Authors: Nora Roberts
“Rachel, when you're done, can I hold my babies?”
“Absolutely.” And the spark that had died inside her over the past horrible days rekindled.
How shall man escape from that which is written;
How shall he flee from his destiny?
While Katie nursed her daughter for the first time, Arlys Reid decided to take her show on the road. For days now she'd depended on Chuck's reports, on what she could dig out of the shaky Internet, with the few observations from her quick hikes to and from the studio mixed in.
She'd wanted to be a reporter, she told herself as she checked the batteries in her tape recorder. It was time she went out on the street and reported.
She didn't check with her producer, her director. Whatever happened, the decision would be hersâand part of that decision, she knew, weighed from holding back the worst of what Chuck had told her that morning.
Help wasn't coming.
As she got up to put on her coat, Fred looked over from her desk.
“Where are you going?”
“Out. To work. I need you to cover for me, Fred. Just say I'm
taking a nap or something. I want to get a man-on-the-street segment. If I can find one who doesn't want to rob, rape, or kill me.”
“Not going to cover.” Fred stood up. “I'm going with you.”
Little Fredâall five feet, one inch of herâjust smiled. “Absolutely am. I've spent plenty of time out there. Somebody's got to get the Ho Hos and chips, right? And two's better than one,” she added, swinging on a bright blue jacket covered with pink stars. “There's a marketâwell, kind of a hole-in-the-wall placeâacross Sixth on Fifty-first. It's boarded up, but some of us know you can pull back a couple of the boards and squeeze in.”
She pulled a pink cap with a tail ending in a bouncing pom-pom onto her curly mop of red hair. “There's still food, so we can pick up a few supplies. Nobody takes more than they need. We made an agreement.”
“It's likeÂ â¦ the neighborhood. Who's left. You don't take more than you need so everybody gets a share.”
“Fred.” Arlys shouldered on her briefcase and studied the little redhead with the perky, freckled face. “That's a story. You're a story.”
Eyes of soft, quiet green clouded. “You can't broadcast it, Arlys. Some people, if they find out there's food they'll take it all. Hoard it.”
“No addressânot even the area.” To seal it, Arlys crossed a finger over her heart. “Just the story. One about people working together, helping each other. A bright spot. Who doesn't need a bright spot right now? You could give me some detailsânot names or locationsâjust how you came to the agreement, how it works.”
“I'll tell you while we're out for the MOS.”
“All right, but we stick together.” Arlys thought of the gun in her bag.
“You got that. And don't worry. I've got a way of seeing if some
body's friendly or an asshole. Well, some assholes aren't looking to kill you or anything. They're just assholes because they always were.”
“Can't argue with that.”
They started out.
“You know, Jim's not going to like you taking chances.”
Arlys shrugged. “He'll like if I get a story out of it. There are real people out there, just trying to get through another day. How do they do it? What happened to them? People need to hear about other people getting through. It helps them get through.”
“Like not taking more than you need from the market.”
“Like that.” As they walked down to the lobby, Arlys outlined a general plan. “We head west to Sixth, keeping an eye out for anyone on the street. A group of people, we steer clear. Groups can turn into mobs.”
“Mostly at night,” Fred commented. “But in the daytime, too.”
“I haven't been out at night in three weeks except to get the hell home after the evening broadcast. I used to love walking at night.”
“You just have to know where to walk, have to go out in the safe zones.”
“Where more good people go than bad. Some of the bad, they're not really bad. They're just scared and desperate. But some are scary bad, and you need to stay away, know how to hide.”
It could be, Arlys thought, her MOS was right in front of her. “How do you know about safe zones?”
“You talk to people, and they've talked to people,” Fred told her when they reached the lobby. “I didn't say anything because if we broadcast it maybe the bad ones will find the safe zones. I thought, if we have to shut down, when we do, I'll tell everybody else so they can try to get to one.”
“You amaze me, Fred.”
“Sometimes they can help if somebody wants to get out of the
city. But a lot of people still here don't want to give up the city, even if they have to fight.”
Arlys unlocked the door.
“Aren't you going to wear a mask?”
“You know they don't do any good, don't you?” Arlys looked over at Fred. “You know as well as I do if you're going to get it, you get it.”
“They make some people feel safe. I thought that's how you felt.”
They stepped out and Arlys locked the door. “We're not going to get separated, but just in case, do you have your key?”
“Don't worry,” Fred assured her.
Arlys nodded and they began to walk through air that carried the stench of burning and blood and piss.
“How many people do you estimate, Fred, you've seen or spoken with in these safe zones? I won't go on air with it. Off the record.”
“I don't know exactly. I know they're trying to keep a count, but it changes. People come, people go. People are still getting sick. Still dying. Weâtheyâtry to take the bodies into green areas, parks, at dawn. It's still cold enough so, you know.”
“I know.” But when the temperatures warmed again, the decay would be horrific. And those who had died indoorsÂ â¦
She'd caught the smell in her own building. The smell of decay.
“You can't really have funerals or memorials, exactly. There are so many,” Fred added. “Somebody says some words, andÂ â¦ You have to burn them. There are rats, you know, and dogs and cats andÂ â¦ They can't help it, so you have to burn them. It's clean, and it's kind, I think.”
“You've been to theseÂ â¦ memorials?”
Fred nodded. “It's so sad, Arlys. But it's the right thing to do. You have to try to do the right thing, but there are so many. A lot more than they say.”
From under her pom-pom cap, Fred slanted a look up at Arlys. “You know?”
“I have a source, butÂ â¦ It's like not broadcasting the safe zones. If I go on air with everything he tells me, they'll stop me. And they might get to him.”
“You wouldn't tell. You wouldn't reveal a source.”
“I wouldn't tell, but there might be a way to trace him from me. I can't take the chance. I have a protocolâhe gave meâif I ever go on air with what he asked me to hold back? I have to destroy the computer I'm working on, my notes, everything. And go.”
“I can't tell you.”
“Because he told you in confidence.”
“That's right. But ifâ”
Hear that?” Even as she spoke, Fred grabbed Arlys's arm, yanking her back from the corner of Sixth. “In here.”
As Fred dragged her through the broken display window of what had once been a shoe store, Arlys heard the engine.
“It sounds like a motorcycle. Raiders?”
“They like motorcycles. You can get around the wrecks.” Fred put her finger to her lips, drew Arlys away from the broken glass, into the shadows.
Arlys started to speak, but Fred shook her head fiercely.
She heard the sound of more glass breaking, wild laughter. Then the roaring engine thundered by, began to fade again.
Fred put her hand up, a wait signal, for several seconds more. “Some of them can hear like bats. And sometimes they travel in groups. You can't take chances.”
After letting out a breath, Arlys looked around. The empty shelves ran up the walls on both sides. If there had been display tables, someone had hauled them off.
A few shoes scattered around the floor, a couple of handbags, some socks.
“I'm surprised they left anything.”
“The bad ones take what they want, bust the rest up. They'll pee on things, even poop on them. They don't want the stuff, but they don't want anybody else to have it. Mostly right now, they do stuff like this.”
She led Arlys out again, walked to the corner, looked long north and long south before jogging across the street.
“They get drunk or high,” she continued, “set fires, shoot off guns. They ride around looking for somebody who doesn't hide quick enough, or run fast enough. They hurt them. Or kill them.
“But they're starting to hunt.”
“Starting to go through buildings where people live. Or lived. It's the dead that keep them out of some places. But it won't keep them out much longer. They do the same thing, bust things up, take what they want, and look for people to hurt. Raiders.”
She stopped by an empty car.
“This wasn't here yesterday. See, they tried to get through, but the street's mostly blocked. They didn't take their things. See, they tried to take too much, and couldn't take it with them if they had to run. The market's just down here.”
“Is this a safe zone?”
“It's safe enough if you're not stupid.” She smiled when she said it.
She stopped at a boarded storefront. Arlys frowned at the symbols painted over the boards. “What does all this mean?”
“OhÂ â¦ You could say it's for good luck. Somebody's inside now. It's okay,” she said quickly. “It's not one of the Raiders or the bad ones.”
“How do you know?”
But Fred had already eased two boards apart. “Blessings,” she said. “It's like a password,” she told Arlys, and stepped inside.
The boards closed behind Arlys, pitching them into full dark. Not even a crack of light showed. Then one flashed on.
“Who's with you, Fred?”
“Hi, T.J. This is Arlys. We work together. It's okay. She's one of the good ones.”
“Are you bringing her into one of the zones?”
“Not now anyway. She's looking for an interview, and I figured since we were out, I'd get a couple cans of soup for back at the station. How's Noah?”
When his answer was silence, Fred took a step forward. “T.J., you know I wouldn't bring anyone who means harm.”
“You can cause it without meaning to.”
“Would you mind getting that light out of my eyes?” Arlys spoke coolly. “Then I can answer for myself.”
It lowered slowly.
“I don't know how much longer we'll be able to broadcast. There are only a handful of us still working, still able and willing to. Communication matters, information matters, even when it's thin. I don't know how many people can still access a broadcast, but for everyone who can, they can relay that information to someone else. My guess, and we can hope it's pessimistic, is we've got a few days, maybe a week before we go dark. I want to do my job until that happens. Then I'm going to find some other way to do my job.”
“What's this interview bull?”
“I want to go on with a story, a personal one. I want people to hearânot from me, but from someone who's getting through this. I want to go on with that story. Because it matters. It's about all that matters now.”
“You want to tell a story?”
“I want you to tell yours,” Arlys corrected. “I want you to speak
to and for all the others out there, hanging on. What you think, what you feel, what you've done. Maybe one person hears it, and it helps them hang on.”
“Talk to her, T.J. It's the right thing to do.”
“No names,” Arlys added. “I'll call you something else. No location. I won't say where we spoke. I have a recorder with me. Anything you say is off the record, I turn it off.”
“You're going to go on with this tonight?”
“I'm going to ask to go on with it when I get back, ask for it to run every hour until the evening report. Tomorrow, if I can, I'm going to try to talk to someone else, get their story, and do the same thing. This isn't going to be the end because we're not going to let it be the end. The Raiders aren't going to pick us clean. We're going to get through. I want you to tell me how you did, how you are.”
“You want to hear my story? I'll tell you my story.”
“Can I get my recorder? And my flashlight?”
She reached in her briefcase, found the flashlight by feel, took her recorder out of her pocket before turning the light on, aiming it in the direction of T.J.'s voice.
A big guy, she thought, a broad-shouldered black man with fierce black eyes. The stubble thickening on his head told her he'd likely shaved it routinely until recently.
“You'll call me Ben.”
“All right, Ben. I'm turning on the recorder. This is Arlys Reid. I'm speaking to Ben. I've asked him to tell me, tell all of us, his story. The pandemic has changed everything for everyone. How do you cope?”
“You get up in the morning, and do what you have to do. You get up, thinking for just a split second, everything's the way it was. Then you know it's not. It's never going to be, but you get up and keep going. Three weeks and two days ago, I lost my husband. The
best man I ever knew. A police officer, decorated. When things started to go bad, he went out every day, trying to help people. To serve and protect. It cost him his life.”
“He was killed in the line of duty?”
“Yeah, he was. But not by a bullet or a knife. That would've been easier for him. He got infected, he got sick. By that time, the hospitals were so overloadedÂ â¦ He wouldn't go. No point in it, he told me. He wanted to die at home, in our home. His worry was he'd infected me, but I didn't get sick.”