Authors: Nora Roberts
“It's a tool. And a precaution,” he added when she said nothing. After a moment, he unzipped the front pocket of the pack, took out the gun and holster.
Shocked, sincerely, to see a gun in his hand, she stepped back. “Oh, Max. Not a gun. We've both always felt the same way about guns.”
“A strange land, Lana. A dangerous one.” He clipped it on his belt. “You haven't been out in nearly two weeks.” He took her hand, squeezed it. “Trust me, it's necessary.”
“I do trust you. I want to get out, Max, get somewhere guns aren't necessary, and knives aren't a precaution. Let's go. Let's just go.”
She started to put on the cashmere coatâblue as her eyesâhe'd given her for Christmas, but at his head shake, switched to her parka. At least he didn't quibble about the cashmere scarf she wrapped around her neck.
He helped her shoulder her backpack. “Can you handle it?”
She made a fist, bent her arm at the elbow. “I'm an urbanite who uses the gym. Or used to.”
With it, she picked up her purse, put it on cross-body.
“Lana, you don't needâ”
“I'm leaving my food processor, my Dutch oven, my worn exactly
once Louboutin over-the-knee boots, but I'm not leaving without my purse.” Rolling her shoulders to adjust the pack, she gave him a steady, challenging stare. “Doom or no Doom, there are lines, Max. There are lines.”
“Were those the boots you walked into my office wearingâwith one of my shirts?”
“Right. That makes worn twice.”
“I'll miss them as much as you.”
It was good, she thought, good they'd made each other smile before they left their home.
He hefted the bag she'd packed. Opened the door.
“We keep moving,” he told her. “Just keep moving north until we find a truck or an SUV.”
As her smile dropped away, she only nodded.
They moved toward the stairway at the end of the common hall. The door of the last unit opened a crack.
“Don't go out there.”
“Keep moving,” Max ordered when Lana stopped.
The door opened a little wider. Through the opening, Lana saw the woman she knew casually as Michelle. Worked in advertising, some family money, divorced, active social life.
Now Michelle's hair, the mad tangles of it, flew around her face as if in a wild wind.
Behind her dishes, glassware, pillows, and photos flew in circles.
“Don't go out there,” she repeated. “There's death out there.” Then she grinned, horribly, as she whirled her fingers in the air. “I can't stop! I just can't stop! We're all mad here. All. Mad. Here.”
She slammed the door.
“Can't we help her?” Lana asked him.
Max just took her arm, pulling her to the stairwell. “Keep moving.”
“She's one of us, Max.”
“And some like us couldn't handle what turned on inside them. They've gone mad, like she has. Immune to the virus, doomed anyway. That's the reality, Lana. Keep moving.”
They walked down three floors to the narrow lobby.
Mail slots gaped open, their doors broken off or hanging out like tongues. Graffiti smeared the walls. She smelled urine, harsh and stale.
“I didn't know they'd made it into the building.”
“Up to the second floor,” Max told her. “Most of the tenants took off before that. I'm not sure if anyone's still in the building below the third floor.”
They stepped out into the winter sunlight and snapping wind. Lana smelled smoke and ash, food gone rotten, and what she knew was death.
She kept moving, said nothing as they walked quickly through what had been her little world of streets and shops and cafes.
In its place lay destruction, desolation, and deserted streets scattered with wrecked and abandoned cars. A terrible quiet made their footsteps echo.
She yearned for the engines, the horns, the voices, the clashing, crashing music of the city. She mourned it as she walked north.
“Max, God, Max, there are bodies in that car.”
“Some were too sick to get out or to the hospital, but tried anyway. I see more every time I come out. We can't stop, Lana. There's nothing we can do.”
“It's wrong to leave them like this, but everything about this is wrong. Even if they started dispensing a vaccine tomorrowâ¦” She heard it in his silence, as truly as if he had spoken. “You don't think there'll be a vaccine.”
“I think there are more dead than reported, and will be more to come. I don't think they're close to finding a cure.”
“We can't think like that. Max, we can'tâ”
As she spoke, a girlâshe couldn't have been more than fifteenâjumped out of a smashed display window, a bulging knapsack on her back.
Lana started to speak, reassuring words on her tongue. The girl smiled as she yanked a toothy knife out of her belt.
“How about you dump the backpacks, the bags, and keep walking? Then I won't cut you.”
Shock as much as fear had Lana cringing back. Max shifted in front of her.
“Do us all a favor,” he suggested. “Turn around, walk away.”
The girl, pale hair spiking out beneath a wool cap, sliced the knife in the air. It whistled in the silence. “Your bitch won't look so pretty when I put a few holes in her. Dump your shit unless you want to bleed.”
When the girl lunged, jabbing with the knife, Lana reacted instinctively. She threw up a hand, fear screaming inside her head.
With pain widening her eyes, the girl jerked back, cried out. Those few seconds gave Max time to pull out the gun on his hip.
“Back off. Walk away.”
“You're one of them.” Eyes, full of hate now, narrowed on Lana. “You're an Uncanny. You did this. You did all this. You're fucking filth.” She spat at their feet and ran.
“Max, my Godâ”
“Move! She might have friends.”
She broke into a jog with him, noting he kept the gun out. “What did she mean byâ”
“Later. There, that silver SUV. See it?”
She saw it, saw its bumper crumpled by a sedan. Just as she saw the bodies sprawled on the street beside them.
Max shoved the gun back in its holster, gripped her hand. Now she had to sprint to keep up with his longer legs.
“Max. The bloodâ¦” It soaked into the street.
As he wrenched the door open, the roar of an engine broke the silence. “Get in!”
Lana had to step through blood and over death to throw herself awkwardly into the car. She couldn't block the short scream at the thunder of gunfire and sat trembling as Max launched himself behind the wheel, heaving the bag into the back. She watched the bag slap then bounce onto an empty car seat.
A line of colorful plastic rings jingled as he held a hand out to the starter. A motorcycle streaked around the corner, racing toward them. The girl rode pillion behind a man whose red-streaked black hair flew in the wind.
“Get the Uncannys!” she screamed. “Kill them!”
A group of four, possibly five, people swarmed after them, firing at the SUV. Sweat shimmered on Max's face as he clenched his jaw. “Come on, come on,” he urged.
Thinking of the life they might have had, the world that might have been, Lana closed her eyes. At least they'd die together, she thought, gripping his arm.
The engine sprang to life. Max shoved it into Drive, stomped on the gas.
“Hold on,” he warned and, wrenching the wheel, steered away from the mob, tires screaming.
Lana jolted when the side mirror exploded from a bullet, and the SUV bumped hard over the curb, banged back. It kissed the side of another wrecked car before Max floored it.
They streaked down the street with the motorcycle in pursuit.
Max didn't slow when they came to more wrecks, more abandoned cars, but threaded through them at a dangerous speed. Sparks flew when he veered close enough for metal to skim against metal.
She risked a look behind. “I think they're gaining. My Jesus, Max, the girlâthat same girlâshe has a gun. She'sâ”
Bullets singed the air. She heard glass breaking.
“Taillight,” he said grimly, cut the corner at Fiftieth Street and had the SUV rocking, pushed east. “I might have to slow to get across town, Lana, to get through abandoned cars. He's got more maneuverability. Do what you did back on the street.”
In full panic, she pressed her hands to the sides of her head. “I don't
what I did. I was terrified.”
He spun the wheel, spun it back, bumped over an already flattened messenger bike. “Scared now? Knock them back, Lana. Knock them back or I don't know if we'll make it.”
A bullet hit the rear window, shattering glass. Lana threw out her hand. Threw her fear with it.
The front wheel of the bike shot straight up; the rear lifted. As it began to flip, the girl flew off. Lana heard her screaming before she slammed onto the hood of a car. The man held on, fighting for control. But the motorcycle tumbled, flipped, and then both it and its driver skidded and rolled over the street.
“God, I killed them! Did I kill them?”
“You saved us.”
He slowed a little, weaving across town. He had to take a jog north at Broadway as a clog of wrecked cars blocked the east-side route. Behind them, Times Square, once a crowded, chaotic world of its own, stood silent as a grave.
He slowed at every intersection, checking to see if the way held clear. Turned east.
How many times, Lana wondered, how many times had she taken a cab or the subway to Midtown to shop or have lunch or go to the theater?
A sale at Barneys, a hunt through the shoe paradise of Saks's eighth floor. A stroll in Central Park with Max.
Over now, only memories now.
Of the few signs of life she did see, people moved furtively, not
with that brisk, I've-got-places-to-go New York pace. No tourists with their heads tipped back marveling at skyscrapers.
Smashed windows, overturned trash cans, broken streetlights, a dog, so thin its ribs showed, hunting for food. Would he go feral, she wondered, hunt for human flesh?
“I don't know the population of New York.”
“It was closing in on nine million,” Max told her.
“We've come nearly fifty blocks, and I haven't seen fifty people. Not even one person a block.” She took a breath, tried to steady herself. “I didn't believe you when you said they weren't reporting all the dead. I do now. Why did that girl want us dead, Max? Why did they come after us that way, try to kill us?”
“Let me get us out of the city first.”
He turned onto Park. The wide avenue gave them no clearer path, only provided more room for more cars. She imagined the panic that had caused the pileups, the rage that had overturned buses, cars, the fear that had boarded up windows, even six and seven stories above the streets and sidewalks.
A corner food cart on its side was picked to the bone. A limo burned out to a husk still smoked. Abandoned cranes rose and swayed like giant skeletons. Max threaded through it all, hands tight on the wheel, eyes tracking.
“A little clearer now,” he said. “Most would've headed for the tunnels, the bridges, even after they put up barricades.”
“It's still beautiful.” Lana's throat tightened on the words. “The old brownstones, the mansions.”
Even with doors ripped off hinges, windows shattered, the beauty held stubbornly on.
Eyes scanning, Max drove quickly down the wide, once gracious avenue. “It'll come back,” he said. “Humans are too stubborn not to rebuild, not to resettle a city like New York.”
“Are we human?”
“Of course we are.” To comfort both of them, he covered her hand with his. “Don't let the fear and suspicion of the brutal and ignorant make you doubt yourself. We'll get out of Manhattan, and then we'll head north, north and west, until we find a clear way over the river. The farther away from urban areas, the better the chances.”
When she only nodded, he squeezed her hand. “If we can't find a way over, we'll find somewhere safe to settle in until spring. Trust me, Lana.”
“Less than twenty blocks now before the bridge.” He flicked a glance at the rearview, frowned. “There's a car moving back there, coming up fast.”
In response, Max increased their speed.
Swiveling, Lana looked back. “I think it's the police. The lightsâand now sirens. It's the police, Max, you should pull over.”
Instead, he gunned it. “Old rules don't apply anymore. Some cops are rounding up people like us.”
“No. I haven't heard any reports of that. Max! You're driving too fast.”
“I'm not taking any chances. I've talked to others like us, and we're being rounded up when they can find us. That girl's not the only one blaming us. We're nearly there.”
“But even once weâ” She broke off, squeezing her eyes shut when he whipped around a flipped-over truck.
“Slow them down,” he snapped.
“Do what you did before, but less. Slow them down.”
With her heart banging in her throat, she held up a hand, tried to imagine pushing the car back, just pushing it backward.
She saw it fishtail, then miraculously slow. How is this happening? she thought. A few weeks ago she could barely light a candle, and nowÂ â¦ now she was the one burning with light.
“Keep it up. Just hold it. We only need a couple minutes.”
“I'm afraid if IÂ â¦ It could be like the motorcycle. I don't want to hurt anyone.”
“Just hold steady, there's the bridge. And fuck me! They've lifted the span. I didn't think of it. I should've thought of it.”
Losing her focus, she turned and saw the span of the lift bridge raised high. And the gap between it and the road.
“We have to turn off!”
“No. We have to lower it.” He gripped her hand again. “Together. We can do it together. Focus, Lana, you know how. Focus on bringing it down, or we're done.”