Blood Day has been released into the world. To celebrate, I thought I'd post a long excerpt. So, behold! The first six chapters! If you like it and want to read more, you can find it here. Read for free on Kindle Unlimited or buy it for 3.99. Hooray for book releases!
The tree was breathing.
Sia shivered as something cold brushed against her cheek. She tried to open her eyes, then moaned as her skull exploded with pain. Fingers touched her mouth and, sluggishly, she realized they were hers. Straining to remember, she flinched at the ache in her eyes and teeth and bones. She kept her fingers at her lips as if she were a young girl reliving her first kiss. Her lips were colder than her fingers, and her mouth tasted of copper and Slack. And she was no girl. Sia couldn't even remember what it felt like to be a girl.
She squeezed her eyes shut tighter. She couldn't remember anything, but she knew she had used. She must have gone to Trey's house; he was the only one left who could still get it. Steeling herself, she forced her eyes open. It was almost dawn, by the feel of the air. Her back was the only part of her body that was still warm, and she leaned into the source of the heat. Reaching behind her, she felt for what was holding her up. It was hard and rough. And hot. Her muscles screaming, Sia looked behind her.
A tree. Since when did trees give off so much heat? Sia rested the back of her head against it, looking up. Through the leaves and branches she could see a barely-lightening sky, clear and cloudless and perfect. Something fell on her face and it was the same coldness that had brushed against her cheek, waking her. She took it between her fingers. It was soft and cool and she let it rest in her palm. In the dim light of a flickering streetlamp it looked almost black, but she knew it must be a deep dark red. Because in the light, in the dawn, under a tree that gave off heat like a man, the petal that she held in her hand looked so much like blood.
Sia blinked hard and the hallucination disappeared. She was holding a petal in her hand. A black petal that had fallen from a tree that was probably warm because she had no doubt been resting against it for hours. She moved her cramped legs and felt something move against her boots. She looked around her for the first time and was sure she was hallucinating again.
She sat in the middle of a street. Apartment buildings rose up around her, cutting into the sky. Resting against a tree. In the middle of the road. The objects she'd felt against her feet were rubble where the tree had forced pieces of asphalt to crumble around it. Fighting the need to retch, Sia pulled herself to her feet, using a low-lying branch to pull herself up. The branch was alarmingly warm in her hand and she let go as soon as she found her balance.
“What...?” she rasped. Her head was pounding, her mouth so dry that her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She noticed again the taste of copper. She tried to lick her lips, but there was no moisture. Her lips tasted even stronger: sweet and metallic, with a strong scent, honeyed and savory at the same time. Sia pushed her hair out of her face and the smell grew stronger.
The sun was pushing up toward the horizon and the blue of the sky was visible. The streetlamp flickered off, but Sia could still see that she was covered in something that crinkled dry when she touched it. Something that smelled sweet and metallic. Something that looked black just like the petals of the tree.
There was so much blood.
“Oh my God,” Sia whispered. “Oh my God.” She felt a tear well up in her eye and roll down her cheek. It was cold by the time it dripped onto her hand. Cold and red. Sia touched her cheek where the tear had fallen down her face and her fingers came away dark, flakes falling away and floating gracefully to the ground.
There was a noise in the distance. Sia's eyes moved toward it slowly. A motor. A car. She squinted as it turned and sped directly towards her. Two pinpoints of light cut into her head and she staggered backwards from the pain, against the warm tree. Headlights. Not a car. A black van.
She looked up into the headlights. The buzzing was so loud. It wasn’t inside her head. It was a car. She knew she should run.
She should feel a sense of urgency now, but she didn’t have anything left. She was weak and lost and covered in blood. And the Movers had found her.
The headlights switched off and she heard voices. She blinked in the sudden darkness and it seemed to her for a moment that the stars fell from the sky. Then there were feet in front of her, feet that were attached to legs, long legs covered with a dark jumpsuit. Sia squinted her eyes to make out some letters. A name tag.
“Paaaaine,” she said slowly.
“That’s me,” said a voice. Long legs folded and now there was a face in front of her. A long, stubbled jaw and eyes that smiled even though his mouth was a stern line. “What’s your name, love?”
“Sia, sweet Sia,” she sang.
“Well, sweet Sia,” he said. “My name’s Desmond. It’s lovely to meet you.” He held out his hand slowly, like she was a wild animal.
“You’re a Mover,” Sia whispered.
“Yeah. That’s one word for it,” he said, smiling eyes crinkling. He pulled his hand back, studying her. “But don’t hold it against me, sweet Sia.”
“Please don’t take me away,” she said, a prickle of tears behind her eyes. “Please don’t. Just let me stay here. Let me die. I won’t hurt anyone. Just another Slacker.”
Desmond Paine’s eyes weren’t smiling anymore. He looked sad. But that wasn’t right, Movers weren’t sad. They crept up on you in the night. They took you away. They took your children away. They grabbed you and no one ever saw you again. But everyone knew you weren’t dead. The Revs wouldn’t kill you, that was too kind. They hooked you up to machines and pumped you dry for the rest of your life. Those were the stories: No one ever came back once the Movers came. She sat up straight, her back cold without the warmth of the tree.
“I would be happy to do that for you, Sia,” said Desmond Paine the Mover, “but I don’t want you to die.”
“It’s too hard,” said Sia. “It’s too cold. Everything’s cold now.”
“There must be something you like about living,” he said.
“Not anymore,” said Sia. “Everyone’s gone. And there’s no music.”
“You miss the music?”
Sia felt around by her feet and her hand wrapped around a large chunk of asphalt. She squeezed it hard in her hand.
“Music was my life,” she said.
“Paine!” said a brassy voice coming from the van. “Come on, what’s taking so long?”
Sia’s breath caught in her throat. He wasn’t alone. If she got away, his partner would chase her. And her legs felt like they were full of water instead of bones.
“I’m handling it,” he said over his shoulder, sounding irritated.
“Just tranq her and let’s get out of here,” the voice said.
Sia tried to stand, but she fell back again.
“Sia, hang on,” said Desmond Paine. “It’s not like it used to be. They want to help you.”
“So they can drain me,” said Sia, a note of panic in her voice.
“Not forever, though,” he said. “Not anymore. Just clean you up. Make you better.”
“I was better!” she said. “I was perfect before they came. I had everything.”
“We’ve all lost someone, love,” said Desmond Paine. “Don’t do what you’re going to do. Don’t try to run. Please.”
“Let me go,” she said.
“I can’t. They’ll take me if I do.”
“Then kill me. Please. Please.”
“Oh Christ, Paine,” said the woman’s voice again. Sia heard the squeal of hinges as the van door opened. Sia scrambled to her feet and grasped a branch on the tree, pulling herself to her feet. This time she managed to stay upright. She still held the piece of road in her hand. Desmond Paine stood up and Sia felt a sharp pain in her shoulder, then her vision, tenuous as it was, blurred even more.
The woman was standing next to Paine now. She was holding something that looked like a thin gun.
“Easy-peasy,” the woman said.
Sia fell back again and when the woman bent over her, Sia swung the arm with the rock. The woman caught it easily with strong fingers and the asphalt clattered to the ground.
“What’s with all these trees lately?” she said cheerfully to Paine. “All over the damn city.”
“I dunno,” Paine said, sounding defeated. “Maybe a prank?”
The woman was pushing up Sia’s sleeves. “Christ, she’s covered in blood.”
“It’s a brutal world,” said Paine.
“You sound like you feel sorry for her,” said the woman. “Just trash is all. Junkies.”
“We were all junkies before,” he said. “State-mandated, remember?”
“Times change, Paine,” she said.
Sia tried to focus on the woman. Her hair was short and curly and she was strong and broad, wearing the same dark jumpsuit as Paine. “When’s your blood day, honey?” she said to Sia, speaking loudly. “I can’t find a mark on her.”
“They won’t get my blood,” said Sia, her tongue thick in her mouth.
“They’ll get it,” said Paine. “Whether we like it or not.”
“Never had a blood day,” the woman said. “Can you imagine? Must be nice.”
“I don’t reckon any part of her life has been nice,” said Paine. “Not for a very long time.”
“Cry me a river,” said the woman. “Help me load her up, will you?”
Sia felt them lifting her, carrying her. Then she felt warm and dry and she heard a door slide shut. She couldn’t open her eyes. She felt herself slipping into sleep. Just before she was completely gone, she heard a voice in her ear. A whisper.
“I would have let you go if I had the chance,” said Desmond Paine. “But I would never have killed you.”
Sia could have sworn she heard music as she fell into sleep.
She woke to pain. Her muscles were clenched so hard she arched her back. Sia’s head throbbed and her eyes ached. She wanted to vomit, but the muscles in her throat kept throbbing open and closed and her belly was hard as a fist. Sia made herself force air slowly into her lungs in between spasms. It was always like this: the pain, the need, the sickness, the Slack.
Sia, what are you doing?
She rolled onto her side and retched. Flashes of memory came back to her as she heard her vomit splashing onto the floor, deep red. What did she do?
A memory of warm splashes on her face, screaming. Trey. Her friend. Her dealer. She had plunged the knife into him over and over, a faceless man raising Trey’s bloody wrist to Sia’s lips.
She had nothing left in her belly, but she couldn’t stop heaving. She killed him. She did that. Sia lay on her side gasping for air, the gags abating. Her head still throbbed, but there was a clarity to her thoughts. She was a murderer. She’d killed her friend to get high. And then an Englishman in a jumpsuit. A Mover. So she must be…
Sia opened her eyes a slit and squeezed them shut immediately. She was somewhere very, very bright. She could smell iodine and bleach. A hospital then. But they didn’t bring murderers to hospitals. They used to send them to prison, but not the Revs. She was no doubt slated to be a Bleeder. A permanent donor. Destined to be drained to the brink of death until the end of her short life. No painkillers even when it was excruciating, food through a straw. Hell. And needles. A lifetime of needles.
Sia, what are you doing? Who is that?
She rolled onto her back again and shivered. Her muscle cramps were easing, but the chills were setting in. Sia’s teeth chattered, the movement shaking her eyes in their sockets. She heard voices and tried to curl up, but she couldn't move her ankles. She pulled and felt the straps, heard the jingle of the chains. The hard surface moved as she kicked her legs. She was too afraid to open her eyes. If she looked it made it real and she wasn’t ready for this to be real.
“You over there. Stop that.”
The talking continued, voices murmuring and blending into one long, low sound. More than one voice. Curiosity got the best of her and Sia opened one eye slowly, waiting for the pain of the glare to subside before she opened the other. She was staring up into a fluorescent light. She blinked away tears from the brightness and looked away. She was on a gurney. Lifting up her hands, she saw that someone had made an attempt to clean her up. Most of the blood had been washed away, though it was still thick under her fingernails. She touched the front of her and found a clean gown had been put on her. Padded leather straps chained her ankles to the side of the gurney.
Sia lifted her head slowly and looked around, moving as little as possible. It looked like a hospital. The gurney was in a wide hallway as though she had been an afterthought. A nursing station sat across from her, the front protected with plexiglass. A man stood in front of the glass, talking heatedly to the nurse sitting within.
Sia couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he seemed upset. He wore a long brown coat and his hair was dark peppered with gray in the back. The nurse was glaring at him with a dour expression. Other than their voices, the hospital was eerily quiet. Quiet as the grave. Sia looked behind her to find no one there. All the room doors were closed. She pushed herself up and pulled on the ankle restraints. There was a padlock on each one. She tugged and they clinked loudly against the chains.
“Lay back down. You’re only going to hurt yourself.”
Sia looked over to see the nurse behind the plexiglass pointing a finger at her. The man turned around to look at her. He was in his fifties with a dark and silver scruff on his jaw that looked a few days old. There were bags under his eyes like bruises and he looked more tired than she felt. He raised an eyebrow at Sia and then turned and talked to the nurse again.
The nurse glared at him, wrinkled up her bony face, and said, “NO, SIR. I AM GOING TO CALL SECURITY NOW.”
He turned and made a beeline for Sia’s gurney, his coat flaring out behind him like a cape. He sidestepped the sick on the floor and grasped Sia’s hand.
“Quick, what’s your name?”
“My…name?” she said. She’d forgotten about trying to free herself. He was staring at her, something in his eyes that was like panic, but different. It was a need. Sia recognized it.
“Yes, yes, your name,” he said rapidly. “What is it?”
“Okay, Sia Aoki. I’ll try to get you out of here. But answer some questions for me. They picked you up tonight, didn’t they? Slacker?”
“Yes,” said Sia softly. “Among other things.”
“Right, we’ll get to that. How did you get here?”
“Movers,” said Sia slowly. “They tranqed me. Stuffed me in a van.”
“SIR, YOU GET AWAY FROM MY PATIENT! I WILL CALL THE MOVERS!”
“They’re going to do something to you here, Sia Aoki,” said the man. “I don’t know what, and I don’t know why, but I’ll try my best to get you out. And when I do, you’ll tell me the whole story. Deal?”
“What are they going to do?” said Sia.
“I just told you, I don’t know,” he said. “Call me when you get the chance. Tell me where you are. I’ll get you out. I’m Mike Novak. I work at the Post. Got it?”
“You work at the newspaper?” said Sia.
“Mike Novak at the Post,” he repeated. “Call me, you understand?”
“I don’t like needles,” said Sia. “Please. Help me.”
“There’s nothing I can do now.” He looked around as the angry nurse picked up the phone behind the plexiglass. “Say it, Sia. Who am I?”
“Mike Novak. At the Post.”
“Good girl. Stay strong, okay? I’ll try to come back.”
And then he was gone. A metal door opened and shut and heels clicked on the floor as the nurse walked over to her.
“Well,” she said, “look what you’ve done all over the clean floor. Are you ashamed?”
Sia blinked at her. “Yes,” she said.
“You should be. Look at the state of you.”
Sia cringed from the nurse’s eyes. They were cold and mean.
“What did that man say to you, hmm?” she said, standing rail-straight with her feet together, her hands behind her back. “Did he give you anything?”
“What? No. He was…lost.”
“You know he only wanted to take advantage of you, don’t you?” The nurse cocked a thin eyebrow. “Do you know why?”
“No,” said Sia.
“Because you are weak. You are weak and pathetic. You are pathetic because you take the Slack and you are weak by nature. But we are going to change that.”
“I don’t want to take it anymore,” said Sia. “I’m so scared.”
“You have nothing to fear if you follow the rules,” said the nurse. “Do you follow the rules?”
“No,” said Sia. “I don’t like needles.”
“Would you rather they took it out of your neck? With their teeth?”
“Then I suppose they are doing us a kindness by taking it out in an efficient manner, are they not?”
“I don’t know,” said Sia. “I guess so.”
“You will learn to overcome your fear of needles. Now what is your name?”
“Well, Sia, how do you feel?”
“Not very well.”
“Good,” she said, smiling. “That means you are getting that poison out of your system. Soon you will be a functional member of society. My name is Evelyn Hauser. You may call me Nurse Hauser. You may not call me Evelyn. Miss or Ma’am will do nicely as well.”
“Okay,” said Sia. “Ma’am.”
“Very good. You’re not completely hopeless.”
“Am I to be a Bleeder?” said Sia.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A full time donor,” said Sia. “Is that why I’m here?”
“No, Sia,” said Evelyn Hauser. “We have something much bigger planned for you. But for now, some rest, I think. When you wake up you will feel very sick. I will not give you anything for the pain, do you understand?”
“Okay,” said Sia. She wrapped her arms around herself. “May I have a blanket? I’m so cold.”
Evelyn Hauser grunted and walked away. Sia eyed the restraints on her ankles. She wasn’t getting away. Even if she could get off the gurney, she was exhausted. Her muscles hurt. It seemed even her soul hurt. She wouldn’t get far, and then they really would bleed her. She sighed and lay back down on the padded slab.
The click of heels announced the return of Nurse Hauser. She plopped something heavy on top of Sia. A stack of white blankets. Evelyn Hauser shook one out and spread it over Sia. Then spread the other two over the first. They were hot as if they’d been in an oven. Sia began to feel drowsy.
“You see?” said Evelyn Hauser. “I am not unkind. I only want you to live up to your potential.” She narrowed her eyes as she looked at Sia. “What did you do before the Annex?”
“I played music in New York.”
“Rock and roll?” said the nurse, wrinkling her nose.
“No. In an orchestra.”
“Why did you come to Philadelphia?”
“I was born here. My mother lived—” Sia stopped. She suddenly remembered finding her mother, dead on the floor of the kitchen. Something was wrong. Someone was missing. Someone important.
“Well, you won’t be seeing your mother again, I can tell you that right now,” said Hauser, a haughty expression on her face. “No more mothers and no more music.”
“I miss playing music more than anything.”
“Is that so?” said Evelyn Hauser. She clasped her hands behind her back again. “Well, unfortunately you won’t be able to do that again, will you?”
“No,” said Sia. “No more music.”
“It’s not as though the world will miss one instrument, Sia,” said Evelyn Hauser. “You must learn to cope with the changing world.”
“Six,” said Sia.
“Six what, dear?” said Evelyn Hauser.
“Six instruments. I didn’t play one. I played six. I was a prodigy.”
“A prodigy, is it?” said Evelyn Hauser. “And a liar.”
“I’m not lying,” said Sia flatly. She felt a tear roll out of her eye and into her hair.
“Well then, that’s excellent news,” said Evelyn Hauser, a cheery note in her voice. “It means you can be trained.”
“Like a dog?”
“Like a woman who values her life. I cleaned blood off you, Sia. Shall I instead send you for processing, for whatever atrocity you committed tonight? Hmm?”
“No ma’am,” said Sia, quickly. “What do you want me to do?”
“For now, sleep,” said Evelyn Hauser. “We’ll work out the rest after you’re feeling better. That may take some time, Sia. You must understand that.”
“I won’t take it again,” said Sia. “I don’t want it.”
“Your body doesn’t know that yet, dear. You will not enjoy life these next few weeks. But this is a gift. A chance to redeem yourself. You want that, don’t you?”
Yes, Sia thought, she did want a chance to redeem herself. But not to the Revs. To Trey. To the mother she couldn’t save. To the husband too weak to go on living. Sia simply nodded.
“Good. Now sleep, and I will prepare a room for you. You’re the first, you know. The Revenants are calling you the Beta.”
“Why not the Alpha?” said Sia, her eyes heavy. She could barely hold them open.
“They will call you the Alpha if you survive,” said Evelyn Hauser.
Mike Novak hated blood day. He cinched his trench coat and looked around, avoiding the eyes of the guards who walked up and down the line outside the Bank. Bleeders, Mike thought drily. Blood for the monsters. His chest tightened as a guard walked by. All humans: guards, processors, the people that took the blood. The Revs were the monsters, but everyone was ugly now. The Blackout had changed everyone for the worse. The wind was frigid and Mike’s eyes watered as he stomped his feet to stay warm.
“Hey, don't I know you?” said the woman in line behind him.
“No,” he said, barely turning his head. He didn't need to give her a better look at his face. It would just make things worse.
“Yeah, I know you,” she insisted.
He glanced quickly behind him. The woman's eyes were still burning into him. He saw the recognition in her face before he looked away.
“Oh my God!” the woman brayed. “It's you. I saw you on TV. You killed—”
“Quiet!” the guard said, stalking quickly over to them. He took out a nightstick and waved it. Mike snorted. “No talking in line,” the guard said, narrowing his eyes at the woman. She flinched as the guard slapped the nightstick in his palm. Her eyes darted from Mike to the guard, then back again. “No talking,” the guard said again, before walking away, sauntering up and down the city-block-long line of shivering, grumpy people.
A very thin man a few people up from Mike looked jaundiced and slightly yellow. He swayed on his feet. With the Revs taking more and more blood every time, these people were barely alive. Even the woman whose eyes were burning into the back of Mike's neck was pallid and almost gray. Mike felt weak, but he had always been robust. He had inherited his father's barrel chest and penchant for rowdy drinking, at least in his youth. These days he barely cracked a beer. It was all watered down now anyway.
“I know what you did,” whispered the woman.
“You don't know shit,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
“Everyone knows,” she whispered.
“And yet,” said Mike, “no one cares. Now leave me alone. It's my blood day. Let me enjoy my malaise in peace.”
“Murderer,” she said.
“Alleged,” Mike said. The woman was silent after that. The sun rose and made his head throb as its thin light burned into his eyes, the cold wind refusing to let up. The line moved quicker in the morning than in the evening, after work. It was a different crowd in the evening. Men and women in business clothes, mostly. Looking around, Mike saw elderly people, middle aged women, men with paunches who looked sad on their newly-paltry frames. There were no children, never any children, though some of the women rocked back and forth on their heels as though cradling a baby. Mike eyed the guard as he walked by again and sighed. The world was a wound rubbed raw.
Mike checked his watch when he reached the front of the line: seventy-two minutes and thirty-three seconds this time. Another guard waved him through the glass door she held open. Words painted on the door had been blacked out with sloppy swipes of paint. Mike remembered when this was an Urgent Care clinic. When the purpose of the building was to help people. He stepped in through the doors. A bored woman with a clipboard stood in the back, at the end of the hall beyond the exam rooms. She waved Mike toward her impatiently. Light glinted off the diamond studs in her earlobes.
“Name?” she said without looking up. She wore black frame glasses, her eyes and cheeks caked with makeup. She raised an overly plucked eyebrow and looked up at him. “Name?” she said again, an edge to her voice. She tapped her heel loudly on the dirty tile floor.
“Mike Novak.” She turned pages on her clipboard and checked something with a silver pen.
“Exam room two,” she said. “Next!”
Mike turned as he passed the first room, with its four waiting room chairs packed into the small space. He saw a woman's eyes roll back, the tube pulling blood into a small plastic bag continuing to drain her. A man staggering out of exam room three ran into Mike. His eyes were red with spider-webbed veins and his skin was dry as paper. A finger of blood ran down his arm.
“I got to get out,” he whispered huskily to Mike.
“They'll find you,” said Mike. “They always find you.”
The man pushed Mike weakly and ran stumbling, zigzagging, past the woman with the clipboard. Almost looking bored, the woman picked up a walkie-talkie from the counter and called the guards.
“We have a runner.”
Mike heard yelling from the back of the clinic. He closed his eyes for a moment, before turning and walking into the room marked with a large red 2. He sat in the only vacant chair, avoiding the eyes of the other three people in the room.
He gave 1.72 pints of blood, which was all they could get before he blacked out. When he woke he heard someone slur, “This is no way to live.” He was on the bus before he realized the voice had been his. He reached up and touched his temples, his head pounding.
“This is no way to live,” he said again under his breath. He made up his mind then. It would be the story of a lifetime. Philadelphia could burn for all he cared. What had it ever done for him? He pulled the cable to stop the bus and got off at the next stop. He wasn't far from his office. He weaved from time to time, but for the most part stayed on his feet. He felt a giddy thrill run through him.
“The truth,” he said. It felt odd just to say the word. And he was surprised by a thrill that he hadn't felt since long before Kyra died. Mike smiled. Kyra would have wanted this.
Mike pulled a beer from the fridge, popping the cap on the edge of the counter. His head throbbed. He needed water and food and sleep, but those things were not going to happen in the near future. He walked the four steps to the living room and slumped on the couch. There was a half-empty bowl of stale popcorn from the night before, and he stuffed a handful into his mouth, littering kernels around him. He left them. He took a swig of beer and let his head fall back on the cushions. There was a knock at the door. Mike sighed.
“Go away,” he called. “Nobody's home.”
“Come on, man,” came the muffled voice on the other side of the door. “Let me in. I've got to talk to you.” Desmond Paine. Just what he needed.
Mike hefted himself up from the couch and hurried to the door, opening it roughly. “What the hell?” he growled. He pulled Dez into the apartment and closed the door quickly. The bastard just grinned at him. “Do you not understand the point of being a secret informant? It means you inform and it's a secret.”
Dez nodded at the beer in Mike's hand. “Got one of those for me?” he said.
Mike looked at him for a moment before shrugging. “In the fridge,” he said.
“Thanks, mate,” said Dez, patting him on the arm. “Got an opener?”
Mike slumped back down on the couch. “Just bang it on the counter.” Dez did and came to sit beside him.
“So what do you want, Paine?”
He shrugged, the leather of his jacket creaking. “Can't I come see a friend?”
“We're not friends,” said Mike. “We're business associates.”
“If that's what you want to call it. But I don't have any other business associates willing to have a beer with me at six in the morning.”
“Been a long night,” said Mike, rubbing his forehead.
“Yeah, tell me 'bout it,” said Dez. “Had to pick up this junkie tonight. Cute as hell, even under all the mess. Had to take her in. Might have let her go if Rita hadn't been breathing down my neck, but that's the way of things these days. Least she won't come to no harm now, what with the new legislation.”
“No harm,” said Mike. He barked a harsh laugh. “She's probably better off dead than what they're going to do to her.” Mike shifted to look at Dez. “Why are you here, Paine?”
The man shrugged. “Thought you might have some more questions. Plus I need a place to sleep.”
“Don't you have a place?” said Mike.
“Too much weirdness going on,” said Dez. “Saw this Rev creeping around outside my building. Made me all twitchy. Especially because of all the shit I told you.”
“Right, fine,” said Mike. He drained the last of the beer. “I'll get you a blanket. One night.”
“Yeah, cool,” said Dez. “Thanks, Mike.” He grinned again. “You're going to blow them out of the water with this story, you know that?”
“Hope so,” said Mike. “Speaking of, I've got some work to do. I'm going in to work in a few hours. Don't break anything.”
Dez looked around. “You got anything breakable?”
“And lock up if you leave before I get back,” Mike said. He went into the bedroom and brought back a moth eaten wool blanket and a flat pillow. “This is all I have.”
“You should get some sleep, too, Mike,” said Dez, lying back and pulling the blanket over him. He stretched out contentedly. “You look like shit, man.”
“Thanks,” said Mike. “I have to get some work done. I'll sleep later. Bathroom's over there, next to my room,” he said pointing to two doors on the left side of the small kitchen.
“Thanks again, Mike,” said Dez, closing his eyes. “Real lifesaver, you are.”
“Just don't tell anyone,” said Mike.
“You have my word,” said Dez. Mike plucked the near-empty bottle out of his hand and put it by the sink. Paine was snoring by the time Mike closed his bedroom door behind him. He dug some clean, rumpled clothes out of a laundry basket and dressed. He found himself smiling as he caught the bus to the office.
The real news. He could get used to this.
He sat down in his cubicle, feeling like a carcass the dog dragged in, but started typing anyway, a fire in his belly. Clacking away on his old Remington, just like the old days. Telling the truth, just like the old days. Not giving a damn about the consequences, just like the old days. He didn’t even miss the computers that disappeared during the Blackout. He didn't pine for the days when he could fact check over the internet. This was real news and called for old school journalism. At that moment, he loved the typewriter.
And yet, his hands shook every time he took them off the keys, and his whole body vibrated, making his teeth chatter. He told himself it was the blood loss and swigged coffee. People poked their heads curiously over the partition to talk to him.
“Sorry, can't talk. Got a wicked story here.”
They walked away looking confused and worried. No one was enthusiastic about working at the Post. They were typists for the press releases the Revs sent them. There was no real reporting anymore, just congratulatory puff pieces about how the Revs were improving the world.
Mike finished and tapped the edges of the papers on the desk to straighten them. Fifteen pages, triple-spaced for the copy editors. All it took was fifteen pages to end a career. To end a life, maybe. They might just jab a tube into his arm and make him sit still for the rest of his life. That would be real torture. Mike re-read his story, barely recognizing what he'd just typed. He'd been in a fugue state during the writing, pounding it out all at once in a flurry of keys. He read it again.
“Hot damn,” said Mike. “Now that's a goddamn story.” Somewhere, he thought, Kyra was smiling at him. Mike slid it under the locked door to the office of his editor, Tess, and plopped down on the smelly couch in the break room. The clock above the door ticked loudly. Any second Tess would come back from lunch smelling like martinis. Any second, she would find his story – maybe the best story of his career – on the other side of her door. Any second...
But Mike was asleep and snoring loudly before Tess came through the elevator doors. It took five minutes for Vince Nakayama to shake him awake.
“Dude. Tess wants to see you.”
“What did you do?” Vince wore red Converse sneakers and a tie.
“Nothing,” said Mike, sitting up and rubbing his face. He looked at his own cracked and faded loafers. “Just my job.”
“Tess sounded pretty pissed. You gonna be okay?”
“I'm a survivor, baby.”
“Dude. Don't ever call me baby.”
The lights in the hall were out when he headed toward Tess's office. Mike squinted in the darkness. All he could see was the frosted glass door at the end of the hall, bursting with light. Don't go toward the light. Mike smiled. Tess was decent, though. She'd been his colleague and a damn good journalist right beside him back in the day. They'd even had a fling once, back before he met Kyra. Tess was the only reason he still had a job after the murder accusation. They were friends. Weren't they?
“Hell,” Mike muttered. Should he have written that story? He was having second thoughts. He made his feet carry him down the hall. There was a strange smell in the air. Like the musty smell of a museum. What was done was done, though. He'd given her the story. Either she would print it or she wouldn't. If she wouldn't, he had other options. Groups that would chomp at the bit to get his information.
Another step, then another. He was halfway down the hall. The odd smell was growing stronger. Mike looked up, checking for leaks, mildew in the ceiling. He saw nothing. Figures moved in Tess's office, visible through the frosted glass. More than one person, then. Had she called someone?
Tess was raising her voice, which was nothing new. But Mike could hear a second voice, deep and increasingly urgent. He took a step back.
“You should go,” said a voice right behind him. Mike jumped, whirling around. A man stood there, towering over him, impossibly tall.
“Jesus,” said Mike, his heart pounding. “Where the hell did you come from?”
The man was looking at Tess's door, his pale face expressionless. He had dark eyes and lips that were red, the color of cherries, the color of blood. He looked down at Mike. His hair was dark as well and fell rakishly over his forehead. He wore a suit and tie and from a distance could be mistaken for a businessman.
“You are the one called Mike Novak?”
“Depends who's asking.”
“You must go,” said the man. “I will have need of you soon.” He started loosening his tie. Mike stared as he unbuttoned his jacket.
“I'm supposed to talk to Tess,” said Mike, finally finding his voice. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
The man's face stayed expressionless, but he shifted his weight and breathed out his nose noisily, as though annoyed by the effort of talking to Mike. “My name is not important,” he said. “But if you must address me, address me as Joshua Flynn.”
“How do you know my name, Joshua Flynn?”
Flynn arched an eyebrow, the first movement he had shown on his face. “You are with The Post. The whole city knows your name.”
“Right,” said Mike. “Who's in there?”
“Government officials,” said Flynn. “Three of them. Your superior called them.”
“Tess? Why?” said Mike, but knowing the answer already. Tess was driven, career-minded, but surely she wasn't heartless. Reporting someone to the Revs was a death sentence. Or worse, if the stories were true.
“I think you know,” said Flynn.
“My story,” said Mike. “About the junkies.”
He nodded. “You must leave.”
“Why should I trust you? I don't know you.”
Joshua Flynn looked at him for a long moment, his dark eyes unmoving. It made Mike uncomfortable to look at him; there was something about the man that he couldn't quite place. Then Flynn hunched his shoulders and opened his mouth and his features shifted. High cheekbones smoothed flat. Red lips darkened, sharp gray teeth emerged and covered the straight white ones in his mouth, stopping as razor-sharp points. His spine crackled and buttons on his shirt popped as he stretched and hunched. Flynn's almond-shaped eyes widened and flattened as he let out a hiss.
Mike felt his bowels turn liquid. “Jesus,” he whispered, stumbling backwards and falling on the carpet, without taking his eyes off the monster in front of him. “You're one of them,” he said, his voice hoarse and high. He struggled to stand. He was shaking and his legs seemed to be made of rubber. “How? They can't change. Not anymore.”
“I'm not one of them,” Flynn said, his voice guttural.
Mike could feel his heartbeat in his throat. He tried to make his feet move, but he was frozen. He was afraid he might piss himself.
“Go,” hissed Flynn. Mike heard the scrape of Tess's chair behind the door and footsteps. Several soft muffled voices. Flynn's nightmare-face stared back at him, the eyes reptilian, the nose flat and slitted. “The Revenants are here. Run.”
Mike didn't ask any more questions. He ran.
Genevieve White woke up with a sob still on her lips, just as she did every morning. She had been dreaming of Hunter again. But there had been a woman there. She played the violin and Hunter laughed and laughed and laughed with blood soaking his tiny tee shirt…
She made a pot of watered-down coffee and sat on the small, ratty couch in the living room to drink it. As she sipped she stared at The Book.
She thought of The Book more and more these days. She could no longer fool herself into thinking it was simply a book like any other. Ever since she opened it— looking for that poem Griff would recite at the strangest moments—it had become The Book. The poem still thundered through her mind, even now.
“Paralyzed force, gesture without motion,” she muttered into her cup, not taking her eyes from the spine of The Book. She finished her coffee. “Damn you, Griff. Why didn't you take it with you?” Of course no one answered her in the empty apartment, but sometimes she half expected her husband to come up behind her and place his large, warm hands on her shoulders. Sometimes she forgot, and expected little Hunter to pounce on her when she came through the door after work. They were both gone now, and she did better when she forgot them altogether. The forgetting was just a different kind of pain. Every path just led to a brand new something breaking inside of her, and she wasn't sure how much more could be broken before she gave up on repairing herself. Viv roughly pushed the radio in front of The Book, obscuring it from curious eyes.
The words scrawled in the margins of The Book stayed fresh in her mind. She was too terrified to even think about it. Viv put her cup in the sink and got ready for work. She managed to catch an early bus and was seated at her station in the lab, already working, when the others came in.
“I heard he can read minds,” the lab assistant, Sonia, was saying to Mark, who laughed pompously.
“Those are rumors. The Revs haven't read minds since the old times.”
“And just when were these old times?” Viv called, not even daring to look up from her microscope. “Were you there, sharing the joy of reading tiny human minds all those centuries ago?”
“It's in the memo they sent,” said Mark, narrowing his eyes. “Did you even bother to read it, Viv? He's coming today.”
Viv looked up then, to see Mark smile unctuously at her. Without realizing it, Viv clenched a fist.
“You don’t know anything, do you?” said Mark. “The president?”
“What?” said Viv. “Why?”
“Not so snarky now, are you?” said Mark. “We're not testing samples today, so you can put that microscope away. Today is all about Ambrose Conrad.”
Viv's heart beat in her chest. The president. The first voice everyone heard after the Blackout. The monster in charge of the world. What if he really could read minds? Would he know? Would he be able to tell just by looking at her? She stared at Mark. Sonia walked to the break room to hang her coat.
“Why is he coming here?” she said, trying not to sound as breathless as she felt. “Is it publicity? It's not like he needs to win an election or anything.” She tried for a smile, but it faltered. Mark frowned at her.
“It's his country, he can go wherever he pleases.” He raised an eyebrow. “You know, Genevieve, you'd do best to curb your remarks. You never know who could overhear and be less...forgiving than I am. You could get in some very hot water talking about the Revenants that way.”
“Right. Sorry,” Viv said, hoping she looked sincere. “I'm very tired today. I'm not feeling myself.”
“You're not sick are you?” Mark said, suddenly anxious. “You can't be here when you're sick. You know how they are about illness.”
“No, no, nothing like that. Just bad dreams is all.”
“Okay,” he said slowly, as if he didn't quite believe her. “Just be careful. Especially today. We don't want anything to go wrong.”
Mark turned and left to put his peacoat away, and Viv took a deep breath. When her heart slowed a bit, she bent back over the microscope. Mark would be flitting around all morning, tidying things, yelling at the intern. She couldn't stand the thought of watching it all. She needed work right now.
The knock on the door came at exactly ten o'clock. To the second. Viv scratched out some notes before getting up to retrieve another sample. Mark glared at her as he hurried to the door. No amount of cajoling had torn Viv away from work today. Mark behaved as though he were in charge, but in truth no one was in charge. Not really. Viv would have wondered if what they were doing was even necessary, had she not seen what Griff had written in that book. Viv shook her head, pushing the thought away. She wasn’t strong enough to do anything about anything, so best to just do her job. Thinking got you arrested, and there was no coming back from that.
The woman in the doorway cleared her throat, and Viv sensed the heaviness of Mark's silence as he stood, waiting. Viv saw a thin, wiry woman with iron-gray hair, and a beak of a nose, tilting her head to peer around Mark at the lab. Mark held out his hand. The woman looked at it disdainfully and sniffed. Mark awkwardly put his hand down and stuffed it into his lab coat.
“I am Margaret Watts,” the woman said in a voice that was used to giving orders. “I am the personal secretary of Ambrose Conrad. I am here to prepare you to meet him.” She pushed past Mark and entered the lab. Viv found she rather liked Margaret Watts.
“His personal secretary?” said Mark, looking crestfallen. “He sent a secretary? This is a secure government facility.”
“I realize it seems highly irregular,” said Margaret Watts, “but what isn't these days?” She pushed her glasses up her nose with a finger. Viv was pleased to see that Mark's face was reddening and a trickle of sweat was rolling down his temple. “Sir, are you having some sort of attack?” said Margaret Watts. She said it as though even the thought was completely offensive to her.
“No,” Mark managed, and quickly recovered. “What should we do to prepare the facility for the president?”
Margaret was looking around the lab, her eyes first landing on Sonia standing behind the stainless steel table, her eyes as big as saucers. Margaret wrinkled her nose, and then her eyes slid over to Viv. “Ah!” said Margaret, jumping a little, then pushing past Mark in Viv's direction. “You'll do, what's your name?” She looked Viv up and down and seemed quite satisfied with what she saw.
“I am Doctor Genevieve White,” said Viv, controlling the catch in her voice. Margaret looked at the latex gloves on Viv's hands, the microscope turned on and lightly humming, the vials of blood tidily sorted.
“A doctor?” said Margaret, pleased, and writing on her clipboard. “You continued your work this morning even though you knew that you had to prepare for a visit from your president?” Margaret's beady eyes were magnified by her thick glasses.
“I told her to stop working,” said Mark, joining them. “I asked her to help me prepare, but she just kept on going.”
“On the contrary, it's admirable,” said Margaret Watts. “A woman doesn't lose her head in these situations like a man. Commendable, Doctor. You will show the president around the facility.”
“I'm sure that I am not the most qualified,” Viv started. She saw Mark's face turning purple again, but Margaret didn’t skip a beat.
“I can't have this one speaking to the leader of our world,” she said nodding to Mark. “He's obviously a sycophant. The president likes real humans, you see. The voice of the people.”
Viv was having a hard time breathing. “I'm sorry,” she said. “Forgive me for asking, Ms. Watts. But I'm just showing him around, right? He's not going to, you know –”
“Eat you?” interrupted Margaret, with a small snort of a laugh. “No, of course not. Revenants no longer drink the blood. They have done away with that barbaric tradition. It's all very scientific these days, as you well know.” She leaned in closer to Viv. “I think you will do very well with the president. And if you do, I will make sure that you are transferred, Doctor. It cannot be easy to work with this horrible man.”
“Actually, no, it's not,” said Viv, smiling slightly, looking at Mark.
“Well, then, that's settled,” said Margaret, ticking something off on her clipboard. “Now, about the president. He may seem strange at first. You have heard him speak on the radio before, haven't you?”
“Of course,” said Viv. “Everyone has.” She bit her own tongue so she wouldn’t continue on and say what she was thinking: “We don’t really have a choice in the matter.”
“Well, there's absolutely nothing to fear, so you can stop clenching your hands like that.”
“Sorry,” said Viv, not realizing she was doing it.
“He will not harm you. Just stay calm, and everything will be all right. He just wants to have a look around and see where his sustenance comes from. Now why don't you wrap up what you're working on and I'll go get the president.”
Viv tried to ignore Mark glowering at her as she tidied her work area. She dismissed Sonia for the day, since it was obvious they would not be doing any more work. The girl looked so relieved that Viv thought Sonia would hug her. At last, Viv heard the sound of at least a dozen shoes squeaking on the highly-waxed floor of the hallway. Mark stood up, sucking in his substantial stomach. Viv stood slowly, carefully. She breathed deeply.
Several men wearing identical suits descended on the room, looking under tables, counters, and stools, in refrigeration units, and in cabinets. Two more men came in and checked Viv and Mark's badges, passing information into fat walkie-talkies. After patting them down and declaring them clean, all the men went out, and President Ambrose Conrad walked in.
Viv almost gasped. He was tall, maybe the tallest man she had ever met. But he wasn't really a man. His hairless head sloped down onto a long, flattened face. A gash of a mouth couldn't conceal his impossibly long teeth, sharp like knives, but clean and gleaming white. Conrad's arms hung lower than seemed normal, and his hands were like talons. His body was too long, Viv realized. As if stretched. But the tailored suit hung perfectly around the weird body, Conrad's long teeth almost reaching his maroon tie. Margaret Watts walked in behind and stood beside him, her clipboard under one arm.
“Mister President,” she said, her authoritative voice echoing in the lab as she gestured toward Viv. “This is Doctor White. She seems to know the place better than anyone.” It was all so matter-of-fact. Like a business meeting. Only this was the POTUS, and the POTUS was a monster. A monster responsible for Viv's son disappearing. For her husband running off. For her job being taken away. For her life being torn apart into a million shards of glass. This monster was responsible for the state of the world right now, for the pain of every single person on the planet. There were other presidents of other countries, but they all took their orders from Conrad.
Viv shoved all the feelings into the back of her brain, just as she had every day since the Blackout. She forced her mouth to smile, her breathing to slow, her muscles to relax. She wasn't sure if she could talk, as her throat felt as if it had closed up at the sight of Conrad. But she placed one foot in front of the other and walked steadily toward him, holding out her hand.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. President,” she heard herself say, on autopilot. Gracious was her default setting.
Conrad shook her hand. She thought his hand would be cold, but he was warm and his handshake was firm. “Please call me Ambrose, er, Doctor White?” he said, still holding her hand. His voice was low and quiet. Nothing like the loud voice that echoed through a microphone during press conferences.
“Yes,” said Viv. “Genevieve White.”
Ambrose looked down at their hands, and she realized he was studying the color of her hand, so dark against his, the palest of whites. Viv could see blue veins running just below the surface. “Ironic,” he said. Your last name is White, but you are not.”
“The irony doesn't escape me, sir,” she said, smiling wider. “It was my husband's name.” She wanted to gnash her teeth, to spit at him. No one was supposed to care about race any more; it was barely acceptable to be human now before throwing race into the mix. But the ideal was not the same as the norm. And all these Revs were so old that they remembered. She had seen black Revenants, but they were rare. No need to make small talk and let slip how she really felt. That would only get her killed, and then no one would ever find Hunter. She swallowed heavily. A better way would be to ingratiate herself to this man, or whatever he was.
“Indeed,” he said, letting go of her hand. “Well, let us have a look around. I understand you'll be showing me the place?”
Viv wiped her palms against her lab coat and glanced at Margaret Watts, who was nodding her head. “Yes,” said Viv. “Follow me. I'll show you the purity testing station first.”
When they returned, Mark was sitting where Viv had been an hour before, head down at his work, his lip stuck out like a disappointed child. He leaped to his feet but Ambrose didn't even look at him as he passed. Viv felt Mark's eyes on her back. Margaret waited for Conrad by the door and Ambrose nodded at her as he stood beside her. The contrast of their heights was almost comical. The president turned to look at Viv.
“Miss Watts tells me you are in need of new employment,” he said.
“Oh,” said Viv.
“I have arranged for you to be transferred to the Hematological Purification Plant. It is a new facility that we will soon open—an adjunct to the Munson Experimental Hospital, which you may have heard of. You start on Monday next. Report to General Lawrence Davies when you arrive, and he will escort you to your post. You will, of course, be promoted to head researcher of your laboratory. I must apologize, I do not know which one. There will of course be more money, which I understand humans enjoy. I trust this is all satisfactory?”
Viv stood still as a statue, her mouth trying to move. Finally she let out a weak, “Yes. Thank you.” This seemed to be enough, because Ambrose nodded at her, and without another word, walked out the door. Mark was staring at the spot where Ambrose had been standing a moment before. His eyes were bugging and his Adam's apple was moving up and down. His face was gloriously red. Margaret stopped before following the president, pushed her glasses up her nose with her finger, turned to Mark and smiled.
“Just a secretary, eh?” Margaret said to him. Then she followed the president out the door. The sound of a dozen shoes squeaked back down the hall until there was no sound at all but the gentle whirring of machines.
Viv unbuttoned her lab coat. She unclipped her badge and tossed it along with the coat onto the table.
“Goodbye, Mark,” she said. “I hope I never see you again. Tell Sonia I'll miss her.” She turned and headed for the door.
“Wait,” said Mark, his voice strangled. “You can't go yet. It's only Tuesday. You don't start until Monday.”
“Yeah, but I have a lot of wine to drink before then,” said Viv. He was opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. Viv stopped and looked at him. “You are a hollow man, Mark. A stuffed man.”
“What the hell does that mean?” he sputtered.
“It's from a poem,” said Viv.
“What do you know about poetry?” said Mark.
“Nothing,” said Viv. “But I'm learning.”
She closed the door quietly and didn't look back, her feet carrying her down the hall as if leaving the lab like any other day, to go home and have a drink. To help her forget, for at least a little while.
The first time they took her down the hall for what Evelyn Hauser called “rehabilitation,” Sia fought them. Two large men in blue scrubs finally strapped her down and ended up wheeling her entire bed down the hall. Sia’s hand hurt where she had punched the orderly, and to her satisfaction, his cheek was swollen and bruising by the time they stopped.
“Sia,” said a familiar voice. Hauser stepped out in front of her and Sia glared.
“What the hell is this?” she said. “What are you going to do to me?”
The rehabilitation room reminded Sia of an old horror movie, about a nineteenth-century insane asylum where patients were tortured. The walls and floor were concrete block, with drains set into the floor. There were no windows and several stations were equipped with what looked like torture implements.
“You said I had to get better first,” said Sia, her voice echoing the panic rising inside of her. “You said they wanted me to get better.”
“Of course,” said Hauser, holding up a large book. “It’s all part of the process, dear. You know I don’t want to do this to you either, but regulations require it, and I’ve never been one to shirk my duties.”
“The regulations require what?” said Sia, through gritted teeth and clenched muscles and tears. She’d been able to get through one full day without vomiting, a small victory, but was now in pain all the time, her muscles clenching and unclenching, and she couldn’t eat or sleep. Evelyn Hauser wouldn’t give her so much as an aspirin for the pain.
Hauser took a syringe out of her pocket and came towards Sia, who began kicking and wriggling under the straps. The men held her down as Hauser jabbed the needle into her hip.
“This will make it impossible to move,” said Hauser. “But you’ll still feel everything. You will therefore remember what will happen should you digress from your treatment.”
“But I havennnnnn…” said Sia, her face suddenly refusing to work, her vocal chords limp.
“Ah, it’s working,” said Hauser. “Get her up there, please.”
Sia felt herself being lifted, turned upright, strapped onto the cold concrete wall. She was being held by straps on her wrists, ankles, waist and chest. Sia tried to scream but no sound would come.
“You truly believe that you won’t ever use again, Sia,” said Hauser. “But studies have shown that junkies lie, even to themselves. It’s all in the book. We must follow the rules.”
Sia watched, helpless as Evelyn Hauser cradled the book to her chest, and the men disappeared around the corner. They came back with a large hose that looked like it had come off a fire truck. Sia tried to speak, tried to beg them to stop, but all she could manage was a long thin moan.
“You’ll thank me for this one day,” said Hauser. As the man with the swollen cheek turned on the hose, Sia saw that Evelyn Hauser had to look away.
The next day, Hauser brought Sia some pills.
“To help you sleep,” said the old nurse, reaching to stroke Sia’s hair as Sia swallowed them. Sia flinched away, the restrains stopping her wrists painfully. Hauser took her hand back and stood, straightening her sweater.
“You cannot fault me for doing my job, Sia,” she said. “The person you’re really angry at is yourself. I won’t allow you to be weak here, my dear. I’m tough, but it’s all to the benefit of my patients.”
“What was the benefit of paralyzing me?” said Sia, the very act of speaking painful. Her jaw had been clenched when the paralytic wore off, and her teeth felt like they had turned to a mouthful of nerves. Every centimeter of Sia’s skin felt as though she had been sandpapered down.
“So you wouldn’t injure yourself, of course,” said Hauser, her voice confident. “You were very upset.”
“Of course I was upset. You tortured me.”
“Not torture, Sia,” said Hauser. “Redemption.”
“You said they wanted to make me better,” said Sia. “Stronger.” She could feel the pills starting to work. She was feeling suddenly very tired.
“They do,” said Hauser. “But first, you must be punished.”
“Are you going to do it again?” said Sia, Evelyn Hauser growing far away and blurry.
“Don’t worry about that right now,” said Hauser. “Get some sleep.”
Sia woke blearily, what felt like days later, to someone jabbing a needle into her arm. It was the orderly she hit in the face. He put a finger to her lips.
“I’m just taking a little blood for tests,” he said, smiling. “I’m not as nice as Hauser. You hit me again, and this time I’ll hit you back.”
Sia let him take the blood. After he left, the vials of her blood clinking in his pocket, Sia tried to hug herself, but the restraints chained to the sides of the bed wouldn’t let her. She felt too tired to cry. She had brought herself here, Hauser had been right about that. She’d been weak. Sia blinked in the darkness. It was odd, though, she didn’t feel weak. She felt angry, alone, scared. But weak?
“I’m stronger than they know,” she whispered in the dark. And for a moment, she remembered someone once saying that to her…
She was still awake when Hauser came in the morning, clutching the blue book to her chest again.
“You’re due for another session,” said Hauser. “If you don’t fight us, I won’t have to give you an injection.”
“I’m never going to scream for you again,” said Sia, though her voice was low and shaky. “You won’t get me to scream.”
“I don’t want you to scream,” said Hauser, sounding genuinely surprised. “I just want to teach you a lesson. It’s the rules, Sia.”
“And you’re not one to shirk the rules,” Sia said.
“No, I am not,” said Hauser.
“I won’t fight you,” said Sia.
Later that morning, the men handcuffed Sia to a wheelchair and wheeled her to the Rehabilitation Room. Hauser was waiting for her there, still clutching her book. It seemed to Sia that the book had become part of her body, she cradled it so much. Her precious rules. The man pushing her chair didn’t stop at the wall where she’d been hosed a few days before, but continued on to a corner with a cloth partition.
“Uncuff her,” said Hauser.
“Ma’am, is that wise?” Hauser glared at the orderly as though she had just been slapped.
“Uncuff her and stop asking stupid questions,” she said. “You are out of line.”
“Sorry,” said the orderly, reaching down and squeezing Sia’s wrist hard as he uncuffed her, sneering as she gasped in pain.
“You may go now,” said Hauser, looking at the orderly, her eyes like razorblades. “What is your name again?”
“Clark,” he said. “Reggie Clark.”
“Mr. Clark, you are relieved of your position.”
“What? You can’t—”
“Oh I can,” said Hauser. “Your insolence and your disdain for patients has cost you your job. Leave now or I will call my supervisor.”
Clark glared at her. “You can’t do this. They assigned me this job.”
“They will have to assign you another one. Good luck in the sanitation department.”
“I’m going to come back, and I’m going to kill all you bitches.” He pointed at Hauser. “Especially you.” As he left, Hauser picked up a phone from her pocket. She pressed a key and smiled into the phone.
“Yes, Mr. Kearns? A Mr. Reggie Clark is coming out. He has been terminated for threatening me. Please detain him.” She listened for a moment, then said, “very good, thank you.” Hauser pressed a button and put the phone back in her pocket, turning to face Sia.
“You see, dear? I don’t want to hurt you. I want to protect you. Had I not incited Mr. Clark, his sadistic tendencies would have been directed at you.”
“Why me?” she said. “Why not all the patients?”
“Oh, Sia,” Hauser laughed. “You are my only patient. Now stand up and take your punishment.”
The remaining orderly, looking more than terrified of Hauser, pulled back the partition revealing a bathtub. There was a cloth cover on top with a hole cut out right where Sia imagined her head would go. The orderly pulled the canvas back and motioned for her to step into the tub. Sia looked down and saw it was full of ice. There was a cart piled with tubs of ice next to it.
“Go to hell,” Sia said, gravel in her voice.
“We can put you in,” said Hauser, “but I believe you’ll find that even more distasteful.”
Sia looked at the orderly, but he was watching Hauser. Sia glared at the old nurse and pulled her gown off, throwing it on the floor.
“This isn’t you, dear,” said Hauser, stroking the blue book. “This is the junkie who will soon be redeemed.”
“I’m not going to scream,” said Sia. She raised her foot and lowered it into the tub. She hissed air in through her teeth as she plunged the foot to the bottom of the tub. Tears stung her eyes, but she wouldn’t cry. She told herself over and over that she wouldn’t cry.
But in the end she did cry. And that night, Evelyn Hauser gave her another sedative. Sia fell asleep to the woman stroking her hair, unable to push her away through the shivering, even hours after she’d been returned to her bed and covered in hot blankets.
Sia dreamed of a man, his dark, dark eyes pushing into her, staring at her, yet burning her at the same time. She startled awake with his name almost on her lips. She strained to remember him, but the tendrils of the dream slipped from her grasp.
“Jesus, what happened to you?” said a familiar voice. A dim light switched on and Sia blinked at the man standing there. He was wearing scrubs just like the other orderlies, but he didn’t look like any of the others. He was tall and thin, handsome, with beard stubble dotting his chin. He smiled and Sia knew that he probably got his way a lot with that smile. He was familiar.
“You want my blood,” she said. “Go ahead.”
He pulled a stool over next to the bed, tossing the blood kit on the floor. Sia looked at him, interested.
“You don’t remember me,” he said. He had an English accent.
“Should I?” she said.
“Dez Paine,” he said. “I’m the one who brought you here.”
Sia shrunk away from him, her eyes wide.
“No, no, it’s not like that,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“But you will if I make you?” Sia said.
“Jesus, what the hell are they doing to you here?” he said, looking disgusted.
“Rehabilitating me,” she said. “You should go. Movers aren’t supposed to come in here.”
“Relax, love,” said the Mover who was now an orderly and did not want to take her blood.
“Why are you here?” said Sia. “I’ll scream.”
“I don’t want to…” he began, then shook his head. “I’m not going to hurt you, okay? I want to help you.”
“You’ve helped me enough, thanks,” said Sia.
“I had to do that,” he said. “My partner, she’s crazy about the rules. She would have reported me. Maybe even killed me herself.”
“That’s a sad story,” Sia said.
“I know how it sounds,” he said. “But they were looking for an orderly, so I volunteered. And here you are.”
“Why did you volunteer?” she said.
He grinned again. “I’m going to bust you out.”
“Why would you risk your life to bust a junkie out of rehab?”
“Sister, this ain’t no rehab,” said Dez Paine, looking at her wrists in their padded restraints.
“I have to stay,” said Sia, surprising herself. As she said the words she knew that they were true, but she didn’t understand why. She frowned, searching her broken mind for the reason. Without warning an image from her dream flashed in her mind. A pair of dark eyes. A man watching her. Her heart beat faster and she gasped for breath.
“What the hell are you talking about?” said Dez Paine. He fidgeted around on one of the wrist cuffs and it fell away.
“Stop it,” said Sia. “I have to stay. You can’t make me leave.”
“I’m trying to help you,” said Dez.
“I don’t want your help. Why are you doing this?”
He froze and looked at her. He frowned and shook his head. “I don’t remember,” he said. “I just have to.”
“No you don’t,” Sia said, anger rising in her chest. She didn’t know why she was upset. She didn’t know why she wasn’t eager to escape this horrible place. But for some reason, she had to stay. She had to…what? Search for something? Someone? She couldn’t get her mind to make the connections.
Dez was fiddling with the other cuff.
“Really,” she said, her voice steely. “You need to go. Now. I can’t go with you.”
“The pretty ones are always crazy,” said Dez, pulling the cuff off her wrist. He moved to pull the blanket off to uncuff her ankles, but Sia grabbed his shirt.
“Hey!” he said, as she pulled him closer to her face.
“Get the hell out of here or I’ll kill you myself,” she hissed.
He pulled away from her, breathing hard.
“What the hell, lady?”
“I’ll scream,” she said. “I’m a very important patient.”
“Why the hell do you want to stay?” he said.
Sia hesitated. “I don’t know. But I know it’s important.”
“The hell with that,” he said, pulling the blanket from her feet. “I’m getting you out. You’re delusional.”
Sia began to scream.
“So, you had a visitor last night, I hear,” said Evelyn Hauser, sipping a cup of tea.
“Yes,” said Sia.
“Friend of yours?” said Hauser.
“Of course not,” said Sia. “He was the Mover who brought me in here.”
“And why you?” said Hauser. She was sipping tea again, calm as could be, but Sia could feel her twitchiness.
“I can’t help that men find me attractive,” said Sia. “And I can’t stop them from following me when I’m chained to a bed.”
“They didn’t find him last night,” said Hauser. “He ran off and the guards couldn’t find him.”
“Too bad,” said Sia. “I hope he doesn’t come back.”
“Indeed,” said Hauser. She was looking oddly at Sia.
“What is it?” said Sia.
“I’m just wondering why you didn’t go with him,” said Hauser. “You had a clear path to escape. Why didn’t you go?”
Sia shrugged. “I have work to do here.”
“Rehabilitation,” said Sia. “What will it be today? Swimming with piranhas? Swallowing red ants?”
“Electroshock,” said Hauser, frowning. “It’s just…”
“The rules,” said Sia. “I know. Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s get started.”
Hauser stared at her, for a moment at a loss for words.
“Sia, it’s not going to be pleasant.”
Sia smiled. “I’m stronger than you know.”
Mike looked at the white door, its paint peeling to reveal corroded metal. What remained spelled Fishtown Pupp t Theat. Mike had never even heard of a puppet theater before he met Deacon, and still had no earthly idea why anyone would choose to do business in one. Especially a defunct one. He turned the handle and held his breath as a rush of stale, mildewy air met him. He blinked in the darkness.
Voices from the storage rooms below grew quiet as he took his first, creaking step into the building. The smell of dust and rotting cloth filled his nose and mouth. Mike squinted in the darkness, drawing a scratched and battered Zippo lighter out of his pocket.
Mike peered around him by the light of the Zippo. He knew what he would see: glass cases on either side of the doorway. Women in wooden masks hung from strings, their white painted faces chipped and their silk robes dotted with dark mildew stains. Giant heads shaped like moons with bulbous noses slumped against the glass, their strings tangled in a heap. Regal girls in stained and rotted taffeta gowns, no bigger than dolls but with eyes that sparkled and followed Mike as he walked past. All of their eyes seemed to peer into him as he crossed the threshold into the theater. The once-scarlet velvet curtains at the stage now hung tattered and ragged and speckled with black. The backdrop had long since been torn or rotted away. Some of the seats had been torn out and carried off. The ones that remained smelled of urine and mold. Water dripped slowly from the ornate ceiling into puddles scattered throughout the theater. Mike found his way to the door, just as Dez Paine had showed him the first time.
As he descended the stairs, he closed the lighter and returned it to his coat pocket. He didn't need it. The basement got colder as he neared the bottom of the stairs and a brightness cast a watery light on the boiler room. Mike followed the light down a hallway. He noticed his hands shaking and stuffed them into his pockets. The voices resumed again and were growing louder and more raucous as he approached a brightly lit room at the end of the hall. A hulking man slouched against the wall outside the doorway, slugging at a silver flask and smoking a cigarette.
“You again,” the man rasped. He screwed the cap of the flask back on and put it in his pocket. “What do you want this time?”
Mike swallowed and straightened his back. “I need to see Deacon,” he said, hoping the hulk didn't notice the quaver in his voice. A piece of hair came loose and hung in Mike's eyes and he put a hand up to smooth it. The hulk watched him.
“Little nervous tonight, aren't you, friend?” said the hulk.
Mike looked down at his hand, still shaking a little. He put it behind his back.
“It hasn't been a good day,” Mike said.
“Who you working for?” He narrowed his eyes and looked Mike over, putting his half-smoked cigarette to his lips. Mike could tell it was a real one. Not a modern one that the Revs sold in the stores.
“No one,” said Mike. “Not anymore.”
“You get fired or something?”
Mike looked at him, knowing he looked pathetic, shaky, sick. He felt like throwing up again, but instead he took a breath. “I've been reported.”
“Aw, too bad,” said the hulk. He stopped glaring at Mike. “So you want Deacon to kiss your booboos, is that it?” He ground the cigarette under his shoe. “Don't work like that.”
“I just need a little help,” said Mike, an edge to his voice.
“He helped you the last time you were here.”
“This is different.”
“I know your kind,” said the hulk. “You think you're better than us until you get into a bind, and then you come looking for Deacon, signing away your soul, just like that. You're on top of the world again. But you know the best part? When we come to collect, you people always look surprised. Sometimes you get violent. You people have no sense of honor.”
Mike looked at the hulk, wondering what brought him to this life.
“I'll pay,” said Mike. “I always pay my debts.”
“You might not like this one.”
“Whatever it takes,” said Mike. He was surprised that the conversation distracted him, and that he was now feeling better. He nodded. “Whatever it takes,” he said again.
“Whatever you say, Novak.” The hulk shrugged and waved Mike through the door. Mike paused before going in.
“You got a name?”
The hulk frowned. “Why?”
“I might want to thank you later.”
“Matthew,” he said. “Blake.”
Mike nodded. “Thank you, Matthew Blake.”
“You were a little shook up,” said Blake. “I always try to talk you people out of it. I try. It never takes.” He sounded sad, and an emptiness behind his eyes suggested that he had tried many times. He looked away from Mike, shaking a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros.
“Thanks for trying,” said Mike.
“Be careful, Novak,” he said, lighting his cigarette. He met Mike's eyes one last time. “We're not nice people.”
“Better than the alternative.”
“Maybe,” said Blake. “But it isn’t a high bar.”
The room was filled with smoke. Rough men and a few women sat at collapsible tables drinking and playing cards, cigarettes and cigars perched on their lips. Paint peeled from the walls. Across the ceiling, more marionettes hung from small hooks. They were in far worse shape than the ones upstairs in the glass cases. Many were missing limbs, most were so rotted that Mike couldn't even see their faces. There was a painted clown with rows of what looked like shark teeth that had survived unscathed, but once-pretty dresses and curls and tiny tuxedos were moldy and falling apart. Their eyes seemed to escape even the worst damage. They followed Mike as he made his way across the room, choking on smoke and black mold and cheap perfume. Mike tried not to look at the puppets and focused on the man he had come to see.
Deacon was draped across a high backed red chair, looking withered as a dried leaf. He wore sunglasses that seemed to encompass his whole face, but they didn't cover wrinkled paper-thin skin sagging over drooping bones. Mike could see blue veins in the liver-spotted hands that clutched the arms of the chair.
“You're late,” Deacon croaked. There was a small, battered table in front of him, a long, thin knife with a mother-of-pearl handle the only thing upon it. On the other side of the table was another chair.
“Late?” said Mike.
“Sit down, Novak.” Deacon barely spoke above a gravelly whisper, but even amid the chaos and noise, Mike could hear him clearly. He tossed his sunglasses onto the table. His eyes were red-rimmed and tinged with exhaustion, the gauntness of his face giving him a hollowed-out look. Lines crisscrossed across his cheeks and spread out like sunbursts from his eyes. Deacon was a husk.
“I said sit.”
Mike sat, frowning at Deacon. The old man didn't look at him, but surveyed the room.
“How did we get here, Novak?” he said. “I used to be a king. Now look. Rotten ceilings. These fucking puppets. You think any of these assholes wouldn't slit my throat if it did them any good?”
“I don't know, Mr. Deacon.”
“Fuck you with the mister,” said Deacon, finally looking at him with his sad eyes. “Just Deacon. If we're going to do business, Novak, we have to have some kind of relationship here. Trust. How long has it been since you trusted someone?”
“Business?” said Mike. “What do you mean? You don't even know why I'm here.”
He snorted. “I'm Deacon. I know all kinds of shit. You know that better than anyone.”
“I haven't written a story about you in years.”
“Because they wouldn't allow it,” said Deacon. “Look, I get it. It was your job. And my business can be…controversial. But can you really say that I'm worse than the fuckers that sent you running here?”
Mike leaned back in his chair. “No.”
“Well then,” said Deacon. “We have an understanding.” He turned his head toward the crowd. “Get out of here. All of you. I need a private meeting.” His voice remained low, but it was as if he had just shouted the orders. Men stopped cutting cards, girls froze with shot glasses raised to their lips, the room became dead quiet. And then, as one, everyone stood up and filed out without a sound.
“See that?” said Deacon, raising a gnarled finger. “That's goddamn respect. He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a giant cigar. Using the wickedly sharp knife on the table, he cut off the end. Mike pulled out his lighter and raised the flame to Deacon's stogie.
“How did you know I was coming?” Mike said, feeling suddenly eerie in the empty room. Smoke still hung like a curtain in the air.
“First things first,” said Deacon, blowing smelly blue smoke out of his mouth. “Ask me something personal. Anything. And then I'll ask you. Let's show some trust.”
“I wouldn't know what to ask you,” said Mike.
“You? The intrepid reporter? Surely there's something you're curious about.”
“Fine,” Mike said. “Why haven't they caught you?”
“The Revs? Blind motherfuckers, aren't they? They don't want to see us. We're under the surface, away from public view. It's why we hunker down in shitholes and keep things quiet. To them, we're the bacteria they try not to think about. Besides, I have powerful friends.”
“More powerful than them?” said Mike.
Deacon shrugged. “Some might say that. But that's two questions. My turn.”
Deacon watched him, small and shriveled in his sport jacket, but still sharp as ever.
“Did you murder your wife?”
Mike stared at him. He opened his mouth, but thought better and closed it again.
“I answered your question, Novak,” said Deacon. “Do me the respect of answering mine.”
“Go to hell.”
“That is not polite, Mr. Novak. It's a valid question if we're going to work together.”
“Why do you keep saying we are going to work together?”
“Did you kill her?” Deacon eyed the knife on the table, like it was a promise. Mike looked away.
“No,” he said flatly. “I did not kill my wife.”
“Everyone thinks you did,” said Deacon. “The famous Kyra Novak murder. It was in the papers, on TV, before they took the televisions away. Weren't you even arrested at one point?”
“It wasn't me,” said Mike, meaning for the words to sound harsh, but they came out as defeated.
“Why should I?”
“Because I can help you, Novak. Say what you will about me, but I've never done business with woman-haters. My Doreen would turn over in her grave. She fucking hated misogynists. And I loved her, so I hated misogynists too. Just because my wife is dead doesn't mean I stopped respecting her wishes. What about your wife's memory? Don't you want to honor her?”
“By going into business with a criminal?” Mike said.
Deacon smiled, a chilling spectacle. His teeth were small and brown and his whole face contracted into a series of wrinkles. Not in the eyes, though. His eyes stayed as cold as the blade of the knife.
“Who's the criminal, Novak?” said Deacon. “I could call them right now. The Movers. Who would they take, me or you?”
Mike swallowed hard. He stared at the wall behind Deacon. He thought of Kyra's face. Her skin had been so soft and smooth, even after she turned forty. Even after she got hooked on Slack and wasn't Kyra anymore. Even after she was dead.
“I found her on the floor,” Mike said. There was no emotion in his voice. He was used up. He'd been used up since it happened. He'd told the story to so many cops that he lost his voice for two days.
“Found her or put her there?” said Deacon.
“That's two questions,” said Mike. Deacon didn't look amused. Mike sighed. “I found her there. It was the worst thing that's ever happened to me. The day I found her, I stopped living. She hadn't been herself for a long time. She was taking Slack. She had a miscarriage and was depressed so the doctors gave her Slack. But she kept taking it. It was before the Annex, before the Blackout. Before anyone knew who the Revs were or what Slack was.”
“Vampire juice,” said Deacon.
“Yeah,” said Mike. “Yeah.”
“How did she die?”
Mike felt his eyes go hard. He looked at his hands.
“There was no blood. I mean, there was some, but the bastard had ripped her goddamn throat out. A piece of her was gone, half of her soft, beautiful neck. Just ripped away. I could see inside of my wife, but it just looked like meat. She was just meat.”
Mike closed his eyes, remembering. Kyra on the ground, cold, so cold. He never should have left her alone, never should have left her. Mike gasped for air, blinking tears away. He thought he had used up all the tears, but here he was, crying in front of Deacon. Deacon had already said it best. How the hell had they gotten here?
“They tore out her throat and left her on the kitchen floor,” Mike said. “The only blood they left was from the bottoms of their shoes and a little that sprayed on the walls. She was goddamn blue. They stole her blood and left her for me. I don't think they knew who I was or who she was. That was just the way they were back then. Do you remember how it was? Before Conrad came in and got them all hopped up on science? Do you remember the bodies? The fear?”
“I remember,” Deacon said quietly.
“Before the Blackout, even,” said Mike. “Before the children disappeared. No one knew.”
“We know now.”
“The Revs killed my wife,” said Mike. “I knew later, but back then, no one knew. I was inches from prison when the Blackout happened. And when the lights came back on, our government was run by monsters. Not political monsters like before, but real ones. And in the beginning, everyone was afraid. No one cared about me anymore. No one cared about anything but surviving. So many people died. Everything was chaos. And then, we all just accepted it. We got on with our lives. We gave blood, we went to work, we didn't go out at night. You want to know how we got here, Deacon?”
“Tell me, Novak.”
“We got here because we let ourselves get here. We stopped fighting. We accepted it.”
“What do you suppose we should do about that, Mr. Novak?”
Mike paused for a moment, puzzled. “How did you know I was coming?” Mike said.
Deacon smiled again. “I think you know. Think about the Revs. Then think about someone worse. Have you met anyone like that lately?”
“Joshua Flynn,” Mike breathed.
“He's not like us, Novak,” said Deacon. He leaned forward. “You have to understand what you're getting yourself into here.”
“What does he want from me?” said Mike.
“Same as he wants from any of us,” said Deacon. “He wants to use us. But this time it just might be in our best interests: He's waging a war that isn't going to end pretty. It's going to be violent and a lot of people are going to die – or worse – before this is over. ”
“Will he protect me?”
“From the Revs? Yes. But who's going to protect you from Flynn?”
“Is he one of them?”
“I don't know, Novak. I don't know what the fuck he is. I only know that I am one scary motherfucker. I've killed people in more ways than I can count. Some were good people, most of them were bad. I've broken legs, ruined lives, I've killed entire families just to prove a point. But I'm an innocent babe compared to Flynn.”
“What if I refuse?”
“You don't have a choice,” said Deacon.
A shadow crept toward them. The room darkened and a strange sense of air being pulled out the room left Mike slightly dizzy. The fog of cigarette smoke was replaced with a smell of dust and old books and earth, filling his nostrils. Joshua Flynn didn't so much walk into the room as he seemed to be carried by his own shadow. His feet moved, but his movements were too smooth. He was silk in water, he was like an eel through the now-murky room.
“There is always a choice,” Flynn said. And then he was right beside him and when he stopped moving he looked so human that he took Mike’s breath away. He was vaguely handsome, but in the way that men in old tintype photographs were vaguely handsome. His lips remained just as red as before, but his cheeks were more flushed than they had been the first time Mike had seen him. He realized it had been earlier that day. It seemed like years.
Mike started to stand up, but a hand suddenly on his shoulder pushed him back down. He turned to see who was behind him, but there was no one there.
“Gentlemen,” Flynn said. He rested his sharp, dark eyes on Mike and he felt cold. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.
“Mr. Novak. So nice of you to come.”
“How did you know?” Mike said.
“I know many things,” Flynn said. “I understand that I am something of a mystery to you.”
“Calm yourself, Novak,” said Flynn. “I mean only to educate. You know that I am not like the Revenants. You know that I am not just a man. So what else is left?”
“I...don't know,” said Mike.
Flynn suddenly smiled, splitting his face with a ghastly grin. “Only me,” he said. His red lips looked almost clown-like, and his perfect white teeth only reminded Mike of the sharper teeth resting just above them. Flynn's dark eyes danced, shining even in the dimness of the shadowy room.
“I think what Novak wants to know,” said Deacon, “is what do you want him to do. Assuming he's interested.”
“Is that what you want to know, Mr. Novak?” said Flynn. He was ten feet away, but Mike swore he could feel hot breath against his ear. He shivered and Flynn smiled. Mike preferred Deacon's smile.
Mike watched Flynn for a moment, narrowing his eyes. He thought of Kyra, dead on the floor. He thought of the hospital, Sia the junkie strapped down, vomiting all over herself. He thought of Tess, of the newspaper he'd dedicated his life to, the woman he'd worked with for decades. He thought of watching shadowy figures taking everything he owned out of his apartment. He was a ghost now. He didn't exist except to bleed.
“I want to know one thing,” said Mike.
“Are you going to hurt them?”
Joshua Flynn smiled. Mike felt something like a finger caressing his arm. He shook the feeling off.
“We are going to obliterate them,” said Flynn. “They will be dust under our boots.”
Mike nodded. “Fine. Tell me what to do.”
“See there?” said Deacon. “That's how we do business.”
Flynn looked from Mike to Deacon, his lip curling distastefully.
“I'm afraid, Mr. Deacon, that this business does not involve you. It is strictly between Mr. Novak and myself.”
“Fuck you, Flynn,” said Deacon, heaving his weary body forward. “I set this up. You do not want to piss me off.”
“Don't I?” said Flynn. Something else besides amusement, besides revulsion passed over his face. Something like hunger. A whisper in Mike's ear sent a shiver down his spine. “Please leave the room, Mr. Novak. Wait for me in the theater.”
Mike stood, looking warily at the monster who was his new employer. Flynn was saving his life. But Mike knew what was about to happen. He looked at Deacon. The old man, for the first time, looked afraid. His rheumy eyes looked from Mike to Flynn and back again.
“Sit your ass back down, Novak,” said Deacon, a quaver in his gravelly voice. “I will kill you if you leave this room. You'll wish you went as fast as that wife of yours. Her death will seem like an answered prayer compared to what I'll do to you.” The knife flashed in his hand.
“I’m sorry,” said Mike. He didn't look at Joshua Flynn as he left the room. He didn't look back at Deacon. He closed the door behind him.
He glanced at the hulk, Matthew Blake, who was still smoking outside the door.
“Run,” said Mike, echoing Joshua Flynn's warning back at the office. “Just run.”
Mike could barely hear the old man's scream when it came. He paused on the stairs, and the scream stopped almost as quickly as it started. Mike covered his mouth with a hand to keep from screaming himself. He forced himself to continue up the stairs. He was in the theater, trying not to shake, when he saw Blake run out the door.
Mike waited in the theater for his malevolent benefactor.
Viv got off the bus at the grounds of the Munson Experimental Hospital, looked up, and froze. Her eyes stopped blinking, her legs stopped moving, and even her breath stopped in her lungs for a moment. The building was as imposing as when it had been a mental institution, and the new towers and outbuildings extending beyond the original building gave it the air of a fortress.
Viv's eyes watered and she finally blinked, wiping away tears in the frigid wind. She took a gasping breath, and then another. She willed her feet to move, one in front of the other, until she was standing in front of the guard station.
A man in his sixties, portly, with gray hair and pudgy, ruddy cheeks looked cheerfully down at her.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“I...don't know,” said Viv.
“You're the new gal, aren't you?” said the man. He smiled and Viv couldn't help but smile back, though nervously.
“What's your name, sweetheart?” said the guard.
Viv broadened her smile, willing herself to ignore the sweetheart. The sly little nicknames to remind her that she was just a woman. She was just a black woman, no less. The nicknames were as pointed as a barb, even if the men didn't realize it. She was once outspoken about it. She was once outspoken about a lot of things.
It was a good thing they couldn't read her thoughts the way some claimed they could. Viv straightened her shoulders.
“Dr. Genevieve White,” she said.
“Doctor, eh?” said the guard, raising his eyebrows. “Good for you.”
Viv ground her teeth. “Thank you.”
He flipped pages on a clipboard. “Ah, here you are. Identification?”
Viv passed her ID. He pored over the picture, looked up at her face, eyes narrowed in concentration, then looked back at the card.
“I assure you that it’s really me,” she said, trying to sound friendly.
The guard looked up at her, smiling again. “Sorry, miss. It's only that we've had some...trouble lately. Just have to be thorough.” He passed the identity card back to her and she slid it into her wallet. “My name is Sidney Kearns, but everyone calls me Sid.”
“Nice to meet you, Sid.”
“And you, Dr. White.”
“Everyone calls me Viv,” she said.
Sid handed her a clipboard. “Sign next to your name, then, Viv.” He smiled when he said her name. She signed. “Okay!” he said, taking the clipboard and initialing by her name. He passed a bulky yellow envelope through the window. “This is for you, your badge and a key. The badge must be worn at all times inside the facility. If you lose your official badge, you will be detained and questioned before a new one is issued. Same with your key. It will open most doors in the hospital. Of course you won’t be able to access classified areas, but anywhere you need to go, your key should work. Do you understand?”
Sid's face had gone from genial to intensely serious. He studied her with bright blue eyes.
“I understand,” she said. She felt something hollow in the pit of her stomach.
“You will need your key to enter or leave the building,” Sid said, more cheerful again. “You’ll need your badge, so you may as well put it on right now.”
Viv took out a heavy rectangular card on a scarlet lanyard, and hung it around her neck. The front showed her name, some codes that no doubt denoted her job title or something similar, and her picture. It was the same picture from her identity card. Everything was governmental these days.
“You'll also find an employee manual and a map of the facility in the envelope,” Sid went on. “You are assigned to H-block.”
“H-block?” said Viv, smiling. “Sounds like a prison.”
Sid frowned. “Each department is separated into blocks. You are assigned to H-block. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Viv.
“You are not to enter any other block unless specifically requested by an administrator on that block. Even though you, yourself, are an administrator, you will not be able to request any interdepartmental consultations until your probation period is over. Do you understand?”
“Er, no,” said Viv.
“I don't understand,” said Viv. “You said I'm an administrator. That can't be right.”
“It’s written right here,” said Sid. “No mistake.”
“I thought I was just doing...I guess blood testing, like I did at my last job. I was told I’d be a head researcher, not the administrator.”
“Congratulations on the new job,” he said. “Sounds like you're moving up in the world.” Sid's face slid back into cheerful mode.
He grinned, showing a dimple on one pudgy cheek. “Good for you, Viv.”
At least he didn't call her sweetheart.
“I don't know about this,” said Viv.
“Relax. You'll do fine. Now. You have everything you need. If you look at your map, you'll see that the entryway for blocks F through J is just straight through and to your left.” Sid leaned out the window and pointed. “See that door?”
“Go through that door, and follow the hallway to the left until you reach H-block. Your badge should get you in.” He smiled again. “Do not pass GO, do not collect two hundred dollars.” His eyes crinkled at his joke. Viv made her mouth smile.
“I was told a General Lawrence Davies would be showing me around,” she said.
“Davies is no longer with us,” said Sid, narrowing his eyes.
“Did he get fired?” she said, smiling.
“It’s none of your concern, to be perfectly frank,” said Sid. “All you need to know is that Mr. Davies was a very curious man.”
“Oh,” said Viv.
“But we won’t have to worry about you, will we, Viv?” he said, smiling again.
“Thanks,” said Viv, wanting to scream. “I’ll try to mind my own business.”
“You're welcome, honey. Good luck.”
Viv felt the smile fall off her face as she walked away from the guard station.
“What the hell am I doing here?” she muttered to herself. But she knew what she was doing. She was surviving.
The door clicked open when she turned her key, but Viv decided she must have missed a turn in the cold, blank hallway where the lights were burned out. Now she was staring at a door with no letter on it at all and trying to remember if she’d stayed to the left. She looked behind her. After going up and down several hallways, she had seen every letter but H on the doors. The map was useless, just a sheet of paper with a series of lines and letters, and did not include any of the short staircases or the weird, meandering hallways. She stared at the metal door in front of her and took a deep breath. Since her key slid easily in the door, it must really be the right door. Viv thought about Sid the Guard, interjecting a series of warnings and threats. Surely they couldn't be upset if she got lost on her first day. They should have provided a guide to show her the way. She was, after all, an administrator now.
Viv frowned. That news wasn't happy for her. She had always loathed the humans in charge, ever since the Annex. And now she was an administrator. Would they expect her to report her own kind to the bastards in charge? More importantly, would she?
She looked up at the glaring light, a bare bulb surrounded by thin metal bars. The dull white walls and painted gray floor felt suddenly very tight. Viv gasped as she looked at the blank door in front of her. She couldn't breathe. She wrapped her hands around her ribs, trying to force herself to suck in air. Her head was swimming and her vision blurred with angry tears. She felt a pressure on her chest, like the dull walls were closing in, like the blank steel door was right on top of her, crushing her chest, her ribs, her lungs.
With a sound like a wounded animal, Viv crashed through the door and fell to her knees in a dimly-lit hallway, gasping for air. Her nostrils burned with the smell of iodine and cleaning fluid. Black spots swam in her vision, but after a few gasping breaths, they disappeared, her vision clear and crisp, the dizziness abating. She felt a hot flush rise in her cheeks. She rested against the wall until her heart slowed and the feeling returned to her fingers and toes.
Brushing herself off and looking around to see if anyone had witnessed her moment of weakness, Viv stood shakily. She squared her shoulders and straightened her back, pulling her key out of the lock and pocketing it. She closed her eyes and willed her face to rest back into its calm facade. It wasn't until she heard the click of shoes that she realized she was walking.
She strode through the hallway, glancing at fluorescent lights and blank green walls. After a few steps, the hallway opened up into a sort of lobby with no chairs. It looked very much like a hospital. Viv could hear the sounds of machines beeping and chirping somewhere close by. Doors lined the walls, most of them closed. A plexiglass window filled the corner, with what looked like a nursing station behind it. Viv frowned and headed toward it. It appeared to be empty. A woman's pink cardigan was hanging on the back of an office chair, charts and paperwork carefully assembled across the desk, a pen on top of a fluid intake chart. A door had been left open on the other side of the plexiglass, as though the nurse had to run out in a hurry. Viv could hear a woman's voice down one of the two hallways that led away from the lobby.
Viv headed toward the voice, heels echoing dully against the pale green walls. The floor here was painted white and shone with wax. Viv passed empty gurneys abandoned in the hall, tucked neatly against the hall in between doors. Some had restraints made of leather or canvas attached to them. One still had a pair of handcuffs latched to a bar on the side of the gurney. The cuffs gleamed under the fluorescents.
Viv stopped when she heard a small noise. She turned to find that one of the doors was open. Over the sound of her own heart thumping hard in her chest, it took a moment for her to register the sound of crying.
Without thinking, Viv stepped into the room. It contained only a single bed. There was no other furniture in the room. No pictures or windows or dressers. Upon the bed was a woman, who sat up with a soft noise like the sound a dove makes when she saw Viv.
“You're not supposed to be here,” said the woman, though she didn't look unhappy to see Viv. She wiped at her cheeks with the thin blanket that covered her.
“I heard a noise,” said Viv. “Are you all right?” Viv stared at the woman in the bed. She looked so familiar.
The woman gave a weak, pained smile that faded instantly. She was very thin, recently malnourished, Viv surmised. Yet her skin had a healthy sheen, as though she had recently started eating well. Viv eyed the IV that led to the woman's arm, which was dotted with fingerprint-sized bruises. The woman's gown slid off her thin shoulder, and Viv saw the same bruises there, too. Scars dotted her neck and forehead, nearly faded.
“You were an addict,” said Viv.
“Are you a doctor?” the woman said.
“Yes, ” said Viv, approaching the bed. “I used to be. But that's not how I knew. My husband was hooked on Slack. He had scars just like you. From the boils.”
The woman looked away. “I'm getting better,” she said softly.
“I can see that,” said Viv. “You look good. Healthy. Do I know you from somewhere?”
The woman looked back at her. She was timid, but with a cold anger behind her eyes. Viv recognized it; it was the same anger she revealed when she let her guard down.
“How would I possibly know you?” the woman said.
“I don’t know. Perhaps you were a patient of mine, from before?”
“No,” said the woman, her eyes watching Viv’s face, studying her. Viv had to look down at her hands.
“My name's Viv,” she said. “I'm afraid I'm really lost. I'm supposed to be starting a new job today.”
“I’m Sia,” she said. There was a quiet authority to her voice, as though she had been among the best in her profession, or part of the social elite. Her black hair was tied into a messy knot on top of her head, making her fine bone structure more striking. Even under the fluorescent lights, even with the scars and the starving frame, Sia glowed. “What's your job?”
Viv smiled a small smile. Not a fake one this time. “I don't really know. I think I'm doing something with blood.”
“Well, they must trust you,” said Sia, sounding bitter. “Blood is very important here.”
“Sia, are you all right?” Viv said. “Is this a hospital?”
“How should I know?” said Sia flatly. She pulled the blanket away with her free hand and Viv saw that she had a leather restraint, fastened with a small padlock on her wrist. The lock jingled merrily against the sidebar on the bed when Sia moved her hand. She pulled the blanket up to show Viv that both ankles wore the same restraints.
“I was well-behaved,” said Sia, her eyes dull. “So I get one hand free now. If I continue to behave, I'll get a foot. Isn't that lovely?”
“What happens if you don't behave?” said Viv carefully.
Sia flared her nostrils, fixing Viv with a stare. “Then they shock me again. Dunk me in ice. Drown me with a fire hose. What do you care? You're one of them.”
“I’m not…” Viv started, but trailed off. Sia was right. She was one of them now. The humans who were part of the problem. Viv felt something strange when Sia looked at her. A familiarity, an odd pressure behind her eyes.
“Don't worry,” Sia said, looking away from Viv, setting her free. “I'll be one of you soon enough. They've told me enough times.”
She looked back at Viv and smiled brightly, her eyes cold. She had straight teeth that were slightly stained in spots. Probably from her recent bout with Slack.
“What's going to happen to you?” said Viv.
“Oh, they have big plans for me,” she said. “Sia Aoki is going to save the Revenants, didn't you know? I'm the Beta.”
“The Beta what?” said Viv.
“Hell if I know,” said Sia. “Are you going to save me, Viv?”
“Every time some human wanders in here they tell me they're going to save me. You'll be the third, if you do. For a secret wing, this place gets an awful lot of traffic.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind Viv. She whirled and found herself eye-to-eye with a thin, stringy woman who looked to be around seventy. She had her iron-gray hair drawn back in a bun and a badge around her neck nearly identical to the one Viv wore. She made out the name Hauser.
“Just what the hell do you think you're doing here?” said the old woman. She glared at Viv. Sia laughed softly.
“I'm sorry,” said Viv. “I'm new here.” She held up her badge. “I got lost.”
“I should say you're lost,” said the woman. Her body was tense with anger.
“I'm supposed to be in H-block, but I got turned around,” said Viv. “I'm the new administrator there.”
“Administrator?” She eyed Viv, seeming unsure how to proceed. “May I see that badge?” Her voice was tight, but she appeared to be trying to control her expression. Forcing it from taut anger to impassive. Viv knew what she was doing because it was the same thing she did a hundred times a day.
Viv pulled the lanyard off her neck and handed it to Hauser, trying to hide the way her hands shook. She was sure everyone could hear her heart beating like a locomotive. The sound filled Viv's ears.
“I'm sorry, Ms. White,” said Hauser, giving her a tight smile.
“It's Doctor White, actually,” said Viv. She stood up straight as she said it. Trying to make it look like she believed the title meant anything. She heard Sia snort behind her.
“Manners, Sia,” said the woman, still staring at Viv. “I am Nurse Hauser. Evelyn, if you like.”
“Oh, that's fun,” said Sia. “I'm not allowed to call her Evelyn. Lucky you.”
Evelyn's nostrils flared slightly, and the tight smile came again.
“Come with me, Doctor. I apologize. We have to be careful though, and you really shouldn't be wandering around before you learn how we do things around here. Just recently we had a scare. A terrorist tried to kidnap one of my patients.”
“That’s terrible,” said Viv.
“It was a close call,” said Evelyn Hauser. “Come, I’ll show you to your block.”
Viv looked around at Sia as Hauser shuffled her out of the room. She felt she should say something to the woman. She didn't know what to say, or how she could talk with the nurse there, but she fixed Sia with her eyes anyway, wanting to make her understand that she wasn't one of them, that she would help if she could.
Sia met her gaze and Viv watched her expression go from guarded bitter humor to something soft and sad and human. The woman Viv heard crying was here. Not the hard, angry shell who had spoken so harshly. As Viv was guided out of the room, she saw something in Sia that made her choke and filled her eyes with tears.
This was the woman from her dreams. The dreams that woke her, screaming or crying or gasping for breath. This woman Sia was the woman who showed up every time Hunter died in her dreams, disappeared from her arms, or turned into a Revenant before her eyes.
Sia was the person who always saved her.
For a split second, she pictured herself pushing the nurse to the ground, slamming her fist into the smug, wrinkled face over and over and over again until blood covered her fists and the floor and the walls. She would hit her until she stopped moving, and then she would take Sia away. She would fuss with the locks with hands that were slippery with the crone's blood. She would take Sia away and then she wouldn't be alone...Then Viv realized why she was here, and why she had the dreams, over and over and over again. Viv used to believe that everything happened for a reason. Even as a woman of science, back when she was respected, she had always had a sureness in the universe around her. Everything was connected and everything happened for a reason. She’d lost that for a long time after the Blackout. But she knew what to do now.
She would make them trust her. She would make them love her. And then she would destroy every last one of them.
For Sia. For Hunter. For herself. For the entire godforsaken world.
Blood Day is available now.