Nathan stared at me. I stared back. The world seemed to freeze for a moment, narrowing to a single point that existed only in the space between us. I couldn’t move. From the hungry, hopeful expression on his face, neither could he.
“This is great and all, reunion, true love, blah blah blah, but can you confirm that it’s really your missing girlfriend so that we can get the fuck out of here before we get shredded like piñatas on a playground?” demanded the man I didn’t know. “We may have cleared this area, and my EMP blasts may have killed any bugs, but the gunshots are going to attract more playmates in no time at all. We need to roll.”
“Hi, Nathan,” I said.
Nathan swallowed hard, the muscles in his jaw clenching and unclenching before he said, “Hello, Sal. Are you ready to go home?”
“More than ready.” I stepped out onto the porch, leaving the door open behind me. If any of the original occupants were still alive—if they had become sleepwalkers, rather than just being torn apart by them—at least now they could come home. The broken cellphone I tucked into my pocket. It had Nathan’s number in memory now. I wasn’t leaving that behind.
“Mom sends her regards, and asked me to tell you she always knew you’d find a way to stay alive,” said Nathan stiffly. Then the stiffness melted, and he was putting his arms around me and pulling me close, into an embrace that made me feel like everything was going to be all right after all. The world could end and Sherman could plot against humanity and I could beat the stolen body of a teenage girl to death in her bedroom, and still things would somehow find a way to be all right.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I didn’t mean to get caught. I just wanted to keep you safe.”
“Never apologize,” Nathan whispered back. He turned, lifting me with me one arm so that we wouldn’t need to break off our embrace. The butt of his rifle dug into my back. I didn’t care. We were almost the same size, and he carried me easily as he stepped off the porch and turned to face Fang, the stranger, and the car. “Can you walk?”
“I’m sore and slow, but I can walk,” I assured him. He lowered my feet back to the ground. I left my hand against his chest as I looked around the area. We were in what would have been a normal suburban neighborhood once, although the gunshots hadn’t caused any of the other houses to turn their lights on; my worried impression of an abandoned city had been close to accurate. I could see shapes farther down the street, all of them turning and shambling in our direction. We weren’t going to be alone for very long. “Where are we?”
“Pleasant Hill, near the community college,” said Nathan. “There’s a mall nearby, but it doesn’t seem to be the one where Sherman was holding you.”
Of course they would have checked before they came to get me. Their safety would have depended on whether I was telling the truth, and whether I’d been left in this neighborhood as a trap. I nodded mutely, suddenly exhausted, and closed my eyes as I let Nathan guide me down the pathway to the car. I didn’t want to see the sleepwalkers staggering toward us; some of them might even be the parents of the girl I’d killed inside. The world was changing. We were all of us changing with it. That didn’t make it any easier to bear.
I opened my eyes when we reached the car. Nathan opened the door, motioning for me to get into the backseat. He must have seen my discomfort, because he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be riding with you. I just need to cover Fang and Fishy while they get back to their seats.”
That answered the question of who, exactly, the man I didn’t recognize was. I nodded and climbed in, scooting over until I was pressed against the door on the far side. Looking down the length of the backseat, I watched as Nathan raised his rifle and covered the other two men making their retreat. The pair split up when they reached the car, with Fang walking around to take the driver’s seat. Nathan got in next to me, and the sound of the door closing was the sound of coming home. I looked at him, eyes wide, unable to force myself to speak.
Nathan smiled a little. “I like your hair,” he said.
I laughed brokenly, and leaned over to put my head against his shoulder as Fang started the car and we drove away from the place where I had been abandoned, the place where I had been saved.
Nathan talked as we drove, explaining what had happened with the lab. I closed my eyes, leaned my head against his shoulder, and just listened. It was all I’d wanted to do for weeks: sit and listen to someone who would actually talk to me. He was constantly touching my hair or shoulder, like he was reassuring himself that I was real. I didn’t mind that either. It kept me from needing to be the one who moved.
The bowling alley hadn’t been Dr. Cale’s first lab. The first lab had been located in an old supermarket, and was moved when word came that the people who actually owned the property were planning to have it fumigated and then torn down. The second lab had been a closed-down Costco with the gas pumps still out back, and had been abandoned after Sherman defected. The bowling alley came third, and it had been her base of operations for longer than anything else. It was perfect in a lot of ways, isolated while still being close to civilization, and best of all, owned by a shell corporation that used it as a tax write-off and had no interest in either refurbishing or demolishing the place. It had become a lot less useful when USAMRIID started closing in.
The collapse of most of the local social norms—and the evacuations of any “nonessential” buildings, like the mall where Sherman had been keeping me, wherever that was—had created the perfect vacuum for Dr. Cale’s team. They’d smuggled themselves and all their equipment out of Clayton through a series of tricks and double blinds that Nathan didn’t explain very well, or maybe I just wasn’t quite listening anymore.