It was a lovely moment. Astrid hugging little Caroline and Henry. Luna barking and licking all the faces she could reach.
Of course, we were all wearing five layers of clothing to protect our skin from the compounds. And I had on my air mask. And Chloe was off to the side, masked and layered up and lying in a drugged sleep on an inflatable mattress. But for us, in the Greenway, it was a nice moment.
Seeing Astrid kiss them all over their little, dirty, freckled faces made me feel hopeful and happy. I guess seeing Astrid expressing love for them made my own feelings for her swell up. I felt like my heart would burst.
Then Astrid took in a deep breath.
And I saw her nostrils flare. She inhaled too long and I knew the rage was kicking in.
“Why did you stay?” she moaned. “You dumb, DUMB KIDS. WHY DID YOU STAY?”
She crushed the twins to her chest, holding one of their redheaded skulls in each hand.
And then I had to tackle her and hold her down.
So much for lovely Greenway moments.
Caroline and Henry were crying as I wrestled Astrid to the ground.
“Get her mask!” I yelled.
Astrid lashed out, pushing up against me.
Luna was barking her fluffy white head off.
“Caroline,” I hollered, my voice muffled by my mask. “Get her air mask! Bring it here.”
Astrid had let it fall to the ground when she saw the twins and started hugging and kissing them.
Caroline brought me the mask, as Astrid kicked and bucked. It took everything I had to keep her down.
“Put it on her!” I shouted.
Caroline, crying hard, pressed the mask over Astrid’s face. Henry came over and helped her hold it in place.
“Stop fighting me!” I yelled at Astrid. “You’re okay. You just got a hit of the compounds. Just breathe.”
“Do it harder,” Henry said to Caroline and she nodded. They crushed the mask down more firmly.
Astrid looked at us, at me. The fury in her sky-blue eyes receded, slowly, until finally she closed them and her whole body softened underneath me.
I stayed on top of her until she said hoarsely, “I’m all right.”
I got to my knees, then to my feet.
Astrid put her hand up and placed it on the mask, gently pushing the twins aside as she sat up.
Caroline patted Astrid on the back.
“It’s okay, we know it wasn’t really you.”
“Yeah,” Henry agreed. “It was Monster-Astrid, not Real-Astrid.”
“Come on, everyone,” I said. “We gotta fix the gate! Now!”
* * *
We had needed to open the gate to let out the bus with Alex, Niko, Josie, and the rest of them. The layers of blankets and plastic and plywood we’d used to seal the gate and make the store airtight were all messed up now.
First we had to reseal the gate and then, somehow, purify the air. Would the entire store be contaminated now? I didn’t know.
I grabbed the blankets and plastic sheeting that hung from the gate and pressed them back into place. “Hand me a staple gun!” I shouted to the twins.
The staple guns were still there, set to the side, from the first time we’d sealed the gate. I was now glad we were so sloppy as to leave our tools around. Or maybe Niko had left them there on purpose. He was very thorough that way.
I got the blankets and plastic back up in the time it took for Astrid to get to her feet and drag the first plywood sheet over.
I tried to staple it but only got three good hits when there was a hollow CLINK-CLINK sound from the staple gun. I was out of staples.
“Shoot,” I mumbled.
There weren’t any extra staples in the box, either.
“Be right back!” I hollered.
You had to shout to be understood in the stupid air masks.
I didn’t want to think about Niko and Josie and Alex trying to communicate through them on the bus.
They should never have left and every time it even came into my mind that they had left, I got angry.
I didn’t need to be angry just then, though. I needed to be smart. We had to get the store sealed up quickly.
* * *
I headed to Home Improvement.
I passed Chloe on her air mattress. She still had her mask on and all her layers and was totally out cold. The sleeping pill Niko had given her was strong.
She was going to be so pissed off when she woke up and discovered that Niko and the rest had gone on without her.
She had missed the whole drama of Astrid and me telling everyone we weren’t going. That it wasn’t safe for us to go out, because of our blood type.
She certainly hadn’t been consulted when Niko took her off the bus.
But we were right, I told myself. It was too dangerous for us to go out there. Astrid had gotten just a momentary whiff of the compounds and had gone berserk. Us out in the open air, trying to make it sixty miles to Denver? We would have murdered them.
I was sure of it. We made the right choice.
And we had enough supplies in the Greenway to last us for weeks or months. Long enough for the others to make it to DIA and arrange some kind of a rescue. Or long enough to wait out the compounds—we had heard the effects would only last for three to six months.…
As I got back with my reloaded staple gun, I saw that Caroline and Henry were gently bouncing next to Chloe’s slumbering form on the air mattress. Luna was curled up next to them.
They looked like three little aliens and their pet dog, out to sea on a raft.
Then there came a loud THUNK from the gate.
Astrid jumped and looked at me.
The THUNK came again.
“Hey!” came a voice.
“Hello?” Astrid yelled.
“I knew it! I knew I saw a light! Hey, Jeff, I was right! There’s somebody in there!”
“Who are you?” I shouted.
“Name’s Scott Fisher. Open the gate and let us in, would ya?”
“Sorry,” I lied. “We can’t open it.”
“Oh, sure, you can. You just did. It was just open a minute ago. We saw the light! Come on!”
“Yeah! Let us in,” echoed another voice. Jeff, I presumed.
“Dude, you have to let us in. It’s like an emergency out here!”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “But we can’t.”
“Well, why the hell not?” he demanded.
Astrid came and stood next to me.
“Because we let two grown-ups in before and one of them molested a girl and tried to shoot our leader!” she shouted through her mask.
“Well, now we’re not like that. We’re real nice.”
“Sorry,” Astrid said. She patted the plywood and nodded for me to nail it.
“Come on!” he yelled. “We’re thirsty and hungry. People are dying out here! Let us in.”
“Sorry,” I yelled.
I shot a staple in.
Scott and Jeff rattled the gate some and cursed a fair amount, but by the time we got the rest of the plywood back up, we could hardly hear them.
I was examining the wall, and had made up my mind to add another layer of plastic sheeting, after we got the purifiers running, when Astrid tugged on my arm.
“While we’re all geared up, let’s go throw some food down to that guy from the roof.”
“What?” I asked.
“Let’s throw them down some food and water!” she yelled.
“Why?” I asked.
“We have so much and they have nothing. We should help them.”
Aargh, I didn’t want to go up on the roof. Not at all.
I was exhausted and I wanted to get the air purifiers set up.
But Astrid stood there looking at me like it was obviously a good idea. Like it was obviously the right thing to do.
“I want to get air purifiers set up first,” I argued.
“Me and the kids will do that,” she yelled through her mask. “You should take the food up while the guys are still outside.”
I couldn’t think straight enough to tell her why it wasn’t a good idea. Maybe she’d think I was lazy or scared to go on the roof or something.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
She turned toward the kids without even, I don’t know, saying thanks.
“Caroline and Henry,” she called. “Grab a cart and come with me.”
“Wait,” I said. “First we get the purifiers running. Then I take the food.”
Astrid looked at me and sighed.
Okay, it’s hard to read expressions through the plastic visor of an industrial face mask, but what I read in her expression went something like:
Ah, this dumb kid feels like he’s getting pushed around so he’s taking a stand on a small, insignificant detail. But I guess if he needs to win this little victory for the sake of his pride, then I will give in.
Then she said, “Fine, but let’s hurry.”
* * *
We had eight different models of air purifiers in the Greenway and four to six units of each. Astrid and I set up the larger ones, and Caroline and Henry were in charge of putting the smaller ones around the store.
We used a lot of extension cords, as most of the outlets were on the walls.
* * *
I headed to the Pizza Shack. We had moved all the food into the big refrigerators there when we realized we’d be staying for a while.
I grabbed some EZ cans of tuna and a bunch of old bread and some fiber breakfast bars no one liked and some horrible Popsicles not even the least discriminating of our kids would eat. And a couple gallons of store-brand lemonade.
I threw the stuff into an empty plastic storage bin that was sitting around from before and carried it back to the storeroom.
We’d been alone in the store for all of two hours and already she was bossing me around as if I were some little kid or something. Not good.
* * *
Holding the tub in my arms, I entered the storeroom backward, nudging the doors open with my back.
I turned and nearly dropped the tub.
I was so wrapped up in thinking about Astrid I had forgotten about the bodies.
It was bloody back there. Robbie’s body lay half off the air mattress. The air had mostly gone out of the mattress, so his bloody corpse was just lying on a flattish rubber mat. The blanket we’d thrown over top of him was saturated with blood in a couple of places.
Just beyond him lay Mr. Appleton, who had died in his sleep. A more peaceful way to go, to be sure. As if to prove it, his air mattress was still pleasantly inflated.
The outsiders who had come and torn our group apart were now dead in the storeroom.
I hadn’t had time to really think about Robbie and the way he betrayed us.
He and Mr. Appleton had come to the store and we had let them in. But when it came time for them to leave, Robbie hadn’t wanted to. Mr. Appleton fell ill and then, later that night, we had found Robbie with Sahalia.
In the scuffle, Brayden had been shot and Robbie had been killed.
Mr. Appleton died later in the night. There wasn’t much we could have done to change that, I don’t think.
But Robbie …
I could have looked at Robbie there and been angry. As far as I understood it, he had tried to get Sahalia to sleep with him. Whether by force or by manipulation, I’m not sure. But he showed his true colors and they were disgusting. A, like, fifty-year-old man with a thirteen-year-old? Disgusting. We thought he was a loving father-type guy and he turned out to be a letch.
And if Robbie hadn’t assaulted Sahalia, Brayden would still be okay. Niko and Alex and the rest wouldn’t have had to try to make it to Denver.
But I just felt sad.
Robbie and Mr. Appleton were just two more people dead from this chain of disasters.
The little kids knew nothing about what had happened and I had to keep it that way.
I added “Hide the bodies” to my mental list of things to do.
After I fed the stupid strangers outside the store.
* * *
The hatch to the roof was easy to unlock. Niko had fixed sheeting over it with Velcro, so you could just rip it open and it would hang off to the side. And the padlock had the key right in it.
I set the bin down on the step in front of me and pushed the hatch up and open.
The last time I’d been on this roof we hadn’t known anything about the compounds. We had watched the cloud going up from NORAD, thirty miles away.
The last time I’d been on this roof I tried to kill my brother.
It was dark now. The air seemed to absorb the light seeping out from the hatch. The sky above was opaque black. No stars. No clouds. Just black mud suspended in the air.
I cursed myself for not bringing a flashlight.
I didn’t want to go all the way back for one, though, so what I did was set the box down on the roof and scooted it toward the edge, crawling behind it.
I sure as hell didn’t want to fall off the roof in the dark.
After a minute of undignified crawling and scooting, the bin came up against the edge of the roof. I tipped it up and over and listened to it come crashing down.
“Hey!” I heard Scott Fisher yell.
“You’re welcome!” I hollered.
They’d find the loot. And I’d be inside by the time they did.
They were lucky Astrid had a nice streak in her and that I was such a pushover.
I edged my way back toward the light coming from the hatch. I couldn’t wait to take the air mask off.
The whole mask/glasses combo was driving me crazy. The mask was large enough to fit over my glasses, but it made them cut into the bridge of my nose. And my nose was still battered from when Jake had beat me up, so that hurt. A lot.
And I wanted to get my layers off. The layers were starting to bunch up under my arms and behind my knees.
Again, I tried not to think about Alex and Niko and the rest.
They had sixty miles to cover, wearing their layers and air masks, on a half-fixed school bus on a dangerous and dark highway. And I was whining to myself about a couple of hours in layers and a mask.
I got to my feet and started to make my way, slowly, back toward the hatch. In a dark world, that leaked light looked really bright, I tell you.
But I went slowly, because the roof was uneven and dented in places from the hailstorm a million years ago that had landed us safely in the Greenway.
I was thinking about the hailstorm and about how lucky we were that the grade-school bus driver, Mrs. Wooly, had not only thought to drive the bus into the store to get the little kids out of the hail, but had then returned to rescue us high school kids. I was thinking about Mrs. Wooly and wondering what had happened to her in the end. Had she made it to safety? Had she even thought about returning for us, as she promised, or had she just decided to fend for herself?
I was thinking about Mrs. Wooly when the light from the hatch went out.
I was alone, on the roof, in the dark.
Excerpted from Monument 14: Sky on Fire by Emmy Laybourne. Copyright © 2013 by Emmy Laybourne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.