Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack In the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers - John Langan
Updated: Jul 5
“There’s a whole lot of hate left on this world, Spiderman.” Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection
“Come On Down, Make the Stand.” The Alarm, “The Stand”
“He was not assaulted by a roving pack of feral dogs.” Dale Bailey, “The End of the World As We Know It”
AFTER three days and nights on the run—
—during which they slept in thirty-, sixty-, and ninety-minute snatches, in the backs of large cars and SUVs, in a hotel lobby, in a sporting goods store at one end of a mall—
—they managed to pull ahead of the Pack—
—who had been too close from the start and drawn closer than that, despite Wayne’s traps, all of which were clever and a few ingenious and the least of which thinned the Pack by two or three; until Wayne succeeded in luring them onto the walkway between the foodcourt and the mall’s front entrance, where he detonated something that not only dropped the floor out from beneath the Pack, but brought the roof down, too, raining shards of glass like so many economy-sized guillotines—Jackie had wanted to stay and finish the survivors, but Wayne had declared it was still too dangerous and hauled her out the door—
—cross the Bridge—
—too congested with cars for them to take the Jeep Cherokee Wayne had navigated up the surprisingly empty stretch of Route 9 between the mall and the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which had made them debate the pros and cons of continuing north along this side of the Hudson until they reached the next bridge, which might be clear or might not (for once, Wayne couldn’t make up his mind), until Jackie insisted they might as well cross here as cross anywhere: there would be plenty of cars on the other side, and if they didn’t do something, they were going to squander their lead and face the Pack on their terms (which, aside from that first, terrible introduction, they’d succeeded in avoiding)—so they abandoned the Jeep, shouldered the backpacks, heavy as ever (so much for having rested), and (the Bridge shifting underfoot in the wind that hummed through its cables like a choir warming up) wound their way through a labyrinth of vehicles jammed, it seemed, into every possible configuration, their interiors choked with the oversized, thick-stemmed purple flowers Jackie and Wayne had found inside the vast majority of vehicles they’d encountered thus far, wound around steering wheels, gearshifts, and pedals (the windows talced with violet pollen), which made operating the cars a problem they had neither tools or time to solve—there was a pickup whose cab was empty, but it was boxed against the railing by a trio of smaller cars, as if they’d brought it to bay there—
—set up camp on the other shore—
—on a ledge overlooking the spot where the Bridge slotted into the steep hills on the western shore of the Hudson—Wayne had noticed the shelf of rock as they followed the road up and to the right, past another cluster of cars full of purple flowers, pointing it out to Jackie—when they reached a place where the ledge was accessible from the road, up a steep path blocked by a gate Wayne was certain he could open, he had steered them towards it (even though Jackie’s legs trembled at the prospect of more and harder climbing), urging her on, murmuring encouragements, praise, until they had gained the top of the path and Wayne had sprung the lock on the gate, let them through, and snapped the lock closed again behind them—Jackie had followed him as he picked his way across the rocks littering the shelf; no more than fifteen feet at its widest, she guesstimated; the Bridge returning to view, and then Wayne had held up his hand as if he were some kind of native guide signaling the rest of the safari and said that this would do—
—and were preparing an ambush—
—Wayne starting back along the ledge almost as soon as they’d shucked their backpacks, taking with him only the bulky black canvas bag that Jackie thought of sometimes as his bag of tricks and sometimes as his utility belt, and one of the pistols, leaving the other guns with her: the rifle whose name she couldn’t remember but which Wayne had been very excited to find in the sporting goods store, and the two remaining pistols, one of which had come from Wayne’s father’s safe, the other from an empty police cruiser—“You don’t have to cover me,” he’d said, “but pay attention,” and she had, sitting with her bag propped against the backpacks, the rifle resting against the dome of her belly, as Wayne retraced their route down the hill to the Bridge and then out onto it, to set up some trap that had occurred to him, maybe two if there were time, till he was lost to view, obscured by the lean of the hill opposite her.
—Jacqueline Marie DiSalvo: twenty years old; five foot six, tall as her (most likely dead) father; she didn’t know how many pounds anymore, since stepping on scales hadn’t been at the top of her list of priorities for some time, now; her hair dark brown, long enough not to look short; her eyes brown, as well; her features carefully proportioned, (once, her [dead] father had described them to her as prim, which she hadn’t been sure how to take); her skin less tanned than she would have expected, considering all the time they’d spent outdoors this past month: much of it at night, true, and there had been almost a solid week of rain in the middle of it, but still; wearing an extra-large men’s white cotton t-shirt, gray sweatpants, white cotton athletic socks, and knock-off Birkenstocks that were comfortable but growing too tight: again, shoe shopping not a priority when you were running (or waddling, in her case) for your life—five weeks ago, she had been thirty-five days less pregnant, six and a half instead of nearly eight months “along” (her [most likely dead] doctor’s favorite euphemism for pregnancy, as if carrying a child were an exotic vacation): a difference that meant, practically speaking, a smaller stomach, smaller breasts, smaller everything; smaller her, who didn’t tire quite so quickly; who didn’t feel so out of breath all the time; who didn’t sleep well but better than lately, when comfort had taken the last train out; who didn’t need to stop to pee all the time, while Wayne stood guard, his gun out, his eyes sweeping whatever landscape they were in for the inevitable (re)appearance of the Pack—
—sat waiting for Wayne—
—Wayne Anthony Miller: twenty years old, two days younger than Jackie, in fact: she born on the third of July, he the fifth; six foot three; maybe one hundred and seventy pounds, not yet grown out of adolescent gangliness (his [most likely dead] mother’s term, which he’d overheard her use at a New Year’s party and which he’d confessed to Jackie left him feeling betrayed in some fundamental way); his hands and feet large, hung from long, skinny arms and legs that attached to a long, skinny torso; his hair grown long, a light brown that had been blond until his teens, framing a broad, square face with a small nose, narrow eyes, and generous mouth; he was wearing the same pair of jeans that had seen him through the last month, and which were little worse for wear (what an ad campaign: “Levi’s: We’ll Get You Through the End of Civilization: Rated Number One in Post-Apocalyptic Scenarios”), with a red plaid shirt open over a gray t-shirt emblazoned with Batman’s black bat emblem, and Doc Marten’s—five weeks ago, he had been working at the Barnes and Noble just south of the Bridge on the other side of the river and spending more of each paycheck than he should have at the comic book store in the plaza, there; his Associates Degree in Liberal Arts from Dutchess County Community College completed the previous semester; his future, which revolved around dreams of writing one of the Batman titles, still, as he liked to put it, a work-in-progress (this back when the future had extended further forward than the next twelve hours, and been somewhat more complex, yet also somewhat simpler, than trying to locate food and defensible shelter).
The sun was hot—
—roasting was a better word for it; although there was a substantial breeze blowing up from the river—Jackie supposed that the exposed rock around her, a grayish, sharp stuff that she should have been able to name but whose identity apparently lay in that part of her memory marked, “No Longer Useful,” amplified the heat, which wasn’t completely oppressive (soon, it would be, she would be panting like a dog with it, most likely feel the urge to strip down to her underwear, but for the moment it radiated through her pleasantly).
—the better part of two hours; what had he been doing out there?—
—waving to her as he walked off the Bridge; she waved back—
—long enough to pick up some rope—
—digging it out of his backpack, a hefty coil that looked like something a mountain climber might use and that he had been happy to find in a hardware store two weeks ago, which Jackie hadn’t understood, since the rope looked pretty heavy and she didn’t see the point in either of them taking on any more weight than was absolutely necessary—already, Wayne was carrying more than his fair share to compensate for her; she didn’t want him exhausting himself because of an inability to pass on everything that might prove useful someday—she hadn’t said anything out loud, though, and the addition of the rope seemed to have made no significant difference to him—
—and return to the Bridge—
—where he strung the rope across the road, running it back and forth and back and forth between a pair of the Bridge’s support cables, weaving a kind of improvised web that Jackie thought would slow down the weakest members of the Pack for about half a second, and that the leader and its (hers? his?) companions would be through in no time at all.
When he was done with his final trap—
—which didn’t look any more impressive once it was finished than it had when Jackie had realized what it was; although there was more of it than she had expected, a dozen, maybe fifteen strands that Wayne had layered according to a design she couldn’t discern, so that some strands ran a foot or more behind the others—she hadn’t exactly dozed while he’d constructed it: she’d kept her eyes open throughout the process, but her mind had wandered, as it had so often in the last day and a half, to the baby, which had gone from what she referred to as its daily calisthenics to complete stillness, not moving at all that she could feel (and, at this stage, she could feel a lot) for roughly thirty-six hours, now, which might have been entirely normal for all she knew: there was a rather dramatic lack of obstetricians in these parts (ha ha) and while Wayne knew a surprising amount about all sorts of things, his expertise tended towards the ultraviolent and not so much the whole miracle-of-life end of the spectrum—the best he could do was hear her concerns, shrug, and tell her not to worry about it, advice she’d already given herself and that was growing impossible to follow—she could feel panic gathering inside her, coalescing into a storm that would wash her away in a torrent of tears and screaming, because the child inside her was dead, she was carrying a dead baby—all right, to be honest, her mind hadn’t wandered so much as gone directly to her anxiety and watched it growing—the point was, she wasn’t sure if Wayne had rigged his web with any of the explosives (proper and improvised) that stuffed his bag of tricks, or if he had other plans for his oversized Cat’s Cradle—
—he came back—
—and a good thing, too, because the sun had dipped behind the hill to her back, and though the sky overhead was still blue, it was that darker blue that would spend the next couple of hours shading steadily darker, into that indigo that a month of looking up at the night sky had shown her was the actual color against which the stars shone, and while the Pack had more than proved their ability to appear at any time of day, there was no doubting they preferred to move after the sun was down, and although Jackie had trained with the pistols, had opened up on one of the Pack at terrifyingly close range (it had scampered off, unhurt), she’d had a single lesson with the rifle (whose name was on the tip of her mind) with it unloaded, and had no faith in her ability to get off more than a single shot, if that, which was not saying anything about her ability to kill or even hit her target, so when Wayne tied the final knot in his rope barrier and started up the road, relief suffused her—
—and built a fire—
—using wood he collected from the trees along the path up to the ledge, a heavy armload that he arranged into a larger fire than she would have thought wise, an almost inexplicable lapse of Wayne’s part—unless he wanted to be visible; if so, it was a new strategy for him: his previous traps had depended on misdirection, on leading the Pack into thinking the two of them were someplace they were safely away from, which had become increasingly difficult as the Pack adapted to Wayne’s tactics—frankly, Jackie had been shocked that the mall trap had succeeded as well as it had, because it had been so obvious, as obvious as any of his early efforts, so much so that the Pack must have assumed (if you could apply such a word to them; though they evidently had some process of cognition) it couldn’t possibly be a set-up, and so had walked right into the middle of it—strictly speaking, there was no need for a fire, not yet, heat poured up from the ledge and would do so well into the night, while the Bridge’s lights, a row of flame-shaped bulbs tracing the arc of each of the suspension cables, had blinked on as the daylight ebbed (one of those intermittent events that indexed the random status of what she already was referring to herself as the Old World’s machineries), their bright glow traversing the spectrum from blue to red and back down to blue again, their light sufficient for Jackie to read her battered copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting if she wanted to (she didn’t; she felt vaguely guilty about it, but she was too tired [and—tell the truth—afraid of what the book might tell her about the baby’s stillness])—when you came right down to it, the fire was a beacon and a goad, Wayne’s way of thumbing his nose at whatever members of the Pack might have survived the mall and guiding them across the Bridge—as she reclined against her backpack and accepted the peanut butter bagel Wayne passed her, Jackie thought, This really is it, our last stand; after four weeks, we’re making our stand.
They ate dinner in silence—
—the way they did practically everything in silence, the last week or so—formerly, Wayne had been a talker of epic proportions, the kind of person you don’t start a conversation with unless you’ve got, say, three days to spare, which Jackie had found mostly charming, because a lot of what he had to say was funny and interesting, and if she rolled her eyes, it was only when he started talking about whatever comic book he was currently infatuated with, which he could and would do in microscopic, mind-numbing detail—comics never had interested her, the secret exploits of men playing dress-up in what was essentially a consequence-free arena just hadn’t appealed; although the length and depth of description and analysis Wayne lavished on them prompted her to second-guess herself once in a while; now, she wished she had read some of the titles Wayne had rhapsodized about (The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One [but not The Dark Knight Strikes Again, that was so much overpriced crap] and The Sandman and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac [whose title she wished she found funnier]) or at least paid better attention to his lectures on them, because they might have helped her understand what had happened to Wayne in the last month, since the bottom had dropped out of the world, the least manifestation of which was the drying up of the torrent of words that poured from his mouth, and the most dramatic example of which was…was crazy—
—then cleaned the guns—
—one at a time, Wayne stripping each of the pistols in turn while Jackie trained the rifle on the rope barrier, then the rifle as Jackie aimed the policeman’s automatic—she could have broken each of the weapons down, cleaned and greased them, herself: Wayne had insisted she learn in case anything happened to him (which was a joke: did he really imagine that, at this stage, big and awkward as she was, she’d get anywhere without him? it was almost funny: the hugely pregnant woman, a smoking gun in either hand, fighting off the Pack), but the thick smell of the grease nauseated her, so she stood (reclined, actually) guard and let Wayne do things the way he not-so-secretly wanted to—
—and settled down for the night—
—to wait and sleep, him taking the first watch, her the second—after she’d unrolled her sleeping bag and used her feet to push off her sandals, she looked at Wayne, sitting on the other side of the fire (to which he’d added even more wood, keeping it hot and bright), and asked, “When will they be here?” to which Wayne answered, “Hard to tell. If we’re lucky, late morning, early afternoon,” which surprised her: ambush or not, last stand or not, she would have expected that, if the Pack hadn’t put in an appearance by first light, maybe a little later, the two of them would abandon their position, which, for all its advantages in terms of height (“Control the high ground:” how often had Wayne repeated that?) was a dead-end: if the Pack made it through whatever Wayne had prepared for them on the Bridge, not to mention his improvised web, and surged up the road till they reached the path to the ledge, she and Wayne would be trapped (violating another of his mantras, “Always have a way out”); better, she thought, to keep their options open and retreat, trust Wayne’s ingenuity to thin the Pack further—all of which she said to him, and none of which made a difference: “This is our best chance,” he said, and while she argued, appealing to her mantra, “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day,” Wayne was unmovable, and anyway her eyelids were sliding down, so she abandoned her argument until daylight and slid into her sleeping bag.
Jackie’s sleep was light, troubled—
—because sleeping soundly was impossible at this stage of pregnancy; not on a rock shelf in a sleeping bag, at least; and because her dreams were vivid and disturbing; no surprise, so What to Expect assured her: pregnant women were subject to all kinds of anxiety dreams, a tendency compounded on her part by the last month’s events, the long struggle to keep on the move and ahead of the Pack, which had given her unconscious a whole new vocabulary of unease and terror—
[—she was on that stretch of Route 9 where all the cars; two, three dozen; had come to a halt pretty much simultaneously, with the exception of a black SUV that had crumpled the trunk of the red sedan in front of it—she and Wayne peering through the cars’ windows at their interiors, every one crowded by purple flowers, anywhere from one to four per vehicle, stalks thick and twisting as snakes, blossoms the size of sunflowers, a kind of plant she’d never seen, and while she was no expert, botany was a hobby—each flower an accumulation of overlapping petals, vaguely rose-like except that each petal was four to six inches long, edges ragged, almost serrated, and a uniform eggplant hue; the flowers’ centers obscured by clusters of closed petals that suggested mouths pursed for a kiss, an effect she found sufficiently unsettling to drop her eyes to the stems, parsley-green, woody, covered in coarse hairs, fan-shaped leaves tiny, almost vestigial—Jackie had studied the plants, looped around steering wheels, gearshifts, headrests, door handles, pedals, one another, through windows dusted with violet pollen, each car a separate terrarium, thinking that none of this made any sense: there was no way for this size of plant to survive in this kind of environment, deprived, as far as she could see, of food and water—before Wayne could stop her, she had grabbed the door handle of the car she was standing next to so she could open it and take a cutting from the flower whose blossom pressed against the window like a child’s face peering out; but the stem held the door closed with surprising force, so that the best she could manage was opening the door a crack, not enough to reach the plant, just sufficient for a small cloud of pollen to puff out—then Wayne was there, pulling her back from the car onto the shoulder, though not before she’d inhaled some of the pollen, filling her nose with the astringent smell of lavender, which lingered for the rest of the day despite the fit of violent sneezing it precipitated—she had been annoyed at Wayne, not only for being so patronizing, but for reminding her that there wasn’t much point in her taking a cutting—what was she going to do with it? she could put it under a microscope if they could find one, and then what? she was a college junior majoring in Biology and minoring in Psych: about the best she’d be able to do if she could study a slide of a purple flower would be to identify it as a plant—it wasn’t as if she’d be able to offer any insight into their situation—she had stalked away from him as best she could, and answered his regular questions of how she was feeling with the same monosyllable, “Fine,” which was pretty much true, except for the lavender smell (but that night she’d had dreams in which she was driving and her skin, which was incredibly itchy, so much so that she was finding it difficult to concentrate on the road, began to crumble beneath her fingertips, becoming powdery, dusty, and suddenly all of her was on the verge of coming apart—for a moment, she was aware of her entire body drying, loosening, streams of dust pouring from her hands, her chin, her fingers raining down over the steering wheel, her body dissolving against the seat, her feet reducing to powder in her shoes—she had time for the panicked thought that she couldn’t breathe, then that didn’t matter anymore, and she collapsed—and woke with heart pounding, the baby kicking in response to her excitement, but that was fine, fine, because it meant she was still here, still in her body—for a good half hour, she ran her hands back and forth over her skin, reassuring herself with every pimple, every blemish, every strand of unwashed hair, that she was whole, not coming apart—Wayne must have noticed, but he remained silent, and another week would elapse before Jackie had gained sufficient distance from the dream and its sensations to narrate it to him—but, to her surprise, he didn’t have an interpretation ready, just grunted and didn’t refer to it again)]—
[—that dream sliding into one in which she was in her parents’ den with Glenn, who was drunk again…still: he’d brought the bottle of gin and the bottle of tonic out beside the couch so he wouldn’t have to travel so far to refill his glass, along with a bucket of ice from which he scooped half-melted cubes to deposit in his drink when it became too warm—the end of the world, or something close, and he’d spent pretty much all of it submerged in alcohol, because who was going to tell him not to? her parents hadn’t returned from the trip to Shop Rite that shouldn’t have taken them more than two hours, three at most, and that they’d left for twenty-two, no, twenty-four hours before, kissing her and ignoring Glenn (as they had ever since they’d learned the news of her pregnancy), promising to be back soon, a promise something had prevented them from keeping, which had her nervous but not as upset as she should have been; she wasn’t done thinking they might yet appear, despite what the t.v. had shown before the channels started blinking off, whatever horror they’d been covering replaced by the tranquility of an electric blue screen—when Jackie climbed the stairs to the living room and looked out its picture window, all she saw was their slice of neighborhood, the same as ever: no fires, no riots, no people dying from whatever it was was boiling the flesh off their bones (which had spread faster than the pundits’ ability to hypothesize explanations for it: a new strain of bird flu had given way to a bioweapon; some kind of mutated smallpox; which was more plausible, given its unbelievable virulence; but if so, whoever had released it had miscalculated, because it had taken the planet in its grip in all of three days—terrorism had been supplemented by other, more fanciful explanations: rampant nanotech, set free during the mishap at that plant in Albany the week before; an alien virus, imported by one of the meteors that had streaked across the sky a few nights ago; and, of course, the Wrath of God, and never mind that global events bore little to no resemblance to what was described in the Book of Revelation: the preachers who insisted on this answer had been so practiced at adapting Biblical texts to their own ends it was no surprise they should be able to do the same in this case) (and what about those other pictures she and Glenn had seen, almost lost in the rush of things falling apart? that couldn’t have been the shadow of something walking falling across that building in Chicago, could it? the thought was absurd: it would have had to be impossibly tall—but what had collided with Air Force One? those hadn’t been wings, had they? equally ridiculous: you couldn’t have a bird that size)—she gazed out the window and saw movement, a car speeding up the road—for a second, she was sure it was her parents, back from their trip at last, then she realized it wasn’t their Subaru but a smaller car, a white Geo Metro, Wayne’s car, which none of them ever stopped teasing him about, its engine straining as it raced along, and as she watched it, she was aware of something hovering over her, some badness preparing to fall on her and take her into its jagged gullet, and there was the opportunity for her to think, Stay away, keep driving, before, tires screaming, Wayne turned the car into her driveway, fishtailing half-onto the lawn, spraying chunks of dirt and grass—leaving the car running, he fell out of it and sprinted to the front door, hammering on it with both hands, shouting her name from a throat already worn hoarse—she remained where she was, hoping Wayne would race back to his undersized car and take away whatever catastrophe attended him, until she heard Glenn’s slurred insistence that he was coming, for Christ’s sake, keep your shirt on, so she crossed to the door, which Wayne had not stopped pounding on, fully intending to tell him to leave, whatever it was, it wasn’t their problem (amazing to think that she could so completely turn her back on Wayne, whom she’d described as her best guy friend; after Glenn, of course; for years), but the instant she turned the lock, the door leapt open and Wayne was inside the house, shouting that she had to leave, now, there was no time—Jackie registered his smell, first, a heavy blend of copper and alkali: blood and fear, she realized as she took in his clothes, plastered and clotted with blood and other things (was that a piece of bone? that pink clump—)—This was already bad, and finally his words resolved themselves into sense and she placed her hand on his arm, wincing at the blood still fresh to the touch (what had happened to him?), telling him to relax, calm down, it was all right; but none of her reassurances reached him, he kept insisting they had to go and grabbed her by the arm, which was when Glenn found the top of the stairs and who knew what he saw? the guy he’d never stopped worrying about, the source of his anxieties about their relationship, come to carry Jackie away at last—she should have anticipated what came next, but despite his macho posturing, Glenn always had seemed to her fundamentally gentle, peaceful; still, there was nothing like a quart of gin-and-tonic to put you in touch with your inner linebacker, which he proved by barreling across the room, catching Wayne around the middle, and slamming him into the wall with sufficient force to drop them both to the floor—Wayne kept hold of Jackie as long as he could, tumbling her backwards onto the couch—now Glenn was covered in gore, too, and raising his fist to pummel Wayne, who managed to wedge a leg between the two of them and kick Glenn off him, almost to the top of the stairs—Jackie, her hands pressed over her stomach, was shouting for the two of them to stop it, this was ridiculous, but Wayne hadn’t liked Glenn any more than Glenn had him; jealous, she knew, although she’d done her best to ignore the reasons fueling that jealousy—the two of them rushed together and went down in a tangle of arms and legs, grunting and cursing each other, and Jackie thought, Great: watch Mom and Dad come home, now—then the picture window exploded inwards and a massive, snarling shape was standing in the living room, shaking glass off itself the way a dog might shake off water—she screamed, feet kicking her away from it, right up onto the couch—there was an instant for her to register the sheer size of the thing, its bulk: it had to stand four feet at the shoulder, with a hump that arched its back another foot over that, its head big as a Thanksgiving turkey, its feet the size of diner plates; and to think simultaneously, What’s a hyena doing in upstate New York? and, This is no hyena—before it pounced on Glenn, who had paused, arm upraised, when the window blew in—the thing caught his extended arm in its blunt jaws and tore it off at the shoulder: the crack and snap of bone and rip of sinew combining with the jet of blood and the scream from Glenn’s throat and the growl from the thing’s, a bass roar with the shriek of a violin on top of it—the thing held Glenn’s arm dangling from its mouth like a puppy with a chew toy, then tossed the arm to one side with a flick of its head and lunged at him, while Wayne scrambled out of the way, his face blank with terror, and Jackie joined her scream to Glenn’s as the thing bulled him back against the wall and seized his head between its teeth, his voice climbing registers she wouldn’t have thought possible, surely his vocal cords would have to give out—she didn’t know how much more she could bear—the thing brought its jaws together; there was a pop and crunch like an egg surrendering to the pressure of a hand; and Glenn's scream stopped; although Jackie’s continued, pouring out her horror at what she was watching at the top of her lungs—even when Wayne found his feet, stumbled across the living room to her, right past where the thing was busy feeding, almost slipped on a large piece of glass, took her hand, and started pulling her to the front door, which was still open, only to stop as a new sound flooded the air, a high-pitched cacophony like an orchestra out of tune, and dark shapes (who knew how many? twenty? thirty? more?) galloped up the road, almost to the end of her driveway—Wayne’s hand trembled in hers as if he were being electrocuted; later, she would understand that his mind had been on the point of breaking, some fundamental motor about to snap its belt and seize up—she was taking in breath for another scream, because it was hard to take in enough air for a long scream when you were six and a half months pregnant (courtesy of a bottle of Jack Daniels and the love of her life, who had just ended his life at the teeth of, of—), when Wayne’s hand stilled; she glanced at his face, and what she saw reflected there, a change from vacant-eyed terror to something else, stopped her voice—“Come on,” he said, pulling her away from the front door, across the living room (the thing growling and snapping at them, and, Oh My God Glenn), into the kitchen and the cellar door, down the stairs and across the cellar to the oil tank, with a stop at her father’s workbench to grab a rag and the box of long wooden matches Dad had had on his workbench for as long as she could remember—overhead, the floor thumped and creaked, more of the things springing into the house—Wayne consulted the gauge on top of the oil tank, and began unscrewing it—the gauge turned once, twice, then stuck—he ran back to the workbench for a wrench while above, the things whined and growled, their claws skittering on the hardwood floor—Glenn, she thought, They’re fighting over him, over what’s left of him—Wayne had the gauge off; a thick, petroleum odor filled her nostrils; and was dipping the rag into the tank, first one half, then the other—he left the rag hanging out of the tank and slid open the box of matches—“Go to the outside doors and open them,” he said, selecting three matches, “but not all the way, just enough to scope out the situation in the backyard;” she did as he instructed, unlatching and shouldering up the metal doors that led out of the cellar—the arc of yard she could see was green and tranquil—“Good,” Wayne said, “when I say, ‘Now,’ throw open the doors and run for your neighbors’ house, the yellow one,” and before she could ask him how he expected someone six and a half months pregnant to do anything that might remotely resemble running, he was scraping the first match along the side of the box—it popped into flame, and without pause he touched it to the end of the rag—a tongue of fire licked the rag, and she was ten feet across the yard before Wayne shouted, “Now!” behind her, her belly and breasts swinging heavily, painfully; her legs protesting, threatening to cramp, already; her lungs burning; not looking back, because she didn’t want to see the thing that killed her; she just prayed it would do so quickly; and Wayne was beside her, slowing his frantic pace to match hers, and they were at the edge of the yard when the oil tank blew, gutting the house in a yellow-orange BOOM that sent wood and glass spinning across the yard and triggered the gas tank beneath the window and, from the sound of it, Wayne’s car—she could feel the heat from where she was, see the carcasses of she couldn’t tell how many of the things sprawled around the house’s wreckage—“Glenn,” she said, but Wayne was urging her on—]—
—once, she woke, saw Wayne sitting at the fire, and went back to sleep—
—and more dreams—
[—they were inside the walk-in urgent-care building on Route 9, which Jackie had insisted they stop at for medical supplies and because they needed to attend to the slash zig-zagging up Wayne’s forearm, which she’d bound to the best of her ability but was worried was becoming septic: the skin around the black scab was yellow going to green, and the wound gave off a sweet smell that made her want to gag—at the very least, she wanted to locate a blister-pack of Zithromax for him; at most, if she could locate proper tools, debride it (the advantage of having [had] a nurse mother who was a frustrated doctor)—Wayne protested that he was fine, but went ahead of her through the building, a gun held in either hand, arms outstretched—Jackie had not yet decided she should be carrying a firearm, too, so she held the oversized flashlight they’d taken from her neighbors’ house like a club; there was sufficient light in the corridors for her not to waste the batteries: although the fluorescent lights overhead were dark, the ceiling opened into skylights at regular intervals, which leaked in enough of the gray, rainy day outside to permit her and Wayne their search—she wasn’t sure what, if anything, they would encounter in the urgent care’s dim interior—she was reasonably certain they had gained sufficient ground on what she had started referring to as the Pack (following Wayne’s lead; the name no doubt a comic book reference she wasn’t plugged into) for them not to have to worry about coming face-to-snout with one of its snarling constituents—one or more of the strange purple flowers seemed more likely: almost all the cars they’d seen on their trek up Route 9 had been full of the plants; although that was the only place they’d seen them: the various stores they’d entered for food, clothing, and assorted other supplies had been empty (she’d thought she had caught movement from the corners of her eyes, but when she’d looked, there had been nothing—most likely, her nerves tricking her)—despite which, Wayne refused to abandon caution, leaping through every open door with both guns pointed ahead, then sweeping them to either side as he glanced around the room, before calling, “Clear,” to Jackie, who found his performance amusing in a way she knew she shouldn’t have; caution was warranted, and Wayne had proven his ability a number of times, from turning her house into a bomb, which had reduced the Pack’s ranks by at minimum a half, maybe sixty percent, to the previous day, when he’d lured one of the Pack’s outriders into the walk-in freezer at a McDonald’s and trapped it there—it was just, there was an element of the performative to Wayne’s actions, as if he were seeing himself doing whatever he was doing in the panels of a comic, illustrated by one of his favorite artists—the last week and a half’s events had damaged Wayne in ways you didn’t need a degree in Psych to notice (although you would need a post-doc to plumb their depths)—she might be overreacting to the changes he’d displayed in his behavior: a ruthless, fiendishly inventive violence directed principally at their pursuers; or she might be misreading his response to the extremity of the past eleven days, but she was uncomfortably certain Wayne had developed a split in his personality, possibly a rough reorganization of his psyche that allowed him access to areas of his self previously road-blocked by norms of upbringing, society, and religion, possibly an entirely separate identity—it was as if he were living out one of the scenarios he’d read about for years, which might be the reason for her impression that, unimaginable psychic trauma and continuing horror and anxiety aside, on some level, Wayne was enjoying this, the world reshuffled into an arrangement he could deal with more competently and confidently than his previous existence of minimum-wage labor and career stagnation, each day’s priorities food, sleep, and movement—in the second exam room they entered, they found a locked cabinet that Wayne broke open; it was stacked with blister packs and bottles of antibiotics and other medications, which Jackie swept into the plastic shopping bag she’d taken from the Stop-N-Shop in great handfuls—in the third room, they found a steel box like an oversized pencil case that was full of scalpels, probes, and tweezers, as well as a dozen bottles of saline and an assortment of gauze bandages and rolls of surgical tape—“Jackpot,” she said, (which had been her [dead] father’s nickname for her until she’d turned twelve and refused to answer to it, anymore; wiping her eyes, she choked down nostalgia)—she positioned Wayne with his arm on the edge of the room’s sink, for the blood, and had him hold the flashlight with his free hand—he wasn’t happy about having to put down the guns, but in the absence of any better source of light (there was no skylight in this room) there was no other option; he settled for balancing the pistols on the opposite side of the sink and instructing her to duck if anything came through the door, which she assured him would not be a problem—she rinsed the scab on his arm with saline, to moisten and loosen it, and went to work with the scalpel and probe, flaking away the crusted blood, easing the scalpel under more stubborn patches and levering them off, Wayne gasping as they tore away; once the wound was exposed, she used half a bottle of saline to irrigate it, washing out assorted pieces of debris in the process, and had Wayne bring the flashlight in close, so that she could study the cut, testing it as gently as she could with the probe, which made the light quiver, abandoning the probe for a pair of needling tweezers she used to pop a pocket of pus and lift a piece of something out of it (which she thought was a fragment of one of the Pack’s teeth, and which she would have loved the chance to examine in greater detail, but which she didn’t mention to Wayne, since he’d only remind her that she was a Biology student, not a world-renowned scientist who might be able to learn something helpful from the sample), after which she rinsed the pus out, surveyed the arm one more time, was satisfied, squeezed a heavy stream of antibiotic cream over the wound, and began bandaging it—Jackie had done her best not to look at Wayne’s face as she was working, not wanting her focus to be compromised by the pain she knew she’d find twisting its features, but with his arm cleaned and tended to the best of her ability, not to mention enough drugs to knock out any lingering infection, she relaxed and glanced at him, smiling—to leap back with a shriek at what she saw: Wayne’s face gone from the mouth up, shrouded in heavy oily blackness, as if someone had dumped a can of black paint over his head; except that, instead of running down his skin, this was staying in place—Jackie backpedaled out of the room, into the hall, colliding with one of the walls, Wayne following, saying, “What? What is it?” pointing the flashlight at her, then up and down the hall, then back to her, the glare dazzling, reducing him to a silhouette; despite which, she could see something behind and above him, a cloud of blackness, billowing out like a cape or a pair of wings—she held one hand over her stomach, the other over her eyes as Wayne finally lowered the flashlight beam to the ground, still asking what it was, what was wrong, and when she risked a look at his face, it was clear of whatever she’d witnessed (if it had been there to begin with), nor was there anything behind him—she dropped her hands, waving his continuing questions away with, “Sorry—I just freaked out,” a response she knew didn’t satisfy him but that he was willing to let stand in the interest of maintaining their lead on the Pack—so far as she could tell, he didn’t suspect she’d seen what she had—whatever it was—].
In the early morning—
—Wayne woke her for the second watch—
—which Jackie spent sitting close to the fire, died to a heap of embers, wrapped in her sleeping bag, because the night had turned colder than she’d expected, colder than any recently (forecast of an early winter?), the rifle whose name she had meant to ask Wayne, to satisfy her curiosity, on the ground beside her; although every fifteen minutes or so she’d pick it up and sweep the end of the Bridge with the telescopic sight, Wayne’s rope trap jumping into focus, but all she saw were the couple of cars beyond the trap on the Bridge, whose lights continued their climb up and down the spectrum, blue to red to blue again—she checked Wayne, too: asleep, so far as she could tell, in his sleeping bag—her dreaming still clinging to her, Jackie found herself, not for the first time, trying to imagine what had happened to him, speculating on the tectonic shifts in his psychic geography—he had refused to narrate what had taken place before he fled to her house, whose blood and gore had been spattered over him, but she knew that his mother stayed at home, and chances were good that his father and younger sister would have been there with her; since he wouldn’t answer her questions about any of them, it seemed likely that they were dead, that the Pack had burst in on Wayne and his family and torn them to pieces in front of him—which begged the question, How had he escaped? (not to mention, Where had the Pack come from in the first place?)—she suspected the answer was some variety of chance, dumb luck: maybe the Pack had come in through the back of Wayne’s house, allowing him to run out the front door; maybe he’d fallen down the basement stairs and been able to sneak out the garage; it was possible his father or mother had created a diversion, sacrificed themselves to allow him to reach his car—that kind of trauma, combined with another close brush with the Pack in the form of the one that had killed Glenn, must have inaugurated some compensatory process, jury-rigged the freshly-fractured fragments of his mind into an arrangement that would let him survive; and yes, she was aware that she was describing the ur-plot of any number of super-heroes’ origins, the grievous psychic wound that gives rise to the costumed alter-ego, both answer to and continuing symptom of the trauma, but perhaps Wayne had reached for that template to keep what was left of his consciousness from flying off in all directions—how she wished she’d taken that class in Abnormal Psych this past semester, instead of putting it off for a future that hadn’t come; although, would anything she would have covered in an undergraduate class have equipped her for this? and, more to the point, what was she looking for? to understand Wayne, or to try to cure him, which would consist of what, exactly? returning him to the calm, talkative guy she’d known half a million years ago?—could she afford that? would that Wayne be able to help keep her and her baby safe the way this Wayne (whom she thought of sometimes as Batman and sometimes as the Shadow; although she mentioned neither name to him), who apparently remembered every trick and trap he’d read in Soldier of Fortune and the Getting Even books, had proven he could?—the question was rhetorical; though how much safer was she with someone whose personality continued to drift in darker directions (or whose secondary personality seemed to be subsuming his first)? someone who; what was the right word? possessed? was possessed by?; whatever the oily shadow that had masked his face, stretched behind him like a cloak, was, because however much she’d done her best to convince herself that she’d undergone some variety of hallucination, she knew that wasn’t the case: she had seen what she’d seen, which she thought might have been drawn out from wherever it hid by his pain, by the stress of having to hold the flashlight on the wound Jackie had reopened and picked through—in the two and a half weeks since, she’d kept on the lookout for it, but the closest she’d come to seeing it again had been last week, when she’d awakened from yet another dream of Glenn’s dying scream to see Wayne leaning against the wall opposite her, an enormous shadow sprawling behind him—she’d sat up, heart jolting, only to discover it was a trick of the light (she thought)—so far, Wayne hadn’t shown the slightest sign that he knew that she knew; although, how could she be sure? and she wondered if he were even aware of the darkness shadowing him—it was funny: you would have thought that here, now, in the country of fundamental things, she would have been able to turn to Wayne and ask him what was going on, and he would be able to answer her as directly, but no, she couldn’t risk alienating him, making him feel she’d discovered a secret he wished to keep concealed, because what would she do if he abandoned her?—it was like when she’d learned definitely that she was pregnant, a pale blue plus confirming what her stomach had been telling her for weeks: you would have expected the gravity of the situation to have compelled her and Glenn, her and her parents, to talk about what mattered, but the opposite had been the case: Glenn hadn’t been able to bring himself to say anything, as if he were afraid that putting words to their situation would be an irretrievable admission on his part, and so had retreated behind vague assurances and trying to have sex even more, since there was no point in worrying about protection now, which she had gone along with, even if they were in his car in the parking lot of the community college, because at least it was contact—as for her parents, they had refused to follow their initial expressions of dismay and (reluctant) support with anything—ironically, it had been Glenn’s father, who had gone up one side of them and down the other, leaving the two of them in tears before ordering them the hell out of his house, and who had called at least once a week demanding to know what was going on, who seemed, in retrospect, the most honest of them all, the best able to express his feelings—no, the pressure of events didn’t make conversation any easier; if anything, it made significant communication almost exponentially more impossible—all Jackie could say with any surety was that Wayne’s shadow was connected to everything else, to the plague(s), the purple flowers, the Pack (which, to answer that other begged question, she had no explanation for: what they were, let alone where they’d come from; how they’d arrived in upstate New York pretty much overnight—in too many ways to count, they didn’t make sense; she had watched enough specials on Nature and Nova to know that predators this size and activity would require an enormous amount of food, which, as far as she could tell, was not available: she and Wayne had encountered only a handful of bodies in their travels [everyone else, she assumed, consumed by the virus she’d seen melting people’s faces on CNN, which must have continued its work right down to the bones; although that was another problem], hardly enough to sustain even the Pack’s reduced numbers, and they certainly didn’t appear to have much interest in vegetation; though it was possible, she supposed—nor was there much sense in them pursuing her and Wayne for as long as they had: neither of them would make much of a meal for the Pack, and surely the animals[?] should have learned to associate following them with pain and death—it was like being caught in one of those z-grade science fiction movies where spectacle and suspense trumped logic and consistency: Last Stand Against the Pack or somesuch), all of them pieces to a jigsaw they’d lost the box to—during the second to last day of the week of rain, when the sky had delivered itself with such force it had been impossible to see anything out of the windows of the house they’d sought shelter in (whose driveway was occupied by a minivan filled with the largest example of the purple flowers they’d encountered yet), and the roof had creaked ominously with each gust of the wind, she and Wayne had diverted themselves by inventing explanations for what had befallen the world, the more fanciful, the better: God had decided that the apocalypse proposed in Revelation wasn’t sufficiently au courant, and so had pillaged paperback thrillers for something with more panache; monsters had broken through from the other side of the mirror, Alice’s Looking-Glass Land on acid; this world had intersected some other dimension, another Earth or even series of Earths, each of them radically different, and everything had become tangled (Wayne had coined the term “quantum rupture” for this scenario); the collective unconscious, the Spiritus Mundi, had burst, disgorging nightmares by the score—at one point, excited by what had felt like the resurgence of the old Wayne, the one with whom she could talk about anything, Jackie had tried to verbalize the feeling that had refused to abandon her since the catastrophes had begun: that somehow all of this was contingent, none of the changes that had contorted the world permanent, not yet—the best she could manage to explain the sensation was to compare it to the way she’d felt after her best girlfriend, Elaine Brown, had been killed by a drunk driver on her way home from her job at Dunkin Donuts the year before: for about a day after her parents had sat her down at the kitchen table to tell her, Jackie had been absolutely convinced that Elaine’s death was not yet set in stone, that there was some way for her to change things, if only she could figure out what it was—she’d been in shock, yes, but it was as if that blow to her system had brought her temporarily closer to the machinery of the world, allowed her to feel the peeling away of this course of events from other possibilities—the sensation she had now was different mostly in terms of magnitude and duration: when Elaine had been killed, it had been like standing next to a small motor, a motorcycle, say, for twenty-four hours or so; this was like standing beside railroad tracks while a three-engine freight train rumbled past, night and day, for weeks—Wayne had named the feeling “quantum divergence,” (an awful lot of quanta flying around that day), which sounded impressive but didn’t really mean what he wanted it to—it was, Jackie said, like being able to feel the Fates changing the weave of the world—whatever name you gave her awareness, whether it was anything more than a peculiar effect of profound shock, a milder version of the transformations that were altering Wayne (for all she knew, it was a well-documented response to trauma), the problem with her conviction of the freight train of events rattling away from alternate scenarios was its utter uselessness: after all, what could she do to about it? it wasn’t as if she had the ability to reverse events, to cause the Fates to loosen what they’d woven and start again (though secretly she wondered if, somewhere, there might be a door that would open back to the world she’d known)—his attempt at naming it aside, Wayne hadn’t known what to say to her sensation, and the conversation had moved on to other topics, to the baby, and how much longer till Jackie was due, and what were they going to do when she was ready to give birth?—at the time, she’d hoped they’d be able to use the facilities at Vassar Hospital, at which, at the rate they were going, she projected they’d arrive around the time the baby was about to come, and if the Pack had been defeated, killed by then, there would be no reason they couldn’t set up camp in it; there was a lot to be said for staying in a hospital—but they had fled up Route 9 faster than she’d anticipated; the Pack had proven more wily and ever-more-difficult to kill, and now they would have to try one of the hospitals in Kingston (if there were any point to it; if the baby were still alive; if her body didn’t go into labor before then and deliver a stillborn child)—Enough, she thought, one hand rubbing her stomach in broad circles, as if it were a lamp and she summoning the genie; Be all right, she told the baby, be all right—funny, how much you could want something that intimidated the hell out of you, that you hadn’t wanted in the first place but had felt powerless to refuse (thank you, twelve years of Catholic school), that had wrenched the wheel from your hands and turned your life onto an unexpected, unpaved road; talk about quantum divergence—she remembered the first time she’d felt the baby move, the first time she’d been sure, a flutter that had simultaneously freaked her out and thrilled her, and which had grown into kicks and jabs and using her bladder as a personal trampoline—the emotion that had grown up in response to her pregnancy had been different than what she’d expected: there had been none of the treacly sentimentality she’d been sure would ooze through her; instead, what had sprouted in her had been more basic, primitive, even, a deep connection to the child pushing out her belly, as if she could feel the umbilicus tying them together—the emotion had been supplemented by others: anxiety, mostly, and teary pathos, and occasionally profound contentment, as solid and heavy as a stone—Be all right, she told the baby, be all right.
Just before dawn—
—the sky filling with light, indigo paling to dark blue, the faintest stars fading out—
—the Pack came—
—their arrival heralded by the blat of a car alarm, which, she realized, Wayne must have rigged for exactly this purpose—in an instant, she had hefted the rifle to her cheek and one of the Pack leapt into focus; she moved the gun back and forth and saw two behind that one, and one more bringing up the rear, the four of them about ten feet behind the rope barrier, making their way slowly, placing each plate-sized foot with care, stopping to sniff the road in front of them, pausing to study the Bridge’s support cables—there was enough time for Jackie to verify her initial count a second, a third time, and once she was certain that the four things she saw were the Pack, that was it, there were no others padding along behind them, her heart lifted with a fierce joy and she thought, Four, there are four of them; we can do this; Wayne was right; we can be free of them, finally—they were in rough shape, these four; it looked as if they’d pulled themselves from the wreckage of the trap at the mall: their hides were decorated with cuts, slashes, burns; patches of hair had been torn and scraped away; flaps of skin hung down like streamers; the one she’d focused on first appeared to have something wrong with its left eye, which was crusted with dark blood, while the one bringing up the rear was trailing its left back leg behind it—that they had survived made them the fittest, yes, thank you, Mr. Darwin, but watching their cautious advance, Jackie was reminded of her grandmother’s dog, a poodle that had been old when she was a child and had grown steadily more gray, more infirm, more trembling and tentative each year, and if her heart wasn’t moved to pity; the last four weeks had insured the impossibility of that; the association tempered her joy—It’s time to end this, she thought, and turned to wake Wayne, who was (of course) already up and jamming pistols into his jeans, slipping the strap of his bag-of-tricks over his head, his face still—he crouched beside her, holding a third pistol out to her: “In case one of them makes it past me,” he said as she took it, checked the safety, and set it on the rock beside her—he reached for her backpack, dragged it around for her to lean on: “Take the one to the rear,” he said, “and any others that try to escape,” and before she could answer, he was running away from her, heading back along the ledge—holding the rifle aloft with her right hand, Jackie eased herself up and down, until she was lying against the backpack, then brought the rifle into position, fitting the stock against her shoulder, anchoring it against the meat to take the kick, which Wayne had assured her wasn’t that bad—she looked through the sight and there were the Pack, stopped in their tracks, their hackles raised; she could hear them, a deep bass note like a viol whose strings were frayed out of true, and she curled her finger around the trigger, ready for them to panic and flee, reminding herself to squeeze, not pull, and wondering if she would be able to hit, let alone stop, any of them—Wayne was running down the road toward the Bridge, his hands empty, and when the Pack saw him, the note they were holding rose to a ragged shriek, drowning out whatever Wayne was shouting at them; taunting them, no doubt, urging them on (and a part of her wondered why that should work, why animals would respond to insult, and she wondered if they weren’t animals, but wasn’t sure what such a question implied, because she couldn’t imagine machines being bothered by Wayne’s provocations, which left what? people? which was ridiculous).
It was over quickly—
—or so Jackie would think afterwards—while everything was taking place, it seemed to occur with agonizing slowness, almost a series of tableaux that shifted with each change in the Bridge’s lights:
violet, and Wayne was in mid-run, his mouth open, his hands out to either side of him, the leader of the Pack’s jaws tightening into a snarl that was strangely close to a grin, the others stepping forward;
blue, and Wayne was stopped, no more than twenty feet from the rope barrier, which, seen against the Pack drawing closer to it, seemed fanciful, a child’s approximation of a more substantial arrangement;
green, and the leader was crouching to jump, Wayne’s hands were still empty, the rear member of the Pack had ceased moving forward and appeared to be considering retreat; Jackie had its shortened head in the crosshairs;
yellow, and the leader was in the air, Wayne’s hands were full of the pistols he was pointing not at the thing hanging suspended before him, but the pair behind it; the rearguard had turned to bolt, jerking its head out of the target, showing Jackie its neck;
orange, and the leader had struck the web and been caught in it, the ropes sagging but holding it up; the ends of Wayne’s pistols were flaring white as he emptied them into the middle two members of the Pack, which lurched forward even as he blew their heads to pieces; the remaining thing was in the process of swinging itself around to flee, exposing the back of its head to Jackie’s aim and she squeezed the trigger, the rifle flashing and cracking and slamming back into her shoulder, almost tearing itself out of her hands;
red, and she was struggling the sight back to her face, trying to find the last member of the Pack before it was too far away, hoping for one more shot, maybe she could wound it, cripple it and Wayne could finish it, but she couldn’t see it, it was gone, and she swept the sight back and forth and there it was, its legs splayed out, the front of its head gone, shattered, and for a moment she was so happy she wanted to shout out loud, and then she thought of Wayne and searched for him, her finger hovering over the trigger;
orange, again, and she saw that Wayne had abandoned the pistols, cast them to either side, and was walking towards the last member of the Pack, which had not succeeded in disentangling itself from Wayne’s rope trap and which twisted and writhed, biting the air in its frustration; she thought, What the hell? and aimed for the thing’s chest; but
yellow, and something was wrong, the sight was dark; she drew back from it, blinked, and looked through it, again;
green, and she saw that Wayne was wearing a cape, that he was trailed by a length of blackness that billowed behind and to either side of him, across which the green light rippled and shimmered;
blue, and Wayne was standing in front of the thing, his head covered by the same blackness, except for his mouth, which was saying something to the thing that scrambled to get at him, and Jackie should have been able to read his lips; she had always been good at that; but she couldn’t believe what she was seeing;
violet, and Wayne had reached out arms coated in black, seized the last member of the Pack’s jaws, and torn its head apart, the thing convulsing as blood as dark as whatever it was enshrouded Wayne geysered from its neck—without thinking, Jackie centered the crosshairs on Wayne’s chest, on the darkness that she could swear was undulating across it, that, God help her, was twitching towards the blood misting the air, and time became a room she could walk around in, sorting out the multitude of voices screaming in her head: one of them shouting, “What the fuck!” and another, “What are you doing?” and a third, “How are you going to survive without him?” a fourth, “You owe him,” and a fifth, “What is he?”—her finger light on the trigger; if she were going to do this, it had to be now; in another second, Wayne would notice what she was doing—then the lights went out on the Bridge, plunging her view into shadow, and the baby chose that moment to kick, hard, a blow that made her say, “Oof!” and release the trigger, and then whatever Wayne had set up on the Bridge detonated in a burst of light and sound, a brilliant white CRUMP that had her ducking behind the backpack, hands over her head, the rifle dropped, forgotten—the air around her convulsed with the force of it; the rock behind her shuddered as the surface of the Bridge fell away to the river below, support wires snapping like overtightened guitar strings, shreds of metal, shards of pavement, a steering wheel raining around her as the Bridge groaned—Jackie risked a glance and saw it sagging inwards, its back broken, the forces it had balanced unleashed upon it—the suspension cables trembled, the towers leaned towards each other and she was sure the entire structure was going to twist itself asunder—the baby kicked again, a one-two combination, and she took what shelter she could behind the backpack, while the ledge continued to vibrate and the moan of thousands of tons of metal protesting its end echoed off the hills above her, making the baby squirm, and she covered her stomach with her hands, curling around it as best she could, saying it was all right, everything was all right—
—and after, Jackie set out north—
—past another trio of cars offering their floral inhabitants the same view day in, day out—she was accompanied by Wayne, who had reappeared while the Bridge was not done complaining (though it didn’t fall: its towers canted crazily; its cables were too taut at the ends and too slack in the middle; and there was no way it was passable; but it still joined one shore to the other), and who was free of his black, what would you call it? costume?—she settled for accompaniment, awkward but accurate—in response to her question, he answered that yes, that was the end of them, but they had better get a move on: Kingston was a long way off, and who knew what this side of the Hudson would be like?—If he knew that Jackie had held him in her sights, cradling his life as she cradled the life of the baby who hadn’t stopped reminding her of its presence these last hours, (which meant that [maybe] she could relax about it), or if he suspected the questions that balanced at the very limit of her tongue, threatening to burst forth with the slightest provocation, or if he guessed that she walked with one hand jammed into the sweatjacket she’d tugged on because she’d hidden the third pistol there, telling him it must have been carried off the ledge by the force of the explosion, Wayne gave no sign of it.
By nightfall, they had traveled far.