The Infinite Sea (Page 28)

He watched them come out of the last room, then go to the elevator, where one held the doors while the other dropped out of sight into the shaft. The one who remained had trouble standing, holding his stomach and grunting softly from the effort, favoring one side as he limped toward Evan.

He waited. Twenty feet. Ten. Five. Holding the rifle in his right hand, his gut with his left. Standing on the other side of the door, Evan smiled. Ben. Not Ken. Ben.

Found you.

Too dangerous to trust that Ben would recognize him and not shoot him on the spot. He burst through the door and rammed his fist as hard as he could into Ben’s wounded stomach. The blow knocked the breath out of him, but Ben refused to go down. Rocking back, he brought his rifle up. Evan slung it to one side and hit him again, same spot, and this time Ben went down, dropping to his knees at Evan’s feet. His head fell back. Their eyes met.

“I knew you weren’t for real,” Ben gasped.

“Where’s Cassie?”

He knelt, grabbed two fistfuls of the yellow hoodie Ben was wearing, and brought their faces close.

“Where’s Cassie?”

If he had been his old self, if the system hadn’t crashed, he would have seen the blur of the blade as it came around, heard the infinitesimally small whistle of it cutting through the air. Instead, he wasn’t aware of the knife until Ben had buried it in his thigh.

He fell back, dragging Ben with him. Hurled him to one side as Ben ripped the knife free. Evan slammed his knee down on Ben’s wrist to neutralize the threat and clamped both hands over Ben’s face, covering his nose and mouth and pushing hard. Time spun out. Beneath him, Ben thrashed and kicked, whipped his head from side to side, his free hand clawing for the rifle less than an inch from his fingertips, and time froze.

Then Ben went still and Evan fell away, gulping air, drenched in blood and sweat and feeling as if his body might burst into flames. No time to recover, though: Down the hall, through a crack in the door, a small, heart-shaped face turned his way.

Sam.

He pushed himself to his feet, lost his balance, careened into the wall, fell. Back up again, convinced now it was Cassie who had dropped into the shaft, but he had to secure Sam first, except the kid had slammed the door and was now screaming obscenities through it, and then, as Evan dropped his hand on the knob, he opened fire.

He threw himself against the wall next to the door while Sam emptied the magazine. When the pause came, he didn’t hesitate. Sam had to be neutralized before he could reload.

Evan had a choice: kick open the door with the bad foot or put all his weight on it while he kicked with the other. Neither option was good. He chose to kick with the broken one; he couldn’t risk losing his balance.

Three hard, sharp kicks. Three kicks that produced pain as he’d never experienced it before. But the lock broke with a loud wallop and the door slammed into the wall on the other side. He fell into the room and there was Cassie’s brother crab-crawling toward the window and somehow Evan remained upright, something held him up and propelled him toward the child, hand outstretched, I’m here, remember me? I saved you before; I’ll save you again . . .

And then, behind him, the last one, the final star, the one he carried across an infinite sea of white, the one thing he’d found worth dying for, opened fire.

And the bullet connected them when it wedded bone, binding them together as if by a silver cord.

30

THE BOY STOPPED talking the summer of the plague.

His father had disappeared. Their supply of candles ran low and he left one morning to find more. He never came back.

His mother was sick. Her head hurt. She ached all over. Even her teeth hurt, she told him. The nights were the worst. Her fever shot up. Her tummy couldn’t hold anything down. The next morning she would feel better. Maybe I’ll get over it, she said. She refused to go to the hospital. They’d heard stories, terrible stories, about the hospitals and walk-in clinics and emergency shelters.

One by one, families fled the neighborhood. Looting was getting bad and gangs roamed the streets at night. The man who lived two doors down was killed, shot in the head, for refusing to share his family’s drinking water. Sometimes a stranger wandered into the neighborhood and told stories of earthquakes and walls of water five hundred feet high, flooding the land as far east as Las Vegas. Thousands dead. Millions.

When his mother became too weak to get out of bed, the baby became his responsibility. They called him the baby, but he was actually almost three. Don’t bring him near me, his mother told him. He’ll get sick. The baby wasn’t that much work. He slept a lot. He played only a little. He was just a tiny kid; he didn’t know. Sometimes he would ask where his daddy was or what was the matter with Mommy. Most of the time, he asked for food.

They were running out of food. But his mother wouldn’t let him leave. It’s too dangerous. You’ll get lost. You’ll get abducted. You’ll get shot. He would argue with her. He was eight and very big for his age, the target of school-yard taunts and cruel insults since he was six. He was tough. He could handle himself. But she wouldn’t let him go. I can’t keep anything down and you could stand to lose a little weight anyway. She wasn’t being cruel; she was trying to be funny. He didn’t think it was funny, though.

Then they were down to their last can of condensed soup and wrapper of stale crackers. He heated the soup in the fireplace, over a fire he fed with pieces of broken-up furniture and his father’s old hunting magazines. The baby ate all the crackers but said he didn’t want the soup. He wanted mac and cheese. We don’t have mac and cheese. We have soup and crackers, and that’s all we have. The baby cried and rolled on the floor in front of the fireplace, screaming for mac and cheese.