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AGE OF IRON by Angus Watson

AGE OF IRON Angus Watson

Bloodthirsty druids and battle-hardened Iron Age warriors collide in the first volume of this action-packed historical fantasy trilogy.
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THE BROKEN EYEBrent Weeks

The third explosive novel in the New York Times bestselling Lightbringer series!
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A sample from SOFT APOCALYPSE by Will McIntosh

Here’s the first chapter of Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh!

Chapter 1: Tribe
Spring, 2023

We passed a tribe of Mexicans heading the other way, wading through the knee-high weeds along the side of the highway. Or maybe they were Ecuadorans, or Puerto Ricans. I don’t know. There were about twenty of them, and they were in bad shape. One woman was unconscious; she was being carried by two men. One of the children looked to have flu.

A small brown man with orphan eyes and no front teeth spoke for them. “Por favor, dinero o comida?”

“Lo siento,” I said, holding my hands palm up, “no tengo nada.”

The man nodded, his head slung low.

Colin and I walked on in silence, feeling like shit. If we had enough to spare, we’d have given them something.

If you’re not starving, but you may be in a month, is it wrong not to give food to people who are starving now? Where’s the line? How poor do you have to be before you’re not a selfish bastard for letting others starve?

“It’s so hard to believe,” Colin said as we crossed the steaming, empty parking lot toward the bowling alley.

“What?”

“That we’re poor. That we’re homeless.”

“I know.”
“I mean, we have college degrees,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

There was an ancient miniature golf course choked in weeds alongside the bowling alley. The astroturf had completely rotted away in places. The windmill had one spoke. We looked it over for a minute (both of us had once been avid mini golfers), then continued toward the door.

“You know what I’d pay money to see?” Colin said.

“Yes,” I said. He ignored me and carried on.

“I’d pay to see a golf tournament for really terrible golfers, with a million dollar prize. The best part of watching golf is seeing guys choke under the pressure, digging up divots that go farther than the ball.”

“Now that would be worth watching,” I said, stepping around a small, decomposing animal of some sort. “By the way, we’re not homeless, we’re nomads. Keep your labels straight.”

“Ah, yes, I forgot.” Colin had always been a master of the sarcastic tone, even in grade school. He reached the door first, pulled it open and waved me through.

Given all of the bowling leagues I’d been in as a kid, it surprised me that the clatter of bowling pins didn’t stir any nostalgic feelings. Maybe it was because this bowling alley was in semi-darkness. The only light was what filtered through the doors and windows.

A guy with a bushy beard was hunched to make his shot in the lane nearest the door. He missed the spare, then walked down the lane into deep shadow to reset the pins by hand.

This was promising; if they weren’t even running the automatic pin-setters, they needed power badly. A half-dozen fans of various shapes and sizes were spread around, buzzing like model airplanes. They appeared to be the only things hooked up to the generator.

Colin stopped short. “Do you have the cell? I hope you brought it, because I forgot all about it.”

I pulled the storage cell from my pocket and held it in front of Colin’s nose.

“Well that’s a relief,” Colin said. “I was not looking forward to walking all the way back to get it. Let’s take care of this and get out of here.”

My cell phone jingled, alerting me to an incoming text-message. I jolted, dug the phone out of my pocket while trying not to appear as eager as I felt. I had to tilt the phone toward the windows to read it.

Miss you, the message said.

Miss you too. Love you, I typed back.

Sophia and I talked in awful clichés, but somehow words that made me wince when others said them seemed fresh and powerful when we said them. Love you so much. Thought about you all day. I would die for you. Pure poetry.

“You’ve really got it bad,” Colin said. He was sweating like a pig, his shirt soaked dark down the center from his neck to his belly.

“I know. I know it’s pointless, but I just can’t get unhooked from her.”

“You haven’t suffered enough yet. Once you have, you’ll get unhooked.”

My phone jingled again. Colin chuckled.

Love you too, the message said. I put the phone away. It took effort. I could picture Sophia sitting at her desk at work, glancing at her phone, waiting for it to burble. Mine jingled, hers burbled. Actually, both of the phones were hers. She paid the bills, anyway.

It wasn’t an affair in the usual sense of the word. She had too much integrity for that. I’d like to think I do as well, but she never made the offer, so I can’t be sure. Maybe part of having integrity is surrounding yourself with people who have integrity, so that yours is never tested.

“All done?” Colin asked. “Now can we get this over with?” I followed Colin to the front desk, where a gray-haired woman was spraying disinfectant into blue and red shoes that lined the counter.

“Excuse me, are you interested in trading some water or food for energy?” Colin held up the storage cell.

The woman went on spraying.

“Excuse me?” Colin said, louder. She didn’t look up.

A pair of bowlers put their scorecard down on the counter. The woman went right over and rang them up.

“Excuse me,” we said simultaneously as she walked right past us and resumed her battle with stinky shoes. We looked at each other.

“Hey!” I said. Nothing. I looked around the alley to see if anyone else was witnessing this. Four people, evidently on a double-date, looked away as I looked at them. One of the women said something to the others and they laughed.

“Take a hint,” someone shouted from one of the far alleys.

My heart was thudding. “You know, we’ve got eight other people depending on us. They’re dehydrated and close to starving. We’re not asking for a handout, just a fair trade.”

The woman sprayed some more shoes.

“Come on Jasper, let’s go,” Colin said.

My phone jingled. We turned to go. I stopped and turned around.

“Fuck you, you ugly old bigot piece of shit,” I said. She smirked, shook her head, but didn’t look at me.

It was a long walk, across that gum-stained carpet to the doors. I suddenly felt so self-conscious I could barely walk—one of my legs felt longer than the other, and my hands were too big.

“Fucking gypsies!” someone yelled as the door closed.

Outside, a guy on a mountain bike rolled up, dropped a foot that skidded to a stop on the cigarette-littered pavement. He ignored us as he slung a bowling bag off his shoulder.

My phone jingled.

“Go ahead,” Colin said. “I won’t be offended.”

The text message said, What r u doing?

I called Sophia and told her what had happened. She cried for me, and told me she loved me very, very much, and not to let it get to me, that I was a brilliant, wonderful person in a bad situation. I felt a little better. Sophia was good at making people feel better. The first time I ever met her, she was handing out Christmas presents to the children of illegals down by the river in Savannah. I was down there coordinating an effort to give the children tuberculosis shots, but I was getting paid.

Whenever anything bad happened, my first thought was to call Sophia. I don’t know why—she didn’t have much spare time to give me solace, between her job and her husband.

How do you look into the future when you plan to spend it with someone you don’t love? It boggled my mind. It frustrated the hell out of me that she wouldn’t leave him (because he was a nice guy and would fall apart if she left), even though she loved me, not him. Even though every fiber in our souls pulled us toward each other.

I had thought that same string of thoughts a thousand times, and still it kept looping, day after day, digging a pit in my mind. Shit.

We cleared a rise and caught sight of the rest of our tribe lounging in the shade on the grassy median of the highway. Jim had all six of our little windmills working, bless his soul. The guy was pushing sixty, twice the age of most of the rest of us, but he was always working. The windmills were set as close to traffic as possible to harvest the wind of passing vehicles. They spun pretty good each time a vehicle passed. The tribe had also spread a couple of the smaller solar blankets on the sunny spots in the grass, and pitched our tents.

Jeannie met Colin with a hug, and a “How’d it go?”

Cortez asked if I wanted to go to the Minute Mart with him and Ange to buy food. I told him I’d pass, that we only had two bikes, so they could travel faster alone. Truth was I didn’t care much for Cortez, though I loved Ange to death. Cortez was too aggressive-salesmany for me, and had the sort of thick, meaty lips that would make any man look like a thug. I didn’t understand what Ange saw in him, although I don’t know, maybe I was just jealous because Ange was so damned hot and she was with Cortez.

I sat up against a tree and typed a message to Sophia as cars whooshed past and the windmills spun.

Thinking about you, I wrote.

Love u so much. Miss u like crazy. Going hm to sleep, she wrote.

Why did I always have the urge to find a printer and print out her messages? It was as if I wanted hard evidence, something I could show to someone to prove that this beautiful woman loved me. Am I that insecure? Some part of me is, yes, especially now that I’m a bum.

Another message came through:

Can I see u?

I could barely type fast enough. Yes! Rt. 301 N, median strip, W of Metter.

See you in 40 min. : ) Can’t wait!!!!!

I leapt to my feet, grinning like an idiot.

A passing truck slowed; a plastic fast-food cup flew out the passenger window and hit me in the neck. Soda splashed across my face and chest.

“Faggot!” a woman screamed out the window as the truck sped off. She had to be sixty.

“Fat ugly bitch!” I screamed, though she wasn’t fat, and couldn’t hear me anyway.

Jim handed me a filthy hand towel. “Don’t let it get to you,” he said in his calm Zen voice. I located the cleanest spot on the towel and wiped my chest with it.

“What the hell is going on?” I said. “We’re not illegals. Now it’s anyone who doesn’t have a home?”

Jim could only shrug and return to his windmills. Well, our windmills. Everything was common property; everything was shared. Capitalism was a luxury we could not afford. It’s amazing how quickly your deeply held values crumble when the cupboards are bare.

Thirty minutes later I spotted Sophia’s silver Honda in the distance. I could barely stand to wait for the car to cover the distance between us. I stepped to the edge of the curb and watched as her face became distinct, a big smile on her beautiful brown lips. I hopped in before she came to a complete stop, reveled in the cool air as I waved goodbye to my tribe.

Sophia leaned over and gave me a wet kiss by my ear, struggling to watch the road at the same time. “Hi there.”

“Hi,” I said, taking her free hand in mine, enjoying the contrast of our brown and white fingers laced together. “How was work?”

“It sucked ass,” she said. She always said that. But she also knew she was damned lucky to have a job. Accountants were mostly still employable, even with a forty-something percent unemployment rate (which didn’t count the millions of refugees who were landing on beaches and hopping over fences every day). Sociology majors, on the other hand, were eminently unemployable. I should have listened to my parents. Although, come to think of it, when I was struggling to decide on a major my parents told me to follow my heart. There were eighty million artists, blackjack dealers, documentary filmmakers, florists, and fellow sociology majors who were very sorry they’d followed their hearts.

Sophia pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot, parked in the far corner and left the car running, for the air conditioning.

“I brought you some things,” she said. I loved her beautiful island accent. She twisted to pull a plastic shopping bag out of the back seat and toss it casually into my lap. She tried so hard to make it seem like nothing, to keep our relationship on equal footing. I opened the bag and peered inside: soap, bug spray, vitamins, aspirin, protein bars, and a twenty dollar bill. Whenever I saw her, she had supplies for the tribe. She was a god damned saint.

A waxy package caught my eye. I pulled it from the bag and smiled.

“Baseball cards?” Like an idiot, I used to buy them every spring—a rite of passage into baseball season left over from childhood. When we first met, when I still had a job and the world was as it had always been, I bought a pack in a coffee shop and opened them at the table, introducing her to the players as I thumbed through their cards. She’d been a cricket fan on Dominica—in desperate need, as I saw it, of an introduction to the greatest bat and ball game in the universe.

She laughed. “Subsistence rations.”

I ran my finger across the foil seal, held the breach to my nose and sniffed. I shut my eyes, sighed as the smell of freshly minted baseball cards triggered fond memories. I pulled out the cards. They felt so clean and slick in my filthy hands. “Chris Carroll,” I said, studying the first card. I flipped it over. “How’d he do last season? I didn’t get to see many games.”

And suddenly I was crying. Sophia threw her arms around me and cried with me. “I wish—” she said, but stopped herself. I knew what she wished. We stayed like that, huddled together, our wet faces buried in each other’s neck.

“I only have until two, then I have to… go home,” she said after a while. Which meant, that’s when Jean Paul would be home, and even at such an indirect mention of her husband, that familiar cocktail of jealousy/hurt/despair lanced my stomach.

Sophia didn’t lie to her husband about us. He was deeply hurt, and quietly angry, but he tolerated it, because he didn’t want Sophia to leave him. In other words, Sophia had all the power in the relationship, whether she wanted it or not.

As I see it, there are four types of relationships. There are those where you’re madly in love with someone, and her feelings are tepid. In that case she has the power, and you struggle to convince her to love you by trying to be witty and fascinating, forever seeking her approval for what you say and who you are, and grow increasingly pathetic in the process. That was where Jean Paul was.

There are those where the other person is in love with you, while you can only muster a warm and murky fondness for her. In this case you carry a knot of guilt, because you feel like a walking lie; you’re forever trying to feel what you don’t feel, and end up consumed by an existential emptiness, convinced that, not only can you not feel love for this person, you have become incapable of loving anyone. That’s where Sophia was with Jean Paul, and why there was enough room in her heart for me.

Third, there are those where you’re not in love with the other person, and she is not in love with you. There is a nice balance here; you’re on the same page, so there is no need to struggle, no one feels like a loser and no one feels guilty. There is a sadness, though. When you look into someone’s eyes and see the blandness you feel reflected there, it’s hard not to wonder why you’ve chosen to be in a relationship that’s the equivalent of a permanent Valium drip. This sort of relationship had always been my specialty, for reasons I don’t quite understand.

Then there is the fourth type. You are madly in love with someone who is madly in love with you. This is the perfect balance, energy in harmony. This is the kind we all want—it draws you into the moment and keeps you there. You don’t want to be anywhere else. The existential hum is silenced. Before I met Sophia, I’d never found one of these, and had begun to suspect they were mythical creatures, that I was as likely to happen upon a yeti as a woman who loved me as much as I loved her.

“We’d better get going,” Sophia said. She reached toward the back seat again, handed me another plastic bag. “Keep this safe for when you need it.”

It was a white dress shirt, wrapped in plastic and pinned to cardboard, and a lime-green tie. “For when you get an interview.”

Still sticky from the soda flung at me an hour earlier, I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of that sentiment, but I didn’t want to seem ungrateful of her gift.

“Watch out for immigration,” Sophia said as she pulled onto the highway. “They’re deporting homeless U.S. citizens to third world countries along with illegals.”

“You’re joking,” I said.

“They’re trying to defend it as retaliation for poor countries encouraging their people to come here. And they’re getting lots of support from people on the right.”

“Figures,” I said.

“And avoid Rincon—they’re lynching people, especially strangers.”

“Oh, Christ. We had a trading partner there.” Our list of reliable connections kept shrinking. Either the location was too dangerous, or they were going out of business.

“Uh-oh.” Sophia slowed as we approached my tribe. There was a police car pulled partway on the median by our camp, its red light flashing. I convinced Sophia to go, kissed her cheek, and thanked her for the things she had brought, then rejoined my tribe, which was clumped before a middle-aged, red-haired cop.

“We’re not doing anything illegal,” Cortez was saying, “the energy from passing cars is just being wasted. We’re not bothering anyone. We’re just trying to make an honest living! Since when was that illegal?”

“Vagrancy is illegal here in Metter,” the cop said. “Y’all need to move on.”

“Move on where?” Cortez said. “We don’t have homes.”

“That’s not my problem. You need to move outside the city limits.” He pointed west, down the highway. “Six miles that way. You can pitch your tents there.” Before anyone could protest further, he wheeled and headed toward his cruiser.

“Metter is closed, ladies and gentlemen,” he said before closing the door. “Gypsies spread disease.”

We packed up and started moving. It was Jim and Carrie’s turn on the bikes; the rest of us hoofed it. Mercifully, it had clouded over and cooled a little.

“We need some sort of plan,” Cortez said, throwing his free hand in the air. “This is no good, wandering around aimlessly. We need a better business model.”

And what’s the plan, what’s our fucking business model? I wanted to shout. I kept my mouth shut. Cortez was always talking about angles and plans, but every day we still humped everything we owned somewhere else, looking for places to skim some energy, places to trade it for what we needed to live.

I caught up with Colin and Jeannie, and we slogged through the weeds. It was going to be a long six miles.

A dilapidated Saturn slowed, and the window rolled down. “Hey sweetie, let me see your tits!” a skinny black guy with bad teeth yelled.

Ange gave him the finger without turning.

“Hey,” Jeannie shouted as the car rode off, “how do you know he wanted to see your tits? Maybe he was talking to me!”

Ange spun around, pulled up her shirt, and waggled her tits at Jeannie. I’d never seen them before—they were smallish, but pretty fabulous, like Ange herself. I was disappointed when she dropped her shirt and turned back around.

“He may well have been talking to you,” I said to Jeannie. “You have fabulous tits.”

“Shut up,” Colin said as Jeannie laughed.

“No, really,” I persisted, “they’re beautiful. Big, firm, Italian coconuts.”

Jeannie laughed harder.

“No, really, stop talking about my wife’s fabulous tits,” Colin said over the laughter. They were fabulous, though Jeannie wasn’t the type to yank up her shirt and waggle them. Which was a shame, really. She kissed Colin’s cheek, still laughing, and trotted to catch up to Ange, giving her a little shove on the shoulder.

“You know what’s wrong with that guy in the car, and all the rest like him?” I said.

“What?” Colin said.

“They don’t masturbate often enough. They sacrifice every shred of dignity for the Lotto chance that some woman is going to respond to that shit and actually screw them, which would temporarily quiet the lizard brain that’s screaming at them, because they don’t shut it the hell up themselves by jerking off.”

“Ah. That’s profound,” Colin said. “Thanks, I love talking about other men’s masturbatory habits.”

It started drizzling. Everybody scrambled. Some of us grabbed the tarps and spread them across the weeds, angling them so the rainwater formed canals and spilled toward one point. Others grabbed our plastic milk jugs and began collecting.

“We’re a well-oiled machine, you know that?” Cortez said, his head tilted up to catch drops.

The rain fell harder. The tribe whooped.

Not ten minutes later, the flashing red light of officer asshole’s cruiser was reflecting off the puddles in the road.

“What did I tell y’all?” he said as soon as his head was out of the car. “Pack all this shit up and move on, and I’m not gonna tell you again!”

“Please, officer, we need this water badly,” Jeannie said. “We won’t be here long, and we’ll leave as soon as we’re finished.” The rest of us kept working.

The cop unsnapped his holster and took out his pistol. He held it at his side, angled just slightly in our direction. “I’m not gonna say it again.”

We rolled up the tarps. Ange started to say something to the cop, who was watching us like a parent making sure the kids clean up their room. Four or five of us shot her a warning glance. She shut up. We got moving. Officer asshole drove away.

We tried to hurry, to get out of town before the rain let up, but it’s hard to hurry when you’re carrying a pack filled with forty pounds of shit and you’re dehydrated.

“Hey!” Cortez said, pointing at a railroad track that disappeared into the woods to our right. “Why don’t we head along the track? We can go a mile or two and set up camp. The bulls won’t even know we’re there.”

Nobody had objections, so we climbed down a rocky gully and set out along the tracks. The gravel made for a bumpy ride on the mountain bikes, but for the rest of us it was easier than trudging through wet weeds. The sounds of the highway receded, leaving nothing but the patter of rain. Long-leaf pines crowded close, littering the raised tracks with golden needles. My phone jingled.

So wonderful 2 see u. U okay? Both of us tended to suffer from severe post-visit depression.

I’m good. Run off by cop. On the move again.

Head west. Toward me. : )

“What’s that?” Carrie said, pointing up the track. Someone was coming toward us, waving a sheet or something. The track began to hum as the figure came into focus.

“Oh, I don’t fucking believe this,” Ange said.

The guy was windsurfing on the track. He shifted from side to side, picking up the swirling winds of the storm, one side of his contraption lifting off the tracks, then the other, as if he were riding waves. The clack of well-oiled wheels grew louder as he approached.

We split to either side to let him pass. He waved, and pointed back the way he’d come. “About a mile,” he shouted, then sped off on an energetic burst of wind.

“About a mile to what?” I said.

We stopped first, to harvest what water we could. The rain lasted another twenty minutes, then we pushed on with our milk jugs filled a few inches.

A mile on, another tribe was camped in a cleared strip created to allow power lines to run through. Four more of the railroad windsurfing contraptions were lined up beside the tracks. Most of the tribe were lounging in the shade, but a couple stood behind a folding table set up near one of the big, silver power line towers.

Two women hopped up to meet us, smiling and waving. One was in her mid-forties, though she may have been younger than she looked. Pale white skin is great when you’re young, but it doesn’t wear well, especially if you live in a tent and spend all day in the sun with no sunblock.

The other was probably twenty-five. She had a willowy-waifish look, tall and slim, reddish hair. Skinny as hell with no breasts to speak of, but damned sexy nonetheless. She had sort of an English look. I watched her walk toward us: she had a grace about her that made me wish I could sit and watch her all day.

“Are you here to buy weed?” the older woman asked, motioning toward the folding table.

“No, we just happened to be heading this way,” Jeannie said.

“Where you heading?” the younger one asked.

“I don’t think we know yet,” I said. “We just got flushed out of Metter.” I held out my hand to her. “Jasper.”

“Phoebe, nice to meet you,” she said.

The other woman introduced herself, and I immediately forgot her name. I suck that way sometimes.

A guy with a pointy red beard and wire-rimmed glasses came over to join us. “Have you heard rumors about a new designer virus that’s going around?”

“No. Is it a bad one?”

The guy’s tongue darted out, licked the corner of his mouth. “We don’t know. Another tribe told us about it, but they only heardabout it secondhand themselves. It’s supposed to give you muscle-spasms.”

“Terrific,” I said. “You heard any news about what’s going on out west?” Last we’d heard, a rogue army from Mexico had invaded southern Texas.

“We heard that U.S. troops had been sent down there, but we haven’t heard what happened,” Phoebe offered.

We went on talking for a while, and eventually just about everyone from both tribes were huddled in groups, exchanging news and information. It was amazing, really, how well and quickly tribes got along. They invited us to make camp with them and stay a while.

“She seems like your type,” Colin said as we unpacked the tents from the bikes. “Kind of elven. I wouldn’t be surprised if her ears were a little pointy.”

“I must admit, she caught my eye. Made my heart go pit-a-pat.” An image of Sophia, smiling wide, shot through my mind.

“You should go talk to her. Ask her out.”

“Maybe I will.”

But how do you ask a woman out when you have no car, no place to live, and no money to go to a movie, even if you could get there? I didn’t understand the rules. Maybe there weren’t any rules; maybe they were still being worked out.

I volunteered to wander over to their camp when Cortez suggested we ask if they had anything to store energy in, and anything besides drugs to trade. Ange thought trading for a little weed would be good for our dispositions (Ange had spent a year in rehab for coke, eight years ago, when she was fifteen), but she was voted down.

They didn’t have anything for energy storage, so that was a bust, but I used the opportunity to sidle over to Phoebe and get chatting, and eventually I got up the nerve to ask.

“Hey,” I said, trying to sound as if an idea had just occurred to me, “you want to go into town a little later, maybe get a candy bar, kick around downtown?” I always felt stupid asking a woman out, like I was trying to trick her into something. I had issues, no question about it.

“Okay,” she said. Just like that.

“Great,” I said, trying to sound pleased but not surprised. “I’ll come find you in a while?” Something like “pick you up at seven?” might have been clearer, but neither of us had a watch, and I wasn’t really going to pick her up in anything.

I dry-brushed my teeth with a dollop of the tribe’s toothpaste, then busied myself talking with my tribe, all the while feeling guilty about Sophia. I didn’t understand the rules there, either. Could I see other women, given that she was married and we weren’t sleeping together? I guess the bigger question was, did I want to? At the moment, yes, I did. I wanted to do something normal for a change. I wandered back over to get Phoebe.

She had put on lipstick and eyeliner, and lots of perfume. I felt a wave of gratitude that she would make the effort to look nice for our date.

“Ready to go?” I said.

She nodded, and we walked off, climbing the rise to the tracks and heading toward Metter.

We went through the “Where are you froms” and “What did you used to dos” (she had a Master’s degree in English lit—another unfortunate soul who had followed her heart), then talked music and movies. She had an easy confidence about her that, instead of radiating “I’m out of your league,” took me along, made me feel confident as well. I liked her, and felt happy that I was able to feel something for someone besides Sophia.

Which got me thinking about Sophia, got me wishing that I was laughing with Sophia. As we walked, my mind kept wandering away from Phoebe, and I kept struggling to bring it back.

We split a microwaved burrito at the Minute Mart, and bought candy bars for dessert. When she reached into her bag to get money, I offered to pay, but she said that she was happy to split it.

We sat on the curb in the parking lot among scattered cigarette butts, beside the air hose for inflating tires, as far away from the stink of the gasoline pumps as we could get.

A scrawny little Chihuahua came out from behind a green dumpster and started barking at me, flying backward with the force of his barks. He was half-starved, and seemed outraged that no one was feeding him. I broke off a piece of my Butterfinger and tossed it to him. He scarfed it down, then immediately took up barking again. He darted forward and nipped at my feet. Phoebe found this hilarious, especially the fact that he wasn’t bothering her at all, just me.

When we’d finished I popped back inside to use the bathroom. It occurred to me on the way out that it would be nice if I bought Phoebe something—a little gift of some sort. It would have to be really cheap, but I didn’t want to get her a toy, or gum. It should be something thoughtful.

A rack of postcards caught my eye. I spun them around, rejecting aerial views of Metter, pigs talking to each other. There was one with hula dancers—clearly a stock photo from Hawaii. The caption read Everything’s Better in Metter. Perfect.

“I bought you a gift,” I said as we started walking.

She took the card, examined it, and laughed. “It pictures the famed Metter hula dancing troupe! Thank you.”

The sky was dark blue. We passed a dilapidated Cinema 9 (which was probably now in reality a Cinema 2 or 3—no way they were showing movies on all of those screens), and I wished we could afford to see a movie. The last movie I’d seen had been with Sophia, probably six months ago. I’d kissed her in the dark, and she’d kissed me back, then after a moment she’d whispered, “I shouldn’t,” and squeezed my hand, and we’d watched the movie.

Sophia’s smiling face returned to its usual position, as the screen-saver of my mind, and now I felt guilty—like I was misleading Phoebe, because there was no room in my heart for her and she didn’t know that. If she liked me, she was probably worrying about making a good impression, hoping this could lead somewhere. But it couldn’t. Not now, anyway.

As if on cue, my phone jingled. I’d forgotten to take the god damned thing out of my pocket before we left, because it had been as attached to me as my ears for the past year.

“Do you have a call?” Phoebe asked.

“Text message,” I said. “I’ll check it later.”

“Wow, how does your tribe afford a phone?”

“For emergencies and stuff,” I muttered.

Phoebe reached out and took my hand; our fingers laced together easily. We reached the railroad tracks and headed into thick darkness and nighttime insect sounds.

Telling a lie is kind of like having a piece of food caught between your teeth. I tried to simply forget it and enjoy the date, but the whole date felt like a lie now.

“You know that text message? I wasn’t being honest about it.”

“I kind of figured. People don’t usually jerk when their phone rings.”

“The truth is…” What? I’m seeing someone else? I’m having an affair? “I’m emotionally involved with someone.”

I told her about Sophia. She was cool about it, very understanding. We talked about it as if we were friends, and after making some thoughtful comments and suggestions, she told me that she was still recovering from a painful breakup. She’d been dating a guy, and he left her a few months ago. He was a black guy, and her parents had disowned her and kicked her out of the house over it, so she and the guy left town and caught up with a tribe formed by some of his old high school friends. And now he was gone, and she had no one but the tribe.

“The ironic thing is, I don’t even smoke weed,” she said. “I barely drink. Not that I judge people who do, but I’ve always been pretty straight-laced, and I find myself in a tribe that gets by selling drugs.”

“Here I had you pegged as a wild child, getting high and living by your own rules.”

“I’m more the read a good book while drinking tea type.” I liked the way she said “tea.” There was a British lilt to it.

We walked in easy silence. Soon we could hear music drifting from the dual camps. It sounded like heavy metal.

Phoebe slowed, tugged me to a stop. “We should say goodnight here, before we have an audience.”

I wrapped my arms around her, and we kissed—a good, soft, date kiss. She was a good kisser. Her breath was sour, but I’m sure mine was too, probably worse than hers. We were getting used to smelling bad and having bad breath.

“This was fun,” she said. “Thanks for asking.”

“Can I get in touch with you somehow? Maybe we could get together again?”

“Hold on.” She squatted on the track to rummage in her bag. She pulled out a pen and a scrap of paper, jotted a number, and the name Crystal. “This is the number of a friend. It might take a few days, but I always check in with her eventually. I’ll send a message back through her.”

We walked into camp holding hands, let our fingers slip apart as we reached the midpoint between our tribes, and each went to join our own.

“So how’d it go?” Colin asked as soon as I sat in the flattened wild grass.

“She’s a really, really nice woman,” I said. I watched Phoebe, standing with a few of her tribe mates, probably discussing the date as well. “Sophia texted me right in the middle of the date. I forgot to turn off my phone.”

“Not good,” Colin said.

The music was coming from their camp, and some of them were dancing. The forty-something woman whose name I forgot pulled Phoebe by the elbow and got her dancing. She danced a little awkwardly, shyly, maybe because she felt self-conscious that I was watching.

“I should be interested in her, but I don’t want to lose Soph.”

“Um, you don’t have Soph,” Colin said. “She climbs into bed with her husband every night. You climb into your tent with your trusty right hand.”

“I’m a lefty,” I said, but the joke was reflex. I was stinging from the image of Sophia climbing into bed with her husband. I saw them kissing, his hand on her bare breast, couldn’t get the movie in my head to stop, even though the image was like lit cigarettes pressed to my eyes.

“I have to stop seeing her, don’t I?” I said. And there it was. I’d never said the words before; I hadn’t even allowed myself to think them. But this was killing me, it was torture.

“Yeah,” Colin said. “If she won’t leave her husband, what do you have? Phone calls and text messages. That’s never going to be enough.”

I nodded, my eyes filling with tears.

“I’m not saying Sophia’s a bad person,” he said. “Obviously she’s a very good person, trying to do her best. But you have to do what’s best for you.” He stood. “I can see you’re about to need someone to hold you and rock you and tell you everything will be all right, and I’m sure you don’t want that person to be me,” Colin said.

He went over to Ange, squatted beside her and said something. Ange looked over at me, then sprung up and headed my way. I was crying like a baby before she reached me, arms out, ready to enfold me.

“It’s been almost two years,” she said as she held me, “you don’t want to turn around one day and realize ten years have passed, and you’re still waiting by the phone. You’re a wonderful guy. You deserve a whole person, not one you have to share.”

But the whole person I wanted was Sophia.

“After you broke up with Tyler, how long did it take you to get over him?” I asked, speaking into her neck, which was wet with my tears.

“I never got over him. It got less painful, but even now, those emotions come crashing down sometimes, and it’s like we just broke up.”

I think everyone has a Sophia. When Ange first told me about Tyler, who she fell in love with when she was sixteen, she’d said “Don’t get me wrong, I love Cortez, but Tyler, he sunk to my bones.”

When you fall in love, really fall in love, the stakes are so high.

I took a walk down the tracks and called Sophia. She said she couldn’t talk, which meant her husband was there.

“Can you take a walk. I really need to talk.”

She was quiet for a long time. I knew she could hear in my tone, in my plugged up nose, that something was very wrong.

“I know what you’re going to say. I don’t want to hear it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

I heard her close her front door. “Please don’t,” she said. She was crying, which made me cry harder. “You’re the only thing in my life that makes me happy.”

We talked for hours. I said if she was never going to leave him (I could never say his name, I just called him “him”), what was the point? She said she didn’t know what the point was, she didn’t need a point, she just needed to hear my voice every day. I told her we were just torturing ourselves.

In the end, she said she understood, but she still didn’t want me to go. We told each other “I love you” about fifty times. And then I held a dead phone.

***

You go a little crazy after a breakup; you know you’re a little crazy, that your thinking is all askew and can’t be trusted, but you can’t do anything about it besides wait it out. I’ve learned it’s best not to make any substantive decisions during this time, because they’re mostly going to turn out to be bad ones.

So I followed my tribe, one foot in front of the other, feeling bleak, tortured by guilt at the thought of the pain I was causing Sophia, knowing I could stop it by calling her and saying I was sorry and wanted things back the way they’d been.

We headed toward Vidalia, working rivers along the way with our hydropower collectors, roadsides with our windmills, spread solar blankets whenever we stopped and the sun was out.

“Nietzsche said ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,’” Jim said to me as we slogged along another trash-strewn roadside.”

“Yeah, right,” I said. “How about radiation?”

Bob Marley came on the portable radio Cortez was carrying. I went over and stabbed the power button as that aching sadness ripped through me. Marley was one of Sophia’s favorites. Cortez looked at me funny, but didn’t say anything. They were all cutting me a wad of slack.

I’d loved Marley long before I met Soph. We used to play it during our high school poker games. That got me thinking of my folks, who put up with our loud late-night poker games in their basement, who had died in the water riots in Arizona. I turned the power back on. She couldn’t have Bob Marley.

Cracks of gunfire sounded in the distance, and a police siren. Or maybe an ambulance siren. It occurred to me that I couldn’t tell the difference. I looked around for Colin. The Winn-Dixie was getting close; I decided there wasn’t enough time to get into the nuances of sirens.

The Winn Dixie was almost empty. Cortez and Jim and I went in—they were less likely to refuse our business if there were only a few of us. The sole woman at the row of checkout counters looked agitated as we pushed open the electric doors, but she didn’t say anything. We set about shopping.

“Hey, what about these?” Cortez said, holding up a package of Oreos.

“We should stick to the list,”Jim said, closing his eyes as he spoke—a classic Jim mannerism. “We can’t afford to buy empty calories.”

Cortez tossed them back on the shelf, huffing. “We’ve got to enjoy ourselves a little, or we might as well be dead.”

A shrill voice up by the registers grabbed our attention. We hurried to the front of the aisle to see what was going on.

The checkout girl was tossing stuff into a cart, and she looked scared as hell.

“Stay!” she shouted, pointing at a woman standing near the entrance.“Don’t come in, just stay!” The woman looked like she was in excruciating pain—she was moaning and gasping for breath, weaving noticeably, her hands dangling loosely at her sides.

“Jesus, what’s wrong with her?” Cortez whispered.

“Here.” The checkout girl pushed the shopping cart toward the woman. It rattled along part of the way, then veered into a cake mix display, knocking boxes to the floor. “Just take it and leave!”

The woman took a flaccid, spastic step toward the cart, then another. It was horrible, the way she walked. Her teeth were gritted in pain, her cheeks wet. She latched onto the cart, used it to steady herself as she jerked slowly, slowly toward the door.

Cortez ran to get the door for her.

“Are you crazy?” checkout girl screamed. “Stay away from her!” Cortez’s sneakers screeched on the linoleum as he stopped short.

“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.

“Just get out of here before I call the police.”

“Fine, fine, we’re going,” I said. “But we need this stuff.” It wasn’t half of what we needed. “Just let us check out first.”

“Twenty bucks. Leave it on the counter and go,” she said without looking into the cart Jim was pushing. Cortez pulled a twenty out of the pocket of his jeans and dropped it on the counter. The checkout girl was looking off to one side, tears in her eyes, biting her bottom lip.

The rest of the tribe was resting in the shade of a Dollar Store.

“We need to get out of here,” Cortez said to them, running ahead of Jim and me. “There’s a virus here. A woman came in, she looked like a zombie—”

“Filthy gypsies! You did this.” A skinny man with long hair and a Confederate flag t-shirt appeared around the corner of the building, from the front lot. He had the same horribly loose walk and agonized expression as the woman in the grocery store. And he had a pistol. My bowels loosened as he lifted it, his hand trembling viciously. Someone screamed.

“Kill you all. Every fucking last…”

The gun dropped from his rubbery grip and clattered to the pavement. He cried out in frustration, glared at us like we were the devil. Then he bent to retrieve the pistol and collapsed. He lay cursing, his nose and cheek bloody from pavement burn.

We ran. Carrie had grown up in Vidalia, and led us out behind the Dollar Store, through a small patch of woods and into a neighborhood. A few streets away there was a railroad track that would get us out of sight in a hurry.

“What was that?” Jeannie said.

“They’re like zombies,” Cortez said. “I swear, they move like zombies in a George Romero film.”

“It’s some sort of neurological disease,” Jim said. “But a highly contagious neurological disease? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Through the open window of a little yellow house, we heard screaming. They were screams of agony—mindless, full-throated howls.

“This way,” Carrie said, cutting between two houses. Weeds tugging at our ankles, we trotted, humping our packs, Colin and Jeannie bringing up the rear on the bikes.

Across the next street and down a ways was a little park crowded with a dozen people. They were wearing white masks and gloves, and they were filling a freshly dug hole with bodies wrapped in sheets. We cut straight across, running as fast as we could manage.

“Gypsies!” someone shouted from the park. Gunshots cracked. I heard that twanging ricochet sound you always hear in the movies. The railroad tracks were across the next street. We ran along the tracks, into the woods, glancing back and seeing no pursuit. We kept running until we were out of sight of the road.

We pitched camp below the track, then sat in a tight circle in the dark. Everyone was quiet, lost in their own thoughts. A siren keened in the distance.

“We have to stay out of towns as much as possible,” Jeannie said. “That other tribe we camped with out here, they were much better at living in the wilderness than we are. We need better survival skills.”

“That’s not our thing,” Cortez said. “We work the towns. We can’t sell energy to squirrels.”

“I don’t think we can do that much longer. Our contacts are drying up. I think Jeannie’s right,” Colin said.

“There are two worlds now, and that one isn’t ours,” I said. I felt a falling sensation in my stomach. It wasn’t ours any more. It really wasn’t.

“We have to stop buying all our food at 7-Elevens,” Jeannie said. “We have to start buying guns and fishing gear with the money we earn, not cell phone minutes.”

“I’m not paying for the phone,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I just mean we have to get tougher.”

Tougher. I hated tough people. But she was right; if we didn’t change we were going to die.

It had been a long, shitty day. We climbed into our tents as soon as it was dark.

I felt so utterly alone in my tent, even with my tribe all around me. Sleeping in tents in the woods was so different from sleeping in tents in town. The wild was an alien creature; a stark, silent reminder that there was no one to take care of us, that we were living in a ruthless world that would think nothing of it if we all died tonight. The crickets outside sounded metallic. I wanted to call Sophia so, so badly.

I threw my blanket off and crawled outside. It was too dark to go for a walk, so I stood in the middle of our little camp, staring at the stars through the dark treetops.

“I wouldn’t want to be out there, dating again.” I started a little. Cortez was sitting ten feet away, on a fallen tree trunk at the edge of camp.

“It’s rough,” I said, not really wanting to talk about my dating life with Cortez. Still, I went over and stood near him, not wanting our conversation to wake the others.

“It’s not just that,” Cortez said. “I’ve got the white man’s curse.” He held his hand up, his fingers three inches apart. I didn’t understand. “I was always a nervous wreck the first time I had sex with a woman, because I wondered if she was laughing inside, when she first saw it.”

Then I understood. I stumbled for a reply. “Wow. I can see how that would be nerve-wracking.” Was he saying what I thought he was saying? Could he possibly be telling me something that personal? I wouldn’t tell anyone, not even Colin, if I had a small dick.

And suddenly, I liked Cortez. He would probably risk his life for me if it came down to it. He was part of my tribe. I should cut him the same slack he cut me.

“Yeah, well. We all got our crosses to bear,” he said, standing and brushing the seat of his pants. “Try to get some sleep if you can.”

“Cortez,” I said, holding out my hand. He took it, squeezed it hard. “Good talking to you, man.”

I got up early, when the world was still a little gray. Everyone else was still asleep. I sat on the ground and looked through my photo album, at pictures of when I was a little boy. Mom and Dad on the teacup ride at Disney World, sunburned and laughing; Sis on the front lawn in her purple majorette outfit; me, missing a front tooth, at the plate in t-ball.

A woman hurried past our camp, up on the railroad tracks. She looked too scared to be out for exercise, but she was too clean to be a gypsy, and had no stuff with her.

“Hey!” I called to her quickly receding butt. “You all right?”

She glanced back, jolted to a stop. She stood panting, hands on hips, as if she wasn’t sure if she was all right or not, or maybe she wasn’t sure if she could trust me.

“We’re harmless,” I said, holding up my photo album as if it was proof of this.

She paused another heartbeat, then climbed down the slope to our camp. She was small, with an eager, slightly aggressive look. She stopped about twenty feet from me.

“What are you doing out here by yourself?” I asked.

“Are you coming from Vidalia?” she said. I nodded. “I’m from Vidalia. I’m getting as far away as I can.”

Some of the other tribe members poked their heads out of the tents to see who I was talking to.

She was a doctor. Another doctor in town had tried to pack up and leave when things started getting ugly, and now he was sleeping in the city jail when he wasn’t treating patients. She’d bolted before dawn, taking nothing that might raise suspicion if anyone saw her. She said her name was Eileen.

She told us that the virus acted like polio, but spread like influenza. The victims slowly lost feeling, starting in the extremities. If paralysis reached the torso, they suffocated.

“It’s horrible, you have no idea,” she said. “Half the town has it. Young children and old people usually die. Stronger people survive, but end up paralyzed. People are either leaving town or holing up to avoid being exposed. There aren’t enough people to bring food and water to the infected, so the victims have to go outside to find food and water, until they can’t any more. Then they die of dehydration.”

I poured her half a Styrofoam cup of water, walked it halfway and put it down. Eileen thanked me and retrieved it. She held it with two hands as she drank, to stop the cup from shaking.

“There was nothing I could do,” she said. “I can’t help them! This is not a normal virus; it spreads too fast. It’s got to be engineered.”

“Who would engineer something like that?” Colin asked.

Eileen shrugged.

“Could be insurgents looking to overthrow the government. Or the government,” Jim said.

“Look, can I buy supplies from you? I have cash,” Eileen said.

We sold Eileen some things, and she went on her way.

Around midday we began to hear gunfire—not the occasional shots we’d become used to, but sustained automatic weapons fire. Military gunfire. We looked at each other, confused.

“Oh, jeez,” Colin said. “They’re cleaning out Vidalia.”

I could picture it—soldiers in yellow hazmat suits, going door to door, killing everyone. That’s exactly how this government would deal with the outbreak.

We reached Statesboro by late afternoon. Cortez and Charlie volunteered to try buying supplies at Wal-Mart while the rest of us went downtown to sell energy to some of our reliable trading partners.

Getting downtown meant winding through a series of what used to be middle-class neighborhoods. It was hard to figure out what to call the classes now, though. There was the starving, the almost starving (us), the dirt poor, the poor, and (as there always are) the filthy rich.

We passed a group of kids playing immigration and illegals. The kids playing the illegals jabbered in mock-Spanish as they were handcuffed with plastic six-pack rings and taken away.

A guy in a sweat-drenched t-shirt came out of his garage and stared at us, his arms folded across his chest.

“What do you want here?” he called.

“We’re here to mow your lawn,” Ange said. An old joke, but a few in our tribe laughed anyway.

“Move on, you fucking gypsies, no one wants whatever you’re selling,” the guy shot back. He was wearing those black hipster-doofus glasses that were big fifteen years ago.

Ange gave him the finger.

“When did lawn mower jokes start?” I asked Colin.

“Hmm.” He thought about it. “I’m gonna say the summer of ’19. Really poor people stopped mowing a couple years earlier, but that year was the biggie. I think the first jokes were about watering lawns though—” Colin stopped walking. “Oh shit.”

Two more men had come out of the garage, clutching rifles. One of them tossed an empty beer can into the weeds and stormed up the driveway.

“You think you’re funny?” he said, getting right in Ange’s face, blocking her from continuing. This guy wasn’t wearing glasses; he had muscles, and a swagger. Everything about him screamed “angry war veteran.”

Ange didn’t say anything.

“Well?” the guy said. “You think you’re funny?” He smacked her across the face, hard.

Barely skipping a beat, Ange spat in his face. From thirty feet away I could see rage light up the guy’s eyes as he wiped a spot just under his eye with the back of his wrist.

“We’re leaving now, we’re leaving now,” I said, edging toward them. “We’re sorry.” My heart raced as the guy turned his glare on me.

“You go right ahead and leave. That’s a smart idea.”

He grabbed Ange’s wrist and yanked. She screamed, dug in her feet, clawed at the fingers clamped to her wrist.

We all ran to help her. The third man took a few quick steps forward, raised his rifle and aimed it at Colin’s chest. Everyone stopped.

The guy with the glasses grabbed Ange’s other flailing arm. They dragged her, screaming, down the driveway and up the concrete stoop. The third guy, a short, bald guy, backed toward the door, pointing his rifle at one of us, then another.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll move on,” he said from the top step. He lowered the rifle and followed them into the house.

Inside, Ange screamed.

“Somebody help!” Jeannie cried. She was facing a scrum of onlookers that had formed across the street. None of them moved.

“Oh shit. What do we do?” Colin said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We have to stop them. We have to.”

Colin nodded. He was huffing like he was out of breath. “How?”

Inside, Ange screamed, “Let me go.”

“Somebody call the police,” Jeannie called.

“Already did. Five minutes ago,” a teenaged girl said.

I scanned the street in both directions. Nothing. There was a bark of hoarse laughter inside the house. I took a few quick steps down the driveway.

“I wouldn’t,” someone shouted from across the street.

“There!” Jim shouted. A police car was heading toward us. We waved frantically at it; it seemed to be crawling.

The cruiser’s side window opened. Cool air wafted out. “What’s going on?” a cop in dark sunglasses asked calmly, looking us up and down.

We all answered at once, pointing at the house. Ange’s screams were muffled, as if someone was holding a hand over her mouth.

“How many men?” the cop asked.

“Three,” I said.

“Armed?”

I nodded. “At least two rifles. We have to hurry.”

The cop shook his head. “Three armed men? You think I’m Wyatt Earp or something?”

“Please. Please officer,” Jeannie said. “We’ll help you.”

He shook his head again. “You shouldn’t of screwed around with them.” He rolled up the window.

“Call for backup!” I shouted. The cruiser pulled away. Jeannie pounded on the back of it, pleading for him to stop.

I looked at Colin. Sweat was pouring down his filthy face. “We have to go in there,” I said.

Colin nodded. “I know.”

“What do we have to fight with?” Jim asked. He was standing at my shoulder.

“Here,” Jeannie said, holding kitchen knives and utensils. I grabbed a black-handled butcher knife, my hand shaking.

There weren’t enough knives for everyone. Jim grabbed a rusted shovel off the driveway, Edie grabbed a two-pronged barbecue fork out of Jeannie’s outstretched hand.

“Some should go in the garage door,” Colin said. “We need to hit them all at once.” He looked at me. “We have to do this. We can’t let up.” He looked so scared. I nodded, not sure if I could do it for real. I wished Cortez was here. Cortez was the action guy, we were the sarcastic clowns.

We ran to the doors. I eased the screen door open, flinching as it squealed, and saw them in there. They were circled around Ange, who was on the dining room table; her shirt and bra were on the floor in pieces. One of the men had her arms pinned, another was tugging her jeans off as she thrashed and screamed. They were grinning, joking, taking their time. A part of my mind kept insisting this was a movie, but the knife felt so real in my sweaty fist.

The guy with the glasses looked our way and shouted a warning. He grabbed the rifle leaning against the table. I froze in the doorway.

“Go,” Colin said. I went.

Jim came crashing through the side door, shovel raised. The guy swung the rifle around just as Jim hit him. The rifle went off, but missed.

I reached the bald guy just as he got his hand on the other rifle, and stabbed him near the collar bone, felt the knife sink.

He screamed. I couldn’t believe I’d just stabbed someone. He raised his free hand to ward off the knife and I stabbed again—hard this time—down through his hand, slicing between two fingers. The knife sunk halfway to his wrist.

They’re so sharp, I thought.

He shouted something, but I didn’t understand because it was garbled and wet. Edie was behind him, and the barbecue fork was in his back. The guy’s split, bloody hand hit me in the face as he turned. He dropped to one knee, then fell, scrabbling on the floor like a roach sprayed with insecticide.

I spun and saw Jim slam the shovel down on the back of the struggling war vet’s head. Jeannie was on the vet’s back, trying to hold him down. There were a half-dozen bloody wounds in his back. Both Jim and Jeannie were crying hysterically. Jim brought the shovel down again and the vet lay still.

Colin and Carrie and Ange were staring down at the third guy. The plastic hilt of a steak knife was buried in his throat, in that spot where you give people tracheotomies. There was a spray of blood across Colin’s face. There was blood everywhere. The TV, which was playing a DVD of some stupid comedy, was splashed with it. The bricks on the fireplace were speckled with it. A framed picture of a clean-cut family was lying on the floor, drenched in it.

We ran, past the dumbfounded stares of neighbors gathered on the sidewalk in front of the house.

“I keep thinking of Lord of the Flies,” I said as we walked.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Colin said. His wavery tone was not terribly convincing.

Jeannie was taking it the hardest. She cried and cried. Her eyes looked haunted.

No animal instinct had taken over as we stormed that house. We had remained a bunch of scared suburban college graduates doing the last thing in the world we could ever imagine doing. We have to get tougher, Jeannie had said a million years ago. Well, we were tougher. Hooray for us.

My phone jingled; a rope of adrenaline ripped through me, clearing my sinuses and sending my heart racing.

I’m sorry. I know you asked me not to. Have news! Call me? Miss you so much.

Can’t. Not right now.

The phone jingled again within seconds.

Pls meet me? Pls? It’s important.

I was aching to see her, but I couldn’t face her. I couldn’t tell her what we’d done.

Another time. Soon.

A moment later, it jingled again.

And then again.

I need to see u!

We arranged to meet.

I read the messages over a few times, the way I always read Sophia’s messages, looking for nuances I might be missing, drinking in every last scrap of meaning. Then I put the phone away.

***

I don’t have much of a poker face. Before I’d even gotten in her car I was crying. She held me close, waited while I told her between sobs.

She told me we’d had no choice, that we’d done the right thing. She said she would have gone in with us to save Ange if she’d been there. But she hadn’t been there; she hadn’t stabbed people while they screamed. There was so much distance between intent and action. I’d had no idea how much until I had to act.

The screensaver in my mind no longer held a picture of a beautiful smiling Sophia, it held a screaming man, his hand sliced between two fingers, nearly to the wrist.

“I have a job interview arranged for you in Savannah. It’s not much, just working in a convenience store, but it’s a start.” She was so remarkably clean, her clothes so crisp and new.

“I can’t leave my tribe,” I said. “They need me now; we need to stick together.”

“No,” she said, pulling me to her, holding me tight. “You have to come to Savannah. You can help them more that way. You can get an apartment and they can all stay with you and look for jobs.”

You can get an apartment. Not “we.” Three’s a crowd, after all.

“I can’t leave them now.”

“How will any of you ever get out of this if you refuse to ever separate?”

“I don’t know.”

She pressed the interview information into my hand. “Just go to it.”

I took my phone out of my pocket and held it out. “I’ll always love you, Sophia. Always.”

Fresh tears rolled out of her dark eyes. “No. I don’t want it.”

“I can’t answer it any more.”

“So don’t answer it.”

I kissed her, long and deep, and for the first time since we’d been in that movie theater, she let me. Then I got out of her car and headed into the woods to find my tribe.

So don’t answer it, she’d said. But I knew I would. If she called, I’d answer.

There was a cypress swamp below the tracks, trees with roots like melting wax, branches draped in Spanish moss. I threw the phone in a high arc. It ricocheted off a tree and splashed in the brown water.

About the Author

Will McIntosh is a Hugo award winner and Nebula finalist whose short stories have appeared in Asimov’s (where he won the 2010 Reader’s Award for short story), Strange Horizons and Interzone, among others. He worked as a psychology professor in the Southeastern US, but now writes full time. He lives with his wife and their three-year-old twins, in Williamsburg, Virginia.