“What’ve you got back there?”
More than a dozen police cars lined the blockade across Route 54. Two officers, a redheaded woman and a short man, flanked the SUV. Luke, Avery, and Priscilla stared out at them from the black-tinted windows, looking for any means of escape.
The redhead narrowed her eyes, staring down the cop who had caught them. “Looks like you’ve only got three people back there, Anderson.”
“The wife and baby got away.”
She snorted. “Incompetent, as usual.”
Anderson stiffened, scowling at her. “We’ve got officers searching the area. They’ll be found, I promise.”
She rolled her eyes, clearly not putting any faith in him. “Whatever.” She turned, speaking rapidly into her radio. “Anderson’s got them, I’m bringing them down 54 now.”
The SUV rolled forward, and Anderson turned the radio up. The sun always shines on 90.9! it chimed, in its sickly tune.
Luke turned to the window. Bernie’s Bagels, Webb Law Offices, Quik-Mart. The businesses lining the street were dark and empty. Some of the doors flapped sadly in the wind. Others were splintered and worn, as if someone tried to kick them down and gave up.
“We never should’ve taken you,” Priscilla growled under her breath. “Should’ve left you at that Godforsaken gas station.”
“Priscilla, stop.” Avery glared at her. “We’ll get out of this.”
“How?” she shot back. “Because, last time I checked, we were stuck in the back of a police car and driving straight into a quarantined city.”
“Come on, Priscilla. Cut him some slack.”
Luke tried to ignore them. He stared out of the window, watching the scenery pass. On the right, WQPS’s building rolled by. The tall, glass-and-concrete monstrosity reflected the setting sun in the multitude of windows.
Where it all started.
They pulled into the parking lot. Slam. Anderson got out of the SUV, dragging them out by the shoulders. The handcuffs cut into their wrists, and they were unceremoniously marched up to the entrance of 451 Egret Street.
Luke’s office building.
Anderson led them over to the elevator, where he forced them to pack in like sardines. Ding. The silver doors slid open. The low tunes of sleepy elevator jazz greeted them.
He pressed the button marked ‘3’, and they began their ascension.
The voices were distant. The thumps of footsteps and the jingle of keys floated through the air like a faded memory, as Anna huddled in the murky shadows of an orange tree. She pressed Jackson against her chest.
“Tee, tee!” he said, looking up at the trees that surrounded them. The branches poked into her back, and the leaves scratched at her face, but Anna ignored them. She needed to keep them safe… and she didn’t exactly know how to.
She finally stood up and took a step out onto the path. The trees rose up on both sides, like hedges in a maze.
Where am I?
She slowly spun around as she tried to get a sense of direction, but all she saw were endless rows of orange trees.
“Tee, tee, tee…” Jackson smiled at her, reaching for a wayward branch.
She readjusted him against her chest and took off down the path. Even though the sun had just set, the grove was as dark as night. The glossy leaves rippled in the wind, and the boughs were weighed down with ripe fruit. The rustling covered the sound of her footsteps, and she used that to her advantage to move quickly.
The loud crack of a branch.
For a second, Anna thought the sound came from underneath her own feet. Jackson, however, whipped his head to the left.
He pointed a chubby finger into the shadows.
Her blood ran cold. She stood, paralyzed, against the comforting trunk of an orange tree. There isn’t actually someone out there, is there? No… there can’t be.
The shadows shifted and shook.
A flashlight blazed on.
Its white beam swept through the trees, casting new, distorted shadows over the soil. Snap, snap. A man’s heavy footsteps echoed through the grove.
Anna held her breath and took a step back. Jackson wriggled against her chest.
Ssssszzz. A flicker of static. “You find anything?” came the voice on the radio, several rows over.
“No, chief, not yet,” he replied gruffly. “Found some footprints that I followed out here, but they’ve faded now.”
“Alright. Let us know if you find anything, Barker.”
The man’s heavy footsteps continued. Snap, snap. Anna took a shuddering footstep back, through the line of trees.
The leaves brushed her head and shoulders. A branch poked against her arm. Almost through, almost…
A branch scraped against Jackson’s face.
His smile faded. The corners of his lip turned down. His face flushed red.
He’s going to cry.
She grabbed him tight against her chest and rocked him. “Jackson, shhh,” she cooed in his ear. “Shhh, shhh.”
Snap. “I think I heard something, chief.” His voice echoed through the trees in hissing whispers.
Anna crouched against the tree, her heart throbbing in her chest. Her breath sounded ragged and loud. Every time Jackson shifted against her, the clothing rustled.
He’s going to find us.
She cupped her hand over her mouth.
Snap, snap. The footsteps grew louder.
Snap. Impossibly close.
Then silence. A pause that stretched for seconds, for minutes, for what seemed like hours. Jackson wriggled against her impatiently; her crouching legs were numb.
Shaking, she slowly turned her head.
A dark silhouette stood in the path, between the rows of trees. His mouth was stretched into a crooked smile.
“There you –”
Anna brought her knee up quickly, colliding with the man’s crotch. “Bitch!” he screamed, stumbling backwards.
For a second, she was just going to leave him there.
Luke told them all, through his mind, where we were. Couldn’t this guy do the same?
She fumbled for her gun.
As he writhed on the dirt floor, her eyes flicked over him. She snatched the radio off his shoulder.
Then she took off running, Jackson bobbing against her hip.
She didn’t stop until her lungs burned. Her legs ached. She collapsed against the trunk of an orange tree in the dying light.
I’m lost in an orange grove.
A grove that dozens of officers are searching, with a toddler who doesn’t know how to stay quiet.
Anna reached out for an orange and plucked it, her stomach grumbling loudly, as Jackson followed at her feet. She peeled back the layers, her fingers growing sticky. “At least we got food, huh, Jackson?” she whispered.
“Teeeee!” he exclaimed. He ran to the tree and pulled at the low-hanging leaves. One by one, he plucked each leaf that he could reach, until the branch was half-bare.
He stared up at her for a moment.
Then took off running through the trees.
“Hey, stop!” Anna yelled. She crouched and squeezed herself through the trees, trying to see which way he had gone.
There he is.
His tiny figure was off to the left, swaying with each step as he passed under the purple shadows. Then he disappeared into the trees again.
All she could hear were his excited squeals.
Anna ran as fast as she could through the next row, the branches scraping her arms and whipping her face. She sprinted towards him and grabbed him by the wrist.
“Do not run off like that ag...”
He pointed wildly with his chubby little finger, trying to get her attention. Anna looked up. Through the swaying leaves and whittled trunks was the highway.
Not a police car in sight.
She picked up Jackson and walked along the side of the road. Then she held up one fist and stuck out her thumb.
The wait for a car to come along began.
“Those two are clean.”
“Take them to floor 5, then.”
Anderson nodded, taking Anna’s parents with him. Priscilla was crying for the first time in years, and Avery was muttering obscenities under his breath.
“Now, to deal with you.”
Luke turned around. Myra stood before him. She was wearing the same playful grin on her face, but she looked tired and thin. Her left leg, from the knee down, was now crude metal.
She’s staring at me, not even blinking.
Her posture, her fast breaths… that’s rage.
“You’re going to kill me.”
“Not you. Your wife.” Her eyes crinkled up as she broke into a smile. “You’re getting better at that mind-reading, though.”
“You won’t find her.”
“Oh, I don’t need to. She’ll inevitably show up to rescue you again, sooner or later. When she does, I’m going to bash that cute little face in.”
For the first time since getting caught, emotion took hold. The anger boiling in his blood began to flow through his veins. It throbbed in his chest, pulsing madly through his body. It took every ounce of self-control not to lunge at her, to wrap his arms around her head and twist her neck until it snapped.
“I’d prefer to be stabbed.”
“You just broadcasted your little murder fantasy to the entire hivemind. Now the cavalry’s going to be coming in 3, 2, 1…”
The elevator doors whooshed open. Several police officers spilled out, their guns drawn. One of them grabbed Luke by the shoulders, yanking him up.
“No, don’t take him.”
“But he’s raging out! We heard it. The last time you didn’t want our help, that woman shot you in the leg…”
Myra laughed, shaking her head. “Luke, unlike his wife, is a goody-two-shoes. He’s going to do everything he can not to murder me. Isn’t that right?”
Luke stared at her wordlessly, refusing to dignify her comments.
“Anyway, follow me. I want to show you something.”
He followed her down the hall. Some of the cubicles were completely empty; others looked like they’d been ransacked. Papers were strewn across the floor, bobbleheads and family photos were smashed, and keyboards were pocked with holes.
They reached the end of the hall. There sat two familiar desks. On one stood an empty fast-food cup, caked with old, dried soda. On the other lay a photo of a dark-haired woman.
My old desk.
“Come on, this way,” Myra beckoned. They stepped into the freight elevator. The doors slid shut behind them. She pressed B2, and the elevator shot down.
The doors slid open, but the basement was dark. A few lights were set into the floor, illuminating the path forward. Luke squinted, trying to make sense of the jumble of shadows.
A door swung open further in the blackness, making him jump.
Luke took a hesitant step forward, nervous about letting Myra behind him.
The room was so large, so cavernous, that the far walls were obscured in shadow. Blue lights were suspended from the ceiling, twinkling like stars.
In the center of the room was a red sphere. It stood much taller than Luke, stretching up to the ceiling. What is that? Some kind of sculpture?
He took another step forward.
No. It was alive.
Wriggling. Pulsing. Squelching.
A huge, tangled ball of worms.