Abby crinkled her nose. The air was smoky and smelled like burning rubber and chemicals. A fire must be raging in Boston or maybe somewhere in Cambridge. Another skyscraper or city block turning to ash.
She ached to breathe the salt air of home. Castine Island was twenty miles off the coast of Maine, due east of Portland—one hundred miles from Boston Harbor as the crow flies. If things went well, they’d get more pills, find a sailboat in Boston, and arrive at the island two days later.
Abby looked out the window. The moon was high in the sky, and she guessed it was one or two o’clock. Good thing the glass was broken. She’d be able hear voices and footsteps outside, hear the front porch steps creak if someone tried to sneak up them.
Dogs barked in the distance, and crickets chirped loudly for good reason. Every lawn on Pearl Street was cricket heaven, with grass growing higher than her waist. The epidemic had been good for many species, just not humans.
Not having slept for nearly two days, Abby closed her eyes and sank deeper into the floor. The mattress of winter jackets felt as comfortable as a plush bed, but somebody should keep watch. She rolled onto her arm and grunted. The pain of her sunburn jolted her awake.
She checked the others. Moonlight outlined her brother, Jordan, on the couch. He was out cold. In the shadows the mainlanders, Mandy and Timmy, were also fast asleep, snuggled together in a cushioned chair.
Abby shuddered as she recalled Mandy’s tearful admission. Was it right to sacrifice some to save others? Abby was saddened by what Mandy had done, but she refused to judge her. In the days and weeks that followed the comet, the mainland had been a very dangerous, crazy place.
A year later, it still was.
She scraped the scaly tip of her tongue against her teeth and tried to swallow. Nothing went down her dry throat. A can of beer sat on the table—ten feet away—but she was too tired to crawl there. She knew they’d have to find some food soon or they’d never get their strength back.
Mel was their best bet for food and water. Her friend since second grade lived two blocks away—at least that’s where she used to live. But the epidemic had changed people, friends included. She could not be sure that Mel would share. Abby had stopped at Mel’s yesterday and found laundry hanging in the yard, but it might have belonged to squatters. In the hope that Mel was still there, she scratched a note on the front door to let Mel know where she was staying.
Jordan grunted loudly and thrashed his arms. Chills rippled down Abby’s spine. But Jordan quickly settled down. It was not his first nightmare of the night. She welcomed every grunt and groan, every bad dream because. . .
She rolled on her back and thanked God her brother was alive. Staring up, it didn’t take long before her mind played a movie on the ceiling. She was sailing into Castine Harbor though calm waters in a steady breeze. She passed the jetty. The tip of the mile-long jetty that stretched into the mouth of the harbor was her favorite spot to be alone on the island. She imagined that smoke from the distant fire was the rich, raw scent of seaweed at low tide. She’d close her eyes for just a second.
Abby jolted awake. Feet slapped the pavement outside. Someone was sprinting down Pearl Street. She blinked the grit out of her eyes and faced the window. The moon, dirtied by waves of smoke, hovered just above the rooftops across the street. Jordan, Mandy and Timmy were still all sleeping soundly.
The runner came closer, adrenalin pumped through Abby’s body. He came closer and closer until she thought he was going to charge up the steps and enter the house. She tried to sit up, but dizziness slapped her back down.
Then there was silence except for the drumbeat of her temples.
She wondered if the runner had stopped or was moving quietly through the overgrown lawns. As blood pounded in her ears, she listened for creaks or scuffs, anything that would announce to her that he was climbing the steps.
Then she heard more runners approaching. It sounded like a whole pack of kids. Her mind raced. Maybe they were chasing the first runner, or some larger group was chasing all of them. The strong chasing the weak was all too common on the mainland.
Not sensing any immediate danger, Abby let the others sleep. They were invisible inside her mom’s house, one of thousands plundered since the comet. Anyway, if they were discovered, they had nothing of value, except half a can of beer.
She drew in a sharp breath when she remembered Mandy’s motorcycle. Hours earlier she and Mandy had hidden the motorcycle behind the bushes on the side of the house. The motorcycle was extremely valuable to them, because it offered a fast way for them to scout boats in Boston Harbor and to get more pills at the airport.
“Shit,” a boy cried. She noted that he had a deep voice.
“That way,” another boy said.
“Wait here,” a girl said.
“Shit,” the first boy repeated, this time angrily. “Gone. We lost her.”
The kids stopped to catch their breath. As they stood their huffing and talking, their voices drifted through the broken window.
Abby thought they must be standing on the street right out front, close enough to hear Jordan if he screamed out in his sleep. Sitting up, she braced herself as the walls started spinning. She concentrated on the voices.
“Trust me, she’s around here,” a girl said, “She’s hiding. I know it.”
“Or else. . . ” Abby couldn’t make out the rest of the sentence.
They swore at each other and talked about where they might find the sprinter. Abby counted four voices: two girls, two boys. They all sounded old, as if they were thirteen or fourteen. The boy with the man’s voice had to be at least that old.
She still saw no reason to wake the others. Whatever was going on outside wasn’t any of their business, and she had no desire to get involved. As she saw things, her priority was to return to the island.
“We don’t know that she has pills,” a boy said.
“Give it a rest,” a girl said. “She’s got them. Why else would she run?”
“Shit, I need a pill now,” deep voice said.
“Brad, stop whining. We all need one.”
Abby wanted to shout, Go the airport like everyone else. Boston was a Phase I distribution center, one of a handful of cities across the country receiving the first shipment of the pills. Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control were handing out the antibiotic at Logan Airport, bags of twenty five pills.
If the kids were sick, she understood their desperation to get pills. The epidemic had already killed almost every adult and was still killing adolescents when they reached puberty. The pills were the only cure.
“Brad, I don’t get you,” a girl said. “She might have shared them with us.”
“You got a problem with me?” Brad fired back.
The girl responded without a trace of fear. “It was stupid what you did. They didn’t do anything to you.”
Brad growled, “They showed up, okay. Don’t look at me like that.”
“What are you going to do? Bash my brains in too?”
“I snapped, okay?” Brad said.
“It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last,” the girl said.
“We’re wasting time,” the other boy said.
Abby crawled to the window and leaned against the wall just below the sill. Cool, smoky air from outside cascaded over her like a polluted waterfall. She did not dare raise her head, for fear they’d see movement.
“Let’s split up and meet back here in ten minutes,” the girl said.
“She’s probably a mile away by now,” Brad said.
Abby hoped that it was true.
“Hey, what’s that?” Brad shouted.
His voice jarred her. He had moved closer to the window. Much closer.
“We’re wasting time,” the other boy said.
Brad breathed deeply through his mouth. “Over here.”
Abby’s blood turned cold. If she reached out the window, she could touch Brad.
She heard chatter back and forth.
“I don’t believe it. A motorcycle.”
“You think it has gas?”
“The cap’s locked.”
“Are you surprised?”
“Do you know how to ride one?”
“How hard can it be?”
“It has a Maine license plate.”
“Why did someone. . .” The girl started whispering.
“They came from Maine to get the pills,” Brad said in a hushed tone. “They’re inside. They have pills. I know it.”
“Our lucky day,” the tough-talking girl said.
“Quiet,” Brad hissed.
They stopped talking and turned on a flashlight. Abby gulped in fear. Batteries were scarce and only the most violent gangs had them. The beam danced on the ceiling above her. Light glinted on the shards of glass in the window panes. They turned off the light.
Likely, they’d enter the house any moment and demand the keys to the padlock and the motorcycle. If it were up to Abby, she’d let them have the motorcycle. It was not a necessity, not worth sacrificing their lives. They would also demand pills. Abby had crushed the last pill and pushed the powder down Jordan’s throat hours ago. They’d never believe any of that. Then what? Desperate people did unpredictable things, and Brad sounded desperate.
Abby knew they were no match for Brad’s gang. Even though it was four against four—if she had correctly counted voices—she and Jordan were recovering, lucky to have the combined strength of one, and nine-year-old Timmy only weighed fifty pounds soaking wet. That left Mandy. Wielding her knife, Mandy could take on two at once, but that still left two.
Abby wondered if she could reason with them. She’d explain that the line for pills at the airport moved slowly, but it least it moved. She’d appeal to their greed, saying that each of them could get a bag of twenty five pills, and then sell or trade what they didn’t need.
If that failed, she could always try bluffing them. A gang with a motorcycle must be particularly vicious, right? She’d convince them that the members of her gang outnumbered them. They —the hunters—were about to become the prey.
But Abby knew she couldn’t lie to save her life.
She pressed against the wall, weighed with doubts. Her action would either frighten them, buying her precious seconds to wake the others, or humor them. She shot to her feet, waving her arms wildly and shouting. A fresh wave of dizziness scrambled her head, and she gripped the sill. Luckily, the shouts came from her parched throat as pathetic croaks because Brad’s gang had retreated across the street.
She ducked to the side. Peering out the window, careful to avoid a shard of glass inches from her nose, she saw four shapes close to each other. One kid stood a foot taller than the others. He had to be Brad.
As Abby moved away from the window something rustled outside. “It’s her,” Brad bellowed.
The flashlight flicked on, and the beam locked onto a girl coming out of the shrubs across the street. She ran straight at them and veered away at the last moment, like a bull charging a matador. She wore a green jacket and her long hair flew back as she dashed down Pearl Street.
The four kids broke after her—lions after a gazelle.
It made no sense. Why did the girl run at them? Abby chalked it up to the craziness of the mainland.
Expecting Brad’s gang to come back for the motorcycle, and to demand pills if they didn’t catch the girl, she jiggled Jordan’s shoulder. “Hey, wake up,” she croaked. He grunted, folded his arms, and rolled over. The stories of what her brother could sleep through were legendary. Fire engines. Fog horns. Screaming toddlers. “Jordie, c’mon.” She placed her hand on his forehead. After months of feeling high fevers, she’d never grow tired of a cool forehead. He pushed her hand away.
Accepting defeat, Abby moved to the others. Mandy sucked her thumb. With her ear and cheek piercings invisible in the dark, nobody would have guessed the fourteen-year old had been a member of a violent motorcycle gang. She bit her lip and paused when she saw Mandy holding Timmy’s hand.
They looked cold, and Abby covered them with a jacket. She’d let them sleep as long as she could.
Abby tilted the beer to her lips. A special purple brew made to celebrate the comet. The can was half full. The tiny sip of liquid wet her swollen tongue and moistened her throat. Until they found water, the beer was all they had.
She slid the piano bench beside the window. The neighborhood was quiet, and the eastern sky showed a trace of light through the hazy smoke. She eyed front yards where she had once played and heard the voices of neighbors who died the night of the purple moon. Daffodils bloomed out front, from bulbs that her mom had planted three years ago.
The sob came without warning, along with tears that she wouldn’t have believed she had left. They trickled down her cheeks.
Mom was still upstairs in bed. Jordan had seen her body. “She looks so peaceful. Go on, Abby. Go see her.”
Abby gritted her teeth. She was holding on to an image of her mother, healthy and happy, red hair blowing in the wind. She would not risk replacing that image with what she’d find upstairs.
Dawn broke and swept away dark memories and shadows. She saw tall weeds sprouting from sidewalk cracks. A carpet of oak and maple leaves covered the street. Nature was reclaiming the city. The sky brightened to a burnished gray. In the distance, billows of black smoke boiled up, so thick that they blotted out the sun. She could no longer stand being alone, no matter how much the others needed rest. She looked up and down the street one last time before she left her post.
Jordan was living up to his reputation of being a hibernating bear, and she wondered if she’d have to drag him off the couch.
The front doorknob clicked. Abby froze.
How stupid could she be? Brad’s gang had doubled back. They’d been watching her at the window all this time. They had made their move the moment she stepped away.
Her heart boomed. She rushed to Mandy and squeezed her arm. Mandy’s eyes shot open. Abby put a finger to her lips and pointed in the direction of the door.
Mandy understood. She pulled Timmy’s head close and placed her hand over his mouth. “Shhhh,” she whispered in his ear.
The door squeaked.
Abby held up four fingers, the number of kids they had to deal with. Then she held up one finger with her hand high to show that one of them was big. Mandy nodded and removed her knife from its sheath. The sight of the long blade sent a chill down Abby’s spine. Mandy set the sheath on the floor.
Mandy tapped Timmy and pointed to a corner of the room, wanting the boy a safe distance away. But Timmy, who had no family, had survived on his own on the mainland for more than a year. He stood his ground, bravely ready to take on any threat.
But when Mandy narrowed her eyes and shot him a look, he tiptoed to the corner with a scowl.
The door clicked shut.
Should she try to wake up Jordan? No, he’d get up soon enough. Abby couldn’t imagine even him sleeping through a fight.
Mandy plastered herself against the wall. Maintain an element of surprise and strike with sudden force. That was how kids on the mainland lived, how they survived. Gripping the knife, Mandy motioned her to swing wide. Abby stepped to a position beside the piano, where she had a good view of the hallway. Movement caught her eye. Timmy was inching forward.
If she spoke up now, she’d put them all in jeopardy. She took a deep breath and focused on the hallway. The blood pounding in her ears drowned out all sounds.
As the girl with the green jacket rounded the corner, Mandy raised the knife and reared back. In one motion, she twisted her torso and drove the blade forward.
“Mandy, no!” Abby cried. “I know her.”
Just as the knife point came in contact with the girl’s jacket, Mandy opened her hand and the knife tumbled to the floor.
Abby rushed over. “Oh my God—Mel!”
Night of the Purple Moon @ Amazon
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