There were a number of scenes cut from the original manuscript of Orphan Maker. Here are those from Gwen’s perspective as she survives the plague that decimated the world.
Most readers didn’t like Gwen because these scenes were missing.
Gwen Grant spent what seemed like hours trying to open her eyes. It had never been so difficult a task before, even when she had attended Lily Murdoch’s sleep-over last month, and had stayed up until past three in the morning. She had been tired the next morning, sure, but not this bone-deep weariness that threatened to sweep her back into slumber. A confused tendril of thought wandered through her consciousness. Is it time for breakfast?
The thought whispered back and forth across her waking mind, teasing her with a sense of unease. As she came closer to awareness other senses began to report in. Or maybe they had been there all along, and she just hadn’t been able to connect with them. In any case, a riotous cacophony of birdsong bombarded her ears. As she listened, she imagined a hundred thousand sparrows filling the skies, a blanket of bustling feathers spreading across the trees and rooftops of her neighborhood. Despite the joy of their song, her disquiet deepened. Why are they so loud? She worried the thought, unable to remember if she had opened her bedroom window. The glow of sunlight on her eyelids told her that the curtains weren’t closed. That’s it. I must have opened the window last night before bed. She couldn’t remember going to bed. Couldn’t remember much of anything, actually. Her brow crinkled, the furrow deepening as she noted the soreness of the thin layer of muscle there. Latching onto what she could remember, she thought of Lily’s sleep-over.
She and three other girls had celebrated Lily’s fifteenth birthday at Lily’s house. They had eaten junk food, played games, watched videos, and experimented with Mrs. Murdoch’s makeup until the wee hours. The next morning, Mrs. Murdoch served them pancakes for breakfast, cooking them in the shapes of animals. Lily had reddened with embarrassment; she was a teenager now, and didn’t want a breakfast of teddy bear pancakes. Gwen hadn’t minded; she was the youngest there, having just turned fourteen a few weeks earlier. Besides, her mother would never do something so juvenile. It was fun.
Gwen picked up the thread of her life from that point, reeling it in as she trailed after it through the musty darkness of her cloudy brain. That party had been a month ago. She had gone home, continued her life. Her mother had taken her shopping for school supplies and clothes. Gwen sighed and shifted in bed, shivering. Her skin felt stiff and cool, almost damp.
The shopping trip had been a week after the party. They had gone to the Old Navy store at the Powell’s Center Mall. Gwen had passed the Forever 21 shop with a wistful stare — her mother would never allow her to wear those clothes, claiming they were too adult for her. It had been a normal day at a normal mall in a normal city, with families and teenagers roaming the public areas. It had been at the food court that the oddness had been highlighted. She and her mother had stood in line for an eternity at Panda Express. All the food outlets had had lengthy queues. The harried clerk had apologized for the delay, citing two call offs. Gwen had remembered a lot of people mentioning the same while they assisted her with shoes or at the fitting rooms. They complained of coworkers not showing up for work, discussing the flu that had marred the the final lovely days of summer.
She stretched, more aware of the chill despite the unseen sunlight caressing her. She felt moist, like the sheets hadn’t been altogether dry when her mother had put them on her bed. It was uncomfortable, and she shifted again in a feeble attempt to avoid the discomfort.
Her father had been the first in the family to catch the flu. The first day of school had been wonderful. Whatever the bug was, it hadn’t started making its way through the classrooms. The television news speculated that would change as school districts opened their doors. Gwen had been more nervous about her first day in high school than about any stupid illness. The bug had really wiped Daddy out, but Mom was fine, as were a lot of people in their neighborhood. There had been a pep rally, introducing the freshmen to the school and offering announcements for the cheerleader and sports tryouts. Mixed in with that had been instructions on keeping hands clean and to report any sign of illness regardless of how minor.
Is that pee? She wrinkled her nose at the ammonia smell. Stretching, she kicked off her blanket, the aroma becoming stronger. The sticky wetness seemed centered around her lower torso. I haven’t peed the bed since I was three. There were other smells there: sickness, feces, and a faint sweet meaty odor. Gwen wrinkled her nose again.
Daddy had seemed to be on the mend just about the time Mom had fallen sick. School had been in session for a week. At first only one or two students and teachers had come down sick. By the end of the week, almost half had succumbed. One morning, Gwen had checked on her parents in their bedroom and gotten ready for school. After a cold bowl of cereal, she had awaited the school bus with a handful of children. Some sported unkempt hair or dirty faces. All had spoken of the “Methuselah Plague” as the newscasters had named it. The bus never came. Most of the children returned to their sick parents. Scared, Gwen had gone home to call the school. She had an Algebra quiz to take and didn’t want to miss it. Her mother had drilled academics into her from an early age. If she wanted to attend a good college, she had to work hard for the next four years. No one had answered the phone.
That night Gwen made a point of watching the news. The program had been sketchy at best. Channel Three’s News Team hadn’t presented themselves. Instead, a stranger had read from a piece of paper, reporting that the Methuselah Plague had spread and hundreds of thousands of people were dead. It seemed that every single adult had it, and a lot of teenagers had come down with it, too. The stranger had said that everyone was supposed to stay in their homes. He used unfamiliar words. Not knowing what he meant, Gwen had missed the rest of the newscast to look up congregate and pandemic in the thick dictionary her father kept in his den. She had spent the rest of the evening trying to get her parents to eat canned soup. The next day the power had gone out. That hadn’t been nearly as scary as when Gwen woke up to a horrible headache and a strawberry-colored rash on her chest, the top two precursors to the Methuselah’s Plague.
Gwen shook her head with a sigh. She heard a strange noise. It took a moment to realize it was herself, a paper thin moan from her throat, more rattle than voice. Her eyes opened. She lay in her bedroom, the curtains and window open above her. It sounded like a typical late summer / early autumn day with all the birds. But there were no sounds of people — no mowers, no cars on the street outside, no distant noise of televisions or radios or voices. Looking down, she saw that she had indeed wet the bed. She grimaced as she realized she had also suffered diarrhea and vomiting. Where’s Daddy? Where’s Mom? She tried to call to her parents, but her lips and tongue were swollen and dry, her throat rough as tree bark.
It took fifteen minutes to get out of her sickbed, another ten to strip out of her soiled clothing. She fumbled for clean underwear and the first skirt and blouse she found, not allowing herself to think about her parents’ location. Carrying the clothes, she staggered into the bathroom. No water came out of the faucet. There was none in the shower, either. She was afraid to flush the toilet for fear of it not running. Frantic in her need to be clean, she studied her surroundings. She was filthy and naked, and she couldn’t walk around the house without clothes. Desperate, she lifted the toilet tank cover to see clear water. Unable to help herself, she scooped it into her mouth.
Once somewhat clean and dressed, Gwen tottered weakly down the hall toward her parents’ room. The sickly sweet smell grew stronger. Terrified, she pushed open the door. They hadn’t moved from the positions she’d last seen them in days ago. Her father still wore his pajama bottoms and her mother the mid-length nightgown she had put on when she had gotten sick. That awful smell came from them. Gwen held her hands to her mouth, watching a dozen or more flies crawl across their gray and bloating skin. She stood there until her stomach rebelled and she bent double, losing the precious water she had forced herself to drink.
The birdsong stopped at the sharp sound of a slamming door. Barefoot and weak, Gwen nevertheless found a reserve of energy as she fled the house where she had lived all her life. As her ragged form disappeared down the suburban street, the birds once more began to sing.
The girl in question spun around, dark curls lank about her round face. “Gwen? Is that you?”
Tears spilled from Gwen’s eyes as she ran toward the group of four children lying on the grass of a parking lot island, her knapsack bouncing on her back. After a week of scrounging and countless altercations with other survivors, this was the first familiar face she had seen. Relief blended with the shame of her uncontrollable emotions. The three children she traveled with trailed behind her. Ranging in age from six to eleven, they had found each other in a convenience store foraging for food and water, and were now unwilling to separate, looking to her as a surrogate parent.
Julie laughed, accepting Gwen’s hug. A year younger, she had attended the same schools, but had been left behind when Gwen moved on to high school. “I’ve missed you! I thought for sure Methuselah got you.”
“It did.” Trembling, Gwen wiped at the tears on her face. The physical contact felt so good that she didn’t release her hold, leaving an arm about Julie’s waist. They hadn’t been the best of friends in school, but hadn’t been enemies, either. “I got better.” She turned to wave her companions close.
A boy on the edge of manhood whistled. “Wow! That was lucky. Not many did.” He waved vaguely into the parking lot. “Beau did, too.”
Gwen looked in the direction he pointed, seeing nothing. “Beau?”
Julie nodded, helping Gwen take off her knapsack. “Yeah. He’s fourteen. He and Malcolm are out there playing with the cars.”
Playing with cars? It took a moment for the meaning to register, assisted by the sound of squealing tires. From the far side of the mall parking lot, she saw a bright red sports car rip around the corner, the engine growling as the driver missed the gear. “If you can’t find it, grind it.” Daddy had always said that. Gwen pushed the thought away. She hadn’t been back to the house since she had woken up from the flu. She didn’t want to think of her parents.
The driver gunned the engine, popped it into the next gear, and roared toward them. Standing and cheering, his four friends jumped up and down as the car neared in a thunder of sound. He aimed for them, straight as an arrow. There was cry of terror from the newcomers, two of them scattering while the other children laughed at them for flinching. The six-year-old stared wide-eyed at the oncoming car. Gwen ran forward to scoop the child out of the way. She closed her eyes, gritting her teeth. Her world narrowed down to the high-pitched scream of brakes and the knowledge that she would never get away in time.
At first the silence surrounding her made her think she had died. Then there was a whoop and more laughter. Two car doors slammed and a pre-adolescent boy swore. “I could have fucking killed you, girl! What the hell are you doing out here? I told you guys to stay put.”
Gwen opened her eyes, straightening from her semi-protective crouch. The car had come to a stop about a foot away, the streaks of rubber on the pavement still smoking in the aftermath. Beau marched forward, tall and lanky, with a shock of blond hair. A .45 pistol swayed with each step, large and lethal against his skinny hip.
He stopped and stared, just realizing that she wasn’t one of his companions. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
Julie came forward. “This is Gwen. We used to go to school at Kennedy.” She wrapped her arm through Gwen’s. “Beau went to Mitchell Williams.”
Gwen’s eyes widened, the gun now making sense. Mitchell Williams was a private military academy on the south side of town. Even though she had almost died at his hands, her opinion of him rose. If he could use that weapon, he could keep her and her friends safe from the roving bands of children that had begun marauding all over the area. Maybe he could teach her how to use one, as well. She dug through her memories for an adult greeting, holding out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Beau stared at her a moment, then grinned. “Same.” He shook her hand, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “Sorry about that. I told these guys to stay right here so I wouldn’t hit ‘em.”
“It’s okay.” She decided he had a nice smile, even dimples. The six-year-old still snuffled in fear, and she hugged the child to her. “Julie says you survived the plague, too?”
His eyebrows rose. “Yeah. You, too?” At her affirmative response, he laughed. “Cool! If we made it, there’s gotta be others!” He held out his hand. “C’mon. Let’s go for a drive.”
His gaze traveled up and down her body in an unfamiliar manner. Uncomfortable with his examination, Gwen hesitated, looking at the others. The passenger rolled his eyes, a smirk on his face. The others remained silent.
Julie released Gwen’s arm. “You said I could go next.”
“I changed my mind.” Beau hardly gave Julie a glance. To Gwen, he said, “Unless you’re a chicken.”
Gwen knew that if she didn’t impress this boy, she and her clique would be sent away. Maybe I can get him to teach me how to use a gun. As much as she wished to ease Julie’s jealousy, she had to take into account the new world in which she found herself. Daddy wasn’t here. There were no policemen or firemen, no teachers or principals, no one to protect her from bullies. She hadn’t been particularly strong or smart in school, just popular. Drawing herself up, she gently pushed the crying child away from her and took Beau’s hand. She had taken health class, and had talked to her girlfriends about dating and kissing boys. She knew there was more than just kissing, but only had a vague idea of the concept. If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it. The thought made her tummy flutter, and she bit her lower lip as she let him lead her to the passenger side of the sports car.
Gwen entered the Forever 21 store by the back service door. She carried a backpack of canned goods she’d found in a nearby apartment building. She’d been raiding the kitchens there in an orderly manner since the nearby convenience store and restaurants had been picked clean. It was a daily task for most of the kids in Beau’s gang. Even Gwen, Beau’s girl, had to search for food. The only ones exempt were Beau’s soldiers, the biggest and strongest of the three dozen children under his command.
She walked through the dusty displays of teenage style, barely giving the clothes a glance. In the main pedestrian area, she headed toward the American Dreamer store where they made their main camp. Malcolm had sentry duty today and lounged in a recliner, a Japanese katana across his lap. He smirked as she passed. She refused to look at him. He was a mean boy, prone to violent temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way.
Gwen continued on, hearing noise in the rear of the store. Puzzled, she wondered who else was back there with Beau. She’d left him napping after fixing his lunch. All the other kids had been gone when she had left. She brushed aside a privacy curtain and stopped in shock.
Do I look like that when we–
What Beau was doing to Julie was ugly, animalistic. He thrust into the girl with rough abandon, not seeing the tears, not hearing her whimpers of pain. Despite not enjoying the act, Julie clutched at Beau, pulling him close, meeting his hips with her own. She wasn’t an innocent. Flushed, Gwen dropped her backpack. Tin cans clattered loud against the tile floor, heralding her presence as she marched forward. “What the hell are you doing?”
Grunting with exertion, Beau barely glanced at her. “What…does it…look like? Get out!”
For a moment, adrenaline and fury demanded Gwen attack, pull them apart, beat her boyfriend for his betrayal. Then she saw Julie’s face. Though tears still stained her cheeks, the girl smiled and blew a kiss at her.
Gwen spun around and rushed out. Malcolm snickered, and shame flooded through her. Unable to help herself, she started crying as she ran. She didn’t stop until she reached the only place in the mall she felt safe — the Barnes & Noble bookstore.
It was dark without electricity. She’d forgotten her flashlight in her backpack. She slowed, moving through the shelves by memory, feel, and the dim light filtering in from the back entrance to the parking lot. She didn’t stop until she passed the children’s section and entered the storage room. Leaning against the door as it closed, she slid down to thump onto the floor, sobbing.
Julie had been jealous of Beau’s attention to Gwen for weeks, ever since Gwen’s arrival. Their childhood friendship had evaporated under the heat of envy as both girls vied for Beau’s protection. But while Gwen felt she should be the one and only, Beau saw no reason to narrow his prospects. There were three other girls he had been “dating,” as he called it. Gwen still slept in his bed at night but she couldn’t trust him not to share it with others when she was away searching for food and supplies. She had convinced herself that the other three girls were just fun and games to him. He rarely looked at them or spoke to them in Gwen’s presence. In fact, one had become Malcolm’s girlfriend. But Julie wasn’t a passing fad. She wanted Beau for herself.
Vicious rumors that Gwen was contagious with the Methuselah Plague or AIDS had begun within days of her arrival. As the group of children grew from a dozen to two, from two dozen to thirty, so did the rumors. There were now children in the group who wouldn’t talk to Gwen, who treated her with distrust without having met her. Those few that did breach the growing gap had told tales of Gwen being a bed wetter, a thumb-sucker, a bully, a conniving bitch intent on becoming queen of their little gang and even a murderer of babies.
“It’s unfair,” she whispered, hugging herself with her arms.
Boys were assholes. All Gwen wanted was someone to keep her safe — a warm place to sleep, food to eat, a roof over her head. She let Beau do what he wanted to her to keep that sense of safety. What will happen to me if Julie takes my place? The spiteful things Julie had spread around meant no one would ever trust Gwen. She would be relegated to the freaks, the children too young or too stupid to take care of themselves, the ones the rest of Beau’s kids taunted and tortured.
“I miss you, Daddy.”
Gwen stared at her profile in the floor-length mirror, shirt hiked up to her budding breasts and pants pushed down to just below her hips. One hand held a flashlight, and the other caressed her abdomen. The bathroom smelled horrible. Forty children and no running water had turned it into a reeking cesspool. It had long been abandoned for one up on the third floor, making it the most private places in the mall for Gwen’s purposes.
Ding! The kitchen timer brought her back to the present. Swallowing, she hiked up her pants and went to the crusted porcelain sink. The slender white wand there radiated stark against the dirt and rust stains. Hands shaking, Gwen reached for it, chewing her bottom lip. For several minutes she simply held it, the flashlight aimed elsewhere. Please don’t let it be so. She gathered her meager courage, and forced herself to look. A faint plus sign. Terror filled her. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t be!
She didn’t know how long she stood there, tears streaming down her face. When she once more became aware of herself, she was slumped against the grimy sink, the flashlight and test indicator on the floor, filth and grit pressing into her palms. She found herself staring into the mirror. The dim light revealed her pale complexion and wide eyes. I have to tell Beau. Her already pounding heart increased in tempo.
She’d begun her first period a month after Methuselah, disgusting Beau that night when he had tried to have sex with her. He’d sent her away from American Dreaming, calling her a slut. She hadn’t been allowed back for six days, not until she’d stopped bleeding. During that time, Julie had kept Beau warm at night, digging her claws in deeper. When Gwen had returned, Beau refused to let her sleep in his bed any more. That didn’t stop him from “dating” her whenever he wanted. No longer under his tenuous protection, Gwen had been left to fend off the sexual advances of Malcolm and the other boys. Thanks to Julie, Gwen’s reputation as a whore had been written in stone, and Beau’s attitude toward her hadn’t done much to negate it. The harassment had continued until Gwen stabbed Malcolm in the leg with a knife she’d taken from the cutlery store.
Hiding this condition was out of the question. Gwen didn’t even know if women were allowed to have sex when they were pregnant — Beau had to be told. She’d seen television shows and movies about pregnancy. Adult women died in childbirth or from any number of other complications. There were no more doctors or hospitals, no abortion clinics. There was nothing to be done but try to protect this baby as best as she could. Bitterly, she cursed the plague, cursed her parents for leaving her to this mess, and Beau himself for causing the situation. For the first time her thoughts weren’t on how unfair the world had become. Julie could have the bastard. The anger burned away her depression, leaving behind a bitter hollow. She picked up the flashlight and the pregnancy test, grabbing her backpack as she left the restroom.
She found Beau and the others outside in the park across the street. Its center was built of decorative brick and tile, with water jets just beneath the surface. It had once been a fountain that these children would have played in during the long, hot days of summer. Now water pumps lay dormant, and the treated water remained inaccessible underground. Instead, the children had cobbled together an area for skateboards, using homemade ramps of whatever material they could salvage from surrounding businesses.
Gwen marched through the center of the gathering, scattering children of all ages. Beau lounged on a park bench, being fawned over by Julie and another girl. Without pause Gwen pushed Julie to the ground, ignoring the indignant squawk. She leaned over Beau and waved the little white wand in front of his face. “I’m pregnant, you asshole!” The second girl cringed away. Julie cussed and scrambled to her feet. Around them, the kids drifted close.
Beau glared at her. “So what?”
She gaped at him. “So what? I’m pregnant! I’m going to have a baby. It’s your fault!”
“Bullshit. You’ve been fucking every guy here.”
Gwen gaped, her mind a blank of white-hot fury. She threw the test wand down, panting as she stuttered. “Wh…what?”
Beau glared. “You’re a slut, don’t deny it. Malcolm’s told me how often you’ve sucked his dick. He says you’re the life of the party.”
Malcolm withered under Gwen’s stare, his hand unconsciously straying to his upper thigh where she’d stabbed him the one time he had tried to bed her.
“He’s a liar, just like your new girlfriend.”
“Hey!” Julie pushed Gwen away from Beau. “I’m not a liar.”
“You’re a liar and a cheat, Julie Brannon, and you… you can go fuck yourself.”
Beau shoved between the two girls. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
Gwen, tiny against his lanky height, thrust herself into his space. “Oh, it does matter. You’re never ‘dating’ me again. You got that? This baby comes first.” She shivered, a trickle of fear interrupting the clean anger as she saw Beau’s eyes narrow.
“Is that so?”
Beau stood tall, looking around at the gathered children. They stood in silence, watching him. His jaw jerked as he gritted his teeth, the only warning Gwen had before he grabbed her by the throat. Pulling her up to her tiptoes, his face inches from hers, he said, “That’s where you’re wrong. I’ll fuck you when I want, and where I want. I’ll fuck you right here, right now. You got that?”
Gwen didn’t know where the bravado came from. Perhaps it was the last straw for her, the sickness and death of her parents combining with the stress of being the outcast in this group of children when she had so hoped for safety and protection. Maybe the plague had driven her crazy with the fever. Beau’s hand at her throat choked her, but didn’t cut off her oxygen. Despite her absolute terror knowing that Beau had the power and will to do exactly as he threatened, she spat in his face. “Bite me, asshole.”
The first blow made her ears ring. She fell to her hands and knees only to be dragged back up by the scruff of her neck. The next made her double over in agony as the father of her child proceeded to punch her repeatedly in the abdomen.
Gwen woke with a gasp, defensively curling into a ball. She fought to calm her harsh breathing, the thump of her heart drowning out all but the loudest of sounds. Several minutes passed, and she sighed, relaxing. Just a dream. She shifted in her nest, rubbing her eyes with one hand as she pushed into a sitting position. The terror of the nightmare faded in favor of the ever-present horror of her reality. Timid, she lifted the hem of her skirt and peered between her legs. Her inner thighs were crusted, but the towel didn’t show any fresh blood. It looked like the bleeding had finally stopped. For the first time in six days, she thought she might survive Beau’s beating though somehow she knew the new life she had carried had not. She tugged the towel away from her, grimacing as her tender skin pulled where it the blood had coagulated. Tossing the mess as far away as possible, she opened a fresh bottle of water and wet a new hand towel to clean herself.
She remembered being dragged unconscious back into the mall and deposited in a furniture store after the assault. A social pariah, she nevertheless had received assistance. The youngest child Gwen had brought here had crept in to check on her whenever possible, running errands to other parts of the mall for pain medication, clean towels, and food. If it hadn’t been for him, Gwen was certain she would have died. She hadn’t been able to move for the first two days; she’d never have been able to fend for herself. No one else had bothered to check on her.
Finished washing, she took a clean cloth and pressed it gingerly into herself. Only a little spot of blood marred its surface. Tears coursed over her cheeks as she realized she’d cheated death once more. How many times can I do this? The bleakness of her future stretched before her. Beau led the pack of kids by being the most vicious bully on the block, using the threat of his weapons knowledge as leverage. If Gwen stayed here, he would beat and rape her publicly again to retain his control. She had vague memories of at least two other boys raping her in the park that day — that meant the other boys wouldn’t leave her alone any more. Daddy wasn’t here. Beau wouldn’t protect her. No one would.
The thought of leaving terrified her. Finding Julie and Beau had been a gift from God to a lost little girl who yearned for her Mommy. Gwen forced herself to remember how shocking her world had been that first week, how she’d taken responsibility for a handful of younger children when she was barely accountable for herself. Her fears then had been of being alone, of making a mistake that would kill a little one in her care. Those fears seemed lame now that she’d experienced true horror. She had toyed many times with running away since Beau had begun mistreating her, but had always chosen to stay despite the emotional abuse and the occasional slap he inflicted. What had happened in the park was a stark contrast to the mild treatment she’d suffered before. She had no one, no parents to love her and shield her from danger, no friends with whom to band together for mutual protection.
I have to leave. She pushed herself to her feet. Her abdomen ached, and she was a little unstable, but she quickly adapted. Looking around her sickbed — a ruined leather couch — she realized she had nothing. It would have been nice to get her backpack and the few belongings she had scrounged, but they were in the American Dreaming store. She couldn’t risk running into Beau or his friends. Limping to the service door in the back of the furniture store, she was glad she at least still had her shoes. The access hall beyond was empty of all but dust. Gwen stepped out and quietly closed the door behind her, leaning against it.
After weeks of exploring, she knew the layout of the mall. The fire exit opening onto Twenty-Second Street was four doors away. From there she’d have to be careful — the park was in full view of that door. Her other option was to go back into the mall proper, cut across the main pedestrian thoroughfare into a store across the way and exit out the other side. The chances of being seen by someone playing inside were just as high as leaving this way. Swearing silently, she pushed toward the nearest exit. The days had gotten colder as the weeks had passed. Maybe they wouldn’t be in the park today.
The closer she came to salvation the more she lengthened her stride. Her bruised belly didn’t give undue protest for which she was grateful. Her skin felt clammy, the thin layer of greasy perspiration making her itch. Swallowing against the lump in her throat, she eased the fire exit door open. Fresh air washed over her, and she shivered. The leaves had noticeably changed as autumn took hold of the city, the green expanse glowing golden in the afternoon sun. For a moment she almost convinced herself that this was all a nightmare, and that Halloween was coming. She was at the mall to buy a costume for her first high school dance. Her heart sank as she saw Beau and the majority of his kids playing in the park, the bubble of her daydream bursting. She sobbed once, stuffing her fist in her mouth to keep from making another sound though no one across the street could have heard her. Longingly, she peered down the street at the faint hope of freedom. Her eyes darted back to the children. Back to the street. “I have to do this,” she whispered. Have to, have to, have to! Fixing her eyes on her destination, she shoved the door open with a bang and bolted.
Gwen ignored the yell, refusing to be denied. She called upon the same reserves she’d used upon waking up after the plague, drawing deep for the panicked energy as she put as much distance between herself and a torturous existence and early grave. Voices behind her raised in excitement, and she heard footsteps racing after her.
She blinked tears from her vision, hearing the repercussion of a gun. He’s shooting at me! Daring to glance over her shoulder, she saw that Beau was the only one close, though a half dozen of his boys came behind him. His face was contorted with rage as he raised his pistol to fire again.
“NO!” Gwen put on a burst of speed, ignoring the sharp report and the tiny puff of dust where the bullet struck asphalt in front of her. She ducked onto a side street and into an office building. The modern glass and chrome interior gave her enough light to see the emergency stairs. Outside she heard another gunshot, and one of the windows shattered in a cacophony of sound. Intent on escape, she hit the stairs, running up into the darkness.
A sharp staccato of sound startled Gwen. She faltered as a dozen children spread out on the street in front of her. For a split second she wondered how the Indian kids had gotten around her until she realized these weren’t the ones chasing her. These people were armed with weapons that looked more lethal than the bow and arrows her pursuers used. She stumbled and fell. Will they kill me?
A smallish boy in his early teens stopped as he reached her. “Hey, querida. What’s up? Why those assholes chasing you?” Panting, Gwen couldn’t answer. She wrapped her arms over her head and remained at his feet. “Why you chasing her?” he called to the oncoming pack.
Gwen uncovered her head to peer back the way she’d come. Her pursuers skidded to a stop on a variety of BMX bicycles twenty feet away, brandishing small compound bows and camp axes. They seemed unperturbed by the mass of armament facing them as their leader marched forward. He stopped at a distance of ten feet, axe in hand. Behind him, six boys and girls joined him, fiberglass arrows aimed at the new arrivals. After several months of being on their own, these kids had taken their games of cowboys-and-Indians too far. They wore next to nothing in the summer heat, and had fashioned American Indian looking tools and clothing. Their leader wore a leather strip across his forehead to keep his growing sandy hair out of his eyes. He’d repeatedly carved Army sergeant symbols into his left upper arm, and the scar tissue glared pink against his burnt and peeling skin. He pointed his axe at Gwen. “She’s ours. Give her back.”
The newcomer paused, then squatted down beside Gwen. “You wanna go back?” She couldn’t find her voice, but was able to shake her head no. “She said no. Why don’t you go play with your dick somewhere else?”
The Indian’s mouth dropped open. “What did you just say?”
“You heard me, cracker. Fuck off. She don’t want you anymore.” Pause. “Can’t blame her, really. You look like an idiot.”
The Indian took another step forward. “Don’t make me come over there and kick your ass.” He gestured with the axe, freezing in place at the sound of several machine guns rattling.
Realizing that the Hispanic kid didn’t want to hurt her, Gwen tried to stand. The chase had taken her strength, and she struggled before he gently helped her to her feet. “Don’t let them have me. They gave me a ten minute head start, said they were going to hunt me.” As much as she wanted to cry, she bit back the tears, swallowing hard against the burning lump in her throat. These people seemed so tough. She didn’t want them to leave her because of her weakness.
“I won’t, querida. We found the last kid they went after.” He guided Gwen behind him into the waiting arms of his people. “You need to go back to your toys, little boy. When you grow up, come look for the State Street Gatos. I’ll show you that being a man ain’t about playin’ games.”
Two boys, one Hispanic and the other Asian, escorted her away from the confrontation. They walked back a half a block, and veered behind a parked car to deposit her on the curb. The Asian boy squatted in front of her. “What’s your name, gái dep?”
Gritting her teeth to retain control, Gwen finally stuttered out her name.
“I’m Cain. This here’s Rogelio. Don’t worry. You’re safe.” Cain looked up at his companion. “Really messed this dime piece up. Think Weas will let us put a cap in him?”
Rogelio had remained standing, watching the shouted altercation up the street. “Dunno. Maybe.” With a practiced eye, he scanned the situation. “Might be some will want to join us. Don’t look like they’re packing anything but sticks and rocks.”
Cain sneered. “Then why would he want ‘em? They ain’t nobodies.”
Much of their discussion made no sense to Gwen. Their slang was like nothing she’d heard in school. She did understand one thing. Join? Her heart leaped. These people were recruiting. In the ten months since she’d escaped Beau, she’d lived off the leavings of apartment dwellers — ignoring the dead, sleeping in their bathrooms and on their balconies and roofs, and eating from their pantries. During that time, the roving bands of children had solidified, each taking on the characteristics of the imaginations of their leaders. The few groups Gwen had run into had seen her as an outsider, not that she was unhappy with that. Most had taken their imaginary games too far, creating subcultures of stereotypical American Indians, starship troopers, soldiers, and barbarian warriors. Despite Gwen’s reasons for being on her own, she still felt lonely with no one to talk to, no one to spend time with. This was the first sane appearing group she’d found that was actively seeking new members. I can’t mess this up. “Can I join?”
Cain peered into Gwen’s eyes. Maybe her desire for friendship was a little too frantic, because he patted her hand as if soothing her. “You know how to shoot a gun?”
Gwen shook her head. “No.” After coming across the remains of a child that had been shot to death, she’d given up the idea of owning a firearm. With her ignorance, she knew she’d shoot herself by accident. Instead, she pulled out a wicked looking Bowie knife. “But I can use this.”
That impressed them both. Cain said, “Put away the pig sticker, gái dep. I don’t think you need to worry.” He smiled, fondling his chin as if he had a beard. “I’ll go tell Weasel you’re interested.” He trotted back the way they’d come.
Someone yelled down the street, and Gwen stood, ignoring Rogelio’s suggestion to stay put. With an exasperated sigh, he stood beside her as she came out from behind the car.
The tableau hadn’t changed much in the last three minutes. The Indian leader still argued with Weasel, six of his “Braves” at his back against a dozen armed children in jeans and leather. From this angle, Gwen saw that most of the jackets and vests had the same design on them. Her mind made a sudden connection. Gangbangers. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or hysterical.
Cain trotted up to the leader, stopping directly behind him to say something. Weasel nodded. “Look, cracker, I don’t give a shit about all that. I was going to give you a chance to come with us, but y’all a bunch of ain’t nobodies. Worthless.” Weasel spit at the ground in front of his feet. “Fuck off. And take your stupid little bows with you.”
The Indian let out a whoop, raising his axe above his head in a show of force. A loud explosion cut off his voice, and he jerked backward a step. Gwen stared at the small hole that had blossomed in his otherwise unmarred chest. Behind the Indian, his nearest companion winced and leaped backward, wiping a smear of red from his face. Blood trickled from the Indian leader’s chest as he dropped to his knees, eyes wide and mouth moving. The axe clattered to the street.
“Anybody else?” Weasel asked.
Gwen stared at the back of Weasel’s head. He’ll keep me safe.