Chapter 1

It had been six days now.

Daniel looked cautiously around as he crept through the parking lot. The sound of distant car alarms had long since faded away, but a handful of distant fires still tinged the clouds orange. Car windows were smashed, doors torn away, engine parts scattered. He shivered, but pressed on.

Every noise around him made him jump. He spun around to see a skinny, bedraggled squirrel dart under a shrub that had been half torn away. Taking a deep breath, he continued toward the street.

It was like a scene out of a movie. There were no other people anywhere in sight. There was a car that had smashed through the front door of a storage garage, the car's door hanging open, its dome light long since gone black. That was probably one of the first casualties, he reflected; that could have happened right when the lights went out.

But a power outage wouldn't explain the car that was flipped upside down, its hood torn off and leaning against a fallen tree ten yards away. He shivered. He didn't think looters could explain it either.

He took a firmer grip on the baseball bat and continued on.

As he passed between two buildings on his way to the far driveway, he caught a glimpse of 108th Street, and paused to look, then stopped in surprise. He left the parking lot and moved between the buildings to get a closer look. Unlike the apartment parking lot, the roadway was totally clear of debris.

His breath quickened. This was the first time he had left the apartment's immediate vicinity since the radio stations had gone dead. Neither he nor Kelly had spent much time talking about what they thought was happening outside; neither really wanted to think about it.

But a clear road suggested that people were still up and about. That they weren't simply alone with a few looters. He picked up his pace.

But when he rounded the corner of the building, he stopped in his tracks. There was the reason for the clear stretch of road. It was blocked at both ends, on one side by a semi truck and trailer that had tipped over and was stretched across the width of the road, on the other by a sports car with its hood missing and an ambulance with its top torn away.

He swallowed hard, glanced down at the baseball bat in his hand, and nervously laughed aloud. Then, taking a deep breath, he forced himself to think about his mission. South, he decided. The convenience store would be closer than the grocery store. He gathered his shaky legs under him and continued on his trek.

The cab of the tipped-over semi was partway up onto the side of the road, blocking his view of the convenience store. As he started to walk around the cab, he caught sight of a familiar color, and his heart leapt into his mouth as he began to run.

His mind was racing, but the only coherent thing he could think was, of all things, "plum", the car dealer's name for that shade of dark purple. The car had spun up onto the curb and flipped upside down. The roof was smashed in, the doors buckled inward. His legs began to move faster.

He dropped to his knees and looked in through one of the smashed windows, then recoiled in horror, stumbled backwards, and fell shaking to the ground. The remains of a body were still buckled in behind the steering wheel, the features ghastly in the flickering light.

It was several minutes before his shaking subsided, and he rose to his feet with a firmer resolve. "Get a grip on yourself," he said softly, taking hold of the fallen bat by both ends and gripping it until his knuckles turned white and the tendons stood out in his wrists. "Get a grip. Don't you dare throw up on me. We're out of food, you goddamned fool, don't waste anything we've got."

He stood still for a long moment, then let the bat slip from his fingers, sank to a sitting position, and began to laugh, his head in his hands. "Oh God," he said. "It's going to be a long lifetime."

When he finally raised his head from his hands, his face was composed. He looked up from where he was seated and took another look at the car. It wasn't Anna's car, he could see now; it was the right color and model, but the detailing was different. He rose to his feet and moved around to look at the license plate in the flickering light, to make sure. It was still there, and it confirmed that this was not his wife's car.

He tried to swallow the knot in his throat, then turned back to continue on his way.

Immediately, he saw where the flickering light was coming from: one of the gas pumps in front of the convenience store was on fire. He marveled at that; it was simply flickering away in the darkness. Amazing that it was simply burning, and that the underground gas tanks hadn't exploded.

The thought made him stop in his tracks. If they did explode, he didn't exactly want to be nearby.

He looked around, and saw the McDonald's just across the street from the convenience store, separated from him by a chain-link fence at the top of a steep incline. "That'll do," he muttered to himself, and began making his way to the intersection.

Long before he got there, he spotted a window that had been smashed completely away. The inside of the store was dark. He made his way down the hill and through the parking lot, and paused to examine the window. The shards of glass were all on the inside of the building. He paused to touch one of the shards that was still clinging to the frame, then shook himself and headed for the door.

The inside of the building was deserted, although a few of the tables were tipped over. He paused to look at one, examining the ragged holes in the floor where the table had been bolted down, then continued toward the kitchen.

Unsure of where the kitchen door was, and not wanting to venture far from the afternoon sunlight still spilling in through the windows, he raised one of his long legs onto the counter, grabbed a cash register to lift himself up, and slipped down on the other side. The floor was sticky, and he spotted that a large chunk had been torn away from the side of the fryer.

He looked around, then grabbed two large paper bags from a pile that had been partly scattered across the counter, opened the glass door to the cooler, and started pulling out bottles of water.

There was a sudden noise from behind him. He whipped around, bat at the ready. "Who's there?" he demanded. No response.

He stood at the ready for a long moment. Then a shadow moved.

"Hello?" he called. "Who's there?" He moved to the side to catch the figure against the light from the window.

The figure stood a little taller than Daniel, maybe six-foot-six. It stood still, watching him. A cold prickle ran down the back of Daniel's neck. Maybe it was just that, aside from Kelly, this was the first living person he'd seen in two days, but something didn't feel right.

"Who's there?" he called again, his voice firm and commanding. "Step into the light so I can see you. Come on." He waited, then waggled the bat. "Come on."

The figure turned back to the smashed window, spread enormous black wings, leapt away and was gone.

"Je-sus Christ," he breathed. Then, almost without thinking, he grabbed the bat and the bags of water bottles in one hand, used the other hand to vault back over the counter, and ran to the window.

The black figure was rising away, black wings silently beating the air. He stared after it as it wheeled in the air and headed out of view.

Daniel realized his mouth was hanging open. He closed it, shook himself, and gave himself a hard pinch. "Where are we going," he muttered, "and why am I in this handbasket?" He rubbed his eyes, then looked at the sky again, now clear but for the clouds and the smoke from the gas pump.

He frowned. Sky was clear. To the south. But the figure had gone... north. Back the way Daniel had come.

"Kelly," he breathed.

He vaulted through the window and ran around the building, looking for the black thing. He caught sight of it, just disappearing over the trees. It looked like it was going straight toward Kelly's apartment complex. He started to run.

A hundred yards on, the fence intervened, continuing its way around the back of McDonald's and on behind the strip mall. He ran along it, panting as he looked for an opening, knowing he should have gone around the long way to the street, but not wanting to lose time now.

He didn't know Kelly was in danger. But the cold prickle had not left the back of his neck, and there was a deep knot in his stomach as he ran.

He turned a bend, and saw a ragged hole in the fence where a tree had fallen into it. He ducked through the hole, around the branches, and kept running.

Then he heard a distant, reverberating screech.

Tree limbs whipped at him as he ran. Then he burst through into the light, just in time to see the black thing flapping away. It looked like it was carrying something small in its claws.

"No," he breathed. "No." Then he closed his mouth and ran.

He passed the first three buildings and rounded the fourth. The knot in his stomach tightened when he saw a woman clinging to a streetlight in front of the building, her head down, the clouds' orange glow reflected in her long red hair.

"Kelly?" he called out, his footfalls heavy on the pavement as he ran.

"What?" she screamed. "What more do you want?"

"Kelly! It's me!" he cried. "It's Daniel!"

She raised her face as he closed the last of the distance between them. Tears had left tracks down her face.

He stopped in front of her, panting. "Are you all right?" he finally managed to say between breaths.

And then he realized that he hadn't finished talking. The question he really didn't want to ask was already out of his mouth: "Where's Mary?"

Kelly cast him a stricken look, then gestured skyward, in the direction the black thing had gone.

In her hand was a pink knit cap, with a little fluffy pink pom-pom on the top, just the size for an infant.

Then she looked away, and her whole frame shuddered with a silent sob.

He took half a step toward her, then stopped and wrapped his arms around himself, trying to suppress a shiver. His fingernails bit into his arms, and he watched, helplessly, as she sank to her knees, clutching the cap in both hands.

Chapter 2 >