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That it was summer was not in doubt. The nights were much too short and the days too long. Something about the color of the sky said August to Cass. Maybe the blue was bluer. Hadn't autumn signaled itself that way Before, a gradual intensifying of colors as summer trailed into September?
Once, Cass would have been able to tell from the wildflowers growing in the foothills where she ran. In August petals fell from the wild orange poppies, the stonecrop darkened to purplish brown, and butterweed puffs drifted in lazy breezes. Deer grew bold, drinking from the creek that ran along the road. The earth dried and cracked, and lizards and beetles stared out from their hiding places among the weeds.
But that was two lives ago, so far back that it was like a story that had once been told to Cass, a story maybe whispered by a lover as she drifted off to sleep after one too many Jack and Cokes, ephemeral and hazy at the edges. She might not believe it at all, except for Ruthie. Ruthie had loved the way butterweed silk floated in the air when she blew on the puffs.
Ruthie, who she couldn't see or touch or hold in her arms. Ruthie, who screamed when the social workers dragged her away, her legs kicking desperately at nothing. Mim and Byrn wouldn't even look at Cass as she collapsed to the dirty floor of the trailer and wished she was dead.
Ruthie had been two.
Cass pushed herself to go faster, her strides long and sure up over a gentle rise in the road. She was barely out of breath. This was nothing, less than nothing. She dug her hard, sharp nails into the calluses of her thumbs. Hard, harder, hardest. The skin there was built up against her abuse and refused to bleed. To break it she would need something sharper than her nail. Teeth might work, but Cass would not use her teeth. It was enough to use her nails until the pain found an opening into her mind. The pain was enough.
She had covered a lot of ground this moon-bright night. Now it was almost dawn, the light from the rising sun creeping up over the black-blue forest skeletons, a crescent aura of orange glow in the sky. When the first slice of sun was visible she'd leave the road and melt into what was left of the trees. There was cover to be foundsome of the native shrubs had survived. Grease-wood and creosote still grew neck high in some places.
And it was easy to spot them. You saw them before they saw you, and then you hid, and you prayed. If they saw you at all, if they came close enough to smell you, you were worse than dead.
Cass stayed to the edge of the cracked pavement of what had been Highway 161, weaving around the occasional abandoned car, forcing herself not to look inside. You never knew what you would see. Often nothing, but
it was just better not to look. Chunks of the asphalt had been pushed aside by squat kaysev plants that had managed to root in the cracks. Past the shoulder great drifts of it grew, the dark glossy leaves hiding clusters of pods. The plants were smooth-stemmed without burrs or thorns. Walking among them was not difficult. But walking on pavement allowed Cass, now and thenand never when she was tryingto let her mind go back to another time
and when she was really lucky, to pretend all the way back two lifetimes ago.
Taking Ruthie, barely walking, down the sidewalk to the 7-Eleven, buying her a blue raspberry Slurpee, because Ruthie loved to stick out her blue tongue and look at herself in the mirror. Cutting across the school parking lot on the way home, jumping over the yellow lines, lifting Ruthie's slight body and swinging her, laughing, through the air.
Yes, pavement was nice. Cass had good shoes, though she didn't remember where she got them. They seemed like they might have been men's shoes, plain brown lace-up walking shoes, but they fit her feet. A small man, then. How she'd got the shoes from him
it didn't bear thinking about. The shoes were good, they were comfortable and hadn't given her blisters or sores despite the many days of walking.
A movement caught her eye, off in the spiky remains of the woods. Cass stopped abruptly and scanned the tree skeletons and shrubs. A flash of white, was it? Or was it only the way the light was rising in the sky, reflected off
what, though? There were only the bare trunks of the dead cypress and pine trees, a stand of dead manza-nita, the low thick growth of kaysev, a few of the boulder formations that dotted the Sierra Foothills.
Cass whipped her head around and saw the flash again, a fast-moving blur of fabric and oh God it was white, a slip of a little dark-haired girl in a dirty white shirt who was sprinting toward her at a speed that Cass could not imagine anyone moving, Cass who had run thousands of desperate blacktop miles one life ago, trying to erase everything, running until her legs ached and her lungs felt like tearing paper and her mind was almost but never quite empty.
But even Cass had never run like this girl.
She was twelve or thirteen. Maybe even fourteen, it was hard to tell now. Before, the fourteen-year-olds looked like twenty-year-olds, with their push-up bras and eyeliner. But hardly anyone dressed like that anymore.
The girl held the blade the way they taught the kids now, firmly in front of her where it would have the best chance of slicing through a Beater's flesh. Because that's what she thought Cass was, a Beater, and the thought hit Cass in the gut and nearly knocked her over with revulsion. Her hands went to her hairline where the hair was just growing back in, soft tufts, an inch at most. She knew how her arms looked, covered with scabs, almost worse now that they were healing, the patches of flesh falling away as the healthy skin pushed to the surface. But that was nothing compared to the ruin of her back.
She hadn't been able to clean herself in days, and she knew she carried the smell. The long hair on the back of her head, the hair she hadn't pulled out, was knotted and tangled. Her nails were blackened and broken. Real Beaters usually had no nails left, but how could the girl be expected to notice a detail like that?
In the second or two it took the girl to cross the last dozen yards of scrubby land, Cass considered standing firm, wrists out, chin up, giving her an easy target. They were taught well; any child over the age of five could find the jugular, the femoral, the carotid, the ulnar. They practiced on dummies rigged from dolls and clothes stuffed with straw. Sometimes, they practiced on the dead.
At the last minute Cass stepped out of the way.
She didn't know why. It would have been easier, so much easier, to welcome the blade, to let it find its path to her vital core and feel the blessed release of her blood, still hot and red despite everything, bubbling over the slice in her flesh, falling to the hardened earth. Maybe her blood would help the land heal faster. Maybe on the spot where her blood fell, one of the plants from Before would return. A delicate mountain bluebell; they had been her favorite, the tiny blossoms shading from pale sky blue to deep lilac.
But Cass stepped out of the way.
Damn her soul.
Three times now it had refused to die, when death would have been so much easier.
Cass watched almost impassively as her foot shot forward, nimbly, her stance steady and her balance near perfect. The girl's eyes went wide. She tripped, and in the last moment, when the blade flew from her hand and she lurched toward Cass, the terror in her eyes was enough to break Cass's heart, if only she still had one to break.
Everyone remembered the first time they saw a Beater. Usually, it was more than one, because even in the early days they gathered in packs, three or four or more of them prowling the edges of town.
Cass saw hers in the QikGo.
Cass worked in the QikGo until the end. Where else would she go? She couldn't leave Silva, not without Ruthie. But as the world fell apartas famine crippled Africa and South Asia, as one G8 capital after another fell to panic and riots in the wake of random airbursts, as China went dark and Australia mined its shoresMim and Byrn held on all the tighter to their granddaughter. Cass had no detailed plan, only to wait until there were no more police, no sheriffs, no social workers, no one willing to come when Mim and Byrn called them to block Cass from seeing her daughter or even setting foot on their property.
When that day came, she would go to their house and she would take Ruthie back. By force if she had to. It would hurt, to see the anger and contempt on her mother's face, but no more than it had hurt her that Mim refused to acknowledge how far Cass had come, how hard she had worked to be worthy of Ruthie. The ninety-days chip she kept on her key chain. The two-year medallion she'd earned before her single relapse. The job she'd held through it allmaybe managing a convenience store wasn't the most impressive career in the world, but at least she was helping people in small ways every day rather than fleecing them out of their money, the way Byrn did with his questionable investment strategies. But she and her mother saw things through very different lenses.
It would not hurt Cass to see her stepfather, who was finally weaker than she was, his ex-linebacker frame now old and frail compared to her own body, which she had made lean and hard with her relentless running. She anticipated the look of powerlessness on Byrn's face as she took away the only thing he could hurt her with. She looked forward even more to the moment when he knew he had lost. She would never forgive him, but maybe once she got Ruthie back, she could start forgetting.
That time was almost upon them. Cell phone service had started to go in the last few days and the landlines hadn't worked for a week. Televisions had been broadcasting static since the government's last official communication deputizing power and water workers; that had been such a spectacular failure, skirmishes breaking out in the few remaining places there had been peace before, that the rumor was the government had shut down all the media on purpose. Some said it was the Russian hackers. Now they said the power was out over in Angel's Camp, and every gas station in town had been looted except for Bill's Shell, where Bill and his two sons-in-law were taking shifts with a brace of hunting rifles.
Who was going to care about the fate of one little girl now?
Two days earlier Cass had stopped taking money from customers unless it was offered. Some people seemed to find comfort in clinging to routines from what was quickly becoming "Before"and if people reached for their wallets then Cass made change. People took strange things. There were those who had come early on for the toilet paper and aspirin and bottled waterand all the alcohol, to Cass's relief. Now people wandered the aisles aimlessly and took random items that would do them no good anymore. A prepaid calling card, a map.
Meddlin, her boss, hadn't made an appearance for a few days. The QikGo, Cass figured, was all hers. No matter. She didn't care about Meddlin. The others, the fragile web of workers who staffed the other shifts, had been gone since the media went silent.
On a brisk March morning, a day after the lights started to flicker and fail, Cass was talking to Teddy, a pale boy from the community college who lived in the apartments down the block with a handful of roommates who didn't seem to like him very much. Cass made coffee, wondering if it would be the last time, and wiped down the counter. There hadn't been a dairy delivery in weeks, so she set out a can of the powdered stuff.
When the door jangled they both turned and looked.
"Feverish," Teddy said quietly. Cass nodded. The ones who'd been eating the blueleafthe ones who'd livedwere unmistakable. The fever made their skin glow with a thin sheen of perspiration. Their movements were clumsy. But most remarkable were their eyes: the pupils contracted to tiny black dots. In dark-eyed people the effect was merely unsettling; in pale-eyed people it was both captivating and frightening.
If everything hadn't fallen apart, there would have undoubtedly been teams of doctors and scientists gathering the sick and studying and caring for and curing them. As it was, all but those closest to the sick were just happy they kept to themselves.
"Glass over over," one of them said, a man whose plaid shirt was buttoned wrong so that one side hung farther down than the other, speaking to no one in particular. A second, a woman with lank brown hair that lay around her shoulders in uncombed masses, walked to a rack that held only a few bags of chips and pushed it with a stiff outstretched hand, and as it fell to the floor, she smiled and laughed, not bothering to jump out of the way of the bags which popped and sprayed dry crumbs.
"Gehhhh," she crowed, and Cass noticed something else strange about her, something she hadn't seen before. The woman's arms were raw and red, blood dried in patches, the skin chafed and missing in spots. It almost looked like a metal grater had been run up and down her arms, her shoulders, the tops of her hands. Cass checked the others: their flesh was also covered in scabs.
Cold alarm traveled up Cass's spine. Something was wrongvery wrong. Something even worse than the fever and the unfocused eyes and the incoherent speech. She thought she recognized one of the group, a short muscular man of about forty, whose complicated facial hair was growing out into a sloppy beard. He used to come in for cigarettes every couple of days. He was wearing filthy tan cargo shorts, and the skin above his knees was covered with the same sort of cuts and scrapes as his forearms.
"Hey," she said to him. He was standing in front of a shelf that held the few personal products left in the storebottles of shampoo and mouthwash, boxes of Band-Aids. "Would you like
Her voice trailed off as he turned and stared at her with wide unblinking blue eyes. "Dome going," he said softly, then raised his wounded forearm to his face and, eyes still fixed on her, licked his lips and took a delicate nip at his red, glistening skin. His teeth closed on the damaged flesh and pulled, the raw layers of dermis pulling away from his arm, stretching and then splitting, a shred of flesh about the size of a match tearing away, leaving a bright, tiny spot of blood that glistened and pooled into a larger drop.