I don't sleep a wink all night, so I'm dragging when I finally get up at five thirty the next morning after checking the clock a dozen times over the space of about ten minutes. A cold shower doesn't even help. I don't feel rested at all. I just feel jumpy.
The house is quiet when I creep down the stairs. Eric's already gone to work, his lone breakfast bowl in the sink waiting for him to wash it after his shift at the police station.
Grandpa doesn't eat breakfast. I don't know if he ever did, now that I think about it. I can't ever remember him doing anything but going out to the back porch for a smoke, his extra large mug of coffee in his hand, steaming into the air. Rain or shine. It feels like such an old habit that it makes me wonder if he's always done that, even back when it would snow. It's been twenty years since Connecticut was cold enough to get any. I bet he did.
I learned long ago to just leave him be. He doesn't like company when he goes out to the railing. He just stands there looking out past our backyard and all the other backyards in the neighborhood. Looking south. He never talks about what he's thinking. He never shares his secrets.
What does he see?
I don't know.
But he's not downstairs yet, so I grab myself some cornflakes and juice and sit down at the table to do a quick check on the Media stream.
Then I raid the cabinets.
I look for anything that won't get ruined if it gets wet: granola bars hermetically sealed in plastic, a bunch of emergency waters in disposable bag containers, a couple oranges. I'm busy packing them into my backpack when I hear someone's throat clear.
She stands at the entry to the kitchen looking miserable, like a hangover that just won't end, and I realize that pretty much sums things up with her—has pretty much summed them up for the past fifteen years. Her hair's a mess and her nightshirt is stained and worn and has holes in the collar. She smacks her lips unappealingly, then scratches the underside of her left breast.
A shadow shifts behind her and some guy appears and brushes into the kitchen. He slaps her ass and grunts. It's a different guy than the one she brought home yesterday afternoon.
Hey! I want to scream at him. He looks like the wife-beater type, but I could probably take him easily, knock him down a few rungs. "Never be the aggressor," Master Rupert's voice councils me. But my anger shouts even louder: Don't treat my mother that way.
She grunts, and I think, Why do I even bother? If she doesn't care about herself, why should I?
"What're you doing, honey?" she asks me. The man, thinking she's talking to him, mumbles something about beer.
I sigh. "Just getting some snacks for later." I stare daggers at the man's back, but they bounce harmlessly off. "I don't know if I'll have time to come home for lunch. In fact, I may be late for dinner."
She slips from the wall, tilting like gravity can't make up its mind today which way to pull. She seems to fall into the kitchen. For a split second I expect her to land splat on her face, and my heart almost stops. But she catches herself. She manages to limp to the table and sink into a chair.
Meanwhile, Mister Penis-du-jour is bent over in front of the fridge, probably confused by the milk jug sitting directly in front of the incomplete six pack of Hudson River Pilsner. Micah calls it Piss-ner and refuses to drink it. It's that bad.
"Did you hear me?" I ask. "I might not be home for dinner."
I give her a chuff of disgust before I snatch my backpack from the chair and whirl out of the room. As I do, I hear the top of a beer can pop open. Then a second. The front door slams behind me as I flee.
Kelly sees me from his bedroom window before I turn up his front walk. He intercepts me with a whistle. I tilt my head up and blink against the bright sunlight reflecting off the glass.
"Be right down, J," he whisper-shouts.
I stand in the coolness of the porch overhang and wait. It's already warm. The temperature is supposed to peak at just under a hundred today, and humidity is high. Just another average August day in Greenwich, and the thought of slipping into that cool water actually takes the edge off the fear gnawing at my gut.
The door creaks open and Kelly slips out. He gently closes it behind him, acting as if the soft click of the latch is as loud as a gunshot. I give him a questioning look and he exhales through his pursed lips. He gives me a quick shake of the head. I notice dark circles under his eyes.
When we get to the sidewalk, I ask, "You couldn't sleep either?"
"It's Kyle," he says. "He's finally sleeping now, but he had another rough night last night."
I nod. Kyle's had a tough go of it. He had kidney failure when he was barely two and almost died. He managed to get a new one, but he's always sick. He often has these spells where he spikes a fever and screams as if he's in terrible pain. Nobody knows why. The only thing that makes it stop is exhaustion. But he's a light sleeper and even the slightest disruption can rouse him, starting it all over again.
I can see the strain of this most recent episode on Kelly's face.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" I ask. "I'll stay home with you instead of going. They don't need us."
He turns to me, but the look on his face isn't one of relief. Instead, he shakes his head and says. "No, I'm going." Then he adds, "Someone's got to pay the bills." I know what he's referring to, just not what he means. It's such a random thing that all I can do is simply dismiss it, chalking it up to his fatigue.
The financial strain on the Corbens has been almost unbearable for them. Kelly's dad works two jobs and his mom stays home to care for Kyle. Kelly has offered to start working a part time job—he's also hinted that maybe he should go work for ArcWare after graduating—but his parents are adamant about him going to college.
He hoists his backpack onto his shoulders and together we head over to Micah's.
"What'd you bring?" I ask.
"Lunch. Water. A few…other things."
I nod. "Me, too." But his pack looks much heavier than mine and I wonder what 'other things' means.
He sees me looking over. His eyes soften and he says, "It's a surprise."
"A picnic in zombieland? How romantic."
He laughs. "Not exactly."
Micah, Ash and Reggie are already waiting for us when we arrive, a few minutes after seven. I throw my pack into the trunk along with the rest of the gear: a couple other backpacks and a pair of large duffles.
" 'Bout time you guys showed up. Thought you were going to back out."
Reggie gives Kelly a long, meaningful glance, waiting for him to reply. But Kelly doesn't respond. He opens the back door of Micah's car and slides in. I notice he's still got his backpack tucked under his arms.
"Not much of a morning person, is he?"
I roll my eyes and tell him to cut Kel some slack, that Kyle had a rough night. Reggie's aware of the deets—they all do—and he immediately backs off. I'm glad. It just feels like so much of my effort is being spent on pretending everything's fine between everyone to have to pile the Corbens' situation on top of the mix.
I push in next to Kelly. He's got his Link out and is scrolling through it. I peek over his shoulder and see the ArcWare logo flash by.
"Go back," I say.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Just dumping a bunch of old messages."
"Are you applying for a job at ArcWare?"
"I said it was junk, Jessie."
"Can we go, folks?" Micah says, calling over to Reg. "We need to take advantage of the outgoing current. It'll switch directions around ten. I don't want to be fighting it."
Ash and Reg pile into the car. Once more I'm relegated to the middle of the back seat, but it's just a short drive out to the edge of town, so I don't mind. We're meeting Jake behind his uncle's store. From there, we'll head down to Manhattan.
When we arrive, Micah slowly drives around in back, where we see Jake's van with its door popped open. All the windows of the whitewashed building are barred and there's spotlights shining everywhere, even though the sun's up.
After he stops, we all tumble out but leave the car doors open, as if we're afraid of making any noise, setting off any alarms. Micah whistles and Jake slips out the heavily-screened metal door of the store. It bangs shut, making us all jump.
"Uncle Joe's at an auction up in Albany," he shouts down at us, grinning. "There's nobody here." He draws us around to the van and shows us the booty he's gotten for us. "We'll divvy it up when we get there."
Looking at the hodge-podge of equipment, I suddenly realize how little planning we've actually done for this trip. Other than the diving part, that is, and figuring out when to go and come back. And even that now seems pitifully inadequate. For such a dangerous proposition, you'd think we'd be better prepared. It's like we're all in denial. It's been such a surprise how easy everything has happened so far, relatively speaking, that nobody wants to tempt fate by questioning our good fortune.
But now I take the opportunity to bring up the possibility of encountering zombies. I know the others don't believe there'll be any, but still. "Shouldn't we bring weapons?" I ask. "You know…just in case."
Reggie wraps his arm around my shoulder and says, "You're a black belt, aren't you? Isn't that considered a lethal weapon?"
Kelly rolls his eyes, but I have to give him credit for not freaking out about Reggie's arm. It seems he can only be jealous of one guy at a time, and right now Jake gets the honors.
Jake holds up a bandolier and pulls a sick-looking knife out of a sheath. "We'll each get one of these." Then he pulls a couple of longer blades from one of the packs. "I've also got a couple machetes, if anyone wants one." He runs his thumb along the edge so we can see that they're not very sharp.
I shudder, and both Ashley and Kelly shuffle uneasily next to me.
Micah steps forward. "We won't need them. They're just going to be extra weight and get in the way. Besides, we'll only be there a few hours. Four tops. We get in, take some pics for proof that we were there, do a little exploring, pick up a couple small souvenirs and…" He pauses and looks at each one of us. I can smell alcohol on his breath, but he appears to be perfectly sober. "Remember, we need to leave there by three o'clock at the absolute latest."
"The Colonel," I say, sighing. "Yeah, I know."
"Actually, I was going to say because of the currents."
"And the curfew," Kelly reminds us.
"Who's the Colonel?" Jake asks.
"My drill sergeant grandfather. He's got it in his mind that I have to be home every night for dinner. He runs the house like he's still a general and we're his Omegas."
Jake frowns in confusion. I wave it off. "It's a long story."
"Bottom line," Micah says, trying hard to get us back on track, "we're not there to take heads. Right, Reg?"
"Aw, why not?" he pouts. "I was all itching to kick some Undead booty!"
"There aren't any, remember?" Micah says. "But in the unlikely event that we do see any, I'm pretty sure they'll be so worn down and slow that you could sneeze on them and they'd fall over."
"Speaking of sneezing," Kelly says, turning to me, "did you remember to bring your inhaler?"
"You're as bad as Grandpa," I say, but when I pat my pockets I realize it's not there. I remember taking it out right after breakfast for the first of my three daily puffs, but then…
Then Mom and her creepy new boyfriend happened. I must've left it on the counter.
I wince, waffle for a moment, then shake my head. "Can we make a quick detour at the house?" I ask.
Micah's face sours.
"I already missed two doses yesterday, plus this morning's."
He checks the time on his Link and grumbles. "We're already running late. Why do you even need that thing? I don't think I've ever seen you have an asthma attack."
"It's not for asthma," Kelly says. He sounds like he's had to explain this a thousand times.
"Then what the hell is it for?" Reggie asks. "Vitamins?"
"I just need it, all right?" I snap. "Please. It'll be quick."
Micah sighs. "I'll run Jessie and Kel over to her house. We'll catch up with the rest of you guys at the parking garage. You can start getting the equipment ready for everyone. If we leave now, we should only be about fifteen minutes behind you."
"How is Jake going to get through the checkpoints?"
Jake points to the back bumper. "It's got interstate tags for commerce. Uncle Joe uses the van when he does deliveries."
"Okay then," Reggie says. "Are we good?"
"I just need to lock up," Jake answers. He reaches for Kelly's backpack. "Want me to take that?"
Kelly swings it out of his reach. "I got it."
He doesn't notice the curious look Jake gives Reggie, but I do, and it makes me wonder once again why Kelly's being so defensive. But Micah tells us to hurry up and get in and even before I've got the back door closed, he's spraying gravel.
Looking back, I see Ash and Reg climb into the van while Jake heads up the steps to lock the shop.
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