WE RUN, with water in our shoes and the smell of the ocean clinging to our frozen skin.
I laugh, and Gabriel looks at me like I’m crazy, and we’re both out of breath, but I’m able to say, “We made it,” over the sound of distant sirens. Seagulls circle over us impassively. The sun is melting down into the horizon, setting it ablaze. I look back once, long enough to see men pulling our escape boat to shore. They’ll be expecting passengers, but all they’ll find are the empty wrappers from the packaged sweets we ate from the boat owner’s stash. We abandoned ship before we reached the shore, and we felt for each other in the water and held our breath and hurried away from the commotion.
Our footprints emerge from the ocean, like ghosts are roaming the beach. I like that. We are the ghosts of sunken countries. We were once explorers when the world was full, in a past life, and now we’re back from the dead.
We come to a mound of rocks that forms a natural barrier between the beach and the city, and we collapse in its shadows. From where we’re huddled we can hear men shouting commands to one another.
“There must have been a sensor that tripped the alarm when we got close to shore,” I say. I should have known that stealing the boat had been too easy. I’ve set enough traps in my own home to know that people like to protect what’s theirs.
“What happens if they catch us?” Gabriel says.
“They don’t care about us,” I say. “Someone paid a lot of money to make sure that boat is returned to them, I bet.”
My parents used to tell me stories about people who wore uniforms and kept order in the world. I barely believed those stories. How can a few uniforms possibly keep a whole world in order? Now there are only the private detectives who are employed by the wealthy to locate stolen property, and security guards who keep the wives trapped at luxurious parties. And the Gatherers, of course, who patrol the streets for girls to sell.
I collapse against the sand, faceup. Gabriel takes my shivering hand in both of his. “You’re bleeding,” he says.
“Look.” I cant my head skyward. “You can already see the stars coming through.”
He looks; the setting sun lights up his face, making his eyes brighter than I’ve ever seen, but he still looks worried. Growing up in the mansion has left him permanently burdened. “It’s okay,” I tell him, and pull him down beside me. “Just lie with me and look at the sky for a while.”
“You’re bleeding,” he insists. His bottom lip is trembling.
He holds up my hand, enclosed in both of his. Blood is dripping down our wrists in bizarre little river lines. I must have sliced my palm on a rock as we crawled to shore. I roll up my sleeve so that the blood doesn’t ruin the white cabled sweater that Deirdre knitted for me. The yarn is inlaid with diamonds and pearls—the very last of my housewife riches.
Well, those and my wedding ring.
A breeze rolls up from the water, and I realize at once how numb the cold air and wet clothes have made me. We should find someplace to stay, but where? I sit up and take in our surroundings. There’s sand and rocks for several more yards, but beyond that I can see the shadows of buildings. A lone freight truck lumbers down a faraway road, and I think soon it’ll be dark enough for Gatherer vans to start patrolling the area with their lights off. This would be the perfect place for them to hunt; there don’t appear to be any streetlights, and the alleyways between those buildings could be full of scarlet district girls.
Gabriel, of course, is more concerned about the blood. He’s trying to wrap my palm with a piece of seaweed, and the salt is burning the wound. I just need a minute to take this all in, and then I’ll worry about the cut. This time yesterday I was a House Governor’s bride. I had sister wives. At the end of my life, my body would have ended up with the wives who’d died before me, on a rolling cart in my father-in-law’s basement, for him to do only he knows what.
But now there’s the smell of salt, sound of the ocean. There’s a hermit crab making its way up a sand dune. And something else, too. My brother, Rowan, is somewhere out here. And there’s nothing stopping me from getting home to him.
I thought the freedom would excite me, and it does, but there’s terror, too. A steady march of what-ifs making their way through all of my deliciously attainable hopes.
What if he’s not there?
What if something goes wrong?
What if Vaughn finds you?
What if . . .
“What are those lights?” Gabriel asks. I look where he’s pointing and see it too, a giant wheel of lights spinning lazily in the distance.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I say.
“Well, someone must be over there. Come on.”
He pulls me to my feet and tugs my bleeding hand, but I stop him. “We can’t just go wandering off into lights. You don’t know what’s over there.”
“What’s the plan, then?” he asks.
The plan? The plan was only to escape. Accomplished. And now the plan is to reach my brother, a thought I romanticized over the sullen months of my marriage. He became almost a figment of my imagination, a fantasy, and the thought that I’ll be reunited with him soon makes me light-headed with joy.
I had thought we could at least make it to land dry, and during the daylight, but we ran out of fuel. And we’re losing daylight by the second; it’s not any safer here than anywhere else, and at least there are lights over there, eerie as they may be, spinning like that. “Okay,” I say. “We’ll check it out.”
The impromptu seaweed wrap seems to have staunched the bleeding. It’s so carefully tied that it’s amusing, and Gabriel asks what I’m smiling about as we walk. He is dripping wet and plastered with sand. His normally neat brown hair is in tangles. Yet he still seems to be searching for order, some logical course of action. “It’s going to be okay, you know,” I tell him.
He squeezes my good hand.
The January air is in a fury, kicking up sand and howling through my drenched hair. The streets are full of trash, something rustling in a mound of it, and a single flickering streetlight has come on. Gabriel wraps his arm around me, and I’m not sure which of us he means to comfort, but my stomach is churning with the early comings of fear.
What if a gray van comes lumbering down that dark road?
There are no houses nearby—just a brick building that was maybe once a fire department half a century ago, with broken and boarded windows. And a few other crumbling things that are too dark for me to make out. I could swear that things are moving in the alleys.
“Everything looks so abandoned,” Gabriel says.
“Funny, isn’t it?” I say. “Scientists were so determined to fix us, and when we all started dying, they just left us here to rot, and the world around us too.”
Gabriel makes a face that could be perceived as disdain or pity. He has spent most of his life in a mansion, where he may have been a servant, but at least things were well-constructed, clean, and reasonably safe. If you avoided the basement, that is. This dilapidated world must be a shock.
The circle of light in the distance is surrounded by bizarre music, something hollow and brassy masquerading as cheerful. “Maybe we should go back,” Gabriel says when we get to the chain-link fence surrounding it. Beyond the fence I can see tents illuminated by candlelight.
“Go back to what?” I say. I’m shivering so hard, I can barely get the words out.
Gabriel opens his mouth to speak, but the words are lost by my own scream, because someone is grabbing my arm and pulling me through an opening in the fence.
All I can think is, Not again, not like this, and then my wound is bleeding again and my fist is hurting because I’ve just hit someone. I’m still hitting when Gabriel pulls me away, and we try to run, but we’re being overpowered. More figures are coming out of the tents and grabbing our arms, waists, legs, even my throat. I can feel the skin bunching under my nails, and someone’s skull crashing against mine, and then I’m dizzy, but some otherworldly thing keeps me violently moving in my own defense. Gabriel is yelling my name, telling me to fight, but it doesn’t do any good. We’re being dragged toward that spinning circle of light, where an old woman is laughing, and the music doesn’t stop.
© 2012 Lauren Destefano
A01: Lauren DeStefano
Bio: Lauren DeStefano is the author of The Internment Chronicles and The Chemical Garden trilogy, which includes Wither, Fever, and Sever. She earned her BA in English with a concentration in creative writing from Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut. Visit her at LaurenDeStefano.com.