I take a deep breath, shove open the door, and stop dead.
“Turn away, Jonah.” Sam would say. “Turn away and forget you saw it.” I back out the door, turn away and I almost try to forget. But then I remember that my brother Sam is dead.
The unmistakable click of a gun being cocked makes me freeze. In this dark, empty place, it sounds louder than the Regulators and their tanks. Hollow echoes tell me this space is full of metal doors, all of them closed. There’s nowhere to hide even if I could outrun a bullet.
I remember the time I got tired of sitting in our apartment staring at the walls while Sam was off doing whatever it was that ended up getting him killed, tired of him always telling me what to do. I threatened to leave and go Out West. “I can take care of myself,” I told him. Sam shook his head. “You wouldn’t last a month without me watching your back.”
Just like with everything else, Sam was right. Not even three weeks in and I’m a goner.
I raise my arms up high. “Wait,” I say. I twist my upper body slowly. “No sudden movements,” Sam would say.
“Don’t. Move.” She says.
I stop before I get turned around enough to face her. Her voice is surprisingly strong for someone so small. At least, she looked small from the glimpse I got. I thought she was younger, a little kid, maybe. But she sounds closer to my age, whatever that is. Sam guessed I was probably around seventeen by now. We used to keep track with our dad’s watch that told us the date but it died when I was eleven and Sam was fifteen. I don’t know how long ago that was, but I was seven the night the world went dark.
“I’m just looking for stuff to burn,” I say.
“You lie.” Her voice comes from directly behind my left ear. She moves quick. I never heard a thing, but now her breath tickles the back of my neck. “No one comes down here. You followed me.”
“I didn’t, I swear.” I try to turn to face her again, but she shoves her gun into my back. I switch tactics. “My name’s Jonah. I live in an apartment up the block.” I take a deep breath and turn around slowly. Sam always said eye contact was important whether you’re trying to intimidate someone or get them to trust you. I hear his voice in my head, “People are less likely to shoot you if you’re looking them in the eye.”
She keeps the gun pressed up against me as I turn, but she doesn’t tell me to stop this time. Her eyes are still red-rimmed and wet from the crying she’d been doing when I opened the door. It should make her look vulnerable but it doesn’t. The gun in her hand coupled with her tear-streaked face scream danger. I look into her glossy, dark eyes and speak as clearly and calmly as I can. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
She blinks and takes a step back, pointing the gun at my chest. “I know. You’re going to leave right now and never come back.”
I shake my head. “I can’t do that. I need heat.”
Her lip trembles and she pulls it into her mouth, biting it with her teeth. She squeezes her eyes shut and I hold my breath. This is it. I’m about to be reunited with Sam. It’s actually a relief. No more trying to make it on my own. I straighten up and brace for impact but it never comes. The girl blows out a long breath and lowers the gun.
“Carly,” she says and opens her eyes. She tilts her chin up to me and I see I was right, she is small. The top of her head only comes up to my shoulder. She must’ve been standing on her toes when she was behind me. “My name is Carly,” she says and then points at me with the gun. “Shut the door.”
I grab the handle and pull it closed. When I turn back to her she’s grabbed the lantern from the floor and moved into the far corner. With the light bouncing off the walls now, I see the room isn’t as big as I first thought. Double rows of boxes line one cinder block wall from floor to ceiling, they’re all labeled but it’s too dim to read and I can’t read much anyway. Two thin, narrow mattresses lie along the walls, meeting at the corner. Carly sits down on one and looks at me expectantly. I sit on the other, the lantern between us lights both of our faces.
I try to stare without staring. I’ve never seen a real girl before. Not up close. Only on the billboards that are still up around town, or in pictures in the magazines we found and burned. This girl looks nothing like the smiling, sun-baked girls in the magazines. Her skin is dark, but it’s still pale and I can see her bones through it. She’s all angles and shadows. When she hunches forward, her shoulder blades remind me of the birds that we used to see in Central Park. She’s cleaner than I’ve ever been in winter, when it’s too cold to jump in the river. And her long dark hair is mostly free of tangles. I can’t tell if she’s pretty. I have nothing real to compare her to, but I like the way she looks. She looks like hope. Even with the gun in her lap still pointed at me.
“Where are your people?” She asks.
I shrug. “It’s just me. Where are yours?”
“It’s just me, too.” She shrugs like I did, but a tear slips down her cheek, giving her away. She turns to the wall and swipes at it with her sleeve. “You took a big risk coming here.”
It’s not like I’m stupid. “Reckless,” Sam would say. But I thought that going out by myself for the first time since Sam disappeared – died, I remind myself. He didn’t come back, that means he’s dead. Just like Mom and Dad. I thought the best way to avoid the dangerous ones, was to go somewhere even they were afraid to go. “I figured no one else would ever come down here, so I’d be safe.”
She cocks her head and frowns at me. “No. I mean with everything that’s going on right now. It’s risky to go outside at all.”
“What are you--” Her hand clamps over my mouth, cutting me off. She puts a finger to her lips. A silent shhh.
Her eyes are inches from my face. Huge dark pools that beg me to keep still. To keep us both safe. Her eyes dart to the door and back to my face, telling me to listen. My heart pounds in my ears and at first I can’t tell the normal sounds of an abandoned building open to the wind from something more sinister. But then I hear it. The distinctive slide-scrape sound of the heavy metal suits and boots the Regulators wear. It’s growing louder, coming down the stairs toward us.
“We have to hide,” she whispers. I nod vigorously until she lets go of my mouth.
She grabs the gun and shoves it into the waistband of her pants. It won’t do anything against the Regulators but I feel better knowing she has it.
The Regulators have reached our level. Carly takes my hand and snuffs out the light. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and palms. My whole body is tensed, ready to go on her word. The scrape of the Regulators’ boots is so loud I can’t guess how many are out there. Maybe ten, maybe a thousand. I hear the clang of metal on metal as they pound at the doors around us. Any second they will reach ours and discover it’s unlocked.
Carly squeezes my hand and I realize I have to break Sam’s number one rule. I have to trust her.
“Now!” She shouts and then with surprising strength, she yanks me into the dark.
Come back on Friday for part 3 by Natalie!
Photo used with permission by J Moffat of Diamond Art on flickr
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