“This is so gross,” Shreya says.
The further we move from the station, the thicker the sludge becomes. Even the street is covered with it, as the goop slowly drains off the sidewalk and onto the asphalt.
There are eight of us who’ve come up from the station to look around. For now we’re only going to take a look around and then head back to the station. That was the condition Mike the Cop had put on us going up. In return, when we get back, we’ll tell everyone what we’ve learned, and they can decide for themselves how to proceed.
We’re making slow progress down the sidewalk, our feet sticking to the mess on the ground with every step. At first I’d tried to walk on the bits of clothing that are strewn everywhere, but those slipped whenever I put my foot on them, so now I’m not even bothering.
“Maybe we should turn around and go the other way,” Nick says.
“Yes. Let’s,” Shreya says. “If this is really people we’re walking on, it should lessen up once we get away from the protest area, right?”
“Maybe,” Josh says. “But I wanna be sure. And besides, there are a bunch of Metro stations this way. We’re sure to find other people.”
“Do we want to find people?” says a guy named Hamid. He’s an older man, about the same age as Dad. If my desi-dar is correct, and it usually is, he’s Pakistani, and he’s at that stage of baldness where he’s decided, “Screw it,” and shaved his entire head. I calculate a 97% chance he owns a motorcycle.
“The more the merrier,” a girl says. Amber, I think she introduced herself as. She’s got frizzy black hair and is in clothes that are ... let’s call them vintage to be nice. She’s not much older than Josh and didi, but she looks like she came through a time portal from 1988.
“I just wanna do what we gotta do and get back,” Joe says. He’s around the same age as Amber, though a lot cooler looking. He’s in a T-shirt that says “Sarcasm is like punching someone in the face with words.” I’m tempted to ask where he got it, but I know this isn’t the right time. (Still, I want it.)
“Yeah,” our last companion says. He’s one of the cops who’d been down in the station—not not Officer Mike, but one of his subordinates. K. Porebski his nametag says. None of us are particularly comfortable with him coming along, but Officer Mike had insisted we bring him with or he wouldn’t let us go out. “This is like a monster movie, and we’re the guys heading into the danger zone.”
“Aren’t you paid to be a hero?” Nick says.
“Have you looked around? I don’t think I’m getting paid for this.”
He’s right. I don’t know what exactly had happened here, but it was bad. And I don’t just mean the sludge, though, yeah, that’s the worst of it. But the buildings, too, are damaged, even the ones made of solid stone. They all have decorative columns in their facades, and those have cracked and tumbled onto the sidewalk. It’s like that summer when my family went on vacation to Greece and we saw the what-do-ya-call it, the Pantheon? Yeah, like that. Like we’re walking through the ruins of some ancient culture, and not a couple blocks from the White House.
We reach an intersection. The road splits into three here, with the central portion sinking down to go under the Mall, while the lanes on either side continue on the surface.
“Say, if we survived because we were underground,” I say, “do you think there are people alive in that tunnel?”
“I doubt it,” Hamid says. “That tunnel is shallow, and the ends are wide open. It’s pretty different from a Metro station.”
“And besides, dummy,” didi says, “if you were in a car when it happened, would you stick around? I’d hit the gas and be in Virginia in five minutes.”
“Don’t call me a dummy, or I’m—” I’m about to say, “I’m telling Mom,” but I realize Mom might not even be alive. “Shut up, didi.”
This is so bad. What are we going to do? If this goop really is people, there must be a thousand dead just on this street. What about the rest of the city? What about Virginia and Maryland? How far out does the destruction go.
I wish Josh would put his arm around me. I don’t care what didi would think. I want somebody to comfort me right now.
But he’s acting all serious, and I can’t blame him for that, but couldn’t he leave that to somebody else. Hamid seems like he’s up to it. Or even that cop.
We cross the intersection and make our way down the next block. There are shrubs and trees planted along the sidewalk, but they’re all burnt, like somebody had come by with a flamethrower. To our left, across a low, railed wall and a small parking lot, is one of the Smithsonian museums—Natural History, maybe? All the windows on the side have been smashed, and hard enough that shards had flown all the way to the sidewalk, and even into the street.
“What do you think did that?” I ask.
“Overpressure,” Nick says. “When a bomb explodes, the shockwave will crack glass. We’re lucky that’s all it did.”
“That’s not overpressure,” Hamid says. “That would cause the windows to implode.”
“Okay. Then underpressure,” Nick says.
“Possible. It only takes a one PSI difference to break glass. But what would cause it? That’s the sort of thing that happens in a tornado.”
“Hey, what’s that down there?” Joe says. He’s pointing into the museum’s parking lot.
“A tree?” Shreya says, all unimpressed like.
“Yeah, but look where it’s at.”
My sister squints. “What the hell?”
Nobody’d really been paying attention, but at didi’s reaction, we all look over. There are a bunch of trees around the edge of the lot, and some more growing near the building, but this one… it’s right in the middle of the pavement. It’s tall, too. None of the trees near the museum are more than nine feet tall, but this one is three times that, with branches that spread out wide, almost to the walls of the museum.
“How did that get there?” Amber says.
Josh leans against the rail that separates the parking lot from the sidewalk. The street’s on a hill, and the lot is cut into the slope, so there’s a seven foot drop between where we’re at and the other side, and there are thick bushes at the bottom.
“C’mon.” Josh turns and heads back the way we’d come. As we retrace our path, the drop between us and and the lot gets smaller and smaller. When we spot a break in the brush, he hops over the rail. Me and Nick, Amber and Hamid follow him over, but Shreya, the cop and Joe keep going until they get to the end of the wall and take a path onto the museum grounds. This is no time to be a goody-goody, didi!
The good news is, there’s no sludge over here. But we do have to walk across charred grass, and each step turns up a puff of black dust as the blades crumble beneath our feet.
We reach the lot and turn towards the tree.
Nick knocks on the roof of a Honda Civic as we pass. “Don’t suppose anyone knows how to hot wire a car?”
“God, you people are useless.”
“Be quiet,” Hamid says.
We make our way around the side of the building. Once we get past the front corner, the lot widens and we find the misplaced tree.
Now that we’re up close, we see it’s even odder than we saw from the street. Its roots don’t go into the ground at all. Instead it’s standing up on them like it’s on its tiptoes. Some of the roots aren’t as strong as others, and the tree is leaning to one side.
“What would cause this?” Shreya says.
Josh approaches the tree.
“Don’t get too close,” Joe says.
“I’ll be fine.”
I’m with Joe. The way the tree’s tilting, it could tip over in the slightest breeze. But Josh walks right up to the trunk. He kneels and looks closely at the roots. He pokes them and clumps of dirt fall off.
“Careful!” Shreya says.
“It’s all right. Jeez.”
“Say,” Amber says, “what kinda tree is this, anyway?”
None of us had looked that closely. And to be honest, the only kinds of trees I can recognize are palms and pines. Oh, and the ones with the white bark. What are those, ash? I dunno. But elms and oaks and all those, they’re like frogs and toads to me. What’s the difference?
Hamid looks up at the branches. “That’s a very good question.”
“Yeah, it is a weird looking one, isn’t it?” Shreya says.
Guys, it’s a tree. It’s got a trunk, and branches, and a bunch of leaves. Other than being charbroiled, what’s the big deal?
Josh finishes his examination of the roots and stands. He walks under the side that’s tilted, where the branches hang lower. He examines the leaves and plucks one that is less charred than the others. He brings it back to us.
“Anyone recognize the shape?”
Uh, yeah, it’s a leaf. It’s got five grass-like blades growing from a stem. Okay, it’s not something you see around here, but this is the Natural History Museum. Maybe they planted something. And then somehow it got blown across the parking lot and landed here. Sure, it’s weird, but I wanna get back to the station and then head home, see if Mom and Dad are okay. I’ll even work a shift at the store tonight if they want me to, no complaints. Better than standing here gawking at a tree.
“No,” didi says. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“It looks sorta like a date frond, or a fern,” the Middle Eastern Guy says.
“Ferns don’t grow thirty feet high,” Joe says.
“No. Clearly not.”
This is gonna be a boring conversation, I can tell. I wander away and hop a seat on the hood of a car—one that’s in the shade of the building, so the metal doesn’t scorch me. Come on guys, hurry it up, please.
One thing about stepping back from the group, it’s easier to notice patterns in how people are behaving. Now Shreya, no surprise, is standing next to Josh. She’s like the heroine of some crappy YA novel, wanting to get cozy with the cute guy even though it’s the end of the world. How about some situational awareness, huh? Freak out a little, worry about getting outta here. And most of all, leave my boy alone—you’ve got no chance with him.
But Josh, he’s completely not noticing her. He’d pay more attention to her if she were another tree. Joe the Sarcasm Guy, though, he’s checking her out. He’s standing off to her side, but he keeps looking over at her. He even steps back a bit so he can see her butt. He’s on the heavy side—not disgustingly obese, but somebody should buy him a gym membership for Christmas—so he has no chance with didi. She’s shallow that way.
Amber is standing by herself, but not like she’s shy or afraid of interacting—she’s doing quite a bit of talking, in fact. She’s just disinterested. Nick’s not, though. He’s eying her up and down—no surprise there, he eyes every girl he meets. I’ve even caught him eying my mom. How gross is that? I don’t mind a guy being a little pervy, but that’s way beyond the line.
Hamid is also standing by himself, but I think that’s more to do with him being a couple decades older than anyone here except maybe the cop, who—wait a second, where’s the cop?
He’s nowhere in the parking lot. He came around with us, right? I’d seen him following Shreya. Did he get bored and wander off? I mean, no loss if he does—I’m okay with ditching him, but I’m afraid the others will want to go looking for him and we’ll end up wasting a lot of time.
Did he go into the museum maybe? I haven’t been there since ... sixth grade? Or was it elementary school? Whatever. I know there was a snack bar inside. It was pretty crap, no real selection, but food is food. Maybe the cop went to grab some.
Hmm ... is that him up there? Looks like somebody’s moving around on the third floor. Or it could be something blowing in the wind. I’m too far away to tell.
I get up and move for a better view.
“Hey, you. Girl.”
I jump. That voice came outta nowhere.
The cop’s waving to me from down the parking lot. He’s in the shadow of the museum. I go over to him.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t startle me.”
“Sure looked like it, the way you jumped.”
“I didn’t jump.”
“Right. Listen, you wanna give me a hand?”
“Hand with what?”
He holds up two sets of car keys. “Let’s find what these go to.”
“Where did you get those?”
“In there.” He jerks his head towards the museum. “All kinds lying around on the floor.”
My eyes narrow. “Eww.”
“What? The owners don’t need them.”
“Yeah, I think that’s called grave robbing.”
“Look, this is an emergency. I don’t know about you, but I wanna get the hell outta here as fast as possible. Preferably with maximum air conditioning.”
He makes a good point, I’ll give him that. But, “Didn’t you have a car?” We’d walked past it when we came out of the station, but at that point we’d been too intent on seeing what was going on to give it a second glance.
“You ever been in a prowl car?”
“They aren’t exactly made for the comfort of passengers. Rear windows don’t go down, there’s no leg room in the back.”
Maybe he’s right. “Okay.” I take a set of keys. It’s sticky. Ew. I almost drop it. “Did you wash these?”
“Yeah, I found a bottle of water, rinsed them. But that shit’s heavy duty. It’s not coming off without soap, at least. Maybe Lysol.”
I hold the keys with my finger nails. “It’s disgusting!”
“We’ve been walking in it for the last ten minutes.”
“I have shoes!”
“Don’t be so squeamish. This is the apocalypse, can’t you tell. We gotta be tough we’re gonna survive.”
He’s… not wrong. “Fine.” I hold the keys in my hand. “But how are we gonna find the car?” The parking lot’s not exactly full, but there are still a couple dozen vehicles around, and probably more behind the building and out on the street. If we wander around matching logos, we’ll be here all day.
“Easy.” He raises his arm and hits a button on the key fob. Nothing happens. “Give it a try.”
I do. I get no response either.
“Figures it wouldn’t be that easy. C’mon, let’s check around.” He waves towards the back of the building, away from didi and the others.
“Shouldn’t we tell them where we’re going?”
He turns around and walks backwards. “They’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t be a child,” he says. “We have to forge our own path through the new frontier.” He spins forward again, narrowly avoiding the bumper of a car.
Is that supposed to sound cool? Who wants to forge a frontier? If this is the apocalypse, I want people around, as many as we can get. Let’s rebuild society.
But I hurry after the cop. We keep trying our keys as we go. Still no response.
“You know, this is going to be tough,” the cop says.
“What’s gonna be?”
“The new world. Life as we know it is gone. Have you thought about what that means?”
“We don’t know for sure. There could be… I mean, it could just be DC, right?” My mom and dad should be okay. The store. Randy and Jenna, our employees.
“Even if it is, you think this country is going to hold together after this? Things were bad enough all ready. Hell, that might be the worst case scenario. If the whole world’s been done in, there’ll be less people for us to worry about. But if the country’s still out there with no government to hold it together … can you imagine that? It’ll be Iraq and Afghanistan, right here at home.”
“No way.” Americans aren’t like that. I mean, sure, that orange jerk is President, but he didn’t win the popular vote. Only a minority of Americans support him. A large minority, yeah, and they’ve got guns but .… No, things won’t end up like that. Even Republicans aren’t that crazy. They’re still Americans.
I try telling myself that, but I’ve got doubts. There are people out there who don’t necessarily see me as an American. I was born here, so was my mom, but that’s not good enough for them. We’ve always had people at the store who were kinda racist, but since the election it’s gotten worse. I’ve had customers tell me to “go back to Iraq” and things like that. They’re usually drunks, mad that they don’t have enough change for a forty-ounce, but a couple times they’ve been middle class white ladies, look totally respectable.
It’s happened to me at school, too. The guys who say it all all jerks I wouldn’t want to hang out with anyway, but some of them have been popular kids, like Nate Baranski—he told me I should wrap my face in a towel so he wouldn’t have to look at my hairy eyebrows. That still makes me mad. Why don’t any of these idiots know the difference between Muslims and Indians, huh?
I click the key fob again.
Was that ...?
“Over there,” the cop points to the back of the museum. But we’re already at the edge of the parking area—all that’s over there is the driveway and the main street.
But he’s already off and running. I should follow. I guess?
I hurry after him.
“Try it again,” he tells me.
I raise the key fob high and hit the button.
Yes! We’re getting closer. But the sound didn’t come from inside the museum grounds. It’s beyond the outer wall, out on the street.
“It’s that Toyota,” the cop says. “I saw the lights flash.”
We cross a blackened patch of grass and go around a couple trees. There’s a gold SUV parked at the curb. We climb over the little wall and go over to it.
“Perfect,” the cop says. “I was afraid we’d have to grab two vehicles to fit everyone—that’s why the two keys. This’ll be cramped, but we should fit everyone.”
“What about the people back at the station?”
“What about ‘em?” He walks around the front of the SUV.
“They can’t fit in here.”
He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “It was their decision to stay in the station. They’re not our problem anymore. Let ‘em get their own ride.”
“You’re a cop. Aren’t you supposed to, like, protect and serve and stuff like that?”
“Honey, that’s over. I keep telling you, this is a new world, new rules.” He opens the door and gets in. When I don’t follow suit, he leans across and pops the passenger door. “C’mon.”
I get in.
“That’s a good girl.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a dog.”
“I’m teasing. You gotta learn to take a joke.”
“It’s not funny.”
I hand him the keys. He slides them into the ignition and turns the power on, but he doesn’t start the engine. The radio lights up and plays ear-shattering static. He grabs a knob and turns, but that only changes the station, which does nothing but give us slightly different static. He tries the other knob and that kills the sound.
“Are we going?” I say.
He reaches across console and pokes my nose with his finger. My nose twitches like a bunny’s. “What’s the hurry?”
“We gotta get back before my sister freaks.”
“First it’s your mom who’s gonna freak, now it’s your sister. Is that all your family does? It’s a nonstop freakout with you guys?”
“They’re high strung.”
“From what I’ve seen so far, looks like your sister’s more of a stress inducer.”
He’s not wrong, but I don’t like a stranger badmouthing my family. “She’s all right once you get used to her.”
“I’m sure. If your mom’s the same way, I feel sorry for you.”
“Just an impression I get. You’re much more chill than your sis. If she went to a party, she’d sit in a corner all night. You though …”
He reaches over to me and strokes my cheek. My whole face gets hot. His fingers trace the line of my neck and down towards my—
“Uh ... what are you doing?”
His hand is on my chest. Who told him he could put his hand there?
“I dunno. What am I doing?”
I grab his hand and lift it off me.
“What’s the matter?” he says.
“Oh, c’mon. I’ve seen you drooling over that one guy.”
“I have not been drooling!”
“Please. I was above ground right before the quake. I saw you kiss him, you thought no one was looking.”
I blush. “So?” Like it’s any of his business.
“So you’re a big girl.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. I try to pull away, but he’s got strong arms. I’m pinned to the seat.”
“Please, stop touching me.”
“Look, I’m not gonna hurt you.”
You’re doing a good job of fooling me! I need to get outta here. I hafta get back to Shreya. And Josh. He’ll protect me. He’ll do something, I’m sure.
Except … this guy’s got a gun. He hasn’t pulled it yet, but it’s there. If I run away, he could shoot me. He could shoot Shreya and Josh and the others. And who’d stop him?
I’m shaking. What am I gonna do?
“You don’t have to be afraid,” he says. He’s so close right now, I can feel his hot breath on my cheek. He had something with onions for lunch—the smell is so strong I wanna gag. “I’m gonna keep you safe.”
Ha! “I don’t want you to keep me safe.”
“I’ve told you, it’s a whole new world now. The old rules don’t apply. Things are gonna get bad and quick. A pretty girl like you, you need someone to protect you.”
Yes, I’ve noticed!
“Who’s it gonna be, some scrawny college guy? Yeah, right. Especially some lib who doesn’t believe in violence. What do you think he’s gonna do? This city is full of animals—trust me, I’ve been on the force for fifteen years. I know. They barely behave themselves to begin with; what do ya think’s gonna happen when they realize there aren’t any rules anymore? Huh? Your boyfriend’ll try to talk things over with them—how do you suppose that’s gonna work? You wanna stay safe, you gotta come with me. I can protect you.”
“You have a funny way of showing it.”
“You’re being a skeeze.”
“What?” He’s shocked. How can he be shocked?
“You’re touching me!”
He snorts. “That? That’s just flirting.”
“That’s not how you flirt.”
“Oh yeah? I bet you wouldn’t object if the other guy did it.”
“Because I wouldn’t mind him doing it.”
“How’s a guy supposed to know if he doesn’t try?”
“I was giving Josh clues. Did I give you any clues? No.”
“Then why did you come out here with me?”
“You asked me to.”
“Yeah. Why did you say yes?”
“To help you find a car. Which we’ve done. Mission accomplished. Let’s get the others.”
“If I’d asked your sister, you think she’d’ve come? No way. So why did you say yes? Really.”
“What do you mean ‘really’? I told you.”
“Are you really that bad at reading people?”
“I have great people skills. It’s my superpower.”
“Why so defensive? This a sore subject?”
“How many friends you got at school?”
“What, two, three?”
“More than that. I’m in a ton of clubs. Drama, Academic Trivia, Model UN.”
“Oh, one of those.” His voice is dripping with disdain.
“One of what?”
“The girl who joins all the clubs so she can put them on her college applications.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You think people like having someone join a club that they don’t actually care about?”
“I care.” If I didn’t, I would’ve joined forensics like my father wanted. But I hate arguing.
“You were giving all of them your full effort? Really?”
“All of them, equally? Cuz when I was in high school and people tried to play two different sports in the same season, they were always missing practice for one or the other. Pissed their teammates off—we were busting our asses, and they hadda leave for a soccer game.”
My face stings, just like if he’d slapped me. There’d been times when I skipped out on rehearsals because I had to attend a Trivia Team practice, or do research for the Model UN. But it hadn’t been any big deal—I’d had a small part in the play, and I’d already memorized my lines.
“They always said, ‘Hey we’re busting our asses off over there, too,’ but you know what? It didn’t matter? Being a team means busting your ass together. If you aren’t there to support your teammates, even if you aren’t playing, you aren’t really part of the team.”
“I guess not.”
“So you sure your clubmates were down with you skipping off to do other things?”
“I mean … nobody said anything about it.”
“To your face. But what about what they didn’t say? Did they treat you like part of the group?”
Sure they had. They’d invited me out to Denny’s after meetings, or to hang out on weekends. Of course I hadn’t been able to attend—I always had other club stuff to do, and homework, and helping out at the store. But they’d invited me. At first, anyway. After a while they gave up.
“How many people in those clubs were actually your friends?”
“I dunno. A few.”
“You hung out with any of them this summer? Bet you haven’t.”
How can he know that? “I don’t have time. My parents are always making me work at the store.” The truth is, today’s the first time I’ve been out all summer.
“Has anyone called and tried to get you to come out?”
“They know it’s no good. My parents won’t let me.”
“Friends would call.”
He’s right. I’ve spent the summer hoping Amy or TJ would call or text or anything. Even if I had to turn them down, it would’ve been nice to know I’m wanted. But we’ve only chatted a couple times on Facebook, and both of them blew me off as soon as they found something better to do.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I’m a cop. We’re good at reading people. You’ve got it written all over you. The desperate-for-attention look. That’s why you let the guy kiss you, isn’t it?”
“No.” Josh is cute. What girl wouldn’t want to kiss him?
“You were so happy a guy showed the least bit of attention to you, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. So what?”
“You think you’re the only one he does that with? Guys throw out attention at every cute girl we come across. It’s like fishing—most of the time you don’t go out trying to catch some specific fish. You take whatever bites and hope it’s a goodun.”
“You’re wrong.” Josh isn’t like that. This guy, he’s just guessing. He’s saying whatever and hoping it fits.
“Keep deluding yourself. I bet if a buncha gangbangers show up and tell him to hand you over, he’d do it, no second thoughts.”
“It’s true. You can look at the guy and tell he’s pussy. If things are as bad as they look, you’re going to need a real man to keep you safe.”
I roll my eyes. “And where do I get one of those?”
He grabs my chin and squeezes. “You’re too sassy, you know that? I know that’s what girls are like nowadays, but you need to learn—that shit’s over. Women can only bitch and moan like they do cuz we’ve been living in a liberal fairy-world where they’re protected. But there aren’t laws anymore. Things are gonna get medieval—they’re gonna get fucking Jurassic, you understand what I’m saying? You better learn to behave the old fashioned way. A man tells you something, you listen. It’s for your own good, understand?”
I yank my head loose from his grip. I reach for the door handle, but he grabs my hair by the braid and pulls so hard I think my scalp’s gonna come off. I cry out.
He hits the lock. “I’m being nice here. I want us to get along. But I’m not putting up with any shit, you got that?”
“What’re you doing?”
“We’re getting out of here.” He shifts into drive and steps on the gas. The wheels squeal as they try to gain traction on the sludge in the road. The car skids into motion, and when he turns the wheel to get us into the street, we almost spin out.
“Hey!” I try to unlock the door, but there’s some sort of safety mechanism, it won’t unlock while the vehicle’s in motion.
He gets the SUV under control.
“Where are we going?”
“This is the end of the world, right?”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“You don’t get it.”
He drives through an intersection without even slowing. We pass by an empty square on one side, a Roman-looking government building on the other.
“Of course I don’t get it. If I got it, I wouldn’t be asking, would I?”
He glares at me. Hey, keep watching the road! “End of the world means no rules any more. You gotta take what you want before anyone else has a chance, and you gotta defend it from anyone who wants to take it.”
“You are really scaring me right now.”
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
Not very reassuring! “Then stop the car and let me out.” We haven’t gone too far. I doubt I can get back to the museum before Shreya notices I’m gone, but it’s better than sticking in the car with Psycho Cop.
“Are you nuts?” he asks. “Think about what’s happened, will you. Everyone who’s on the surface is dead. Only people who were underground are still alive. That means Metro riders. As the people in the station realize what’s happening, they’re gonna come above ground and things are gonna turn to shit. You wanna be in the middle of all that?”
Things are already turning to shit. You are the shit. Does he not see that? He is the very thing he is ranting against.
“If you say so.” I’d best not provoke him. Which, given my big mouth, means not saying anything I don’t have to.
“The best move right now is to get the hell away from the city.”
“Why are we ditching my sister, though?”
He doesn’t answer. We’ve gone through another block. The Capitol’s looming ahead of us, its dome cracked in half and part of it fallen in. But before we get there, the road is going to switch to one of those annoying diagonal streets that make it impossible to go anywhere in DC without getting lost.
“If you want me to believe you, answer my question. Why are we ditching my sister?”
“Because she’s annoying.”
“You’re not wrong, but that’s no reason to leave her behind. If things are as dangerous as you say, you should be keeping her safe, too.”
He doesn’t answer.
He steers us into a traffic circle, though he ends up going the wrong way around. And then the street he wants to take, which would keep us going east past the Capitol, turns out to be barricaded. It’s only one of those gates with the wooden arm that goes up and down, with a rusty metal plate raised behind it. Without any cops standing guard, we could smash through it, no problem, but for all his talk about there being no rules anymore, when he sees the red and white arm barring our way, he pulls out of his turn and continues around the circle. We exit onto a street the runs along a pool in front of the Capitol.
“You know,” I venture, “it might not be the way you’re saying. People aren’t all as bad as you claim.”
He snorts and turns us into a second circle. This is like being on a merry-go-round. Good thing I don’t get car sick. Much.
“Girl, I’m a cop. I know more about people than you ever will. Trust me, they’re shit, and once they realize how bad things are, they’re gonna turn into a mob.” He steers hard to the right and we’re on a street again, headed back the way we’d come, only now we’re on the south side of the Mall, behind all the museums there.
“No. No, no, no, no,” I say. “That’s only true if people decide to go that way.”
“And that’s what they’re going to decide.”
“No. We can reboot civilization. There were enough people at our station alone to at least get a village going.”
“You think we can get everyone on the same page for that? Yeah, right. We’ll be killing each other for food before the week’s out.”
We fly past the Smithsonian Castle.
“Yeah, well what’s your big idea?”
“Best way to get food is going to be hunting. If we get to the outer suburbs, there are tons of deer out there. But you can feed a small band that way, not a whole village.”
“What if all the deer turned to goop like people?” I ask.
“What if. The deer. Melted. Into goop. Like people.” I’m trying not to be sarcastic, but it’s not working.
He stares at me, like he hasn’t considered this. Oh come on! If you’re going to kidnap me, plan it out! I demand a better class of abductor than this.
“Well, I mean, we can find seeds,” he says. “We can learn to farm. You know the best place to go in case of apocalypse? Amish country. Everything you need to start over at a basic, sustainable tech—”
He’s taken his eyes off the road to talk to me, which would be fine if the street were deserted. But although there aren’t any moving vehicles or pedestrians, there are cars and trucks that had been on the road when the quake happened, and some of them have crashed or stalled. One of them, a blue minivan, is stopped in the road ahead of us.
The cop tries to swerve out of the way, but we run into a puddle of goop and the SUV spins out of control. He struggles with the wheel, but it’s no good. We hit a curb and I’m thrown forward. My nose smashes against the lock on the glove compartment hard enough that blood spurts out. The cop’s thrown against the steering wheel, and his chest sets off the horn.
We’re stopped. I grab the door handle, but it’s still won’t unlock.
“Let me out. Now.”
“God dammit, why’d you go and distract me while I’m driving?” He grabs for my hair again, but I dive under his grip and stretch across his lap. I hit the master door lock button.
I pull the door handle and slither out of the car. The cop grabs my ankle, but I pull it loose from his grip and kick him in the face.
I pick myself up and start running.
We’ve come to a stop on the Mall, not far from the Washington Monument. Or where the Monument used to be. Most of it’s fallen over, and there’s a pile of broken marble strewn across the blackened grass.
The Natural History Museum is way far down—maybe not a mile away, but far enough that I can’t run the whole distance. Not in this heat. Not with the grass covered in the purple sludge.
But I’m not alone out here. There are people, a few hundred of them, coming down the Mall in a huge mass. I wave my hand and shout to them. “Hey! Hey! Over here!”
A few people see me. Yes! A bunch of them break off and come towards me. I run in their direction.
But the cop’s managed to get himself out of the car. He’s walking like he’s drunk, but when he spots me, he breaks into a stumbling run.
“Help!” I scream.
One man breaks away from the group. He’s short and thick—the muscular kind of thick, like a professional wrestler. He runs past me and tackles the cop. Tackles him with enough force that the cop not only stops, but he goes flying backwards. They land so hard that I hear the impact, and they slide across the slick ground. The short guy lifts a fist brings it down on the cop’s face. Blood spurts out.
A woman stops next to me, nearly falls on her heiny when she does. She grabs me for balance and my feet almost slip out from under me too, but I manage to get a foothold on the slick ground.
Another woman, this one in a narrow skirt the prevents her from running too fast, jumps in the air and shouts, “Uragawa-san, yay!”
Another half dozen people are coming my way, and the strange thing is, apart from one white guy, they’re all Asians—East Asians, if we want to be precise, which I do because it pisses me off when people talk like I’m not Asian, thankyouverymuch.
“Are you all right?” the first woman who’d reached me says. Her English is a little stiff and tinged with an Aussie accent.
“Yeah. Thank you.”
I’m breathing hard and my arms are shaking. I hadn’t been scared when I was in the SUV, I was too angry, but now it’s hitting me what had almost happened. The cop tried to kidnap me. What, did he think I was going to become his wife? Were we gonna go into the mountains and live like pioneers?
“It’s okay,” the first woman says. She puts an arm around my shoulder. “You are safe.”
The other women are gathering round now. Though I say “women,” but most of them are around my age, and only the woman who shouted “yay” is much older than didi.
The girls start talking in unison, but none of them are speaking English. I think it’s Japanese. The language sounds kinda like anime.
“They want to know what happened,” the one white guy with the group says.
“He tried to kidnap me.” I point to the cop.
The white guy translates this, and the girls respond with a horrified, “Oooh!” They speak to each other quickly, then the one who speaks English and two others go over to cop.
He’s lying on the ground. His whole body is smeared red, partly from a bloody nose and partly from the sludge on the ground. He’s not moving, and it wouldn’t do him any good to try because the Japanese man is standing with a foot on the cop’s chest. The guy’s taken the cop’s gun and is pointing it down at him.
The girls and the guy confer. The guy’s face goes dark, and he kicks the cop in the head hard enough that I wonder if he’s gonna have spinal damage. Not that I’d mind.
The girl who speaks English takes a turn, kicking the cop in the nuts. He curls into a ball. The other two girls give him kicks to the back.
“Wait!” I shout.
They look over at me.
“Stop. No more.”
The girl who speaks English translates my words. The other girls argue back, but after a moment they step away from the cop. One of them, her hair dyed a light auburn, spits on him.
“Heh-heh-heh,” the white guy says. He looks around, like he expects to see cops coming to arrest everyone present.
“Who are those girls?” I ask.
“Would you believe they’re pop stars from Japan?”
“Yeah.” He nods. “True story.”
A new Japanese woman arrives. She’s about my mom’s age, and the way the girls come to attention when she’s around, I’d guess she’s in charge of them. When the three girls get back to us, she grabs two of them by the ear, like they’re kindergartners she’s caught eating mud pies. I don’t understand a word she says, but I recognize a chewing-out when I hear one.
“Misa-san,” the girl who speaks English says. She crosses her arms and launches into a long speech in Japanese.
The woman argues back, but the English-speaking girl won’t have it. She pushes on the way my mother will when she’s arguing with a vendor who’s trying to screw her on a deal.
The woman nods at last. She says something. She doesn’t sound happy about it, but I get the feeling she’s relenting. She lets the other girls go and backs away.
“What was that about?” I ask the white guy.
“Ms. Ushiguchi is their stage manager. They’re supposed to do whatever she says. But Kyouko there just told her, basically, it’s the end of the world, they don’t have any group any more.”
“Oh.” I’m still a bit unclear about this whole thing. Like, why are there Japanese pop stars running around the Mall after the apocalypse? But, you know, at some point you’ve got to accept the world is the way it is. End of the world. Psycho cops. Pop singers. I’m not going to question it.
I need to get back to didi and the others. There’s no way she isn’t freaking right now, but hopefully if I tell her I’ve found other people, that’ll get her to calm down.
I’m about to explain everything to the white guy and ask him to wait for us—or at least to tell us where they’re going so we can catch up—but before I can get any words out, I hear the sound of car engines approaching.
Not one, or even two. This is a whole bunch. I don’t see anything, but—no wait, the main crowd has come to a halt. They’re turning their attention to the far side of the Mall.
The girl who speaks English and the tough-looking Japanese guy climb up on a marble block to get a better view.
“Purejidento da yo ne?” the guy says.
To Be Continued...
“No, mom.… No…. Mom... mom... listen... no... nobody’s been beat—Mom. We’re fine.… Yes, we’re fine.… No, we haven’t been arr—we haven’t been arrested.… Who got punched? ... He’s a Nazi, who cares.… Look, mom, we’re leaving now. We should be home in an hour or so.… Yessss, she’s safe.… No, nobody’s been hit by a car.… Look, I’ll call you when we get to Dunn Loring. Bye.” Shreya ends the call.
“Didn’t say anything.”
“Is your mom always like that?” Brook asks.
“All. The. Time,” I say.
“I thought Korean moms were supposed to be the worst,” June says. “God.”
“We had to twist her arm so she’d let us come without dad tagging along,” Shreya says.
“Aren’t you an adult?” Nick says.
“Yeah I am, but the brat’s not.”
“Don’t call me a brat.”
“Stop acting like one.”
I flip her off. She’s walking ahead of me so she can’t see, of course. If she could, she’d beat me down, even in the middle of a crowded street. Didi’s an ogre. And not the cute Shrek kind, either. One of the ones with clubs who attack unwary travelers in the mountains. Or are those trolls? I can never remember.
Josh pats me on the head. “Don’t listen to her,” he whispers. “You’re fine.”
“Thanks.” He is such a cutie. Look at those eyes, and those lips. Oooh! I’m lucky I don’t go into blabbering idiot mode like I usually do around guys. Shreya has a huge crush on him—she hasn’t said anything specific, but the way she talks about him, which is like incessant, it’s obvious. But we’ve been out with him since nine this morning, and he’s barely shown any interest in her. Me however… I will crush her.
“Excuse me,” a woman calls out to us from a van that’s parked on the side of street. She’s incredibly beautiful and made up like a movie star, though her outfit is a bit plain. She looks vaguely familiar. “Are you guys coming from the protest?”
“Yeah ...” Owen says cautiously.
“Would you mind if I interview you?”
“Who’re you with?” Owen says.
We look at each other.
“It’s Fox,” Brook says.
“But it’s the local station,” Josh says. “I don’t think they’re run the same way.”
“I dunno,” Shreya says. “Don’t we wanna get outta here before the rush?”
The protest is supposed to last until five, but we’ve ducked out a little past four. I’d wanted to stick around, but everyone was like, “No, we don’t wanna get crowded on the train.” Like we couldn’t hang out in DC until the crowd disperses? When I’d asked didi to take me along, I’d been hoping we’d hang out afterwards and get into, like, escapades and shenanigans and cool stuff, or at least hang out at a diner for a few hours. But at this rate it looks like we’ll be home in time for dinner. Mom will probably even make me go into the store to sweep and mop and all that tedious stuff. I swear, I’ll be in college and she’ll still expect me to work at the store every night. What a pain.
“C’mon,” June says, “we get to be on TV.”
“Yeah, why not?” Nick says.
But Brook, Owen and didi are against it.
“Guess you’re the tie-breaker,” Josh tells me.
I’m not sure I want to be on TV right now. Sure, it’d be cool, I could brag about it when school starts, but I’ve been out in the heat and humidity all day. I must be a mess right now.
But I don’t want Josh thinking I’m a--
“She votes no,” Shreya says.
“I do not.”
“You arguing with me, brat?”
“Yeah. I say we do it.”
Shreya lets out a dramatic sigh, but says, “Fine, we’ll do it. But if mom freaks out because we’re late, it’s your fault.”
The reporter brightens up. “Excellent, excellent.”
She and her driver get out. The driver goes around to the back of the van and retrieves a camera. It’s a lot smaller than the ones you see in movies, though it’s still huge compared to the one dad had when I was a kid, in the olden days before cell phone cameras.
We’re on a street with lots of huge, hulking government buildings, and the reporter directs us to stand with our backs to the street so she’ll get a good shot of them in the background. She’s very particular about arranging us, putting me, Shreya and June together in the front.
“Before we begin, I just wanna get to know you a bit. What are all your names?”
We go around and introduce ourselves.
“You all in college or something?”
“We are, but she’s in high school.” Owen points to me.
“Oh?” She focuses on me. “Do you follow politics a lot?”
“A little, I guess. I had to keep a journal on the news for AP Government last year.”
“But school’s out now, right?”
“Yeah, we’re on break until next month.”
“So you haven’t been following the news as much lately?”
“I still watch a bit.”
“Well that’s great.” The reporter smiles. “Always good to know the next generation is tuning in.”
I didn’t say I watch her channel.
“So why did you decide to come down here today?” She’s still directing questions at me.
“It seemed like fun.”
From the corner of my eye, I catch didi facepalming. What?
“I see. How about the rest of you?”
“We don’t want the US to go to war,” Owen says.
“Yeah, we’re old enough to remember Iraq and Afghanistan. We never want to see that again,” Brook says.
“Kim Jong-un’s a bad guy, but that doesn’t mean war is the answer,” Josh says.
“There’s talk of bringing back the draft,” Nick says. “That’s crazy. If rednecks wanna die for Cheeto Benito, let ‘em, but leave the rest of us out of it.”
The reporter perks up at that last bit. “Mm-hmm. So I know college isn’t in session right now, but if it were, do you think your classmates would all feel the same way?”
“Most of them, yeah,” Owen says.
Nick adds, “There are only a few guys at our school who like the President, and they’re all troglodytes who spend their time playing Warcraft and spanking to anime.”
“Dumbass,” Brook says.
“You can leave that part out when we’re filming,” the reporter says. She checks with her cameraman. He gives a thumbs up. “Well, let’s do this.”
“And three, two, one ... go,” the cameraman says.
She flashes a smile like the sun on that one cereal box, you know, with the raisins. “This is Kelly Kowalski, and I’m here in Federal Triangle, near the site of today’s anti-war protest. Despite being organized at the last minute, tens of thousands of liberal demonstrators turned out on the Mall to voice their opposition to US action against brutal Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. I have a group of protesters here with me right now.” She turns to our group. “So why’ve you come out to oppose the President today?”
She thrusts the mic in my face.
“Uh...” Shiiiiiit. “I thought it ... would be ... cool. Uh-huh.”
“You know, war’s bad.”
“Even against a thuggish dictator like Kim Jong-un?”
“Did you know he had his uncle executed with an antiaircraft gun? Those fire bullets the size of soup cans.”
What? I never heard that.
I look to didi. She’s cringing. The reporter uses that as an excuse to shift focus to her.
“So where’re you from?”
“Fairfax,” Shreya says.
“And you’re in college?”
“Now earlier, you guys were telling me there are extreme anti-administration sentiments on campus.”
“There are strong anti-administration feelings everywhere in Virginia,” Owen says.
“Actually, the President won most counties in Virginia,” the reporter says, “including a large chunk of Northern Virginia. If your college is that ardently against the President, it’s an outlier. Do you think that has anything to do with your professors?”
“No, it’s common sense,” Nick says. “Anyone smart enough to get into college can see the truth—the President has been a nonstop disaster.”
“But do your professors push a liberal agenda?” the reporter says.
“No!” June says.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Brook says.
“What would happen if a student espoused support for the President in class?”
“Nobody would do that,” Nick says.
“Out of fear of receiving bad grades? Social repercussions?”
“No, because they’d look like complete morons,” Nick says.
The reporter turns to the camera. “Well, I’ll leave that to our viewers to judge. This is Kelly Kowalski reporting from Federal Triangle. Back to you.”
“Aaaaand, cut,” the cameraman says. “That was great, Kel.”
“That’s gonna get picked up for Fox and Friends, I know it,” she says. They high five, then she turns to us. “Great job, guys. Great job.”
“What the hell?” Owen says.
“What kinda interview was that?” Josh says.
“The kind where I ask questions and you answer.” She opens the door to the van and climbs inside. She picks up a half-melted iced mocha and sips.
“I’m gonna edit and upload,” the cameraman says and gets into the back of the van.
“I told you guys this was a bad idea,” Brook says. “But would you listen? No.”
“Good job, brat,” Shreya says.
“What did I do?”
“Cast the deciding vote.” She flicks me in the forehead. Ouch. I slap her hand away.
She turns and heads towards the Metro entrance. The others fall in behind her, except for Josh.
“Doesn’t really matter,” he says. “Fox does that to anyone they interview. If it weren’t us, it’d be somebody else.”
“Yeah, probably.” I rub my forehead. I think didi left a divot with her nail.
“Here.” Josh kisses his first two fingers and then presses them against the hurt spot. “All better.”
I smile and blush and I must look like an idiot right now. “You know, using your fingers is homeopathy. You have to apply your lips for it to actually work.” Oh no, did I say that out loud? He’s gonna think I’m such a dork.
“You raise a valid point.” He looks down the sidewalk, but my sister and the others are all facing away from us. He leans down and pecks me on the forehead. “Does that work better?”
I want to say yeah, but my mouth is caught in a stiff grin right now. I can’t move it at all. With some effort, I manage a nod.
“C’mon,” he says and heads for the station.
I try not to skip after him. I don’t succeed.
Take that, didi, you eternal virgin. Second year of college, you’ve never even had a boyfriend. And I just got kissed by the guy you think is cute.
The only problem is, I can’t rub her nose in this—she’d freak out if I told her, and then she’d turn it into blackmail with mom. No way.
There are a pair of cop cars parked on the street, and an officer is standing watch near the station entrance. He gives me an especially long glance. Yes, I’m brown. That doesn’t make me a terrorist. Jerk.
We get on the escalators. We should hurry down to catch up with the others, but there’s a fat man ahead of us. He’s not walking and he’s too wide for us to get around. We don’t have any choice but to let the escalators do all the work.
Shreya’s waiting for us at the bottom, but the others have gone on ahead. “What took you so long brat?”
“I’m just slow.”
“Well speed up, we don’t wanna miss the train and get separated.”
“Well gimme my fare card,” I tell her.
“What’re you talking about?”
“My ticket. I gave it to you when we got up here, remember? I didn’t bring a purse and my pants don’t have pockets.”
“Did you?” she says.
She opens her purse and searches through.
From the platform downstairs, we hear a train arriving. We can’t see it from here, though, and if there’s an announcement, it’s too faint to hear over the sound of the crowd.
“Relax,” Shreya says, “there are like three lines that go through here. There’s only one chance in three that’s our train.”
“One in six,” I say. “Trains go both ways. Geez, how’d you get into college, dummy?”
“Whatever.” She’s finished searching her purse, no luck—she’s come up with one fare card, but that doesn’t do much good when there are two of us. I suppose we could try to run through the gate together when it opens ...
“Don’t worry about it,” Josh says. “I’ll buy her a new card.”
“It’s only four bucks, I got it.” He takes out his wallet and goes to the ticket machine. He returns a minute later with a fresh card for me.
“Thank you.” I shall treasure this always, the first thing you ever bought me.
“Not a problem.” He winks at me. My sister doesn’t notice.
We go through the gates and get onto the next set of escalators. Shreya cranes her head to see around the guy in front of her, who, despite being one step lower, is still a head taller than her.
“I don’t see Owen or Brook or any of them.”
“They wouldn’t leave without us,” Josh says.
They better not! We carpooled to the station in Owen’s SUV. We need them to get home from Dunn-Loring.
“There, look, it’s Nick,” Josh points.
Yes, there he is, but he’s all alone. He’s leaning against one of those poles that tell you what stations are in each direction, much to the annoyance of a man who’s trying to read the sign. Nick has his eyes on the escalators and spots us almost as soon as Josh points him out. He waves.
We step off the escalator.
“Guys, the others—”
He’s cut off by a train rocketing out of the tunnel. It slows to a halt, but one glance at the sign tells us it’s a Blue Line train, not the one we need.
Once the noise dies down, Nick tries again, “Owen and the others got on the train without realizing you weren’t here. I tried to warn them, but the doors closed before they could get off.”
“Ah, crap,” Shreya says.
We look to the arrivals board. The next Orange Line train isn’t due for another twelve minutes.
“Silver Line’s coming in five,” I point out. “Could we take that?”
“No good,” Nick says. “Silver splits off from the Orange before our stop.”
“Don’t worry,” Josh says. “Once we get to Virginia and out of the tunnels, we can call them and tell ‘em where we are.”
In the meantime, though, we grab some seats. As we wait, the station starts filling up with people leaving the protest. The Silver Line train relieves some of the congestion when it comes through, but most of the crowd sticks around. It’s getting noisy down here. A couple guys stand next to our bench, talking loud.
“I tell you what, if that idiot starts a war, I ain’t fucking around with letters to Congress no more. It’s militia time. Conservatives have been doing it for years. About time we realize we gotta adopt their tactics.”
“Yeah, but what did those militias ever accomplish? Took over a wildlife refuge for a few weeks? One of ‘em got shot for being an idiot.”
“It’s time we do more.”
“Yeah, but it’s like Warren Zevon said, you wanna accomplish anything, you gotta have lawyers, guns and money. All three.”
“Do we hafta bring lawyers into it?”
The men laugh. They’re still laughing when the station starts shaking.
My first thought is a train’s coming, but after a second I realize this is an earthquake. I look up at the ceiling. I sure hope they built it strong.
Somebody screams. It’s from the upper floor of the station.
The shaking gets worse.
Shreya stands, but Nick grabs her arm and pulls her back. “We aren’t going anywhere in this crowd.”
There’s another scream. Shouting. What’s going on up there?
But I’m distracted a moment later by a loud crash. My head whips around in time to see part of the tunnel collapsing. Oh crap, that’s the one our train is supposed to come through! How’re we gonna get home now?
Before I can worry any more, though, I’m hit by a cloud of dust that flies out from the rubble. Some of it gets in my mouth and I break out coughing so hard I feel like I’m gonna tear out my throat. My eyes tear up, partly from the coughing, partly from dust getting in there. I press my palms to my eyes and rub them.
When take my hands away again, I can’t see anything. Did I go blind? You can’t go blind from dust. Can you? But a second later my sight return. The power had gone out, and it took a second for backups to start. The lights aren’t at full power, though, and with the air full of dust, the station has a dim, smoky atmosphere.
It takes me a moment to notice the shaking’s stopped. Everything’s quiet down here, but there are still people shouting and screaming on the upper floor.
Josh has his backpack on the floor, and he’s unbuttoning his shirt—he has a tee on underneath, though, so I’m disappointed. He rips his shirt into pieces, then pulls a bottle of water from the bag and pours it onto the scraps. Huh? What’s he doing?
He takes a sleeve and wraps it around his head so it’s covering his nose and mouth. He hands the other sleeve to me.
Oh, I get it. I tie the sleeve over my face. That’s so much better. I can breathe clear.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Not a problem.” He hands another scrap of shirt to Shreya, and the last one to Nick.
“Thanks, man.” But instead of putting the cloth on right away, Nick first uses it to wipe his glasses clean.
Other people aren’t so lucky. They’re hacking their lungs out from the dust. Some try to get on the ground like you’re supposed to in a fire, but this isn’t smoke. The dust is slowly—slowly—settling to the floor, not rising to the ceiling.
A lot of people are heading for the escalators, but they’re so jammed that I don’t see them making any progress.
“I’m going up,” Shreya says.
“Are you nuts? You’re not getting up there with that crowd,” Nick says. “Better to wait here until it clears up a bit.”
“I’ve gotta call mom, let her know we’re all right. She’s gonna be freaking.”
That’s definitely true. She’s probably calling us right now and going into panic mode because she can’t get through.
“It’ll take you half an hour to get out of here, minimum,” Nick says. “If you wait, it’ll take the same amount of time, but you won’t be standing.”
Shreya doesn’t care, though. “Come on,” she tells me.
I’d rather wait down here. Nick’s right. It’ll take us forever to get up those stairs. The station looks to be in one piece, apart from the tunnel mouth, so let’s sit here. I’ve been on my feet all day. I don’t wanna be standing if I don’t have to.
“We don’t have all day,” she says and grabs me by the shoulder. “Get your butt moving.” There are times when she sounds exactly like mom.
“Fine, fine.” I stand.
“I’ll come with you guys,” Josh says. That changes my mind. Not only would I rather be around him, but I don’t wanna be left alone with Nick. He’s one of those dorks who thinks he’s ten times cooler than he is, and he’s always trying to show it off. If I stayed down here, he’d probably talk to me about how awesome Ed Sheeran is. Ugh.
“Thanks,” Shreya tells Josh. I can’t see her mouth, but I can tell she’s smiling. She thinks he’s coming because he likes her. Sorry, loser, it’s not you.
“Whatever, guys,” Nick says. “I’ll be up when the crowd clears.”
We leave him sitting on the bench.
The crowd around the foot of the escalators is twenty deep, and the people who are on the stairs are taking one step forward every five minutes or so.
“What’s the hold up?” Shreya asks.
“No one knows,” a woman tells her.
“Do you know what the screaming was about?” Josh says.
The woman shakes her head.
“I heard somebody got crushed when part of the ceiling came down,” a man says.
“I dunno, that’s what I heard.”
“Are you sure we should be doing this?” I ask didi.
“If something’s gonna collapse, it doesn’t matter where we are.”
“It matters if we’re under it.”
She flicks me in the forehead. “Don’t argue, brat.”
“You should be nicer to her,” Josh says.
“No. She’s a brat. She’s daddy’s little girl. She always gets what she wants.”
“Do not.” And besides, you’re momma’s little girl. You do everything she expects of you, no questions. You’re going to turn out just like her, a little-miss-bossy pants. Oh wait—too late.
“If I’m not mean to her, she’s gonna end up spoiled,” Shreya says.
“I am so glad I’m an only child,” Josh says.
“I wish I were,” Shreya says.
“I’m telling mom you said that.”
We move slightly closer to the escalators. Then we stand there for five minutes before we manage to take a couple more steps.
“Smart plan, didi. Smart plan.”
“Here, let me adjust that for you.” She grabs my face mask and pulls it tight across my mouth so I can’t talk.
Hey, hey! Quit that! I slap her hand away, loosen the mask.
Some of the people around us are giving us weird looks now. Look what you did, didi. You are so stupid sometimes, I swear.
There’s a commotion at the top of the escalators.
“Let me through.”
“Where’re you going?”
“You can’t get down there.”
There’s a woman up there, she’s pushing her way through the crowd, trying to get down here. What is she, crazy? There are so many people on the steps, she’ll never get through. She must realize that, because she climbs onto the thick metal banister between the escalators. She tries to slide down, but as she nears the bottom, she goes off course and bowls into the people who are standing on the stairs. She knocks them over, and that causes a chain reaction.
Me and Josh jump back in time not to get hit, but Shreya falls on her butt with a fat, bald guy on top of her.
“Sorry, sorry,” the guy says and rolls off her. He stands up and dusts himself off, then realizes he should help the girl he knocked over and offers a hand to Shreya.
“Thanks,” she says.
“What do you think’s so funny?”
“To think, I would be here to witness the first time my sister ever had a man on top of her. You are such a wanton hussy.”
She slaps me upside the head. “Shut up.”
She looks to Josh. He’s biting back laughter. She looks away embarrassed. That was worth it.
The woman who slid down the banister has gotten up and pushes her way out of the crowd. People give way, giving her nasty looks as she goes.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” the woman says. She’s middle aged, but wearing a tank-top and shorts that girls my age would have a hard time pulling off.
“Going the wrong way for that,” says a man.
“We can’t get out up there!”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I didn’t hear, what’d she say?”
“What, did the escalator shaft collapse?”
“They’re all dead!” the woman screams. “You’ve gotta get away!”
She turns and runs to the edge of the platform, jumps. She lands on a rail and falls over. I don’t have a good view, but it looks like she twists her ankle when she goes down. “Aaa-aah,” she cries.
Shreya moves to check on her, but the woman pulls herself up and limps into the train tunnel.
What was that?
“Crazy people,” the fat man says. He turns around and sees that the crowd’s been disrupted enough that he has a chance to slip ahead.
Shreya sees it too and grabs me by the arm. “C’mon.”
We move ahead. A little bit at least. We’re up to the metal plate that covers where the steps disappear into the floor.
A few minutes later and I’m actually standing on a step—one of the ones near the bottom that’s half retracted, but counts.
We start moving faster after that. In five minutes, we’re halfway up the escalator.
“I told you you should’ve waited.” Nick joins us. He’s on the next escalator over, but people are moving faster on that one for some reason, and he actually gets to the top before us. I have decided that he’s a loser, and I intend to make him pay. I undo my ponytail, and I’m gonna shoot him with my hair-tie, but Shreya stops me.
“Behave yourself, brat.”
“What, you got a crush on him?” I put my ponytail back up.
“No! Eww. You know what Nick’s like. Yeeagh.”
“Yeah, he’s perfect for you.”
“Not in the slightest. I can do so much better than that.” Her head twists and she looks back at Josh. He’s fallen a bit behind us, three or four people back. Too far to hear.
“Keep dreaming,” I say. “You’re gonna end up disappointed. You should set your eyes on someone more your level.” I nod towards Nick.
“Brat, I am going to kill you.”
“What would mommy say?”
We finally make it to the top. It’s really crowded up here. Why aren’t people moving out of the station? It’s been long enough, you think they would’ve cleared out by now.
“They say the station manager won’t let us leave,” Nick says. He’s had time to go investigate while we were stuck on the escalator. This is the last time I ever listen to one of didi’s plans.
“Why not?” Josh says.
Nick shrugs. “I heard a bunch of things, they’re all crazy.”
“Such as?” Shreya says.
“Some people died on the escalators during the quake.” He points back towards the station entrance and the escalators to the surface.
“Died?” I say. The crazy woman had mentioned dead people, but I figured maybe somebody had a heart attack, or got conked on the head by something falling out of the ceiling.
“Is the entrance all right?” Josh says.
Nick shakes his head. “No clue. There’re a couple cops who are holding the crowd back, won’t let us go down the hall to where the escalators are.”
“Well that’s good, at least,” didi says. “If cops are here, there must be ambulances and fire crews too.”
“No,” Nick says. “The cops didn’t arrive. They were already here. Didn’t you see them when you came in?”
“There was one up above,” Josh says.
“There were a couple down here, looking for someone,” Nick says. “And now they’re telling everyone to stay here.”
The problem is, now we’re crowded into the area between the escalators and the fare gates, along with everyone else. And there isn’t even a place to sit down, except the floor—and you’d get trampled if you tried.
Shreya checks her watch. “It’s past five. I really gotta call mom.”
If we’d gotten on the train with Owen and the others and there hadn’t been an earthquake, we’d be home by now—or nearly so, depending who Owen dropped off first.
But mom must realize the earthquake stopped the Metro. This should be all over the news. There’s probably a strip running across the screen with all the closings listed. But even so, she’s gonna be worried until she hears from us—well, with her, she’ll be worried even after she hears from us, but knowing we’re alive will be a big help.
“I don’t see how you’re gonna do it,” Nick says. “We’re stuck here.”
“I’m gonna talk to the cops. We tell them it’s an emergency, they have to let us out.”
I doubt it’ll be that simple, but I don’t want to stand around here with people pressing in on me from all directions. If we can’t go back to the platform to wait, sure, let’s go see the guy in charge.
Nick doesn’t argue this time. “Whatever”
“Okay,” Josh says.
We push our way through the crowd. That gets us a few dirty looks, but nobody’s in a mood to argue. With the power out and so many people squeezed in here, the air is turning stuffy—though at least the dust didn’t get up here. In fact—I take my mask off. There aren’t any trashcans, though, so I don’t have anywhere to toss it. But then, Josh gave it to me—ripped the shirt off his own back, almost literally—so maybe I should keep it as a souvenir. Too bad didi has one, too.
As we get near the fare gates, our movement slows to a crawl. Nobody’s going through, but they’re milling around and blocking the gates, and it takes some effort to get them to step aside for us.
“It’s no use,” one guy tells us, “they aren’t letting anyone up.”
“We’ll see,” Shreya says.
At last we get to the gates. They consist of waist-high barriers set up so one person can get through at a time. There are pizza-shaped wedges that come out to prevent you from getting through without a ticket, but without power they seem to’ve retracted into the barriers, so we don’t have to climb over or duck under or anything.
Didi goes first, then Nick.
“Ladies first,” Josh tells me.
I’m tempted to ask what that makes Nick, but I don’t want to be mean to Josh’s friends. Even when they are dorks. Instead I mumble, “Thanks,” and step through.
I get two steps when I feel his hand on my butt. At first I think he’s just brushing against me, but no, he’s cupping my butt, and that doesn’t happen by accident. He squeezes.
I go stiff in surprise, but ... I kinda like it. He has strong hands, big too. That feels nice.
I twist my neck around.
His hand lets go, but he smiles and leans in to whisper, “Sorry, it was too good to pass up.”
Really? Shreya always tells me I have a flat butt. Well take that, didi! “That’s okay,” I mumble, though what I want to say is, “Please, do it again.” Maybe next time without any clothes in the way. Mmm, that could be fun.
Too bad it’ll never happen. Shreya’s in college, but mom still won’t let her go on dates—not that she’s forbidden or anything, but mom expects her to be at the store so much that she doesn’t have time to go out. Me, in high school? I’ve got no chance, even with guys my own age. A college guy ... forget about it. If Josh came to pick me up on a date, mom would lock me in my room and wouldn’t let me out until I’m thirty.
Though that would get me out of work, so ... hmm.
“Guys, you’re taking forever.” Nick’s stopped on other side of the gate and is tapping his foot super dramatically. He didn’t see what Josh did, did he? Well, at least didi’s moved off. I can imagine the fit she’d have if she knew. Especially with Josh, the guy she’s crushing on.
We get through the fare gates and head towards the hall.
“Hey, you guys shouldn’t be out here,” a cop says as we approach. “It’s not safe. Structural issues. We’ll need somebody to check it out before we can let people through.”
“But it’s safe to stay down here?”
“How long are we talking?” Josh asks.
The cop shrugs. “Dunno.”
“Come on, I’ve gotta get upstairs so I can call my parents,” Shreya says.
“Is there a landline down here?” Josh asks. “Maybe you could let people call out. I’m sure she’s not the only one with family that’s worried.”
That stops the guy. “Let me go talk with my boss.”
He retreats around the corner, but another cop comes over and blocks our way, so we back off a bit.
“What the hell is going on?” Nick says.
“I don’t know, but I’m not buying it,” Josh says. “It’s been more than half an hour since the quake. We should have first responders here by now—firemen, paramedics. Not just a couple pigs on patrol.”
“You think they’re hiding something?” Shreya says.
“Yeah, but what?” Nick says.
“If the entrance collapsed, they could tell us.”
“Maybe they’re afraid people would try leaving through the tunnels like that one woman,” I say.
“If the entrance is collapsed, we’re going to have to anyway,” Shreya says.
“Not necessarily,” Josh says. “If they get the power fixed, they could send a train to take us out. If people are in the tunnels that would complicate things.”
“Maybe,” Nick says, “but that’s not the impression those guys were giving me.”
I agree. Those cops were acting like the soldiers in sci-fi movies who tell people, “There definitely aren’t any aliens back here. Please ignore the funny lights you saw in the sky.”
But I’m not going to say it. Agreeing with Nick is ... gross.
“Excuse me.” Yet another cop appears, this one accompanied by a Metro employee.
“Yeah,” Shreya says. “Look, I don’t know what the trouble is, but I need to get in touch with my parents before they freak out and call the…” She was going to say “cops,” but that’d sound silly given the circumstances.
“Yes. That’s not going to happen,” the one cop says. He’s clearly the guy in charge here.
“What do you mean it’s not going to happen?”
“The phones are out,” the Metro employee says. “Cellular and wired both, I’ve checked.”
“Phones and power?” Josh says. “Don’t phones normally have a separate power supply?”
“Yeah, and it’s out,” the Metro guy says.
“Wait,” Nick says. “You said you’ve checked cell service. So you’ve been up to street level?”
The cop shoots the Metro employee a dirty look. “We’ve been up,” he says.
“So it’s possible to get up there?” Josh says.
“...It’s not impossible.” The way the cop says it, there’s something he’s holding back. If we could go up but he doesn’t want us to ...
“Is there something wrong up there?” I ask.
The cop doesn’t say anything.
“What happened?” Josh says.
“We should wait for emergency services,” the Metro employee says. “I’m sure they’ll be here soon enough.” His voice cracks.
“What happened?” Shreya says.
“I don’t know! Okay. A nuclear bomb? It’s bad, that’s all I can—”
“Quiet,” the cop hisses. “You want a stampede on your hands?”
“What the hell are you guys hiding?” Nick says.
“Shut up and go wait. We’ll ...” but the cop has no clue what he’s gonna do. “We’ll ...”
“If we go back,” Josh says, “we’re gonna start talking to the other riders. They’re going to want to know what’s going on. There are at least two hundred people back there. What do you think’s going to happen when they come over here and demand answers?”
“Hey, Mike,” the first cop we’d talked to says, “maybe we should ...”
The cop, Mike, he nods. “Fine, whatever. You wanna go up, go up. But don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Now that we have permission to go, though, I don’t know if I want to. The way these guys are acting, I’m afraid of what we’re going to find upstairs. “Maybe we should wait,” I say.
“Don’t be a scaredy cat,” Shreya says. She walks around the corner.
Nick looks back to the crowd. “I don’t see how we’re not screwed no matter what.” He follows my sister.
“I guess we might as well,” Josh says.
“Don’t worry, there’s any trouble, I’ll protect you.” He puts an arm around my shoulder and pulls me tight against him.
I don’t know that it makes me feel any safer, but it gives me a good feeling at least.
But as soon as we reach the corner, he lets me go. I understand why, and I don’t want my sister seeing us like that either, but I do wish he’d keep holding me.
The escalator area is dimmer than the rest of the station. The lights are glowing with the same low intensity as everywhere else, but sunlight’s pouring down the escalator shaft. The beam’s no wider than a spotlight, but it’s so bright that it makes the rest of the room pale in comparison. All I can see are the escalators and the floor in front of it.
And the clothes.
They’re all over, like people had been stripping naked as they came down and left their shirts and pants and underwear lying on the steps. After a moment, I notice it’s more than clothes. There are purses, and wallets, eyeglasses, cellphones, all kinds of things strewn on the escalators and floor.
I step into the room—or I try to. My shoe’s stuck to the floor and nearly comes off my foot. It’s like walking through a movie theater that hasn’t been cleaned properly. I twist my foot and the shoe breaks loose. There’s some thick, purple sludge all over the floor.
“What happened here?” Josh says. “What is this gunk?”
“That’s people,” Mike the Cop says. “What’s left of them.”
To Be Continued...