Chapter 6: Whetted Appetites
From my hiding place beside the highway I heard someone approaching along the road.
The footsteps were slow and even, coming from way off in the distance. I sat up and stretched my back, making sure to keep low enough so that I would still be concealed behind the gully’s rocks and brush.
It was dawn.
I was still cold, but not as miserably cold as I’d been all night. The sun was about to rise over the plains. I could see now that the leaves of the cottonwoods I’d been sleeping under were beginning to turn from green to an autumn yellow. But as I peered through the branches and searched the highway, I still couldn’t see who was coming. The person was still on the far side of the bend in the road and concealed by the hillside.
But they were definitely getting closer. Now I could hear what sounded like something being dragged. With every other footstep came the sound of a chain clinking across the road’s dry asphalt.
Finally a tiny figure emerged from around the bend. I looked around at my hiding spot in the gully, making sure that I was still concealed from the highway now that it was daylight. I was sitting within a few steps from the road, but I was pretty sure whoever was coming wouldn’t be able to see me behind the cover of sage and low cottonwood branches.
It was a girl.
This came as a surprise, because the dragging chain sounded heavy. She was walking with a slow, even pace. She didn’t appear to be struggling at all. She just took one step accompanied by the dragging sound, then another quiet step, followed again by another step with the dragging sound.
As she drew closer, I could tell that she was only about eleven or twelve years old.
I didn’t recognize her. She must have been someone from out of town. She had long brown hair, pulled back behind her ears, and she was wearing a dress. The dress looked like something she could have worn to a wedding, or maybe to church, except that it was filthy. What had once been white fabric was now a soiled, dull gray, closely matching the color of her equally filthy skin.
This uniform filth was probably why I didn’t notice immediately that her dress was torn. The entire front section had been ripped away, revealing everything bellow her belly button. And she wasn’t wearing any underwear.
My heart started to race.
As the girl came closer, I could see that her eyes were a beautiful green, but they were deeply sunken. And she was incredibly thin. Her hipbones jutted sharply from her waist. And yet her expression was perfectly calm. She was just staring straight ahead, keeping an even pace as she made her way down the empty road. She behaved as if she was perfectly clean and healthy, as if her dress was perfectly in tact, and as if everything below her waist wasn’t exposed for all the world to see.
And, also, as if nothing was attached to her foot.
I could see now that a steel animal trap was clamped around her ankle. Her foot was badly broken and twisted unnaturally. The trap’s serrated jaws had dug through her skin, revealing her bone. Her toes were blackened and heavily swollen. Six feet of chain trailed behind her heel, and yet she was barely limping at all.
“Hey!” I shouted. I stepped out from the behind the brush. “Are you okay? You need help!”
The girl didn’t respond. I clambered down the gully and onto the road.
“Stop!” I was close enough to her now to hear her steady breathing. “You need help. Sweetie, where are your parents? Stop!”
She didn’t slow her pace. I actually had to step out of the way so she wouldn’t bump into me. She just kept her gaze pointed at the far end of the road where it turned around the next bend.
I could smell her. Her foot was gangrenous. She smelled rotten.
She kept walking, and I didn’t follow after her. She just kept marching casually onward, mostly naked, dragging the trap with her broken foot. The sound of the chain’s jangling grew fainter as she moved on.
What more could I do?
I was in no position to help her. I had no idea how I was going to keep even myself alive today.
The girl was obviously TGV-positive, and far advanced into stage three. She didn’t even register my presence. She must have been dumped into the quarantine zone from the outside, then left to fend for herself. It was possible that she’d stumbled onto the animal trap in the woods, but I suspected that someone had set traps around their property, afraid of wandering positives. She must have been caught in it, then pulled the chain free from wherever the trap had been staked into the ground.
And now where was she going, this little girl? With such a blind purpose?
I watched as she disappeared around the bend.
I couldn’t be sure, but my only guess was that she was moving toward what the Home Guard had called a “cluster.” The pathogen must have given her an ability to sense where other positives were gathering, just like I’d seen other positives gathering in a cluster days ago, before Jason had swathed them down.
My God. She was so young.
I’d been standing exposed in the middle of the road for too long. I made my way back up the gully to my hiding place in the cottonwoods. I couldn’t let anyone see me.
I sat on the ground. It was morning now, and I had no food, no plan, and, honestly, no hope at all. I had no idea what I was going to do.
But as I tried to pull myself together, I was suddenly certain of one thing.
I no longer regretted what I’d done to Morgan.
If Morgan had known that her fate was to become like that desperately blank little girl of a human body I’d just seen walking along the highway, she would have wanted someone to end her existence.
Or at least I hoped she would have wanted it.
If she would have chosen that over death, I’d wish I were dead myself.
But as I thought about how Morgan had been locked away in that silo during the last days of her existence, surrounded by her books and her collected trash, I suddenly knew exactly what I had to do.
I’d been trying not to think about what had happened all night. Now, I let myself remember the moment I shoved the knitting needle into her ear: the moment I ended her life—or expired her, or whatever they called it.
I remembered how I knew I needed to stand up and run, fast, but that I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but stare at the bloodied knitting needle in my hand. I remembered the boot steps of the Home Guard pounding through the house toward me. I remembered the ranger racing into the wash room, leaping past me, then kneeling beside Tyler, clutching my nephew in one arm while discreetly helping him pull his jeans back up with the other.
I remembered realizing, slowly, that it hadn’t been the Home Guards’ boot steps that had been pounding through the house.
They had been Ian’s.
Ian had discovered that Morgan was missing and had run straight from the granary to the house. When he’d heard Tyler crying out, he’d shouted “Home Guard!” to try to scare Morgan, probably not realizing how far progressed she’d gotten and that she had no capacity left to fear anything.
I still hadn’t been able to bring myself to move at that point. Morgan’s slumped, naked body lay awkwardly at my knees. Her elbow rested limply on my thigh.
I watched Ian taking in the scene of Morgan lying dead, Tyler still sobbing, mortified, and me dumbly holding a blood-soaked knitting needle.
“I stopped her in time,” I mumbled. “She didn’t c...” I began. “She didn’t finish. Tyler should be okay, I think.”
Before Ian could say anything, Danielle arrived in the laundry room, practically tripping over me as she came in. She saw Morgan, then she saw Tyler buttoning up his jeans. For a moment she looked like she might pass out, then she just bent over and put her hands between her knees. She started sobbing without making a sound. It seemed as though maybe this was all more than she could take and she was about to completely break down.
“What have you done!” she suddenly shrieked at me. “Why didn’t you let them take her away? Now . . . this! She did this to my son! Your own nephew!” She gestured toward Tyler indignantly and held me in a hateful glare. “What have you done?”
Ian grabbed Danielle as she started to pitch forward, crying so intensely now that her words became unintelligible.
“Listen, Danielle.” Ian spoke firmly, wrapping his arms around her. “It wasn’t Ashley. It was me. Do you understand? I’ve been sheltering Morgan. This is all my fault. Not Ashley’s. I think Ashley may have in fact just saved Tyler. She stopped Morgan just in time, before it was too late. Tyler’s probably safe.”
My sister jerked away from Ian’s arms. “Safe? How can you possibly know that for sure?” Then she slumped forward again, sobbing. “I’m just so scared,” she said. “So scared. Things are only getting worse.”
Now that Tyler had his pants on, he hurried off to his room, shaken and embarrassed. He refused to look anywhere near Morgan’s body as he rushed away.
Ian walked my sister into the kitchen. I still hadn’t moved from the floor. From the dark washroom, I watched my brother-in-law embracing Danielle, stroking her hair, whispering into her ear as he comforted her.
For a moment I would have given anything to trade places with my sister.
I knew I couldn’t stay at the house long.
Luckily it turned out that Shawn wasn’t there. He was still required to bunk at the Center, even with his wounded hand. Still, it wasn’t safe for me to be at the house. Ian had taken Danielle to talk with Tyler in my sister’s old bedroom, and I decided I should give them a few minutes together, as a family. Then I would ask Ian what to do with Morgan’s body and leave as quickly as possible.
I had to think calmly and practically, or I knew I’d go crazy. For now, I tried not to let myself think about Morgan as a person or as my best friend at all. If I let myself feel anything, it was the vague desire to have Ian to myself for a few minutes, and for him to put his arms around me, for just a moment, and to let him give me a little comfort after what I’d just done. I’d lost my best friend. If anyone would understand what that meant, it would be Ian.
After fifteen minutes or so I lightly knocked on my sister’s door.
Soon after my knock, Ian stepped out into the hallway. He closed the door softly behind him and sighed with a look of utter defeat.
I said, “I have to get going. Right away.”
“Look, Ash,” he started, then he sighed again. He had something to tell me that he didn’t know how to say. “Danielle knows everything. About the granary. The others. Everything. I had to tell her.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. “But why? I left Morgan’s door unlocked. It was my fault, not yours. You didn’t place your family in danger. You know Danielle will report the granary to the Home Guard,” I whispered. “You know she will!”
“She will.” Ian nodded. “You’re right. She will. And I should have let her do it a long time ago.”
I realized that I could actually hear my sister through the door, faintly, speaking on the phone right now.
I was so confused and taken by surprise at what Ian had done, I didn’t know what to say.
“Look, Ash,” he whispered. “I’ve put my family in danger. I don’t know what I was thinking. Hiding refugees on your parents’ property? While my kids are staying at the house? If we tried to keep this up, more and more refugees would arrive. There’s nowhere to put them, not realistically, not right now anyway. Who knows what would happen next? I hope to God Tyler’s okay, but what about the next time someone wandered up here? What then? What about Haley?”
Ian gave me a stern, hardened look. I hadn’t realized until now how angry he was at me.
“And what were you thinking, sleeping with Bryce like that last night? What were you thinking? Am I going to have to protect my family from you next?”
I didn’t think it was possible to feel any lower, but my heart sank. I didn’t know what I would do if Ian wasn’t on my side. But he was right. I’d let him down. How could he trust me now?
I tried to blink back my welling tears.
“You said this morning you didn’t want to lose me,” I whispered. “You said you couldn’t lose me.”
“I don’t want to lose you, Ashley. But I think maybe I already have.” He stared straight into my eyes. “Look, we’ve always had a connection.” He whispered, “Honestly, there are things I can tell you that I couldn’t ever tell my wife. That’s a fact. But your sister’s my wife. My kids are my kids. And I’m their father. I’m the only one they’ve got to protect them. And they come before anyone else. Get it? And, now, here you are sleeping with Bryce fucking Tripp again last night?” He stammered, his voice cracking. “That puts all of us in danger. Don’t you see? Are you going to end up like Morgan now? Can I let you around my kids? How could you do this to me, Ashley?”
I felt tears drop down my cheeks. I turned away and covered my face. I couldn’t bear to look at Ian. I was so ashamed, and at the same time I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t even acknowledge that I’d just lost Morgan, that I’d had to be the one to snuff her out, with my own hands.
I could hear my mom on the phone in the living room. Whether or not Danielle had called the Home Guard directly to the house, my mom was doing it now. I could hear her reporting that there was an infected body to pick up.
“I have to go,” I whispered.
Not only had I lost Morgan, and Bryce too, but now it looked like I was even losing Ian, effectively.
“What about you?” I asked him, struggling to speak through my tears. “What will you do?”
“I have to stay here,” he said quietly. “At the house. I can’t leave my family vulnerable again. I just can’t. I’ll stay in the attic. For now. It’s what I have to do. The Home Guard won’t find me up there, even if they come with a search warrant. There’s a panel in the wall I can hide behind if anyone comes up there. I can take care of myself.”
“And Morgan?” I asked. “Her body?”
“The Home Guard will take it,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”
Danielle called out softly to Ian from inside the bedroom.
Ian touched my shoulder in a heartbreakingly cold way.
“You’re on your own Ashley,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. If there was any other way—”
But he cut himself off. For a moment he looked like he was going to hug me, but he stopped and said nothing more.
I had to leave.
As I stepped away, Ian said, “Ashley, wait,” but I ignored him.
I hurried down the stairs.
Before going back out into the night, there was one thing I had to do.
My dad was at the dining table, sitting alone. His face was buried in his hands.
I sat beside him and put my hand on his back.
He startled a little, as if waking from a dream. He patted my hand, then he looked away.
“I need to ask you to do something for me,” I whispered. “I told you if I went to the ruins, Ian would go with me. But that’s not going to happen. Not anymore. He doesn’t know about them yet. And now he can’t know about them. Not ever. Don’t say anything about the ruins at all. Not to anyone. Not even to Ian. Okay?”
My dad nodded. He was in a daze after everything that had happened in his house that day, but I knew he wouldn’t tell a soul.
“You be careful,” He whispered. He turned and hugged me. “Love you, kid.”
It was all I could do not to break down crying in his arms.
“I love you too, Dad.”
I pulled away from my father’s embrace and hurried out the back door into a dark, moonless night.
I ran as fast as I could toward the granary.
Before anything else, I had to warn Chris that the Home Guard was on its way.
I could barely see where I was going, but I found the riverbank in the darkness. I didn’t stop running until I reached the empty grain yard and felt for the granary’s rickety door.
I found the loose knob, and I pushed.
Inside, it was completely dark.
“Chris?” I called out softly.
There was no answer. The granary was totally silent.
I felt my way toward Chris’s desk. My hand bumped into his soda-can ashtray. I faintly smelled the scent of stale, burnt weed. Next to the ashtray, I felt a cigarette lighter.
I flicked its igniter.
A weak flame leapt up and went out. The lighter was almost out of fluid. I shook it, and tried to light it again. A tiny flame appeared, and wavered. But this time it stayed lit. I cupped my hand around this meager light source.
Everything in the granary was gone.
Except for the ash tray and a few empty antibiotics boxes strewn across the dusty desk, all of Chris’s supplies had disappeared. Even his worn-out swivel chair was gone.
The lighter went out.
I lit it again as I stepped around the elevator engines toward the back of the granary, doing my best to protect the flame as I moved.
Two bodies, both covered in the same grease-stained sheet, lay atop Chris’s makeshift examination table. I knew the first was Mr. Hershel’s, and the other must have been Bryce’s.
Again, I called out for Chris.
I hurried outside and checked each of the silos. All of them were empty. The refugees were gone.
I had no idea how Chris got word that the resistance was in danger of being discovered, but someone had obviously tipped him off.
Everyone had fled, but to where I had no idea. I didn’t even have Chris’s cell phone number, so there was no way of finding out.
I was totally on my own.
And I couldn’t stay here. After my sister’s call, the Home Guard would raid the place as fast as they could get a squad ready.
After what had happened with Morgan, I’d almost completely forgotten about the date I’d set up with Jason Gibbs that night. My one and only option seemed to be to wait at the bend in the highway where we’d agreed to meet, and hope he’d show up. What else was I going to do? Morgan was gone, but there were other refugee positives who still needed Chris’s antibiotic cocktail. If I could manage to steal Jason’s pharmacy access card, maybe somehow I could track down Chris and give it to him, now that Ian was out of the picture. I just hoped the raid on the granary wouldn’t make it impossible for Jason to meet me tonight.
Just as I was turning to hurry away, I caught a glimpse of something on the granary door. Something white standing out against the darkness. When I’d rushed through the first time, I’d missed seeing it hanging there.
As I approached the door, I could just make out that what was hanging on it was a piece of notebook paper. It was tacked up with a nail.
I tore down the paper and lit the lighter. It was a note:
That’s all it said. Just two words.
What the fuck?
Such a weird phrase. What did that mean?
At first, it seemed like this was some strange, mean-spirited comment about Morgan. I almost started to cry again. Why would someone write something like that? The Home Guard hadn’t been there yet, so the note had to have been written by someone in the Underground.
But after I cleared the cobwebs of grief from my rational thought processing, I saw that the note couldn’t have been just some random disparaging comment about Morgan. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, but I could tell it wasn’t Ian’s. I wondered if maybe Chris had written the note as some kind of code, warning Ian that Morgan had progressed to stage three.
But even that didn’t make sense. As far as I knew, Ian had been with Chris at the granary all day. Why would Chris have needed to leave Ian a note?
Was the note for me?
I turned the paper over. Nothing was on the back. I read the two words on the front again.
I had no clue what the message meant. It had to mean something, but I couldn’t afford to hang around at the granary trying to figure it out.
I folded the paper, stuffed it into my pocket, and started making my way through my dad’s alfalfa fields toward the bend in the highway and my date with Jason.
When I reached the road, I had no idea what time it was.
I’d been keeping my cell phone off, knowing that the Home Guard could track my GPS position, and I didn’t want to risk turning it on even just to check the time.
I climbed up the gully to look for a hiding spot behind the cottonwood grove. This was next to impossible in the dark, but eventually I managed to feel out a flattish place between some boulders. I was well hidden, but if Jason decided to ambush me here with his squad, I’d be shit out of luck. The gully above was steep, and there was no place to run.
Not a single car drove by. The night grew colder. I was still only wearing a t-shirt with mid-length sleeves, and I started to shiver. Soon, I was chilled to the bone. I curled up in a tiny ball between the rocks, trying to capture as much of my body heat as possible. But I couldn’t stop shivering.
A sliver of a moon rose between the branches of the cottonwoods, offering practically no extra light.
By now, I had to accept that eleven o’clock must have come and gone. It was probably well past midnight, maybe two or three in the morning.
Jason wasn’t coming.
Maybe he’d figured out I was setting him up. Or maybe the Home Guard was tracking the fugitives from the granary, and he couldn’t get away. But one way or another, it was clear now that he wasn’t going to meet me tonight.
I tried to sleep. But I was miserable. Until now, I’d focused all of my concentration on the prospect of stealing Jason’s access card. But now that he hadn’t shown up, my thoughts had nowhere to go and nothing to do but fall into a downward spiral of loneliness and regret. I don’t think I’d ever felt more hopeless than I did that night, shivering in the brush, or more alone.
When dawn finally arose and I saw the girl approaching on the highway, I felt a moment of manic elation just at the chance to be in contact with another human being.
But when I stepped onto the road and couldn’t break her from her innocently vacant stare, it was all I could do not to throw a rock at her back and scream, Talk to me!
Even after the girl was out of sight, I couldn’t stop thinking about her empty green eyes and her gruesomely broken foot, trailing that chain.
And it was only then that I let myself really think about Morgan. I mean, that’s when I let myself really think about the fact that she’d been sick, just like this girl. It’s when I let myself acknowledge that she was really gone, and what I’d done to her. Right after, I’d slipped the knitting needle covered in her blood into my back pocket. I took it out and looked at it now. I don’t know why I couldn’t get rid of it, but for some reason I didn’t want to let go of this reminder of what I’d done. I thought about the last calm moment I’d shared with her in the silo. I wished that I could have had just a few more minutes with her then, even if it was just to sit there beside her while she slept among her filth and discarded wrappers.
And that’s when I remembered Chris’s weird note.
I tried to pull myself together. I dried my tears with my sleeve. I took out the note, unfolded it, and read it again: Morgan’s trash.
Was Chris trying to leave a message which he hoped I would understand, but which would be meaningless to any Home Guard ranger who found it? None of the rangers knew, after all, which silo Morgan had been staying in. Maybe there was something there. Maybe Chris had left something else he wanted me to find. It was a long-shot, but it was possible.
I had to get back to the granary.
Now that it was daylight, I took the long way around my parents’ property. I couldn’t just walk straight through the fields again. Instead, I followed the irrigation channels whose tall weeds would keep me hidden from view. Once I made it to the river, I kept close to the bank. For all I knew, the Home Guard was searching the entire area by now.
But I didn’t see anyone.
The granary was completely empty.
The Home Guard, though, had obviously been there. Boot prints were everywhere, and all of the weeds in the grain yard had been flattened by heavy vehicles. Mr. Hershel’s and Bryce’s bodies were gone.
But Morgan’s silo had been mostly untouched. Someone had obviously searched it. The food wrappers on the floor, however, were undisturbed. Who would ever pay attention to a bunch of trash in the middle of a night raid for fleeing refugees? Even if one of the rangers had seen the note on the granary door and had gotten suspicious, no one would have known which refugee had been staying where. Trash had been left all over the place, in all of the silos.
I started to search through every empty meal-ration packet and discarded candy bar wrapper that Morgan had left on the silo floor.
And finally I found what I was looking for.
Inside a Hershey’s wrapper, stained with streaks of leftover chocolate crumbs, was a much longer note from Chris:
If you’ve found this, you figured out what the fuck I meant by the note I left on the door, and you fucking kick ass.
Sorry to get so cryptic, but it was the only way I could think of to get a message to you while keeping it from the H.G.’s eyes.
But you’ll probably never find this message anyway, which means I’m writing to nobody, and none of this matters…
But, fuck it. Just in case you do actually find this, listen up. I have a confession to make.
I haven’t always been the most “ethical” of doctors. Before this whole quarantine thing happened, I used to sell prescription drugs illegally on the side. And it just so happens that Jason Gibbs used to be one of my frequent-flier clients. He used to buy all kinds of pills from me. You name the drug, he’d buy it. The more powerful the better.
Before Ian tipped me off that the H.G. was going to raid the granary, he told me about your plan to steal Jason’s pharmacy access card. I just want to say that I think you’re brave as shit for wanting to do that. You’re a superstar. I hope you’re still planning on doing it, too, because the Underground really, really needs antibiotics. Some of the refugees are in bad shape, and progressing fast.
At the bottom of the same candy wrapper you found this note in are two capsule pills. One is tied up in the finger of a BLUE latex glove. That one’s a powerful sedative. Anyone who takes it will fall unconscious in about twenty minutes. The other pill is tied up in the finger of a WHITE latex glove. That one’s just a sugar pill. It won’t have any effect at all.
I figured that if you could slip Jason the sedative while you take the sugar pill, in twenty minutes he’d be out like a light, and you could take whatever you needed from his wallet. Tell him the pills are “grasshoppers.” It’s the street name of his favorite drug. Jason fucking loves them. I’ve used the same kind of capsules I used whenever I sold him grasshoppers. He won’t know the difference.
Just remember, if you do this: give Jason the pill tied in the finger of the BLUE latex glove. You take the sugar pill tied in the finger of the WHITE latex glove. Don’t mix them up! The pills look identical!
My cell number is 555-436-7260. But don’t call me from your cell! The H.G. will trace your position. Call me from a pay phone. Got it?
Good luck! If you can get that access card, you’ll be doing a lot of good for a lot of people who really need help.
I shook the Hershey’s wrapper. Two knotted pieces of latex, like little un-inflated balloons, fell into my palm. One was blue, the other white. I could feel a pill tied inside each of them.
I looked around the silo. Morgan’s flannel shirt was lying against the wall near the place where she used to sleep. I remembered pulling it from her dresser that night Ian shot Mr. Hershel and we’d taken Morgan to my parents’ house. It seemed like months ago. I put the shirt on and buttoned it up. If I had to sleep outside again, it would be useful. It felt good to wear a piece of Morgan’s clothing, too. It made me feel close to her. It gave me confidence. And maybe even a little hope.
The shirt had a tiny breast pocket. I slipped the pills inside and snapped the button.
I thought again about the ghostly stage-three girl who’d passed me on the road that morning. I thought about the new refugees, who I hoped had escaped the Home Guard last night. I thought about everyone else who had contracted the pathogen, and everyone who would contract it in the future.
Tracking down Jason might be impossible. And making him want to sleep with me, now that he’d stood me up, might be impossible. Trying to drug him and steal his access card would definitely be the most hopelessly dangerous thing I’d ever done. But I had nothing else to live for. And if I died trying, maybe at least it would make up for some of the ways I’d let my family down.
I had to find Jason.
A couple of miles from my parents’ property was a gas station with a mini-mart. It was just on the outskirts of town.
Avoiding roads and walking under cover of the trees along the river, I was able to make it there by midday.
I approached the gas station cautiously from the riverbank, but as I got closer to the road, it was obvious that the place was totally abandoned.
On my side of the road, a sign marked the border of Muldoon township. Muldoon, POP 647, it read. I’d passed it a million times. That’s probably why I didn’t notice at first that something was hanging from it.
It was a body.
It was the body of a Home Guard ranger. Still in uniform. Hanging by a rope from one of the sign’s wooden posts.
There was a bullet hole in his head. I didn’t recognize the face. Around his neck hung a cardboard sign that read: Sicko Fucker.
The Home Guard must have started executing its own members who were caught having sex with positives. This was obviously a warning from the higher command that if any of the rangers were tempted to sleep with anyone suspected of being infected, the punishment would be swift and harsh.
No wonder Jason didn’t show up last night. He was a sergeant, but he still had to answer to a higher chain of command. There was obviously a crackdown on wayward rangers, and he’d been afraid of getting caught and ending up hanging by the road.
It was going to be even harder than I’d thought to get him to meet me for sex.
Still, I wasn’t about to give up.
I actually found Jason’s home number listed in the phone book. The only problem was that I didn’t have my wallet, and I didn’t have any change to place a call.
The cash register inside the mini-mart was locked. I looked around behind the counter for the key, but I couldn’t find one.
I took another look around the gas station to make sure I was alone, then I slid the register off the counter. It slammed down onto the floor. I could hear change inside jingling around, but the drawer didn’t budge.
I lifted the register, then I heaved it up above my head. I did my best to slam it hard against the floor. It crashed down, spun over, and rolled against a bank of glass-windowed refrigerators.
Some of the register’s keys had broken off and scattered across the floor, and the receipt ribbon had spooled down the isle, but still the drawer stayed locked.
It was only then that I noticed a cardboard donation board for Huntington’s disease patients on the counter. It was the kind with little quarter-sized slots for people to leave their change in. Most of the slots were empty, but people had stuffed a total of eight quarters into the cardboard pockets.
With only passing guilt, I plucked each of the quarters from the donation board. I promised myself that if I ever made it out of this alive, I’d donate at least a couple of dollars to Huntington’s research.
I went straight into the men’s bathroom. I found exactly what I was looking for: a wall-mounted vending machine selling condoms. The boys in my middle school class used to come here to buy them, though the closest that most of them ever got to using them was to laugh at the names like French Tickler. Luckily, there was also a box of garden-variety Trojans. I bought a pack for $1.50, tossed out the box, and stuffed the three foil-wrapped condoms into my pocket.
I did my best to freshen up at the sink. I hadn’t showered for more than a day, and I’d spent all night outside. I washed my face and armpits with hand soap, brushed my teeth with a travel toiletry kit that I’d stolen from the mini-mart shelves, and ran water through my hair. But that was as good as it was going to get.
It occurred to me that I was truly homeless. I’d slept in a gully, stolen spare change from Huntington’s donations, and now here I was bathing in a dingy gas station bathroom.
I was also starving.
My weird craving for a cheeseburger and a milkshake had morphed, strangely, into a craving for anything with lots of calories, preferably sweet. This was strange, because normally I’d never had much of a sweet tooth.
I grabbed a plastic bag from behind the counter and stuffed it with whatever I could find on the shelves: teriyaki jerky, Pop Tarts, Snickers bars. Not exactly a square meal, but my options were limited.
I had two quarters left. That meant I would be able to make two phone calls.
I had no choice but to use one quarter to call Jason now and save the last one to call Chris later, hopefully after I’d stolen Jason’s access card.
I put one quarter into the pay phone, slipped the last one into my breast pocket along with the pills, and dialed the number listed next to Jason’s name in the phone book.
I hoped to God it was the number for his cell, and that he’d actually pick up.
The ringback tone whirred once.
Jason picked up right away. I could tell by the sound quality that I’d reached his cell.
“Who’s this?” he demanded.
“Are you on duty?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m on duty. Who is this?”
“You stood me up.”
“Ashley?” Right away Jason’s voice hushed. “Shit. Give me a second.”
There was a series of shuffling noises, then the sound of a car door closing.
“Ashley, yeah. Look. Sorry about that. But it just wasn’t going to work out. They’re kind of cracking down on unregulated intimate relations around here. It’s just way too risky.”
“Unregulated intimate relations?” I parroted.
“Well, yeah,” he said sheepishly. “That’s what they call it. Having sex with a positive is amazing. It’s like fucking on ecstasy. And a lot of guys haven’t been careful enough. Now, if you get caught fooling around without a license, it’s not pretty. I shouldn’t even really be talking to you.”
I pretended to be hurt. “Have fun jerking off for the rest of your life, then,” I said. “I should have known all that shit about you being down to party was bullshit. I was even saving my last two grasshoppers.” I tried to sound as disappointed as possible over not partying with him. But it was hard. I kept remembering Jason climbing behind the wheel of the swather. “Look,” I said. “Whatever.”
“You have grasshoppers?” Jason sounded genuinely envious.
“I was going to surprise you. But, whatever.”
“Shit,” he said wistfully. “I haven’t had grasshoppers since before the plague. Where’d you get grasshoppers?”
“I knew this guy at the trucking company who used to come in from Denver,” I lied. “How does it matter now? I’m so fucking bored, Jason. Seriously. My whole family’s cut me off. And now Morgan’s gone, so I don’t even have her. You heard about Morgan, right?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
He said this with utter disinterest. He was so gross.
“Well,” I said. “I’ll just have to find somebody else to party with. Now that you’re out, ass hole.” I knew I had to try to start flirting with him. “The thing is,” I said, “I’m so fucking lonely, right now. I can’t believe you stood me up. You owe me. You know? You owe me at least just one night. Honestly, I’ve been wanting you to fuck me ever since that night at the fairgrounds. Can you really not get away? I thought you were the sergeant. I thought you didn’t answer to anybody. Was that really all bullshit? I should have known you’d pussy out.”
“I am the sergeant,” Jason insisted idiotically. He actually sounded hurt. He was also starting to sound a little tempted. “It’s just dangerous, that’s all,” he whispered. “I mean, we’d have to be really, really careful. Honestly, I’ve been thinking about you. You have no idea how bad I want to fuck you, Ashley!” He laughed. “I really regretted not being able to make it last night.”
I couldn’t believe he was already taking the bait. All I had to do was question his masculinity, and I could get him to do anything. This actually had the effect of making me hate him even more.
“Well, where’s a safe place?” I asked cautiously.
“I don’t know. Like, a field. Someplace way out in the middle of nowhere. Someplace where I could be sure no one else was around to report me.”
“I know a place,” I said. “But look, if you don’t show up again I’m finding somebody else. You have no idea how many of these rangers from outside have been coming on to me. I’ll be behind the fairgrounds tonight just after sunset. There’s a cottonwood tree in the middle of the first field behind the rodeo grandstands. I’ll be there. Come find me. You know where I mean?”
“Yeah, I know where you mean,” he said tentatively. “Look, Ash. If we do this we have to be really careful. We’re totally out of Insta-Reads, so I can’t test you. We have to use protection. Okay?”
I laughed. “Whatever you say, Sergeant. I’ll bring a pocket full of rubbers with your name on all of them. Don’t worry about it.”
“And you still have the grasshoppers?”
“You fucking bet I do,” I said. “Don’t be late. I swear to God this is your last fucking chance, Jason. Don’t pussy out on me again.”
Jason wasn’t late.
I’d spent the rest of the day walking all the way to the fairgrounds. I’d reached the field behind the grandstands just before sunset. I’d sat against the cottonwood tree and waited in the last of the light.
And as soon as it was dark, Jason drove up alone in a small military SUV. As soon as he turned into the field, he cut off his lights and slowly drove toward the cottonwood tree in the dark. He was being extra careful.
“Get in,” he said.
“Where are we going?”
“Just get in.”
I climbed in. Without ever turning the headlights on, Jason slowly drove along an irrigation channel until we were four fields away from the fairgrounds. I could barely see the lights of town.
He cut the engine.
For a moment he just sat there in the dark, not moving or saying anything. He wasn’t comfortable with this. He was nervous.
I reached into my pocket and took out one of the condoms. I slipped it into his hand.
“Well, Mister Safety First,” I said. “What are you waiting for?”
He took the condom. He shined a tiny flashlight into my face, then he turned it off again.
“This is crazy doing this without testing you,” he said. “But you look pretty good. You don’t look infected. I guess we’ll be okay with just the rubber. I guess.”
I leaned close to him and whispered softly into his ear. “Since when were you the worrying type, Sergeant.”
I gently bit his earlobe.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered. He took a deep breath and sighed.
He reached into the back and grabbed what I could just make out in the dark to be a pint of vodka. He opened it, took a drink, and handed it over to me.
Before taking the bottle, I reached into my left pants pocket and took out the pill Chris had given me with the sedatives. I’d taken both pills out of the latex, making sure to keep the sedative in my left pocket and the sugar pill in my right pocket. I slipped the sedative into Jason’s hand and took the vodka.
“I can’t believe you have grasshoppers,” he said. He finally seemed to be relaxing a little.
“Well, they’re the last of my stash. So you better fucking enjoy it, Mister.” I took the sugar pill from my pocket.
Jason flashed his flashlight at me again.
Before I could stop him, he took the sugar pill from my hand.
“You sure these are grasshoppers?”
I kept my eye on the sugar pill. The capsule was identical to the sedative, and now the two pills lay side by side in his hand. I couldn’t mix them up.
“Of course they’re fucking grasshoppers.”
I reached to take the sugar pill back, but Jason pulled away.
“Hold this.” He handed me the flashlight. “Keep it down. Don’t shine it out the window.”
I cupped the flashlight and kept it pointed at his hands.
“Just in case you’re trying to poison me or something,” he said, uncapping both pills. “Can’t be too careful.”
He dumped the powder from both pills into his palm, mixed all of it together, then scooped half into one capsule, half into the other, and capped them both.
Now, the capsules had half of a sedative dose each.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Here.” Jason handed me one of the pills. “You first.”
I was totally fucked. I was much smaller than Jason, and if I took even half a dose of the powerful sedative, I’d almost certainly pass out first. But what could I do? I had no choice. I’d have to take the pill and somehow try to get the card from him as fast as I could.
I tossed the pill into my mouth and swallowed it down with a swig of vodka.
What had I gotten myself into?
“I knew you liked to party!” Jason enthusiastically popped his own pill, sipped the vodka, and swallowed.
Suddenly he was all over me. He shoved his hand into my bra and started kissing me hard. His teeth knocked against mine.
I did my best to kill as much time as possible. I tried to get into the back of the SUV, saying we’d have more room, and then I tried to stall after stepping outside. The only chance I had was to wait for the sedatives to kick in, then force myself to stay alert long enough to get into Jason’s wallet. After that, I had no idea what I was going to do.
But instead of following me into the back seat, Jason stepped around the SUV and grabbed me. He pulled me up onto its hood.
He tore my shirt open, ripping off all the buttons, and instead of waiting for me to take the shirt all the way off, he jerked at the back of Morgan’s threadbare flannel and tore it in half from the tail to the collar. He flung away the two pieces and started frantically licking my breasts, pulling my bra down over my shoulders.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said, already feeling a little woozy from the sedative. “Slow down.”
“What do you mean slow down?” Jason said, breathing hard and unbuckling his belt.
Before I knew it, he had my pants off, and he’d slapped on the condom, and he was inside me.
The worst part was that he was actually really big. It hurt. I fucking hated him.
“Jason! Hold on! Slow down!” I was terrified.
But he didn’t stop. He started pounding into me. I tried to act like I liked it, but it was really hard to be convincing with my back against the hood. He was really hurting me. I hadn’t ever planned on actually having sex with him. I’d hoped to bide my time until the sedatives kicked in. But he’d moved so fast, and now I had no choice if I ever wanted to get the access card. He started squeezing my breasts with all of his weight on top of me, grunting. It was like he’d gone into this blank place where he didn’t see me as a human being at all, but as just some object for him to squeeze to the point of suffocation and ram his cock into.
I tried to remind myself that I was the one who had power over him, that his dumb, violent urge to fuck me hard was his weakness, and that if I just waited him out and kept myself alert long enough, I’d get the better of him.
Still, it’s hard to describe how much I hated him while he had me pinned down like that, grunting into my ear, slamming himself inside me like a crazed bull. He had complete control over me. I’d never felt so tiny and helpless.
“Stop!” I screamed, finally. “Jason! Stop!”
I thought I was going to die out of sheer panic and terror.
All the sudden, Jason’s frantic thrusts slowed. But not because I’d told him to stop. He slumped a little, dazed.
He groaned. “Fucking, Ashley,” he slurred into my ear. “This grasshopper. Is some gyood shyit. Best I everrrrrr had. . .”
The sedative was finally kicking in.
I pushed him off me, and he woozily let me roll him over onto his back. His legs dangled against the SUV’s bumper. His head lolled back against the windshield.
He gave me this idiotic grin which I could just make out in the dark.
“Wowww,” he said.
It was all I could do not to tip over and fall off the hood myself. I was finding it almost impossible to keep my balance. The sedative had started affecting me too, and it was coming on strong now. I felt my weight pitch forward, but I caught myself against Jason’s chest and found my balance.
I took a deep breath.
For a moment all I could do was stare at Jason’s grin, blinking my eyes. I stepped away.
“Fucking cunt,” he slurred, almost as if talking in his sleep. “Put me back insyide you.”
Why would anyone ever say something like that? Even while drugged? Jason had been a spoiled, horrible kid when I’d babysat him, and now he’d grown up into a spoiled, horrible asshole of a human being. He wasn’t even infected, and he still acted this way. It was just how he was. Another wave of hatred passed over me.
But, strangely, I felt suddenly alert. My heart raced, and I was overcome with the same weird feeling of limitless confidence I’d had after waking up in the motel room more a than week earlier. My anger and hatred for Jason seemed to have triggered the feeling.
I could barely see in the dark, but I found my pants where Jason had tossed them. Instead of putting them on, though, with my ears ringing with rage, I searched the pockets.
Right away I found what I was looking for. It was still there. Right alongside my Dad’s topo map, I felt a long, smooth cylinder about the size of a pencil. I grabbed it and jerked it free of my pocket.
It was the knitting needle I’d killed Morgan with.
In the dim starlight, I could see that it was still slicked with her blood.
Jason grunted and lifted his arm toward me, but he dropped it back down against the hood and rolled over, face down, with a dull thump.
“Byiiitch,” he droned woozily.
My heart thudded with yet another surge of hateful energy. Jason’s bare, pale ass lay exposed after he’d rolled over on the hood.
Without fully thinking through what I was doing, I stepped forward. I thought about how Jason had executed that poor girl in the car, about his smug grin while driving the swather, and about how heartlessly he’d just stuffed himself inside me and groped me to the point where I couldn’t breathe. I would have killed him if I could have. But even more than I wanted Jason dead, I wanted him to suffer horribly, like Bryce and Morgan had. I wanted to make him sick. Then I wanted his superiors in the Home Guard to recognize his symptoms, execute him on the spot, and put his body on display.
With a quick thrust, I shoved the bloody knitting needle up Jason’s ass.
I jammed it in as deep as I could. I twisted it, then jammed it in even further. I felt his intestines tearing.
Jason writhed around in furious pain. He let out a low howl that sounded like a rutting buck. He took an unsteady swing at me, but I leapt back and he missed connecting with my jaw. Instead, he lost his balance, fell off the SUV’s hood, and landed with a dull thud on the ground. I heard the knitting needle break.
He groaned. His head rolled around, but he didn’t even try to get up. The sedatives had almost knocked him out completely. He was only half conscious.
I stepped farther away and tried to catch my breath.
I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. It was like waking up from a dream. I’d just wasted so much time, lost in my spite for Jason. And no matter how strangely aware I’d felt a moment ago, I was bound to pass out from the pill soon.
And now that I’d caught my breath, the sedatives were hitting me hard. The one thing I could absolutely not let myself do was to collapse in this empty field and wake up in the morning beside Jason, just as he himself would be rousing.
I had to move fast.
I knelt and fished Jason’s wallet from his back pocket. I clutched it tightly in my hand, willing myself not to drop it.
I tried to stand, but I fell backwards, scraping my bare behind.
I picked up my pants, but no matter how hard I tried, I was too woozy now to put my foot inside them. The burst of energy and the clarity I’d gotten before was totally gone. I was about to pass out. I had no choice but to leave my clothes behind.
I had to get as far away from Jason as I could before I lost consciousness. The night was quickly closing in on me. The world was spinning. I grabbed half of Morgan’s torn shirt and my dad’s map in one hand, and Jason’s wallet in the other. I squeezed them both tightly in my fists. I willed myself to stand. Finally I found my feet, wobbling unsteadily.
And I ran. I ran as fast as I could.