THERE'S A FIRE ESCAPE at the rear of the hotel, a staircase running down the back of the building. Lizzie, watching me like a hawk and carrying a knife I know she won't dare use, pushes me down the landing and around a corner toward an innocuous-looking gray door. It's already been forced open. She gestures for me to go through.

"Where is she?" I ask as I step outside, shouting to make myself heard over the sounds of fighting that fill the air. We stand at the top of a zigzagging metal staircase bracketed to the back of the old, run-down building. She points in the general direction of the streets behind the hotel, but I can't see anything specific. The sun is rising, and below us the city is beginning to burn. A fleet of planes and helicopters is taking off from somewhere far over to our left.

"There's a garage," she answers breathlessly. "The front of it has collapsed, so it's difficult to get in or out. We locked her in the back of a van."

"If this is a trick, Lizzie-"

"No trick," she says quickly, and I know she's telling the truth. We're wasting precious time. Sensing Ellis is close, I start climbing down.

There's another parking lot at the back of the hotel, and a small patch of wildly overgrown garden beyond it. Lizzie leads me away from the building down a narrow path that's barely visible through the long, damp grass. The sky is still filled with heavy gray cloud, but it's slowly beginning to brighten.

"This way," she whispers, catching her breath when a series of brilliant white flashes explodes, lighting up the early morning gloom for a fraction of a second at a time. A low-flying helicopter gunship rumbles overhead, heading back toward town.

I follow her to the end of the path, where there's a tall wrought-iron gate. Lizzie bends down and shifts a broken lump of paving slab that's keeping it shut, and the gate swings open. She pauses before going through, ducking back into the shadows as a group of people runs past. I watch them as we step out into the open, three figures chasing a fourth down a narrow, cobbled passageway. They corner the lone runner, drag him to the ground, and kick the shit out of him. It's impossible to tell who's who-am I watching the Unchanged being hunted down, or is that one of my people cornered? It doesn't matter anymore.

"Move!" Lizzie hisses, shoving me forward again. There's another gate in a wooden fence on the other side of this alleyway. We go through, and I can tell immediately from the number of rusting car parts and piles of tires and mufflers that this must be the place. I follow her through a side door into a dusty office. It's dark. She stops suddenly, and I walk into the back of her, then hold on to her as she grabs my sleeve and leads me farther forward, pausing only to pick up a flashlight she obviously left here previously. We go through another door and down a single steep step into what must be the main workshop. The air's cold, and the noise we make echoes off the walls. She shines the light farther ahead, and I see that the front of the building has collapsed in on itself, sealing it off from the street.

"Over here."

We move around the back of a jacked-up car to the farthest corner of the workspace. There's a white and blue van parked with its back to the wall. Its front fender is a light matte gray color, primed and waiting to be painted by a garage employee who's never coming back. As we move toward the rear of the van, I see there's a light on inside it. Lizzie pushes me out of the way and unlocks the door. She opens it as far as she can, then slips through the gap, and I follow her.

Lying flat on her back in the middle of the van, chained to the front seats with her mouth gagged and her wrists, legs, and ankles bound together with plastic-covered clothesline, is Ellis. She's awake and alert, her beautiful brown eyes darting from Lizzie to me and back again. She looks straight at me, but I'm not sure if she remembers. Dressed only in a dirty gray undershirt and panties, her tiny body is covered in cuts, scratches, and bruises. Lizzie leans over her, and she immediately reacts, arching away from her, then trying to lunge forward and attack. The longer I look at her, the less familiar she becomes. She sobs and whines through the gag like a frightened animal.

Lizzie, Ellis, and me all together again. I never dared dream this would really happen. Suddenly the noise of the battles outside and the helicopters and explosions don't seem to matter. Everything that I have left is in the back of this van. I swing my backpack off my shoulders and open it up. I pull out Ellis's doll, and Lizzie takes it from me and holds it close, tears running down her face.

"You went back?" She whispers.

"Looking for you," I tell her.

Lizzie moves Ellis's wild, unkempt hair away from her eyes and tries to show her the doll. She recoils from her mother's touch, desperately trying to pull away. Lizzie seems unfazed. I guess she must be used to this now. Ellis's eyes show no recognition, no understanding.

"It would have been easier on everyone if she'd just stayed with you," she admits, "but how was I to know after what you did?"

"I know."

"I didn't even realize she was like you until a couple of days after you'd gone. I didn't expect it, didn't even think it could happen. One minute she was sitting there with her brothers, the next... I was out of the room for less than five minutes. I came back in and saw her with Edward..."

She starts sobbing, tears dripping down onto Ellis, who wriggles and squirms as if they're corrosive acid drops.

"Why did this have to happen, Danny?" she asks. She knows I can't give her the answers she wants.

"It wasn't because of anything you did or didn't do. None of us could control it or predict it..."

She smiles and wipes her eyes. "Remember how hard we used to think we had it? How frustrated we used to get with the kids...?"

"How could I forget?"

"You hated your job, I couldn't stand being with the children, Dad was sick of bailing us out all the time..."

"I know. I remember."

"I'd do anything to have it all back how it was."

She's right. In spite of everything, sitting here with her and with Ellis lying between us, part of me knows she's right.

"I wish I could be back there," she continues, reaching down and resting her hand on Ellis's shoulder. Ellis flinches and tries to roll away, but Lizzie ignores her violent reaction. "You, me, Ellis, and the boys in the kitchen of our shitty little apartment, fighting over the TV or who'd eaten whose candy or something stupid like that..."

"Me, too," I say quietly, surprising myself with my admission. Another explosion reverberates around the garage, followed by the sound of dust and debris raining down on the roof of the van. This van is like a cocoon, temporarily isolating us from the chaos of the rest of the world, but I can hear the intensity of the fighting outside continuing to increase.

"We can't stay here," I tell her. "It's not safe."

"I know."

"I have to go. I have to take her with me and get her away."

Lizzie nods and wipes her eyes again. She looks down at Ellis and smiles, then crouches down next to her and picks up the knife she was carrying. Ellis tries to lunge at her, the chains still holding her back. For a split second I think Lizzie's going to attack her, but I watch her face and I know that she won't. She can't. She removes the clothesline that has been wrapped around Ellis's legs, then slides the long blade between her bare ankles and draws it up, cutting through the plastic ties that hold her tight. Ellis immediately reacts, kicking out at Lizzie with incredible, unrestrained fury and anger.

"What are you doing? Get out of here, Liz. Just go-"

"Hold her, Danny."

I lift Ellis up, her legs still thrashing, and wrap my arms around her chest as Lizzie removes the padlock and chains that have kept her anchored to the floor of the van. Her ferocity and strength are remarkable, and I struggle to keep hold of her. Lizzie removes Ellis's gag, and her head immediately lurches forward as she tries to take a bite out of her mother's face. Lizzie ducks out of the way, then lowers the blade toward the ties binding Ellis's wrists together.

"You should go," I tell her. "Get back to Mark and the others. Try to get away from here while you still can."

She shakes her head and starts to cut.

"Let her go, Danny. I just want to hold her before you take her."

I relax my grip. The plastic ties pop open, and Ellis immediately lunges forward, her incredible strength taking me by surprise. She flies at Lizzie, landing in her arms and smashing her back against the side of the van with a sickening thump. For the briefest of moments they're locked in an embrace, Lizzie burying Ellis's face in her chest, not wanting to let her go. I watch the pair of them in the low light, huddled close together. They could be anywhere-saying good-bye in the school playground, sitting on the end of Ellis's bed last thing at night, keeping her warm when she's just come in from outside...

Then the expression on Lizzie's face changes. Her eyes screw shut with pain, and she opens her mouth to scream but no sound comes out. Ellis pushes her away and glances back at me, blood covering the bottom part of her face. She spits out a chunk of Lizzie's flesh, then turns back and attacks again.

I shuffle back into the corner and cover my head as she rips her mother's body apart. Copyright 2016 - 2024