The black face of the powerless television stared out into the room, absorbing what little light there was. Nestled deep within a confluence of shadows was Shaun, feeling more dead than alive after a day spent chasing the lawless hordes through the streets. A muscle in his leg tried to contract, and he slowly stretched it out, dislodging a small mountain of food wrappers that had grown around him over the last several hours.
“What was that?” Lucy called from the kitchen.
He didn't answer; it was none of her business. “How's the food coming?”
“It's hard with no light, but—”
“Don't care; I'll eat anything at this point. Just bring it, okay?”
She sighed. “You're the hungry one...”
Dishes rattled, furniture banged, and Lucy swore.
“The ottoman’s to your left.”
She stepped around it and arrived in front of the couch carrying a plate full of runny eggs and nearly raw bacon. “Where are you?”
“On the couch.”
“I told you we needed more flashlights.”
“Lower your left hand about six inches. There.” He grabbed the plate and began shoveling the eggs into his mouth without a fork. “Mmm, goo'.”
“So glad you like it.” Lucy banged around in the dark for a moment before sitting down on the couch. “I can't believe you've been out in this all day.”
“I's no' so ba'... Jus' go'a show 'em oos boss...”
She brought her legs up and leaned towards him. “You know I don't like it when you talk like that. I'm really scared.”
He shrugged, knowing she couldn't see him in the dark. She was worried about him; that was cute. He liked it when she was worried about him. It meant she wasn't thinking about John.
They sat in silence for a while, Shaun eating and Lucy fretting. She was afraid he'd be hurt, killed, that she'd be left alone again, just as she had when John—
He swallowed. “What say we go up on the roof later? City should be dark enough no one'd see us if we—”
Shattered glass filled the room, followed by a muffled crunch as something heavy landed nearby. Lucy jumped back, almost landing on top of Shaun. He pushed past her, made out a brick laying on the floor next to the couch. Moonlight shone through their shattered front window, angry voices flowing in from the street.
“What happened?” Lucy was struggling to stand, her footing unsure in a puddle of yolk.
“Some assholes just broke our window.”
“I'll handle it. You go back to the bedroom. Gun's in the closet, second shelf up. Use it if you need to.”
She nodded. Shaun could barely see the gesture, but it showed that she understood and was able to act; always a good sign in a panic situation. And now Shaun wouldn't have to worry about her. He could deal with these interlopers without fear of Lucy getting in the way.
He stopped by the small closet next to the front door and rummaged around for a moment, coming up with a baseball bat. Then, it was out onto the stoop.
Outside the gate at the bottom of their steps was a crowd of forty or so people, clutching flashlights and mobiles, the modern equivalent of torches and pitchforks. One or two held, as was to be expected, bricks.
Shaun hefted the bat and let it rest on his shoulder. “The hell you people want?”
One man, tall and heavy-set, stepped forward. “You killed my son!” he shouted. “You killed Raoul!”
“Raoul?” Shaun was taken aback. He had killed a few people in his lifetime, certainly, but he hadn't killed any Raouls. Especially not this Raoul. “Shit, I haven't been near a school since I graduated.”
“You may not have killed him personally, but it was your words that killed him! Your hate, your anger!”
“No, it was his stupidity!” The crowd gasped; they didn't expect their victim to speak against them. “Damn kid wants to get involved in politics, that's his own business. But when he starts screwing around with big people, he has to be prepared to get screwed in turn.”
The crowd tried to yell him down, but he kept on talking. “Besides, it wasn't us cops who threw the first stone.” A quick burst of yelling from the crowd. “Fine, snowball, whatever.”
Someone hurled a brick, and it bounced off the door behind Shaun.
He gritted his teeth, and tightened his fingers around the shaft of the bat. “Alright, that's enough.” He lifted the bat from his shoulder and let it drop to hang loose at the end of his arm. “You got 'til five to get out of here before I start defending my home.”
“You don't defend anything! You kill and destroy! You crush the voice of America!”
“I'm already up to three.”
The crowd bellowed something, its multiple voices blurring the slogan into something unrecognizable.
“And... five.” Shaun lunged off of the stoop and landed on the low wall fronting his house. He bounced up, then came down at Mr. Omerta. The bat whistled through the air, contacting Omerta's knee from the side. Something let out a sharp crack. Shaun lifted the bat to examine it; the last several inches had splintered and stood off at an angle.
Omerta was now laying on the pavement, groaning and crying, scrabbling at his twisted leg. Someone leapt over him and charged at Shaun.
Shaun readied the bat and swung, in the proper position for hitting a baseball, at his attacker's head. The attacker twisted, fell across Omerta.
That was the last thing Shaun remembered with any clarity. Time fell away and he entered into his dance for the second time that day. The bat became an extension of his arm, striking out and transmitting his quiet rage in short bursts to whoever came within range.
Someone came running in from the front; she may have been holding a knife. Shaun leaned into a deep lunge, the bat projecting outwards in a straight line, connecting with the woman's chin, sending shockwaves down the wood into Shaun's flesh. It felt good.
He pushed upwards, pirouetting and coming down into a crouch, the bat describing the arc of his movement, hitting a wrist supporting a brick, feeling the twin bones buckle, the brick fall through space and land on toes protected only by cheap canvas and rubber. There were screams.
Shaun didn't register them as sounds of pain; for him they were akin to a score marker. He was in a pinball machine, the screams were the pegs he hit, lighting up and telling him he was still on top, still winning. A scream: one less person to threaten his well-being. A defeated whimper: One less person to distract his time from Lucy. A sudden pained gasp: One less person to tell him he was incapable of defending what was his.
In this situation, he ruled, he was god, he was untouchable.
The ringing sounds of success became fewer and farther in between, and Shaun came away from his ruminations. He was leaning forward on one knee, arms outstretched to either side, ten or so people lying in the street around him. The rest had fled.
He dropped his bat and stood, checking to see that his attackers were still alive. Good; maybe now no one would threaten the safety of his home.
He jogged up the steps, trying to make it back to the couch before fatigue overtook him; his muscles were already trembling and the world was beginning to fade. He pushed open the door and heard the labored click of a spring pulling a mechanism into position.
“It's me, Lu.”
A second mechanical sound, this one more muffled. “Oh, my God, you're okay.” Her voice was a mixture of relief and pride. She had been ready to defend herself, as needless as the gesture had been.
“Yeah.” He walked over to her, took the gun, and hugged her close. “Yeah, I'm okay. And so are you, huh? You did a good job there, ready to take over for me.”
“No one's going to take my man from me again.”
There was every possibility that her 'man' meant Shaun.... but all he heard was 'John'. “You think you could get me some food, maybe?”
He returned to the couch, to the safety of the darkness, and tried not to hear 'John' with every word Lucy said.
Deep banks of smoke and fog settled over the city, turning the dawn light into an indistinct glow. It cut visibility down to a few hundred feet in any direction, slowing traffic from a crawl to a virtual standstill. Combined with the sheer number of people trying to leave the city, every freeway, highway, and back alley had been turned into a stagnant river of steel and plastic.
In the back seat of Reggie's car, Rachel yawned and stretched. “How long we been out?”
John glanced at the dashboard clock. “Umm... about three hours, now.”
“How far we gone?”
“Ten miles, I think.”
Reggie drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “I knew we should've taken SEPTA.”
“They're shut down.”
Just as Rachel was drifting back into sleep and John was considering what music he should listen to, ripples from somewhere far up the road reached them. Traffic jolted forward, clipping along at a brisk fifteen miles an hour.
The sudden speed only lasted a few minutes. Cars ahead of him braked and Reggie was forced back into idleness.
John rolled down his window and leaned out, half-standing to see anything beyond the next car. There, that was what had caused the second slow down. In the opposite lane, appearing like a legion of demons marching from the sulfurous fumes of hell, came rank after rank of a military convoy: Humvees, supply trucks, personnel carriers, tanks. The National Guard had arrived.
John felt a deep unease at the show of force. Bringing in the military--even the domestic branch--could do nothing but add fuel to the fire.
The hours dragged by, and around noon Reggie gave up, pulled off the highway, and parked outside a closed restaurant. He looked to John, then to Rachel, and sadly shook his head. “Sorry I dragged you two into this.”
Rachel smirked. “No problem. I'm just glad I'll be away from here when things get worse.”
John circled to the trunk, retrieved Rachel's luggage, then joined his erstwhile family as they abandoned the car and walked the rest of the way to the airport.
They trudged along in silence for about a mile, noticing that as they neared the airport, they seemed to speed up in relation to the cars on the so-called freeway.
John cleared his throat and tried for conversation. “So, got any plans while you're in LA?”
Rachel shrugged. “I dunno. This semester's pretty much a wash, and I doubt things will be back to normal for next semester. Probably get a GED, then try to enroll in classes.”
“Where?” Reggie scoffed. “Those damn college hippies haven't been to classes since the first White House attack. Honestly, I'm surprised they haven't started rioting yet.”
John chuckled. “That's only European students who do that. The Californians are all too stoned.”
Rachel opened her mouth to respond, then shrugged and nodded in agreement. “I called Wayne this morning, told him everything.”
Reggie looked at his daughter, a wary cast to his face. “And?”
“He said once he finishes college, he'll marry me. He'll come visit me for Christmas.”
“He does Christmas?” John asked.
“Sometimes Kwanzaa, depending on which relatives are visiting.”
“I guess this means Hanukkah is out of the question for the grandkids?”
Rachel slowed and looked at her father over her shoulder. “Only when you're in town.”
Reggie nodded, and John thought he caught the shadow of a smile.
As they continued, the airport loomed out of the fog, a long, low brick of glass and plaster stretching away into grey obscurity. They soon found themselves wedged into a crowd made nervous by the presence of National Guard troops on patrol. They pushed their way through to a kiosk at the airline counter, checked Rachel in, and made their way into the endless line leading to the security checkpoint. Despite the noise of thousands of agitated travelers, they were able to keep up a bit of small talk.
Most of what was said was between Reggie and Rachel, and as John stood by and watched, he found himself feeling disconnected from his family. He had only been with them for around nine months, and had just gotten used to the new status quo, to the older brother, the teenaged niece. As he watched, he realized that he wasn't truly a part of this group, never again would be. These were new people with a new life, and they wouldn't be needing him.
After an hour of waiting they were stopped by two young soldiers. “Boarding passes?” one of them asked.
Reggie looked around them, at the security check a hundred feet and another hour away. “It's just her, but we're going to stay with her until—”
“I'm sorry, sir,” the soldier interrupted, “but I'm afraid you have to have a boarding pass to stay here.”
“This is still a public place.” Reggie gripped Rachel's shoulder, and she squirmed under the pressure.
“We're trying to cut down traffic,” the other soldier said. “I'm afraid you'll have to leave the airport if you have no other business.”
“Oh, I've got business—”
John rested his hand on Reggie's arm, and Reggie tensed. “She's going to be with her mom, she'll be alright.”
Reggie relaxed. “Can I say goodbye?”
“Hurry it, please, sir.”
Reggie turned to his daughter and stroked her hair. “You're a smart kid. You do stupid things sometimes, but you're smart.” He leaned forward and kissed her forward. “I'm proud of you; I love you.”
“I love you too, dad.”
Reggie moved aside and Rachel approached John. “Hey, thanks for not being dead, yeah?”
John chuckled. “Yeah.”
“And remember, the scary people upstairs really are out to get you.”
“You know damn well who owns Sky Crest.”
John ignored the last comment. “Just because things didn't work out so well Friday doesn't mean you should stop trying. Fight for what you believe in, but don't go rushing in head-on.”
Rachel pursed her lips. “I'll see what I can do.”
Rachel raised her hands and gestured John and Reggie away. “Yes, okay, they're going...”
The two men turned and left the young woman behind, the soldiers moving further down the line to cull hangers-on.
“You did the right thing,” John said, not believing his words.
“You know, it was in LA she got started with all this political bullshit,” Reggie said. “I have to wonder... is she just going out of the frying pan and into the fire?”