Ironically, since the attacks, the sunsets have been glorious. Outside our condo window, the sky flames like a bruised mango in vivid orange, reds, and purples. The clouds catch on fire with sunset colors, and I’m almost scared those of us caught below will catch on fire too.
With the dying warmth on my face, I try not to think about anything other than keeping my hands from trembling as I methodically zip up my backpack.
I pull on my favorite boots. They used to be my favorites because I once got a compliment from Misty Johnson about the look of the leather strips laddering down the sides. She is—was—a cheerleader and known for her fashionable taste, so I figured these boots were my token fashion statement even though they’re made by a hiking boot company for serious wear. Now they’re my favorites because the strips make for a perfect knife holder.
I also slip sharpened steak knives into Paige’s wheelchair pocket. I hesitate before putting one into Mom’s shopping cart in the living room, but I do it anyway. I slip it in between a stack of Bibles and a pile of empty soda bottles. I shift some clothes over it when she’s not looking, hoping she’ll never have to know it’s there.
Before it gets fully dark, I roll Paige down the common hall to the stairs. She can roll on her own, thanks to her preference for a conventional chair over the electric kind. But I can tell she feels more secure when I push her. The elevator is useless now, of course, unless you’re willing to risk getting stuck when the electricity goes out.
I help Paige out of the chair and carry her on my back while our mother rolls the chair down three flights of stairs. I don’t like the bony feel of my sister. She’s too light now, even for a seven year old, and it scares me more than everything else combined.
Once we reach the lobby, I put Paige back into her chair. I sweep a strand of dark hair behind her ear. With her high cheekbones and midnight eyes, we could almost be twins. Her face is more pixie-like than mine, but give her another ten years and she’d look just like me. No one would ever get us mixed up, though, even if we were both seventeen, any more than people would mix up soft and hard, warm and cold. Even now, frightened as she is, the corners of her mouth are tipped up in a ghost of a smile, more concerned for me than herself. I give her one back, trying to radiate confidence.
I run back up stairs to help Mom bring her cart down. We struggle with the ungainly thing, making all kinds of clanking as we wobble down the stairs. This is the first time I’ve been glad no one’s left in the building to hear it. The cart is crammed full of empty bottles, Paige’s baby blankets, stacks of magazines and Bibles, every shirt Dad left in the closet when he moved out, and of course, cartons of her precious rotten eggs. She’s also stuffed every pocket of her sweater and jacket with the eggs.
I consider abandoning the cart, but the fight I’d have with my mother would take much longer and be much louder than helping her. I just hope Paige will be all right for the length of time it takes to bring it down. I could kick myself for not bringing down the cart first so Paige could be in the relatively safer spot upstairs, rather than waiting for us in the lobby.
By the time we reach the front door of the building, I’m already sweating and my nerves are frayed.
“Remember,” I say. “No matter what happens, just keep running down El Camino until you reach Page Mill. Then head for the hills. If we get separated, we’ll meet at the top of the hills, okay?”
If we get separated, there’s not much hope of us ever meeting anywhere, but I need to keep up the pretense of hope because that may be all we have.
I put my ear to the front door of our condo building. I hear nothing. No wind, no birds, no cars, no voices. I pull back the heavy door just a crack and peek out.
The streets are deserted except for empty cars parked in every lane. The dying light washes the concrete and steel with graying echoes of color.
The day belongs to the refugees and raid gangs. But at night, they all clear out, leaving the streets deserted by dusk. There’s a strong fear of the supernatural now. Both mortal predators and prey seem to agree on listening to their primal fears and hiding until dawn. Even the worst of the new street gangs leave the night to whatever creatures may roam the darkness in this new world.
At least, they have so far. At some point, the most desperate will start to take advantage of the cover of night despite the risks. I’m hoping we’ll be the first so that we’ll be the only ones out there, if for no other reason than that I won’t have to drag Paige away from helping someone in trouble.
Mom grips my arm as she stares out into the night. Her eyes are intense with fear. She’s cried so much this past year since Dad left that her eyes are now permanently swollen. She has a special terror of the night, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I start to tell her it’ll be all right, but the lie dries up in my mouth. It’s pointless to reassure her.
I take a deep breath, and yank open the door.
I instantly feel exposed. My muscles tighten as if expecting to get shot any moment.
I grab Paige’s chair and wheel her out of the building. I scan the sky, then all around us like a good little rabbit running from predators.
The shadows are quickly darkening over the abandoned buildings, cars, and dying shrubbery that hasn’t been watered in six weeks. Some tag artist has spray-painted an angry angel with enormous wings and a sword on the condo wall across the street. The giant crack that splits the wall zigzags through the angel’s face, making it look demented. Below it, a wannabe poet has scrawled the words, “Who will guard against the guardians?”
I cringe at the clattering noise my mother’s cart makes as she shoves it over the doorway and onto the sidewalk. We crunch over broken glass, which convinces me even more that we’ve stayed hidden in our condo for longer than we should have. The first floor windows have been broken.
And someone has nailed a feather on the door.
I don’t believe for a second that it’s a real angel feather, although that’s clearly what’s being implied. None of the new gangs are that strong or wealthy. Not yet, anyway.
The feather has been dipped in red paint that drips down the wood. At least, I hope it’s paint. I’ve seen this gang symbol on supermarkets and drug stores in the last few weeks, warning off scavengers. It won’t be long before the gang members come to claim whatever’s left on the higher floors. Too bad for them we won’t be there. For now, they’re still busy claiming territory before the competing gangs get to it first.
We sprint to the nearest car, ducking for cover.
I don’t need to check behind me to make sure Mom is following because the rattling of the cart wheels tells me she’s moving. I take a quick glance up, then in either direction. There’s no motion in the shadows.
Hope flickers through me for the first time since I made our plan. Maybe tonight will be one of those nights where nothing happens on the streets. No gangs, no chewed-up animal remains to be found in the morning, no screams to echo through the night.
My confidence builds as we hop from one car to another, moving faster than I expected.
We turn onto El Camino Real, a main artery of Silicon Valley. It means “The Royal Path,” according to my Spanish teacher. The name fits, considering that our local royalty—the founders of companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook—probably got stuck on this road like everyone else.
The intersections are gridlocked with abandoned cars. I’d never seen a gridlock in the valley before six weeks ago. The drivers here were always as polite as can be. But the thing that really convinces me that the apocalypse is here is the crunching of smartphones under my feet. Nothing short of the end of the world would get our eco-consc
ious techies to toss their latest gadgets onto the street. It’s practically sacrilegious, even if the gadgets are just dead weight now.
I had considered staying on the smaller streets but the gangs are more likely to be hiding where they are less exposed. Even though it’s night, if we tempt them on their own street, they might be willing to risk exposing themselves for a cartful of loot. At that distance, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to see that it’s only empty bottles and rags.
I’m about to pop up behind an SUV to scope out our next hop when Paige leans through the gaping car door and reaches for something on the seat.
It’s an energy bar. Unopened.
It is nestled among a scattering of papers as if they’d all fallen out of a bag. The smart thing to do would be for us to grab it and run, then eat it in a safe place. But I’ve learned in the past few weeks that your stomach can pretty easily override your brain.
Paige rips open the package and snaps the bar into thirds. Her face is radiant as she passes the pieces around. Her hand trembles with hunger and excitement. But despite that, she gives us oversized pieces and only keeps the smallest for herself.
I break mine in half and give half of my share to Paige. Mom does the same. Paige looks crestfallen that we’re rejecting her gifts. I put my finger to my lips and give her a stern look. She reluctantly takes the offered food.
Paige has been a vegetarian since she was three years old when we visited the petting zoo. Although she was practically a baby, she still made the connection between the turkey that made her laugh and the sandwiches she ate. We called her our own little Dalai Lama until a couple of weeks ago when I started insisting she eat whatever I manage to scrounge off the street. An energy bar is the best we can do for her these days.
All our faces relax in relief as we bite into the crispy bar. Sugar and chocolate! Calories and vitamins.
One of the pieces of paper flutters down from the passenger seat. I catch a glimpse of the caption.
“Rejoice! The Lord is Coming! Join New Dawn and Be the First to Go to Paradise. ”
It’s one of the fliers from the apocalypse cults that sprang up like pimples on greased skin after the attacks. It has blurry photos of the fiery destruction of Jerusalem, Mecca, and the Vatican. It looks like someone took still shots from the news videos and printed them on a cheap color printer. It has a hurried, homemade look to it.
We gobble up our meal, but I’m too nervous to enjoy the sweet flavor. We are almost at Page Mill Rd, which would take us up to the hills through a relatively unpopulated area. I figure once we near the hills, our chances of survival will dramatically increase. It’s full night now, the deserted cars lit eerily by the half moon.
There’s something about the silence that puts my nerves on edge. It seems there should be some noise—maybe the skittering of a rat or birds or crickets or something. Even the wind seems afraid to move.
My mother’s cart sounds especially loud in this silence. I wish I had time to argue with her. A sense of urgency builds in me as if responding to the buildup before lightning. We just need to make it to Page Mill.