and braced herself for what was to follow. No matter what they decided, she wouldn’t cry, not this time. She was so tired of wasting water, of feeling her insides ripped to shreds with the force of sobs. She would be brave. Strong.

Gauge wiped the sweat from his forehead with a swipe of his arm and grinned at her.

“The problem with digging a hole,” he said, “is you always end up with more dirt than what you took out.”

Just do it. Get it over with, please, just do it.

“I mean, this latrine? It’s not even as deep as the old one yet. But we’ve already got that sucker filled up. And we still got all this dirt to deal with.”

Was he trying to make some kind of point with his little speech? Was he comparing her to the dirt in a hole, maybe?

“Of course, the hardest part is over. About broke my back busting through the concrete.”

He shot a look at Corduroy and narrowed his eyes.

“Really could have used some help with that part, too.”

Why was he being so mean? Why didn’t he just come right out and tell her that he knew she’d disobeyed him, that he was aware she knew what was hidden behind that rusted, metal door.

“So here’s where you come in, sweetie. You need to take these here buckets down the south tunnel. Just after you pass the third drain, there’s going to be a passage off to the left. Take that one, turn right twice, and you’ll come to this big crack in the ground. Be careful because it looks like it could lead right down to the very center of the earth. Anyhow, you dump the dirt down there and by the time you get back, we’ll already have more for you, okay?”

It began to dawn on Ocean that, for whatever reason beyond her understanding, Corduroy hadn’t told Gauge yet. Maybe he was waiting for just the right time, or maybe he planned on holding it over her, wielding the power of this secret in an attempt to make her do dirty things to him. Her mother always said some men would do that, that she should never get into any situation where someone would have that kind of leverage over her. Was that it, then? Was he wanting to—

“Hey, darlin’, are you okay? You don’t look right. Do you need some water or something?”

She mumbled a reply, something about a headache due to Baby’s crying, and concern had immediately pulled Gauge’s feature’s into a long frown.

“Maybe you should go lay down. Cord can haul the buckets. It’ll take longer without the two of us both working but—”

“No, I’m fine, I can do it. Really. Third drain, turn left, take two rights… right?”

She soon found herself with a wooden bar pressing down on her shoulders, two white buckets of dirt dangling by their handles from either end. The added weight made her take tiny, shuffling steps forward, making the south tunnel seem much longer than it ever had before. By the time she was halfway to the forbidden door, her back felt as if the muscles were stretched taut, and her knees ached with each step. Only the constant repetition of do it for Gauge, do it for Gauge kept her moving forward and from collapsing onto the ground.

As the door loomed closer, she found it harder and harder to keep the little mantra going. Her eyes were pulled again and again to the rectangle of metal set into the wall, her thoughts returning to what she’d seen the night before.

Leave it alone. Just leave it be and go dump your dirt.

She imagined she’d barely avoided Gauge’s wrath for her first indiscretion. It would just be plain stupid to push her luck further. What was behind that door wasn’t any of her business, it didn’t concern her. There’s probably a good reason, after all, and in time, Gauge will trust me enough to share it… as long as Corduroy keeps his damn mouth shut.

The thought of that man touching her, of his rough and scarred flesh pressed against her own, was enough to make a shudder course through her body. But she would do it; if it meant she could stay here, could stay with Gauge, she would do anything that beast wanted.

But first, she would prove she was worthy of remaining in Gauge’s good graces. She had to ignore the door, to simply walk by it, to pretend she’d never opened it to begin with.

It’s none of your business. Keep walking.

It felt like the door was tugging at her again, like it was silently calling to her in a voice that pulled invisible strings on her soul.

This time she was able to avoid its influence. She gave it wide berth and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on the weight of the buckets bearing down upon her, the throbbing ache in her thighs. She counted three drains and slipped into a particularly narrow tunnel that required her to walk sideways to keep the buckets from banging against the walls.

Two right turns later, and there was the crack—a dark fissure in the ground that was like looking into an open wound on the body of the earth. The contents of the buckets tumbled off the crags and outcroppings, disappearing into the chasm below. She took a moment to rub her shoulders, rotate her neck in slow circles, and flex her knees.

But then she was heading back the way she came, retracing her steps without the burden of the buckets bearing down upon her. When she came to the metal door again, she paused, looking at it warily. She chewed her bottom lip, and told herself to just keep moving on. For some reason, it was harder this time. Maybe it was because she didn’t have the weight of the buckets to contend with anymore. Perhaps it was because there was some small part of her that insisted it had all been some sort of a dream, that she hadn’t actually seen what she thought she had.

Never again. If you look, it’ll be just this once and then it will be over with and done, okay?

After all, she wouldn’t be in any more trouble for opening the door twice than she would’ve for doing it once, and she wanted so desperately to believe that she had been mistaken.

Gauge was so busy with digging the latrine that he certainly wouldn’t know. The sound of the shovel plunging into dirt would surely cover the creak of the door opening. She’d just have a quick peek, just to quiet her overactive imagination, and then she’d go back for more buckets of dirt, and it would all be behind her. She could carry on with her new life without even the smallest doubts about her man.

She set the buckets and the wooden pole on the ground and slipped quietly through the metal door. As she had the night before, Ocean walked along the hallway, moving silently, her teeth clenched so tightly that her entire face was tense.

She stood in front of the second door, the wooden one with the barred window and the plank which kept it from being opened from the inside. She held her breath and wrapped her hands around the cool bars as she leaned forward to peer, once again, into the shadows of the cell.

And from that darkness emerged a voice, as thin and weak as someone teetering on the edge of death.

Help… me.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Yeah, you just keep right on lookin’ at me like my boots aren’t laced all the way to the top. We’ll see who’s crackin’ jokes when this place is swarming with those bastards. You ever wonder what your own insides look like? All those intestines and organs and connective tissue? You’ll see soon enough. We’ll all see and you’ll be sorry you didn’t listen to my warnings, man.

By then, the seven signs won’t matter any more, the infection will be kicked into overdrive and will spread like nobody’s business. Shit will be so concentrated that even the smallest scratch from one of those things will be the signature on your death warrant. It’s so fast, see, so unbelievably fuckin’ fast.

There won’t be time to run or hide or prepare. You know that phrase about the shit hitting the fan? You ever stop to think what that would actually be like? The way something, in the blink of an eye, can just be flung all over the place. Well, this is the world’s biggest turd, my friends, and when it goes through that fan, it immediately hits another. And another… And another.

For your information, smart ass, I have thought about that before. Maybe a crazy person really doesn’t doubt his own sanity, maybe the delusion runs so deep that it just overlays the normal perception of reality. Like those medical books where each bodily system is on a transparency and you can peel them away one by one. But let me ask you this, jack, how often do you doubt your own mental prowess? Oh, we joke about people driving us crazy, about going mad from stress. There may even be times when we wish that we were insane, but the vast majority of us can go years without once doubting the tangibility of our experience, so you’ve got a flawed argument there, man. Faulty fuckin’ logic and fortune cookie psychology.

All I know for certain is that it’s too late now. I’m in here, the infection’s out there, and ain’t nobody is doing a damn thing to stop it. You’re too wrapped up in your preconceived notions of how things are supposed to be, you just can’t dig that sometimes there’s this crossroad where metaphysics and quantum physics intersect. You don’t give a shit about all those people who are gonna die, you couldn’t give a flying fuck about Ocean. All you really care about is stayin’ all nice and snug in your little Ikea box of existence with its bows and ribbons and little pieces of flash.

And it’s all comin’ down, man.

But me, I care, see? I care about her like she’s the fuckin’ daughter I never had a chance to have. I’ll stand over her with nothin’ more than teeth and fingernails and fight until anyone who dares lay a finger on a single fuckin’ hair on her head is chokin’ on their own blood. Even if nobody else in this god-forsaken world gives a damn about what happens to that poor little girl, I do. Which is precisely why all of this doesn’t mean jack to me. Why Clarice fuckin’ Hudson didn’t mean jack to me. Just another walking fuckin’ corpse, man.

See what you did? You done went and got me all worked up with those verbal prods from your pointy fuckin’ sticks. But I’ve still got hope, man. Maybe, I can make you see. Maybe you’ll open your eyes just long enough to glimpse past your own narrow definition of the universe. Maybe, just maybe, I can still save a life or two.

So let’s go back, shall we? Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear… or yesterday, as the case may be.

It’d been a couple days since Steel had hooked me up with something he called a Ruger Bull Nose or some shit like that. Dude showed me how to fix those silencers I’d been makin’ onto the barrel of that gun, gave me all these little tips just like he was Suzy fuckin’ Homemaker explaining how to use peanut butter to get gum out of hair. Afterward, he says, take a hacksaw, cut the barrel into several pieces and just drop ‘em down into the sewers in different parts of the city. No ballistics, apparently, makes the burden of guilt harder to prove or something? You guys would know more about that than me. Probably that GSR crap he was talkin’, as well.

Anyhow, I had the whole setup in a duffel bag on the back floorboard of my car, along with everything else I thought I’d need. For a couple of days I was practically camped out on Clarice fuckin’ Hudson’s doorstep, man. I mean, I got to know her townhouse fuckin’ intimately.

I knew how the paint was flakin’ away up near the gutters, that the six on her house number was just a little off kilter, that there was a raccoon who came around about three o’clock every morning and disappeared into the little row of hedges beneath her window. I knew the spots in her yard where the grass was dead and brittle and kind of a sickly green. If I were an artist, I could sit here and draw you a picture that would be as good as a photograph.

But did I see the star of this little drama that entire time? Fuck no, man. Not so much as the rustle of a curtain or her head peekin’ out the door to check the mail. When night would come around, the windows would stay dark and it really began to feel like I was stakin’ out an abandoned house. I mean, I’ve seen crypts with more action than that place.

I start thinkin’ that maybe the bitch has split town, ya know? Especially since I’ve been by Dollar Bonanza a time or two and haven’t seen her there either. It’s like the blip that was Clarice fuckin’ Hudson has just disappeared off the radar. Which—if she was still around somewhere—would actually make my job a bit easier, ya know? People woulda been used to not seeing her. Hard to tell how much time coulda passed before anyone really started gettin’ worried enough to file a report. But if she’d taken a powder, that was a different story all together. For all I knew, she coulda been spreading her contagion in Detroit or L.A. or any of a thousand places.

Then I get the bright idea to call up Dollar Bonanza, see? I ask for the manager and tell him how I’m Ms. Hudson’s brother, right? I say I’ve been tryin’ to get in touch with my beloved sis but her phone must be out or something, and could he give her a message for me? Dude get’s all hot under the collar and starts sayin’ something about how she called off sick a few days back and never bothered to come back in. Three no calls, no shows at Dollar Bonanza are apparently taken as a voluntary resignation. He’s sayin’ how if I do get hold of her to tell her not to bother callin’ up Mr. Cartwright with some sob story about how bad she needs this job and all. Then the rude son of a bitch just hangs up on me. The fuckin’ customer service in that place in that place, I swear.

Anyhow, I decide I’m going to give it one more night, right? And then if I still don’t see hide nor hair of this infected whore, I’m cuttin’ outta there and starting this whole process over with the next likely candidate. I know that probably sounds cold, man, but by this point, your lab boys wouldn’t have been able to find any traces of compassion in me with an electron microscope.

Ever since she’d displayed that sixth sign, she’d stopped being a person to me, see? She wasn’t anything more than a meaty bag of germs. There were no more doubts, no more nagging little voices whispering what if you’re wrong? All that mattered now was doin’ everything I could to protect Ocean.

I’m sitting there in my car, listening to a report on NPR about an influx of patients in hospitals, when finally I see something. Nothing more than a shadow passin’ by one of the upstairs windows really. Just a quick patch of darkness flitting by, but it was enough to get my heart a thumpin’ and to make me forget the sweat on my back and how my ass was tingling from sittin’ in that damn car for so long.

She was in there, hidin’ out. She probably was sick, man. Too sick to call her boss, too sick to go out for groceries, just layin’ in bed and not even having the strength to turn the lights on at night. I wanted so badly to just march in there and put her out of her misery, ya know? To just end all that suffering for her, but it was still dusk at this point. Kids were playin’ basketball in the street, old folks were chatting over privacy fences, and business men with loosened ties were pullin’ into driveways. I stayed low and went over the plan again and again in my mind, mentally rehearsing every detail while I waited for those street lights to flicker on.

I swear to God, I’ve been to the furthest reaches of space and time… I’ve seen the past, present, and future sprawled out like an infinitely long and flat road. But nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to the slow centuries of sittin’ in my piece of shit car while I waited for it to get dark. The clock on the dash would say seven-thirty and I’d fidget for what I was sure had to have been forty-five minutes, if not an hour… but when I looked at that clock? Seven-thirty-six, man.

Of course, eventually it did get dark. All the little kiddies scampered off inside, porch lights came on, people poked secret codes into the little keypads of burglar alarms. This little suburb was going to bed.

I grabbed my duffel bag outta the back and pulled a white Tyvek suit out. Just slipped it right over my regular clothes, zipped it up the front and made sure that the elastic cuffs were nice and snug over my wrists and ankles. I left the hood off for the time being and slipped these plastic gloves over my hands, the kind lunch ladies use when they’re dishin’ out the slop, ya know? Then I take my little bag and get out of the car as if wearin’ this get up was as natural as a t-shirt and jeans.

See, Steel says the secret to not looking suspicious is to pretend that you have every right in the world to be doin’ what you’re doin’. It’s only if you look all furtive and sneaky that people start to perk up and take notice, so I walk right across the street, pretending that I’m a plumber, brought out on an after hours call to unclog a toilet or some shit. I waltz right up the little sidewalk I’d come to know so well, act like I’m ringin’ the doorbell… wait a few seconds and go through the whole damn charade again.

I’ve got a pry bar in my duffel I can use to jimmy the door if I have to, but I decide to just try the knob first, ya know? And God musta been smilin’ down on me because that sucker opened right up for me. Too fuckin’ easy, man.

I step into this dark little foyer and close the door behind me. I’m just standin’ there for a bit, letting my eyes adjust to the gloom. Before long, I start makin’ out the silhouettes of a couche and chairs, the stove and fridge over in the kitchen area. After that, the details began to resolve themselves as if the interior of that house were slowly emerging into existence. I could see pictures of smiling faces hangin’ on the walls, what looked like trophies of some sort on top of a bookshelf with more knickknacks than books. A set of stairs leading to the upper floor, that kind of shit.

The entire time, I could hear the rush and gurgle of water and a sound that was almost likes waves lapping against a riverbank after a barge has gone by. I start to notice how there’s this big brown spot on the ceiling, over by the kitchen. I can see droplets of water getting pregnant in the middle of that stain and every few seconds one of them plummets down and hits the carpet with a little squish.

And the place stinks, man. Good, god, it smelled horrible. I could see all this food spread out across the kitchen table, could hear the flies just buzzin’ around it, lovin’ the way it’s just been left out to spoil and rot.

I go ahead and put that little dust mask over my face and adjust the elastic band so it’s nice and tight like. I’d brought the damn thing along to make sure I didn’t get any of that bitch’s infectious blood in my mouth, ya know? Now it also helped with the smell of all that rancid food, so I was feelin’ pretty smug about my foresight and all as I slipped the goggles over my eyes.

This is the point where I finally put the hood on and cinched the little drawstrings around my chin real nice and tight. With the full suit encasing my body, the heat built up real quick. It was like I’d just surrounded myself with a greenhouse or some shit. That Tyvek stuff, it really doesn’t breathe at all, ya know? That was good, that meant nothing could soak through my clothes, nothing could taint me with its evil little mutagens.

Finally, I was ready. I slipped the gun outta the duffel, made sure my workbench silencer was still nice and tight on the barrel, and stood there listening to my own heart while I whispered a little oath to Ocean.

Shit, man, I don’t remember what I fuckin’ said. I had more pressing things on my mind than recording each and every thought that went through my head for posterity. All I knew was that my long hours of waiting and watching, of observing and stalking, had finally come to a climax. I’d been mentally preparing myself as well, there was no way I was gonna allow myself to feel sorry for her again, to walk a fuckin’ mile in her shoes and all that happy horse shit.

No, I’d learned my lesson that night at the mall and had spent hours visualizing this very moment so I could like, desensitize myself, ya know? Picturing all the different scenarios with that clarity of imagination you can only get from a really nice sack of chronic, and now, it was all about to pay off. It was time for Ms. Clarice fuckin’ Hudson to die.

CHAPTER TWENTY

The woman waddled toward the door, her arms cradled beneath a stomach so round it pulled the hem of her stained, tattered smock almost entirely up to her mustn’t touch. Her face was round as well, however her skin had a tint almost as yellow as the crumpled papers that made up her bedding. She looked old, tired, with dark bags hanging beneath eyes that held only the faintest shine. Her sickly pallor was thrown into even sharper focus by the strands of greasy, dark hair that clung to her cheeks and neck.

“You’ve got to help me… please. You were here last night, right? I saw you leaving as I was waking up.”

For a moment, Ocean could only stand there with her jaw gaping open. Questions flew through her head like a pack of startled flies, but somehow the words seemed to get lost somewhere between thought and expression.

“Who…” she finally stammered. “Who are you?”

“They call me Vessel.” The woman spoke in a rapid whisper, craning her neck, trying to peer around the barred window.

Being that close to the door, Ocean could smell the sour stench of unwashed flesh and the slightly musty odor of clothes whose fibers had begun the slow march toward decay.

“There’s no time, he’ll come. He’ll kill me. You’ve got to let me out. Please, let me go. Let us go.”

The woman glanced down at her belly to accent her use of the plural and Ocean could see that she was visibly shaking now, her faded, dull eyes brimmed with tears. The woman named Vessel looked as if she were only moments away from collapsing to the floor.

“I… I don’t understand. Who’ll kill you? Why are you here? You’re pregnant? You’re going to have a baby?”

Now that the initial shock had faded, questions spilled from her mind almost more quickly than she could ask them. Her eyes darted about the interior of the cell as if she could somehow find the answers scrawled across the dingy walls.

“Just let me out, girl, for the love of God, let me go. I swear, I won’t tell anyone it was you. You’ll never see me again. I just want to have my baby.” Tears streamed down Vessel’s face. “Understand? I just want to have my baby. I don’t care that it’s his anymore. I just want to hold her. I just want to see her grow up. I just want her to live.”

Ocean steadied herself against the door as the room swam in and out of focus, struggling to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, to arrange them into a pattern that made sense. Who did this scared, pregnant lady keep referring to? She said he and him… did she mean Gauge? No, she couldn’t mean Gauge. Could she?

“There used to be more. So many more but now there’s just

poor Vessel. Poor Vessel and her baby, see? Poor Vessel and her rapist’s bastard. But I don’t care, I don’t. I just want my baby.”

Corduroy. She had to be talking about Corduroy—it was all beginning to come together now. The way the sick bastard was always watching her, always leering from across the room. Why he hadn’t told Gauge when he’d had every opportunity to do so. He must have locked this woman in here, forced himself on her—

“Just open the door, girl. Okay? Open the door for poor Vessel?”

“I…”

Ocean glanced at the wooden plank barring the way. “I… I don’t know… I don’t—”

“Please, girl, please, please, please!

Hiding her face in her hands, Ocean inhaled through her mouth as if she’d just run from the end of the north tunnel all the way to the south. She slumped against the wooden door. “Gauge,” she said finally. “I’ll go get Gauge. He’ll know what to—”

No!” The woman grasped the metal bars so suddenly and tightly that it seemed she was trying to force her face through them. Her eyes and pupils were perfectly round now, and Ocean could see a vein in her neck throb with her racing pulse.

“No, didn’t you hear me? He’ll kill us. Like he did the others. When they got too old to… “

Ocean wanted to press her fingers into her ears, to shout until the sound of her own voice drowned out the woman’s frightened babble. She’s crazy. She’s locked up because she went crazy, that was it. Just some crazy woman who would probably kill them all in their sleep if she had half a chance.

“He… he wouldn’t. Gauge is nice, Gauge is good—”

“Gauge is a manipulative, psycho son of a bitch and the quicker you accept that, the better off you’ll be. Now please, open the door. Okay? Just open the door.”

Why the hell did everything have to be so damn difficult? So confusing? It wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair that her mama had attacked her for nothing more than a bite of rat, that she’d been forced to murder her own mother and leave the only home she’d ever known. And then to find this place… to have found Gauge, to have known what it meant to be happy and content and loved. Why won’t anyone just let me be fucking happy? Was that so wrong? To want to feel as safe and secure as she once had in her father’s arms? Why was someone always trying to take that from her.

“You’re lying. You’re crazy and you’re lying. He saved me. He fed me and—”

“He used you, girl. Just like he used me. Just like he used the others.”

Shut up!” Ocean had her face pressed right up to the bars now, so close that she could feel the warmth of Vessel’s breath on her nose. Her voice was shrill and piercing, and she could feel her nostrils flared with each forced breath. “Shut your lying mouth, you bitch!”

Part of her felt as if she would double over vomit right then and there, but another part wanted to reach through those bars and yank the crazy woman’s hair, to scratch out her eyes, and rip her tongue from her mouth.

“I’ll kill you my damn self!”

I just wanted to be happy…

Vessel backed away from the door and the two women stood in silence for a moment, each glaring at the other with fists formed into tight balls. Finally, Vessel took a slow breath through her nose, held it for a moment, and released it in a slow sigh.

“Of course… you love him, don’t you? God, I forgot what it was like. The power it has.”

The anger was gone from Vessel’s face now, but Ocean still felt her own surging through her veins like a fiery poison. Her teeth ground against one another and the muscles in her shoulders felt as if the weight of the buckets was still bearing down on them.

“He tells you that you’re beautiful, doesn’t he? Calls you sweetie and honey? Touches your cheek and smiles? I remember how wonderful that used to make me feel. Like I was the only girl in the world.” Vessel’s voice was soft and distant now and she closed her eyes as if she could contain the sadness that suddenly lit in them.

“He makes you feel so special, so warm. I bet he told you about the Food Wars, didn’t he? Got all misty eyed and made you feel so sorry for him. Like you’d do anything just to keep from ever seeing that pain on his beautiful face again.”

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Ocean meant to hurl the words at the woman, to spit the venom in her soul with each syllable. Instead, they came so low and flat that she wasn’t entirely convinced she’d actually spoken.

“Oh, I’m afraid I do, honey. I know all too well. Has he kissed you, yet? No? Judging by the meat on your bones, it wouldn’t have been much longer.”

Why didn’t those words carry the joy they should have? Ocean had so often dreamed of Gauge parting his lips and slowly lowering them to meet her own, of that magic moment. Someone saying it would happen soon should have sent her whirling in a delirium of happiness. So why then, did she feel so hollow and empty inside?

“Don’t you see, girl? You’re nothing but a replacement. Spare parts. Hell, they’re down to just me now, just poor Vessel. As soon as you get a little fatter, a little healthier, you’ll be right down here with me.”

Ocean felt something hot streaming from her eyes and she blinked rapidly as her throat hitched with words. “Why… I don’t… why?

“Why does he make you fall in love? Maybe it helps ease his conscience when he finally comes ‘round to force himself on you. Maybe just to be cruel.”

“No… no.”

“Or did you mean why would he lock you away like some rabid animal? The babies, girl. For the babies.”

“For Baby? What about Baby? What does Baby have to—”

Vessel walked back toward the door again, shuffling her feet in an almost parody of a walk.

“Not Baby. He calls them all that. I guess it’s better if they don’t have names. Easier, perhaps. Does he have you taking care of it? I bet so. That way no one gets too attached.”

Levi’s voice surfaced in Ocean’s memory: we eat well around here. But only this well every few months.

She was suddenly colder than she’d ever been, even during the height of winter when the seats of her bedroom would be frosted and her breath plumed in the air. She felt numb and sick, she just wanted to be back there within the circle of cars, beneath the blue tarp, with both her parents still alive, and for all of this to have just been nothing more than a dream.

“You’ll be locked up. You’ll be raped. And when you give birth, they’ll take that child away and you can smell it, even all the way down here, and you’ll hate yourself because you know what that smell is but you’re so damn hungry your body betrays you. You salivate. You get hungrier. You try to escape into sleep, but even then it follows you into your dreams. And once the scent fades, you try to tell yourself that you never felt that way. That you couldn’t feel that way, but then the whole thing just starts all over again.

“And I want to keep this one, see? I want her to live.”

Ocean’s entire body felt as if it were tingling. Just like her legs used to when she’d sit on them for too long. She was vaguely aware that she was crying. Vessel’s hand snaked through the gap between the bars, seeming fuzzy and unreal. The woman’s palm touched the side of her face, but it didn’t really feel like her face, more like there was a thin barrier between her flesh and the woman’s hand, muting the sensation.

“I’m sorry, honey. I really am. But now do you see why you’ve got to let me out of here? Why I’ve got to get away before it’s too late?”

Ocean watched, detached, as her own hands lowered to the plank. She observed her fingers wrapping around the rough wood, barely noticing when a splinter jammed into the soft webbing between her thumb and forefinger. Funny that she couldn’t really feel that. There should have been more pain…

She saw herself lifting the piece of wood, heard the slight grating as it slid from the troughs that held either end, the slow creak as the door swung open.

Vessel was hugging her then, holding her tightly against that firm round belly and petting her hair with long strokes.

“We’ll get out of here,” she whispered. “Me and you, girl. Get out…”

Ocean nodded her head slowly, realizing there were no more tears. It was as if she’d wasted every drop of water within her body, and she wondered if she would ever be able to cry again. If she would ever want to.

“Come on, honey. Let’s go.”

Vessel put her arm around Ocean’s shoulders and gently guided her. Together, they turned away from the cell, toward the metal door that had hidden this dark secret for so long.

Ocean wasn’t surprised to see Gauge leaning against the door frame. After all, it only made sense. If there was ever a chance that she could begin to find happiness again, surely even that would be taken from her.

Any kindness she’d once thought had graced his features was gone now. His face was as blank as the concrete floor under her feet and his eyes twice as hard and cold. He studied the two women silently for a moment and then shook his head slightly.

“I told you, Ocean. I told you not to open this fucking door, didn’t I?” Gauge raised his hand and his eyes seemed to study the graceful curve of the sickle he carried, the little nicks where blade had sunk into bone. “You should have listened, sweetie. You should have listened to me.”

He took a few test swings and smiled as the tool swished through the air.

Without another word, be began to walk toward them, his weapon swinging lightly by his side.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

Funny thing is, this entire time I’ve got the theme to Mission Impossible goin’ through my head, if you can believe that. I mean, I understand the importance of what I was doin’, ya know? I totally grasped the fuckin’ gravity of the situation. I was in this house to kill a woman who would otherwise go on to infect thousands. Hell, it’s hard to tell how many people she’d spread her sickness to already, dollymoppin’ around in bars the way she’d been.

But I still couldn’t get that damn song outta my mind.

Then I hear this thump from upstairs, right? And I know she’s up there somewhere. This sick, infective woman is up there in the darkness, doin’ God knows what, and I gotta get from point A to point B with her being none the wiser.

So I sneak across that foyer just like I was a cat cuttin’ through a pack of sleeping dogs. I’m almost walkin’ on tiptoe, not really putting my full weight down for fear of my footsteps being heard or some shit. Maybe taking two, three steps every five seconds or so.

I get to the stairs, and I start goin’ up, but I’ve got my body sidled up real close and tight to the railing. See, steps aren’t anything more than pieces of wood laid across supports. You put your weight down in the very center and that sucker might bow a little. Might pop and creak. But you keep close to the edge and you’re walking right on top the framework, see? The steps are nailed down to that sucker and since there’s no give when you place your foot down, there’s no noise either. And that’s the way I ascend, one at a time, so slow that grass could grow faster.

Part of me keeps expectin’ her to appear at the top at any second. I mean, that’s the way it always plays out in movies, right? Be standing up there with a baseball bat or fire poker or something. So I’ve got my eyes glued to that little rectangle of hallway up there and my gun, which seemed so damn light when I first pulled it outta the bag, now feels like a fuckin’ brick in my hand.

The entire time, that water is still running. I figure maybe she was getting ready to take a hot bath or something. Always makes me feel a little better when I’m not well, so why the fuck not? She started a bath but then got too sick to actually take it. Too sick to even go back and turn the water off.

But that’s fine by me, because I’ve got the duffel slung over my shoulder, right? Even as careful as I was bein’, it still thumped up against the railings every so often. I mean, I was doin’ okay for a layman, but I’m not exactly a burglar by trade, ya know? That water was helpin’ to mask all these little sounds that seemed so loud to me. My breathing. The swish of the Tyvek suit every time I’d move.

I started feelin’ a little light-headed. To tell the truth, I’m not really sure if that was from adrenaline, the Vicodin I’d popped earlier, or from breathin’ in my own carbon dioxide ‘cause I was wearin’ that damn mask. Fuckin’ thing had started itchin’ like hell, too, and the metal band was pressin’ against my nose like some CIA torture device.

All told, it probably took me about ten minutes to climb that flight of stairs. That’s how sneaky I was bein’, see? When I finally get to the top, I’m standing in this little hallway. Nice carpet, looked like maybe it’d been replaced not too long ago, more pictures on the wall, some little shelves with vases and doilies on them. Typical chick shit.

About halfway down the hall, there’s a door off to the left. It’s shut tight, I figure it was probably a second bedroom or office or somethin’. Hell, coulda been a closet for all I knew. I mean, it was directly across from another other door, only that one was open and I could see white linoleum that kinda shimmered with water.

But this is all peripheral, dig? ‘Cause the hall ends in yet another room, the master suite or whatever the fuck they’re callin’ it these days. Through that doorway, I can see Ms. Clarice fuckin’ Hudson. She’s got her back to me and she’s standin’ in front of this little vanity, the kind women sit at to do their makeup and hair and shit.

First thing I notice is that the bitch is bare-ass naked. So I think I musta been right with my whole bath theory and all, right, but as I creep down that hallway with Steel’s pistol leveled out in front of me, I begin to get this sour feelin’ in my stomach. Somethin’ just ain’t right, ya know? For one, she’s clawing at the air like a little puppy who has to pee scratches at the door. She standin’ there, nude as the day she was born, pawin’ at the air.

That could be explained away. Rule number six: muddled thinking. I’m thinkin’ the bitch probably doesn’t even know why she’s doing what she’s doin’, they’re almost in total control of her now.

As I get closer, it begins to look like maybe she’s painted herself with lipstick as well, which was just bizarre, man. Almost looked like splotches of red camouflage pattern. All over. But when I looked closer there were also thin, dark lines everywhere, like she’d taken an eyebrow pencil and drew road maps all up and down her body. I’m talking from the shoulder blades all the way down to the soles of her feet. Only those feet? They were dark, man. Like she’d stepped in paint or some shit.

Then it hit me. Sign fucking seven: bleed out. That wasn’t lipstick, man, it was the blood that had seeped outta every pore on her body and dried on her skin. That meant the network of lines would be veins, and her feet were so dark because without the heart to pump it, gravity had pulled the rest of the blood in her body to the lowest point.

Fuck yeah, I’m sayin’ she was dead. Haven’t you been listening? I’ve been tellin’ ya this all along, man. How many different ways do I hafta say the bitch was already dead for you to get it through your thick skulls?

Now you can probably see why I really started gettin’ scared at this point. Felt like pissin’ my fuckin’ pants, man, and that damn running water wasn’t helping matters any.

About the same time I realized that Clarice fuckin’ Hudson had left the building, so to speak, something else dawns on me. The little vanity, I mentioned? Women don’t just have this God given knack for slappin’ on makeup, they’re careful with that shit, right? So it wasn’t the air this thing was scratchin’ at… it was a damn mirror. And I woulda realized this a lot sooner if that bathtub hadn’t masked those sounds as well.

I guess that bitch caught my reflection or something, ‘cause she spins around like a ballerina on meth. I’m just standin’ there, literally shakin’ in my boots, ‘cause I didn’t expect it to be so fast, man. I mean, the thing wasn’t nothin’ but a blur. The ones in Ocean’s world, they just kinda shamble along, right? They’re slow and lethargic, but they’re also all fucked up and shit. Got muscle decay in the worst possible way. But this bitch? She’s fresh, man.

She comes barreling down the hall like a wild animal on the attack. She’s snarlin’ and got her teeth bared while her fingers have formed into claws and I don’t know, I mighta screamed or something, but then I’m pullin’ that trigger like my finger’s got a mind of it’s own.

There’s this little sound, almost like a puff of air, and I see that first bullet just slam right between her tits. One moment, smooth flesh—next there’s this little dark hole. But it doesn’t even phase her man. Doesn’t slow her down at all. She just keeps runnin’ at me without so much as a growl or nothin’ and this constellation of wounds appears on her torso as I unload the fuckin’ clip.

I damn well knew better, but I was terrified, man. You don’t think so clearly when you’ve got a fuckin’ corpse racin’ down the hall and piss tricklin’ down your thigh. You don’t have time to line up a headshot. I mean, it almost seemed like it was happenin’ in slow-mo but this shit went down quick, man. Couldn’t have been more than a few seconds from when she spun around that her body was crashin’ into mine.

And she hit me hard, cats, like a damn linebacker. Plowed right into my ass and sent me sprawlin’ backwards. The gun flies from my hand and it seems like I remember the sound of breaking glass, so it musta hit a vase or some shit.

All I know for certain is that I’ve fallen back into the bathroom. I’m layin’ in all this pool of water and I’ve got this naked, dead bitch scramblin’ over top me. She’s pulling at that Tyvek suit and now I know I’m screamin’ because my throat feels all raw and burning and that mask traps the scent of fear right in there with me. I can breathe it in through my nose right as it comes outta my mouth.

That thing is plunging its head toward my throat, snappin’ its fuckin’ teeth all ready to rip away a big chunk of flesh. I’ve got my hands wrapped around its neck, right, and I’m tryin’ to push it away with every bit of strength I can muster. It’s skin was so cold, man, so fuckin’ cold that I could feel it even through those little plastic gloves.

The bitch has got me pinned good and she’s thrashin’ around on top of me like a bobcat in a sack, trying to scratch and bite and it’s all I could do just to keep her face mere inches from my exposed skin. I mean, she was close enough that I could see all these little dark specks that looked like they were floatin’ in the whites.

The entire time, what I’m really seein’ is Ocean. I see that little girl out there in the future. I see her crying, see her starving, see her trying to come to grips with matricide. And all I can think is that I failed, that I wasn’t able to protect myself, much less her. I mean, even if I managed to somehow get this thing off me it was already too late, see? They were already coming back. Maybe if I wouldn’t have waited so long. Maybe if I woulda snuffed the whore when I first noticed the sweating.

But the seed had been planted. Within months, the entire world would be flushed down the fuckin’ toilet because I wanted to be certain. Because I didn’t have the balls to follow my gut when I knew, deep down, that bitch was infected. So I thought, why bother? It’s all over so why not just give in?

And that’s what I did. I let go of that thing’s neck and just decided to end it all right then and there.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

Vessel bent her knees and lowered into a half crouch. One arm curled around her stomach, as if shielding the life in her womb, and the other squeezed into a fist. Though the woman probably wasn’t even aware of it, a sound like a growl rattled in the back of her throat, her shoulders heaved with each snort of air gusting through her nose.

Gauge paused for a moment, chuckling as his eyes twinkled with delight. He glanced at Ocean and raised his eyebrows, as if to say can you believe this, then pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers as he laughed out loud.

“Come on, Vessel. Back to your cage… there’s a good bitch.”

Vessel’s reply was an ear splitting screech that caused Ocean’s entire head to quake with the force of the words.

“You can’t fucking have her, you bastard! She’s mine. Mine!

“Vessel…”

All traces of amusement had faded from Gauge’s face as he pointed the sickle at the woman. His tone was short, clipped, the words dropping from his mouth with the weight of concrete.

“I am not playing around. You go to your room. Now!”

The woman stiffened her body and glared at him with eyes gone wild and crazed.

“She’s your baby too, Gauge. Don’t you… “

She’s my fucking dinner!

Gauge’s voice bellowed through the long hallway, causing Ocean to recoil as though she’d been slapped again. The numbness still had hold of her body, everything playing out before her possessed the feeling of an imaginary game, where both of them would turn to her at any moment, smile and wait for her to applaud and squeal with joy.

This couldn’t really be Gauge, after all. He wasn’t like this, it had to be some sort of charade, a character he was playing…

“I’ve had just about enough of this shit. If you don’t get your ass back in that room right this minute, I’m cutting that meat out of your damn belly and eating it tonight.”

Gauge stormed toward Vessel, his face pulled into a long scowl as he hurled the threat.

At the same time, Vessel let out a cry like an enraged beast. She pitched herself forward, drawing her hands up and hooking her fingers into long talons that swiped through the air. Her fingernails connected with the stubble on Gauge’s jaw and three jagged furrows filled with blood in their wake.

You fucking pregnant whore!

From where she stood, Ocean could see Vessel’s eyes grow round and her mouth form a perfect O as she gasped. What little color had been in her face drained and she seemed to be hanging from Gauge’s shoulders. He turned away from her sharply, pulling his right arm back simultaneously. There was a sound like the ripping of wet fabric, and another like something between a splash and a squish as Vessel fell to her knees.

For a moment, Ocean could only look at the little droplets of blood that dripped from the blade of Gauge’s weapon. They seemed to fall to the ground hesitantly, like they knew within the span of a few seconds they would splatter against the concrete below and end their short existence.

He hopped away like the crimson puddle easing across the floor would melt his shoes, and then Ocean could clearly see the older woman. Vessel rocked back and forth as she knelt, the air escaping her throat in a series of staccato wheezes.

Her arms formed a bowl just below the arch of her stomach; something pink and glistening slid through the bloody slit in her smock and plopped into her waiting arms. It just seemed to keep coming without end; within moments, the fleshy tubes with their folds and creases were spilling over the sides of her arms and a smell like vomited shit filled the room.

Vessel looked at Ocean as if she were about to say something. Her trembling lips struggled to find words, but before even the smallest utterance, she crumpled over onto her side. Her mouth still agape, she stared at some infinitesimal spot in the cosmos that no living eyes would ever behold.

Ocean became aware of a rhythmic lull that seemed to hum in her ear. She blinked several times and forced herself to look away from the pregnant woman’s body, away from the circle of blood that blossomed around her.

Words. There were words. She saw Gauge, saw his lips moving, and struggled to concentrate. What is he saying? She could tell he was speaking to her. The sounds strung themselves into words, words into sentences, yet there was still a slight delay between hearing them and understanding.

“…some of that? You want to end up like her?”

Ocean shook her head, reality seeming to take a fraction of a second to catch up with her movement.

“I didn’t think so.”

Gauge grabbed her short hair in his fist and pulled Ocean along behind him. She stumbled over her own feet, staggered as she tried to keep up with him.

There should be pain, shouldn’t there? He was dragging her by her hair… it should have hurt. So why was there nothing more than a slight pressure on her scalp? A tingling that was more like an itch?

“…ahead of schedule but you should have listened, Ocean… to keep the door closed… your turn.”

He was pushing her toward the open wooden door. The bed of wadded up paper and the thin sheet stretched across it. The bucket in the corner with its dark smears and shit encrusted lip. The dirty walls and floor… these things were thrown into sharp focus as they loomed larger before her.

No, no, no, no…

She wanted to fight, to kick and claw and scream and bite. It felt like something was keeping the impulses from speeding out to her nerves and muscles. Some invisible barrier which was content to let her be shoved through the doorway so roughly that she stumbled and fell, her knees banging against the unforgiving floor. She could hear Gauge’s voice again, sounding distant, as though it were rushing away from her with each flutter of her heart.

“That’s it… that’s a good girl, you little bitch.”

She looked up just in time to see the door swing shut with a thunk. Light from the hallway spilled through the little window, casting a pattern of striped shadows to the floor.

“There’ll be plenty of time for us to get to know each other better.” Hollow laughter echoed as if someone had just told a particularly amusing joke.

“We’ll be together for a long, long time.”

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

You know what? I couldn’t do it, man. In the amount of time it takes a synapse to spark, I thought about Ocean out there, alone and hungry and scared. Somehow, givin’ up on myself felt like givin’ up on her, too. That’s just not something I was willing to do, dig?

So that bitch’s teeth are headin’ toward my neck like a striking snake and I did the only thing I could think of. I just kinda bucked, ya know. I used every muscle I had, kinda throwin’ my shoulders back while thrustin’ my chest and stomach up. At the same time, I’m pushin’ my hands against tits that were colder than two baggies of melted ice. Just kinda shovin’ off, and I musta had some kinda leverage, cause that thing went flyin’ off me like I was the prize bull at a rodeo.

There was even a brief second where I could still see my hand prints on her boobs, like these pale ghosts that just kinda lingered around. And then I’m scrambling to get up ‘cause I figure if I stay on the floor, I’m a dead man, right? I mean, that bitch pins me again and I don’t know if I could repeat that little bronco trick I just pulled off.

My heart felt like it was about to explode right outta my chest and that damn dust mask felt like it was some psycho killer tryin’ to suffocate the life right outta me. My lungs are achin’ for some cool, fresh air, to just suck down huge gulps of it, but I don’t dare take that damn thing off.

Besides, even if I’d been stupid enough to do so, I just didn’t have time.

I wasn’t even halfway off the floor before that bitch is startin’ to charge again. See, she didn’t know what fear was. She didn’t get tired, couldn’t be hurt. The perfect killing machine—she’ll just keep comin’ at ya and comin’ at ya, wearin’ ya down with the persistence and ferocity of a rabid weasel.

And me? I ain’t got so much as a pen knife on me. The gun’s out there in the hallway somewhere with my duffel bag and even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t do me any good anyhow. I mean, I wasted all my rounds, pumpin’ them into her chest like that.

I’m usin’ the edge of the tub to help boost me up and she’d crossed half the distance between us when she just kinda launches herself at me. I mean, one moment she’s running toward me and the next she’s divin’ through the air, flyin’ at me like some fucked up superhero. Got her arms strecthed out in front of her, ready to latch onto my face…

This time, it was dumb luck that saved me. I slipped, see, in all that water on the floor. One second I’m strugglin’ to get up and the next it feels like someone just pulled the world out from under my feet. I fell hard, man. I mean, the thump rattled the panes in the window and it felt like my spine was about to shoot right outta the top of my head.

That fuckin’ corpse thing? She just passes right over top of me. Her ankle smacked me upside the temple as she flew by but then there was this sharp crack from her head hittin’ the tile, I suppose. There was a big splash like someone had just done the cannonball at the pool, with drops of water sprayin’ everywhere.

I know she won’t be down for long, so I’m kinda half crawlin’ toward the door and fighting to stand up at the same time. I don’t like her bein’ back there, behind me, where I can’t see her, can’t tell how close she is. I was just tryin’ to go by sound alone, but everything is a little muffled ‘cause the hood on that suit is cinched so tightly around my head, right?

Even so, I can hear the tub water sloshin’ and in my mind I get this perfect picture of her risin’ up out of it. Hair plastered to her skull, water runnin’ down her body and reconstitutin’ all that dried blood into these cloudy little streams. Crouchin’ down as she flexes for another pounce.

Then I hear a sound like someone tossed a handful of pennies into a jar of change, ya know? It’s all mixed up with this other sound, like a big ‘ole trash bag bein’ yanked outta the box. And almost immediately there’s a thud that I can feel through vibrations in the floor more than I can really hear it.

I look back over my shoulder, real quick like. Just to know if I should turn and fight or just keep runnin’, right?

The undead bitch is half in the tub, half layin’ over the edge, and she’s got the shower curtain all wrapped around her. I mean, she’s all twisted up in that shit, thrashin’ and kickin’ water. Kinda flops outta the tub and she’s tryin’ to tear her way through it, but only seems to be gettin’ even more tangled up.

By this time, I’m out into the hallway and the carpet is squishin’ under my feet with all the water it’s done soaked up. I scoop up my duffel and I’m fumblin’ with the zipper. I couldn’t seem to get a good grip on it through those damn plastic gloves and my hands were shakin’ like a palsied old, man anyhow.

I hear feet runnin’ through water behind me and I know that thing’s got free, and I got three, maybe four seconds tops before she’s springin’ onto my back, so I say fuck it. I give up on unzippin’ the damn thing altogether and just kinda pull each handle in opposite directions. Popped that zipper like a virgin’s cherry. I’ve got one hand thrustin’ inside and I’m whirlin’ around, all in one motion.

She’s right there, man, close enough that I could see the little puckers of skin around the bullet wounds.

The duffel bag’s droppin’ to the floor and my arm’s swingin’ around in a wide arc, just lettin’ centrifugal force do most of the work.

And that pry bar slams into the side of her skull so solidly that a jolt goes up my arm, kinda like I’d just banged my funny bone against somethin’. Her head snaps to the side and she’s just beginnin’ to turn when I hit her again.

This time, I’ve got both hands choked up on that metal and I’m twisting from the waist like a little leaguer goin’ for a grand slam. It connects with her face, little bits of white teeth go flyin’ even as her body pirouettes in a crazy spiral from the force of the blow.

I’m bringin’ that bar down again, like a fuckin’ machine, man. Whack. Whack. Whack. I drive the bitch to her knees and she’s still grasping at my suit… only the Tyvek is so slick with the water and all that she’s not gettin’ a good grip anymore.

I yank her head back by the hair, right? So she’s lookin’ right up at me like she’s about to give head or some shit, and I just start cavin’ in that brow, man. Looked like I was just denting it at first, like there wasn’t anything more than cheap aluminum under that waxy skin.

Then these bits of bone start breaking through, almost like I was seein’ the fangs of something that was eatin’ its way outta her head. There wasn’t any blood or anything, seein’ as it had all pooled in the bottoms of her feet. Just this broken and battered forehead that looked like… well, it looked fucked, man. You can’t really compare that shit to anything you’ve ever seen, ‘cause you ain’t never seen anything like it.

Finally, I stop swingin’ and I take that pry bar and kinda plunge it down like I was usin’ a post hole digger. The end of it goes right through the weak spot I’ve created and I feel a bit of spongy resistance for a second, so I throw my body forward and drive that fucker home. Sink it four, maybe five inches into her head.

Just like that, she goes limp, kinda falls over right there in the hallway. But I’m not the trustin’ sort, I’ve seen way too many horror movies, man. So I whack away on her head with a bunch more blows. The entire time I can feel this surge of excitement floodin’ through me, and I let out a wordless battle cry—part yell, part scream, part crying.

But I’m alive, damn it. I’m alive and I can fuckin’ appreciate everything. The throbbing pain in my hands and knuckles. How my shoulder is so sore that I wince every time I jostle it. The way I’m hot and sweaty inside the suit but my face feels all cool.

Finally, I stop hittin’ the bitch. She ain’t gettin’ back up. I made damn sure of that, cause you can’t even tell she has a face anymore, man. Looks more like a pumpkin that’s been tossed outta a movin’ car or some shit.

I walk into the bathroom and turn the faucets so that the tub finally stops overflowing, then I reach down into the bottom and, even through the Tyvek, I can feel the chill of that water. It felt so damn good, man. Almost like I’d never really felt water before, ya know?

Once it’s all gurgled and swirled down the drain, I drag that corpse by its feet and kinda plop her ass down in the empty tub. I’m sittin’ on the edge and I’ve got my duffel bag by my side and I’m pullin’ out all these heavy duty lawn and leaf bags that I brought along. Then I get that hacksaw and set about to business.

It’s harder than it looks on TV and the movies, man. I mean, you really have to work to get those little teeth cuttin’ through bone. The wrists weren’t so bad ‘cause I guess they’re kinda thin, but when I started sawin’ just below the knees… man, that was a bitch. Had to stop once when the blade got wedged in real tight like, and snapped in half.

I just kinda left that part of the sawblade sitckin’ out for the time being and decided I should take care of what was left of the head while I still had the strength. I figured if the knee was that much of a bitch, what the fuck would the neck be like, ya know? Only it wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe I’d gotten a rhythm down or some shit, but it came off like it was made of cheap wood.

So I’m sittin’ there, holdin’ this severed half a head by the hair, just kinda lookin’ at it. For some reason, I started giggling, don’t really know why. There wasn’t anything particularly funny about the situation. But at the same time, everything was funny, and, before I know it, I’m laughin’ so hard I’ve got tears rollin’ down my face and that battered head is just swingin’ in my hand like some bizarre pendulum.

That’s about the time you boys in blue showed up, and all I could think to say, even though I knew it could be used as evidence against me in a court of law, was: Ocean, I don’t regret a thing, honey. Not a damn thing.

Everything after that is kinda vague. It’s like my mind’s this pitch black sky and every so often fireworks of memory flare in the darkness, burning brilliant as the crowd below goes ooohhh. I see my little Honda bathed in red and blue strobes, crowds of people whispering and pointing, then sitting on this bench with my hands trussed behind my back so tightly that my shoulders almost feel like they’re bein’ pushed forward. Blackened fingers rolling across these little cards and a woman’s high pitched laugh that bubbles up through a drone of voices. But all of these bursts of recollection fade quickly, dissolving into this shower of fragmented sparks that wink out in the night.

The next thing I do remember clearly is layin’ in my cell. Even though there’s a mattress beneath me, it feels like I’m on a slab on concrete and my muscles are so sore that I can barely move. So I’m just racked out there, starin’ up at the ceiling and tryin’ to ignore the smell of piss and vomit that seems to have soaked into every molecule in there.

I’m thinkin’ about Ocean. What she’s doin’, if she’d been eatin’ right… hell, if she’s even still alive for that matter. Last time I was with her, she was gettin’ bitch slapped across the face by that fucktard Gauge. Anything could have happened to her and I’d never know. So yeah, I was worried about the girl. For all I knew, she was dead and the re-death of Clarice fuckin’ Hudson had no impact on her miserable life what-so-fucking-ever.

And then I felt that ‘ole familiar wind tuggin’ at my soul. I hear the sounds all around me, feel my consciousness being stripped away, the jabs of pain that made my sore muscles seem like spa treatment. And it’s right there, man. Halfway between my cot and the stream of people who kept finding reasons to stroll by my cell for a quick peak at society’s latest monster.

Now, I actually experienced two things when the Eye pulled me in. The first one, I ain’t gonna tell you about. I figure there’s some things a man just has to keep to himself, ya know? Not secrets really. More like these intensely personal experiences that burrow down deep inside, carve out a little niche, and graft onto your soul. These are the types of things that change a man. They can either crush him like a cigarette butt beneath the heel of Fate or make him even more focused. More determined to do anything and everything he can.

But that’s all I’m gonna say about that. I will, however, tell ya about the second thing I experienced. This was one of those overviews of time… like I’d been lifted up on high by the wings of an angel with the immediate future spread out wide below me. Just this disembodied observer, yet somehow, I could still cry, if you can dig that. And I wept just like a little sniveling bitch… because I could finally see the truth of the matter.

Within the coming months something changes, man. I don’t know, maybe it’s a mutation. Maybe environmental variables, some shit FEMA released in the air to try and fight this thing with, or maybe the sickness was really just a symptom all along, ya know? Something that gradually changed aerobic cellular respiration into anaerobic.

All I know for certain is that it won’t matter if you’re infected. Not anymore. People are gonna die just like they’ve been doin’ for millenia. Old age, accidents, murder, suicide… but they’ll still come back. Those who get bit or scratched? Well, that will just kinda speed the process along. But, sooner or later, damn near everyone comes back.

Turns out, I suppose, that you can’t fight nature after all. Not really… I gave it one helluva try, though, didn’t I?

My first experience, that personal one that I won’t tell ya about, let me know that there were things I have to prepare for, things looming just around the corner. We have a limited amount of time in this skin, ya know, and we have to make the most of every possible minute. To some people, that means tickin’ off check marks on their bucket lists.

But, for me, it means trying to do everything within my power to make sure my special little girl stays as safe as possible.

I couldn’t stop the contagion, and now I’m gonna be locked away so society can sleep easy, secure in the knowledge that another madman has become nothing more than an interesting blurb in some Time-Life series.

But the apocalypse is comin’, man, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to stop it.

You may think you’ve written the last chapter in the Adventures of Bosley Coughlin, but I’m here to tell ya, jack… my story’s not over.

Not by a long shot.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

The Eye of Aeons swirls like a vortex of perfect darkness. Within its currents and eddies, space-time crashes against itself like waves cresting over breakers in a lightless sea. Centuries and millennia swish and churn, distant lands dissolving into shifting patterns of molecules, energy sizzling like monstrous slabs of bacon in the kitchen of God. All the while, billions of voices drift in and out as dialects and accents melt into a wordless drone that originates from everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

The sense of being trapped inside a cramped tunnel, that claustrophobic panic which feels as if everything is constricting like the coils of a giant serpent, squeezing and undulating, growing tighter and tighter as space seems to collapse in upon itself. At the same time, there’s also the knowledge that this place is limitless, a human body could travel his entire lifetime through the tumultuous void and feel as if no progress had been made at all. Distance and time mean nothing here, they are as formless as the consciousness of the man who’d been pulled, like space dust, into the gravity of a black hole.

He has memories of the cycling hues of color that existed on the other side of the event horizon, the way it seemed like a radial aurora borealis in the air, and how powerless he’d been before its might.

These aren’t exactly memories; he exists in a multitude of places and times simultaneously, each one happening currently, happening now. The sensations and experiences of a million lifetimes, of every possibility that has ever existed, blended into a shifting tapestry of perception… Here, he is nothing; here, he is everything, and all points in-between.

Normally, he passes through the center of the Eye in what his obstinate consciousness thinks of as an instant. He is sucked through one side and spit out into the mind of someone else in a different time and place. For some reason, he is now trapped in a holding pattern, like a plane circling an airport, waiting for clearance from the tower. He stays within the Eye of Aeons, waiting for something to change as millennia co-exist around him.

He can sense that he isn’t alone… He can feel another presence seeping into the core of his own being. He can feel it’s confusion, the panic tinged with remorse, and a sadness unlike any he’s ever known; but there’s anger there, as well. Like pinpricks of fire that jab him repeatedly, this outlander’s thoughts invade his own.

You. You did this to me. You.

I set you free. I saved you from—

You killed me.

You were already dead, you were dead the moment I laid eyes upon you. Let your spirit pass now, be at peace and move on.

You did this.

Flashes of a lifetime burst into clear focus in the darkness.

A crying little girl being pushed toward a giant Easter Bunny by her parent’s encouraging hands.

Pointing at the Washington Monument as her sixth-grade class presses their faces against tour bus windows.

That awkward first kiss, giddy with nervousness.

Clapboard hats flying into the air, kissing by candlelight, slipping on ice and falling into the snow as sidewalk people stroll by without a moment of hesitation.

You took all this away.

You were infected.

Fear burst into the formless void like an atomic explosion, pummeling him with rapid-fire shots of terror that burned hot as phosphorus in the darkness. More snatches of imagery, like quick-cut jolts of memories best left buried and forgotten in the tides of time.

A bathroom he now knew all too well, the slatted door of the linen closet closed and dark on the other side.

The whine of a hair dryer, humming that seemed light and happy, and her reflection, hair with wet tangles, in the mirror. Switching the dryer off, laying it on the counter, counting brush strokes while the stomp and clap rhythm of Lady Gaga’s Teeth filters through the thin walls.

Reflection of the linen closet door flying open, a pink blur of movement, a completely naked, wild-eyed man, glistening in sweat. Tom? Tom Stark? No. No, no, no…

Hands yanking at her hair, fistfuls with pale, bulbous roots still attached to each strand; she’s pushing, scratching, clawing, screaming. Her attacker’s face leering so close the tips of their noses nearly touch; the linoleum cool and slick against her writhing back. Yelling, meaningless jumbles of words sharpened with animalistic growls and grunts, spittle flying from his snarled lips, she opens her mouth to scream for help, saliva so hot it seems to have been boiled sprays into her mouth.

He’s trying to force his way into her; no, no, not Tom, not Tom Stark, not the friendly insurance agent from down the block, this can’t be happening, she’ll wake up at any moment, a dream, has to be a dream…

You’re a murdering bastard and I hate you, you understand? I hate you!

I didn’t…

Her attacker scurrying out into the hall, the scent of singed flesh as thick and heavy as steam, little bits of flesh and charred eyebrow still sizzling on the end of the curling iron that had been heating near the sink. Not raped, thank God, not raped, but cowering in the corner of the bathroom, shivering, crying, spitting repeatedly because that bastard drooled into her open mouth and it makes her feel dirty, so dirty, like some tiny piece of him is still within her mouth, infecting and tainting her with its presence…

See? You were infected and I had to… A sensation like falling through darkness and reaching terminal velocity instantaneously. Everything seeming to rush away at the speed of light and come crashing together all at the same time. A gasp, a burst of color and perception, the muted sensation of being in another skin, of anchoring into a mind that is fixed to a corporeal form. There is pain… physical pain that can only accompany having a body. There’s something else. He feels at home in this new skin. Like a well-worn chair that has molded and contoured itself over the years to fit the shape of his particular form. Familiarity.

He knows what this body will say before its lips begin to part. He thinks its thoughts like a man reciting a poem with a recording of himself. He knows this body all too well…This time the Eye of Aeons has allowed him to jump into his own head.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

The sound of wood scraping over concrete cut through the fog in Ocean’s mind as efficiently as if it were Gauge’s sickle. He was really going to do it, he was going to lock her away in this dingy little room, would fulfill all of Vessel’s dire warnings. Warnings she had so desperately wanted to believe were nothing more than some transparent attempts to turn her against the very people who had taken her in. People she had trusted… people she had loved.

Ocean sprang to her feet and threw her body against the door, hoping it would fly open and catch Gauge unaware. He must have caught the flurry of movement in the shadows, he quickly pressed his shoulder against the other side and Ocean slammed into a surface that was as immovable as the walls surrounding her.

“I hate you!”

Thrusting her hands through the bars, she grabbed for Gauge’s long hair but he pulled back with a laugh, leaving her with nothing more than a few dark strands in her fist.

“Nothing personal, honey… but all that food in Heaven? It won’t last forever, you know. We need some way to … supplement it.”

She wanted to say something that would cut him with its ferocity as thoroughly as he’d cut Vessel. To hurt him in ways he’d never been hurt before and make him see what it was like to bleed, but she could only stand there and glare at that crooked little grin on the smug bastard’s face.

“Now, don’t you start giving me trouble, too. I’ll have to take a bit of that feistiness out of you.”

I want to see him cry, to hear him beg as he tries to squirm away.

“I’m gonna bar this door and then I’m gonna go fuck Levi for a while. Tell her how much I love her. Hold her and kiss her.”

There’d be so much blood that he’d look on shocked that it could all really be coming from his own body.

“And then I’ll be back to teach you what’s expected of you.”

Like a serpent materializing in the air, a length of chain whipped out of nowhere. It hit Gauge’s face with a loud snap and the man reeled and screamed, grabbing his face with his hands. The chain lashed out again, bashing onto the crown of his skull and coming away wet with blood.

You get the fuck away from her, you degenerate son of a bitch!”

The voice was thick and raspy, familiar… but there was also a power in it that she’d never heard before. As if years of repressed rage and hatred had come boiling out in a volcano of pure emotion.

Gauge’s cheek had already started to swell from the initial blow, the skin puffy and purple, starting to push his cheek upward, forcing his right eye into an unnatural squint. His hands were away from his face, but he still seemed dazed, like he’d always believed himself to be invincible and was just now feeling pain for the very first time.

“What the fuck? What the fuck are you doing?

“I said back the fuck off, man!”

Corduroy stepped into view, his anger burning so hotly that even the twisted mass of scars covering his face couldn’t contain it. He held the chain in one hand as he advanced; it whistled through the air as he swung it in quick circles, forming what almost looked to be a blurred shield before him. In his other hand was a ball-peen hammer that shook with the currents of fury undulating within him.

“You damn traitor. You wanna fuck her, Cord? Is that it? You want a piece of that little street rat? Shit man, all you had to do was say so. There’s plenty enough to go around.”

Corduroy circled Gauge like a stalking animal, his eyes darting from the plank of wood in Gauge’s hands to Ocean’s face peering through the window.

“I’m gettin’ ya outta here, Ocean. Don’t you worry.”

“You ain’t doing jack shit, Corduroy. You think Levi hasn’t heard what’s going down? All the shouting? You think she’s not already on her way? You might be able to take me down, old man, but no way you can get both of us. So give it up… and I might find it in my heart to forgive you.”

Corduroy stared Gauge directly in the eye and his answer was short and cold. “Levi’s dead.”

Gauge looked as if he were caught by a surprise pain, and the color drained from his face. He moved his lips in a silent word Ocean soon realized was really one syllable repeated again and again—no.

“Funny how quickly a pot of boilin’ water will strip the flesh off someone’s pretty little face if it’s held down long enough.”

Gauge roared and rushed toward Corduroy, but the older man was ready. The chain lashed out again with a flick of his wrist and coiled around the wooden beam. He yanked with both hands, obviously trying to pull it from Gauge’s clutches in one swift move.

Gauge responded with the reflexes of a soldier, however. At the same moment Corduroy was pulling, he twisted his body savagely to the side. Instead of the plank flying from his hands, Corduroy was jerked forward by his own weapon.

The burned man swung his hammer with a yell as Gauge whirled, the rounded head passing within inches of his face. Then he was falling backward as Gauge tackled his attacker, slamming into Corduroy’s midsection, and the two were suddenly rolling across the floor.

Their hands grasped and pulled at one another, scratching and choking and gouging as the hammer clanged to the ground. Neither one shouted or hurled threats, they were locked in combat. There were only grunts, strained growls, and gasps of pain.

Somehow, Gauge managed to climb onto Corduroy’s chest and the younger man slammed his forehead into the bridge of Corduroy’s nose with a series of sharp whacks. Blood sprayed in the air like a crimson mist, but it was impossible to tell if it were coming from Gauge’s split and swollen lip or the torrent that gushed from Corduroy’s nostrils.

Corduroy struggled to land a punch, to hit the squirming son of a bitch in the throat or solar plexus, but his swings were wild, as though he were seeing double and aiming at the wrong figure.

“Fuck you, old man,” Gauge hissed. “I’ll make that little bitch of yours choke on chunks of your fucking flesh, you damn turncoat.”

Gauge’s hand snaked behind him, the fingers grasping across the floor until they came into contact with the object they sought. In a blur of motion, the hammer descended in a deadly arc that ended with a thud on Corduroy’s forehead. The older man’s body jerked in a single convulsion, but the hammer bashed down again. And again.

I was a food warrior, mother-fucker! You can’t take down a food warrior, you stupid son of a bitch!”

Gauge had been so focused on the struggle that he hadn’t heard the cell door swing open. The patter of footsteps had been lost beneath the primal sounds of their battle and the heavy breathing from behind him would easily be mistaken as an echo of his own.

His hand raised high for one final blow, the hammer held aloft like a blood-caked trophy. Then his hand was tumbling toward the ground and he knelt there for a moment, staring at the spurting stump, his brow knitted in confusion and shock.

He reached out to touch the nub of flesh that had once been a wrist, to prove to himself that it really was gone.

There was a flash of light and he was left staring at not one, but two severed appendages. Blood oozed from the wounds, seeming to bubble up from around the hints of bone through all of that wet, glistening flesh.

He looked up as the first twitches of pain began to pull the corners of his eyes and mouth into a grimace. Ocean towered above him with the sickle held firmly in both hands. Her shirt and face were spattered with blood, her eyes nothing more than narrow slits.

“I loved you, damn it.” No tears. No quivering emotion in her voice, just a flat statement of fact. “Do you understand… I loved you.”

She snorted through her nose and shook her head as if in disgust. “I loved my Mama, too, but that’s okay, now. You taught me. You showed me what it takes to survive. That bitch deserved to die. Understand? I was her damn daughter. Her daughter.

Gauge wobbled back and forth as he pressed the remnants of his hands beneath his armpits. His face was as pale of the wax in the candles they’d always burned, candles Ocean now realized had been made from rendered human fat. His eyelids fluttered as he began to slip in and out of consciousness, so Ocean crouched down and put her lips close to his ear.

“She deserved to die, and so do you. But not yet. Not like this.”

She puckered her lips as if she were about to kiss him on the cheek. Instead, she drew up a glob of phlegm from the back of her throat with a quick inhale. She spat, smiling as the goo slid through the shadow of a beard on the face she’d once thought possessed angelic perfection.

Gauge toppled over like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He lay on the ground, breathing shallowly, blood continuing to drain from his missing hands.

“O… Ocean.”

Corduroy. His voice was a soft whisper as he struggled to open his eyes.

“Shoulda k-killed him long time ago.”

Part of her wanted to ask why. Why had he come to her aid, why had he given his life in an attempt to free her? It was obvious the man didn’t have much time left. There was too much blood, his skull too shattered. She simply let him talk, listening in silence.

“D-didn’t… know. Where were you. Where you were. Didn’t kn-know. Tried to warn…”

Corduroy’s eye looked hazy somehow, as if an invisible fog were churning within the bloodshot orb. The pupil dilated rapidly, adjusting to a change in light that only he could see. He blinked several times.

Then something changed. A long wheeze strained his vocal chords, and Corduroy’s back arched as some sort of current seemed to jolt through his body. At first, Ocean thought he was having another one of his fits, his final fit, perhaps. But as the air whooshed out of his lungs, his muscles relaxed and he struggled to raise his head and hands so he could look at them. They shook so badly, however, that he simply didn’t seem to have the strength to hold them up. His arms slumped to his sides and he swallowed once as he laid his head back into the puddle of his own blood.

“What the fuck, man? I’m fuckin’ dying? Aw, shit… shit, man, it fuckin’ hurts.”

Ocean gasped when she heard the voice coming out of the burned man’s mouth. It still had the same raspy gurgle, but the cadence and word choice… the tone… it was the same as the voice she used to hear in the back of her own mind. The voice that she hadn’t heard since the night Gauge had hit her.

Ocean’s sharp intake of air caused Corduroy’s eye to look directly at her. The haze which had seemed to obscure it earlier was gone now and, somehow, it almost looked younger.

“Ocean! Ocean, honey…”

He raised his arm again and extended his trembling hand toward her.

“I found you… finally found you. I remember! Gauge. Levi. I knew… knew they’d lead me to you. And I was gonna take you away. Where you’d be safe. So safe. Fuck, man. The babies… the poor, poor babies.”

A tear slid from the corner of Corduroy’s eye and he bit his bottom lip. His voice quivered with emotion and his gaze dropped, almost as if he couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes.

“Never ate them. Never. Fuck, Ocean. Life’s… life’s always tryin’ to make me buy those fuckin’ brownies, man. Mother-fuckin’ brownies. But you. You’re all that matters. All that ever mattered.”

Corduroy’s words degraded into a series of coughs that sprayed a mist of blood, but within moments he’d regained his compsure.

“Eye’s callin’ me back, baby girl. I don’t regret… I don’t regret a…”

The clouds seem to roll back into his good eye, obscuring the clarity that had graced it momentarily, and then he laid perfectly still. She watched him for a moment, realizing that the questions that haunted her would go unanswered forever.

She would give him the death rite, of course, even if he had been insane. For whatever reason he’d had in his deformed head, he’d tried to help her. Had helped her, in fact. For that, at least, he deserved a true and lasting death.

There would be time for that. For now, there were more immediate concerns to attend to. Pebble, for one. Had Corduroy killed him as well as Levi? If not, would he have fled? Would he attack her? She hoped he wouldn’t… she really didn’t want to kill the little boy, but, at the same time, she knew she could if she were forced to.

Gauge mumbled thickly like a man in the throes of a bad dream. He, of course, was the most pressing matter.

Ocean walked across the hall to where Vessel’s body was still splayed out and grabbed her by the ankles. The woman was heavy and Ocean could only pull her in short bursts; but eventually she was able to maneuver the corpse into the cell which the woman had known so intimately. She placed the body on the bed of paper and took a moment to catch her breath.

When Gauge came to, it was to the sound of Ocean’s voice. She spoke softly from the other side of the door, her voice the same gentle lull with which she’d used to sing Baby to sleep.

“Hey, sleepyhead. How’s it feel to be on the other side? You like it in there? Kind of smells funny doesn’t it?”

“You cut off my hands, you little bitch.”

Gauge spoke between clenched teeth and his face contorted with pain. Ocean giggled behind her hand; she wiggled the tips of her fingers at him as she stuck out her tongue.

“Oh hey,” she said brightly. “Looks like someone else is waking up, too.”

Behind him, Vessel’s body had begun to twitch. Spasms wracked her muscles and her eyelids flew open.

“Now this,” Ocean continued. “I gotta see.”

The thing that had once been Vessel staggered to its feet while Gauge scuttled into the furthest corner of the cell. It’s head snapped in the direction of his movement and his shrill cry of terror echoed through the undergrounds tunnels.

It wouldn’t take long. Once it was over, Ocean thought, she’d go to the kitchen and see if she could rustle up something to eat. With Heaven at her disposal, she would never be hungry again, never have to worry about where her next meal was coming from.

She was pretty sure that Corduroy hadn’t killed Baby. In fact, she’d thought she heard his cries a little earlier and it had brought a smile to her face. She would make sure her little boy grew up loved and protected… she would make sure he never went without. And she would have someone who would love her, without motives or conditions, for the rest of her life.

No one would ever hurt her again.

EPILOUGE

Alfonso Davis swiped his plastic badge through the reader and the door responded with a click. In the fluorescent light, his uniform looked crisp and white, only the sweat stains blossoming from the armpits discoloring the fabric. He wasn’t exactly fat, but he was what his mother had always called big boned. His cocoa colored brow glistened beneath an ever-present sheen of perspiration. He let go of the badge and the string pulled it back to the clip on his pocket with a quick zip.

“I stuck my neck out to get you this job. Don’t you go fuckin’ me over, Donny. You hear?”

The man at his side was much smaller, with skin almost as pale as the scrubs they both wore. His hair was a shock of white and he looked up at his friend with red eyes.

“You can count on me, ‘Fonso. I appreciate it too, dude. That nursing home was getting to be a real buzz kill.”

The pair walked down a hallway that had been polished to the point streaks of light seemed to race ahead of them with every step.

“I’ll piss your asshole if do.”

Donny laughed and slapped his hand against his friend’s meaty shoulder.

“What the hell, man? What the fuck does that even mean? I’ll piss your asshole? Who says that?”

Alfonso stiffened for a moment and shot Donny one of the looks that had always preceded some geek getting an ass-beating when the two were in high school. Then his expression softened as he smiled.

“Didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“Yeah, where were you, man? Thought you were coming over to catch the game.”

“Nah, went to Vibrations instead. After the day I had yesterday, I just wanted to get my drunk on. Never goin’ back there again, though. Place waters down their liquor, man. I’ve pissed higher alcohol content than that shit.”

Alfonso glanced around to make sure no one was within ear shot, and leaned in close as he lowered his voice to a whisper.

“Ended up hookin’ up with this cute little Asian number. Bitch was all into me, man. Took her back to the crib and got my freak on’.”

“You dog.” Donny was grinning so widely it looked like his face would collapse into his own mouth. His eyes twinkled as he nudged Alfonso in the ribs with his elbow. “You get breakfast out of it, too?”

“Hell no, playa. Sent that bitch packin’ and headed back out for more pimpin’.”

“Oh, man… you’re too much.”

“Shit, you know how it is. Once you’ve had Chinese, you just want more two hours later.”

The pair’s laughter echoed through the hallway and drew a stern look from a nurse who passed by, a tray of little cups balanced on her hands.

“Straighten up, now. Gotta show you the day room. Time to get all professional and shit.”

The end of the hall led into a larger room clustered with tables and chairs. Soft music was playing through the overhead speakers and the babble of conversation seemed to surround the two on all sides.

“See that dude, there?” Alfonso pointed out an old man with thinning hair, piecing together a jigsaw at one of the tables.

“I call him Torch. You don’t ever want to leave your lighter layin’ out anywhere around him. Best to keep it in your locker, actually. He’s got this thing with fire… burned up this family because the flames talk to him. Or so he says.”

“No shit?”

“No shit, man. And that dude over there, that’s Prophet. God tells him to do things to little kids. Bad things, man. See, I’m not fuckin’ around. You gotta watch your ass around here. They look normal enough, don’t they, but you never can tell when someone’s been tonguing their meds. They can snap just like that.”

Alfonso snapped his fingers, causing his friend to jump slightly.

“Torch done tried to burn this place to the ground half a dozen times already. You’re not careful and one of these days he’ll actually do it.”

Donny’s eyes scanned the room and picked out a bearded man in the far corner. The man was leaning forward, gesturing wildly with one hand as he appeared to lecture the pair who sat across from him. His other hand clutched a red book to his chest, and Donny squinted his eyes as he tried to make it out. The man’s arm was covering the title, but it was obviously a children’s book of some kind. He could just make out what looked to be a teddy bear in ribbed overalls on the cover.

“What about him? What’s his story?”

“Shit, nigga… you don’t know who that is?”

Donny studied the man and shook his head with a shrug.

“Okay, he’s been cleaned up. Picture that dude with longer hair, scraggly beard, and—”

“Oh, fuck! Damn man, that’s that Bosley guy ain’t it? The one hacked up that chick ‘cause he thought she was a zombie? You got the Zombie Killer in here?”

Alfonso laughed.

“Sits in that same spot each day like he’s in some interrogation room, going over the same story again and again. C’mon. I’ll introduce you to our star patient.”

Donny let Alfonso lead the way and, even though he wasn’t aware he was doing so, he allowed the larger man to partially shield him.

“What’s the deal with the book?” he whispered. “Never pictured the Zombie Killer readin’ kiddy books.”

“Says it’s for Ocean. Now shut your pie hole, man.”

They were only a few feet from the man now, and Donny felt the hairs on his arms tingle. Alfonso’s words haunted him with every step: they can snap just like that.

“Yo, Corduroy,” Alfonso said softly. “Would you do it again, brother?”

The Zombie Killer turned to look at them, recognizing his own nickname and the orderly’s voice.

“Fuck, don’t you ever listen? I’d do anything to keep her fuckin’ safe. And I’ll find her, man. I’ll find her and I’ll make sure she’s taken care of and shit. She’s my Ocean, dig?”

The man’s eyes rolled back into his head and his entire body began to shake and tremble. Spittle frothed from his mouth and his heels kicked at the floor as his fists clenched in a fury of spasms.

“Ah, shit… he’s in the Eye of Aeons, now. C’mon. Nurses take care of this stuff. Break time for us, my man.”

Alfonso lead Donny through a labyrinth of hallways and doors that required the swiping of his badge to enter. Finally, they found themselves in a room with black and white tiled floors. One wall was lined with vending machines and a television perched near the ceiling in one corner.

Donny plopped down into one of the orange plastic chairs and leaned his elbows on the table.

“Why do you call him Corduroy?”

“Name of the book he’s always carrying.”

Alfonso fished a wad of bills from his pocket and fed one into a machine. With the beep of a few buttons, a bag of chips fell from the top row and thumped behind the little door at the bottom. Rather than bending over to get them, he slid another dollar into the machine and selected a candy bar, and then a bag of cheesy popcorn followed by a double salami snack stick.

Donny looked away from the television and the bright yellow letters beneath the anchorman which boldly stated NOT EBOLA, CDC SAYS.

“Hungry much?”

Alfonso seemed to ignore the question as he slid yet another dollar into the machine. He punched the buttons and a packet of animal crackers started their descent. Just before gravity was about to take over, they got stuck on the metal coil and dangled precariously on the edge. “Ah, shit, man… come on!”

Alfonso took the machine in both hands and shook it so hard that Donny could hear the candy bars rustle against one another. Still, it refused to give up its prize.

Muscles bulged beneath the orderly’s short sleeves as he assaulted the hunk of metal and glass. It’s feet screeched against the tile floor with a series of sudden jolts, and then Alfonso was hammering the plexiglas with his fists, his lips curled back into a snarl.

Fucking money stealin’ piece of shit. Cock knockin’ son of a whore, I’ll fuckin’ cap your ass, you lousy fuckin’ bitch.”

“Hey, man… chill. It’s a fucking bag of cookies, for Christ’s sake.”

Alfonso spun around and Donny felt himself wither beneath his friend’s gaze. At that moment, the larger man’s eyes lacked any recognition. They raged with a cold fire of hatred towards the albino.

As suddenly as the outburst had come on, it faded. Alfonso shook his head and wiped sweat from the back of his neck.

“Yeah… yeah, you’re right. Shit… been hanging around these crazy mother-fuckers too much.”

Someone on the television was speaking into a cluster of microphones that encircled him. The man’s tie was loosened and the top buttons of his wrinkled shirt were undone. His silver hair was mussed, as if he’d been running his fingers through it repeatedly. Dark circles fell like shadows beneath his bloodshot eyes.

“We’re not sure.”

An uproar of voices, so many questions that they canceled one another out until a female voice shouted over the din.

“Mr. Anderson? Mr. Anderson, is it believed to be a biological weapon? Is this a case of terrorism, Mr. Anderson?”

The man sighed deeply and exchanged glances with someone off camera.

“We don’t know.”

A woman in a powder blue dress suit stepped in front of the tired looking man. She was pretty in a conservative, professional kind of way and her tone was short and curt.

“All we know for sure is that if you think you may be getting sick, you need to get to a FEMA station as quickly as possible. Teams from the CDC and WHO are working around the clock to ensure—”

“Are we talking about Ebola?”

“It’s not Ebola. We’re positive of that now. However, while we don’t know exactly what it is, we do know how to identify onset. There are seven symptoms to watch for…”

AUDIBLE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

All of my books to date have had an accompanying soundtrack. These are the songs which play in the background as I am writing, and lend themselves, in some way, to the story I am telling. When I’m away from the keyboard, they help keep my head in the world I’ve been creating. They provide inspiration and often motivation. For The 7 Habits of Highly Infective People, the soundtrack to writing was especially important. The songs helped create the tone I was going for with their dark and moody ambiance and they became very much like a real soundtrack to the little movie that was playing out in my mind. As such, I wanted to take a moment and thank the bands who created the aural tapestries that wove this particular reality. Other than the first song—which I came to think of as the opening theme for the book—and the last, they are presented here in no particular order.

Timekiller —Project Pitchfork

Madre, Protegenos —Ion

Cold —Chiasm

Dead Souls Dreaming —Diary of Dreams

Lost in Time —Arcana

Town E. —Love Is Colder Than Death

Buried Philae —Rajna

Une Nuit Ein Hiluern —Artesia

16 Miles —Ego Likeness

Here Comes The Rain Again —The Cruxshadows

Elyria —Faith and the Muse

Ein Enwachen —Illuminate

Sacrifice –London After Midnight

Precious New World —Project Pitchfork

Ad Mortem Festinamus —QNTAL

Cannibals —Diary of Dreams

Rache —Unheilig

Walk Away —The Cruxshadows

Formula —Chiasm

Sacrifice —Lacrimosa

If you enjoyed Lords of Night you may enjoy these books:

14 by Peter Clines

The Infection by Craig DiLouie

Long Voyage Back by Luke Rhinehart

The Flu by Jacqueline Druga

Copyright

Published by Permuted Press at Smashwords.

Copyright 2012 William Todd Rose.

www.PermutedPress.com

Cover art by Craig Patton.

Previously released as The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People.