Authors: Edward W. Robertson
Edward W. Robertson
To Geoff, who works like a crazy person to help me make these books better than I could ever do on my own.
Cover art by Stephanie Mooney.
Ever since Lucy had been born with her cord around her neck, her mother had told her she was living on borrowed time. Lucy thought her mom would change her tune when, at six years old, Lucy had got run over by a Cadillac in front of the house on Pine Street and stood up with nothing worse than a bloody knee, but it turned out Lucy just didn't know her mom. The old woman laughed and told her this was further proof the Reaper was eager to collect.
Same thing with the staph infection that hit her when she was twelve and the doctors had to plunk her in a tub of ice to keep her brain from boiling in her skull. Most of that week was a black hole, but as soon as her fever simmered down enough for Lucy to form memories again, the first thing she saw was her mother's crooked grin.
"Can you smell him?" The gaunt woman leaned forward, nosing at the air. All Lucy could smell was rubbing alcohol and antiseptic. Her mom sniffed theatrically. "He missed you again. Think he's teasing you?"
The tables turned when the Panhandler virus hit. Then it was Lucy's chance to watch from a chair while her mother burned up in bed. Lucy opened all the windows, but the spring breeze wasn't enough to chase out the stink of sick and blood. By the third day, her mom no longer spoke except to ask for water or to let Lucy know her spit cup was full.
"What do you think, Momma?" She meant to make it mocking, but she heard it come out scared. "Think he'll get me this time?"
Her mom's eyes were scratchy and opaque as the sand-worn glass Lucy picked up on their yearly trips to Myrtle Beach. The woman made a stuttering, choking noise. Laughing.
"He got sick of trying to hunt you down," she groaned. "So he took the whole world instead."
She died a day later. Lucy never even got the sniffles. Since then, six years had trickled past and the world had gone pretty quiet, but the ghost in the black cassock still hadn't come her way. If she was living on borrowed time, she intended to default on the debt.
Where the man with the scythe had failed, however, the heat might just succeed. It was fall, but nobody had told southern Georgia that. She was biking up I-95 and the coastal humidity felt like God had declared a hangover on the whole damn world. Sweat beaded in the small of her back and soaked through the backs of her jeans. It made her mad, but that made her bike harder, thighs flexing as she climbed the grade, the straps of her bag digging into her tank-topped shoulders.
At least Florida was done. Just nine hundred-odd miles to go.
Bugs of all kinds whined from the thickets. Cars rusted on the shoulders of the highway, dust caked on the windows thicker than the sun-peeled paint. You wouldn't think a car would make for much of a planter, but that didn't stop the grass from sprouting where dirt collected in the creases of the hood and trunk. More than a few old wrecks had vines creeping up the side mirrors and antennas. Wouldn't be much longer till they were nothing more than vague shapes beneath the crawling green curtain.
She didn't bother checking them. No doubt plenty had keys—skeletons lolled over the wheels and slumped against the doors—but cars weren't immortal. By now, they were just as dead as their owners. Batteries failed like senile minds. Gas rotted in the tank. Aluminum bones, nothing more.
Before rolling out of Daytona, she had given serious thought to stealing Lloyd Dobson's pickup or Beau's little Honda, but Lloyd had seen to her after she'd broken her foot last year, and Beau was so crazy for his wimped-out little hybrid he would have tailed her all the way up the coast. Could have coaxed either to give her a ride, but that would have been to invite them into her business. Lloyd and Beau were good for certain things, but cunning wasn't one of them. Anyway, they'd just muck things up with Tilly.
So she'd taken her bike. Not a big deal. Might mean the ride took her two weeks instead of two days, but Lucy was in no great hurry. Most likely, Tilly was already dead.
In the meantime, it felt good to be propelled by leg power. Except for this hair-frizzing, patience-melting, underwear-soaking heat.
Around noon, she swerved into a truck stop to take some shade and water. The lot smelled like sun on leaves and it was hardly any cooler out of the sun than in it. She ate some pecans and drank from a scuffed plastic canteen. She'd kept the bottle deep inside her bag so it wouldn't go blood-warm, and the lukewarm water helped soothe the sweaty itchiness crawling over her body. She gazed into the woods with half a mind to find a creek. Still had half a gallon in her bag, but she was sweating hard and would run through it fast. Rinsing off would feel fine, too.
She got up to have a poke around, but before she'd taken two steps, a far-off hum swelled above the din of crickets. A car was coming.
She hefted her bag, shouldered her umbrella, and jogged out to the road, leaving her bike leaned against a gas pump. On the faded white line of the shoulder, she thrust out her thumb.
The car roared in from the south. Green sedan, engine growling like an affronted bear. Didn't take a genius to guess there'd be a man behind the wheel of a car like that. Lucy cocked her hip.
As it whooshed past, she got a look at its true colors. Camouflage. Its wind swept her hair past her face. She breathed out the start of a swear. The car braked hard, squealing like a stepped-on dog, smoked rubber billowing from its tires. It rocked to a stop in the middle of the road and sat there, idling.
Lucy waited three seconds to see if it would back up, then walked down the highway, letting her hips roll a bit. The smell of burnt tires boiled across the asphalt. It was a Charger and it might have been brand new when they stole it off the lot, but nobody had been manufacturing new cars since the plague. The trunk and back left wheel well had been bashed in and inexpertly hammered out, which explained the sloppy camo paint-over. A crack hairlined the rear window. But it moved plenty well.
A man in his mid-twenties sat behind the wheel, grinning, shirtless, sweat tracking through the black hairs on his sternum. Lucy bent in for a closer look, getting a whiff of the AC, which had the smell of laundry left undried. It would soon fail.
The man in the passenger seat had a shaved head and wore a plain black tee that wouldn't show the sweat. In back, a third dude swept long black hair from his eyes and gnawed the nail of his ring finger, smiling past the seats. Same age as his friends, but clearly a boy.
"What's your name?" the driver said.
"Lucy," she said. After the virus, she'd thought about changing it completely—if the reaper were out looking for the girl with the cord around her throat, he'd walk right past her—but she didn't think he was so easily fooled. That, and Tilly wouldn't quit calling her by her given name.
To hedge her bets, she'd changed her last name instead. Anyway, it felt right. The old world died and a new one was born in its place. Anyone who'd made it through had been reborn, too. The first Lucy, Lucy One, she was long gone. In her place was Lucy Two.
"Jeremy." He stuck his hand out the window. His palm was damp and callused. "Where you headed, Lucy?"
"New York City."
"You're in luck, girl. We're headed to Philly. You lookin' for a ride?"
"Nah, I was just giving my thumb a stretch."
He snorted and narrowed his eyes. "We can't let any old body in the car. So we got an entrance exam. Just one question."
She knew what was coming. "What's that?"
"Grass, gas, or ass?" He grinned. The boy in the back giggled. The man with the shaved head made no sound at all.
"I'm sorry?" she smiled. Not that she didn't understand. She had gotten the message clear enough the first time she heard it when she was thirteen and hitching away from home. And more, she'd seen the message behind it: a threat, a crushing boot, a way to make her feel about the contents of her jeans the same way she felt about a sign advertising $2.98 per gallon. A commodity, and not a particularly expensive one.
People used words to put a pretty face on an ugly want. She liked to make them restate a thing to watch the mask slip. This was fun, which would have been enough, but more vital, it got you a crystal look at the person behind it.
"No such thing as a free ride," Jeremy said. "Question is, how do you want to pay?"
False-aggressive. The projection of confidence. But here he was dancing around the question. The fact he had to hide behind such an old cliche of the road spoke enough. And he was the driver.
She eyed him, mock-reproachful, then grinned and patted her shoulder-slung bag. "Might got some weed in here. Tobacco, too, if you prefer."
"That'll do," said the man with the shaved head.
Jeremy's grin went hard. "I prefer to taste it first. But if it's no good, we got other options."
The boy in the back kept biting his nail. Exhaust drifted from the idling car. Jeremy popped the trunk latch and stepped into the sunlight. "Let's get your bags there."
"No need," Lucy said. "I travel light."
He gazed at the umbrella angled on her shoulder. "Expecting rain?"
"Sooner or later."
He walked around to the rear passenger door and held it open. The inside of the car smelled like male sweat, towels at the bottom of a hamper, and stale body spray. She set her bags on the floorboard and climbed in. When she looked up, Jeremy was gazing at her chest. He smirked and closed the door.
He accelerated hard. The musty AC didn't reach the back seats. The man with the shaved head handed her a handkerchief. She dabbed her temples and collarbone.
"Where you from, Lucy?" Jeremy called from up front.
"St. Augustine," she said, which was a lie. "You know it?"
"I had a cousin there," said the boy beside her. His name was Tommy. The man with the shaved head was named Wilson and he did nothing but stare out the window at the wall of trees and vines.
"The Big Apple," Jeremy said after a couple seconds. "What's a girl want with a place like that?"
He was watching her from the rearview. Lucy met his gaze. "Meeting a friend."
"What's his name?"
"Tilly?" Jeremy chuckled. "That's a thousand-mile walk from Florida. Figured it had to be a man at the end of the line."
"The world's full of surprises," Lucy said. "Where are you from?"
"Here and there." There was nothing witty about it, but Tommy burst out laughing. Jeremy sniffed and rubbed his mouth. "So how about a smoke?"
She smiled crookedly. Some people liked to barter with gold necklaces and platinum rings. Some carried heavy sacks of yams to swap. Others used bullets or shotgun shells, which was smart because often the people you wanted things from most treated ammo like cash, and you had to be a real wizard to cook that stuff up on your own. Even Beau couldn't get the gunpowder recipe right. Had cost him half a finger. Lots of work.
So Lucy traded in drugs. None of the hard shit; that too was heavy with effort. Much easier to loot a pharmacy and swap hydros, Tylenol, and Percocet for anything she needed. Funny thing, almost right away, people started asking her for caffeine, too. At first she'd dealt it in pills, but she soon found out they accepted coffee just as readily, including the freeze dried kind that would stay good from now until dinosaurs once more roamed the earth.
The problem with all these pills and powders was they ran out. She wasn't the only looter out there. Around the third year after the Panhandler virus had mown down everyone employed in producing new pills and powders, her supplies ran dry. Could maybe scrounge more going door to door from sunup to sundown, but again, that was an awful lot of work. And the thinking was very short-term.
Before running completely dry, she transitioned her business to a sustainable, Earth-friendly model: products that literally grew themselves and didn't need more prep than a bit of curing. Marijuana and tobacco. Properly dried, they hardly weighed a thing. The market thrived, too. Something about the apocalypse had flipped on the libertine switch in people. Just about everyone enjoyed the occasional puff of one or the other or both. These days, there weren't too many other ways to relax.