HOW LONG? HOURS, MINUTES, or just seconds? Everything is still, much quieter than it should be. I slowly pry my eyes open, not knowing what I'm going to see. The windshield of the Land Rover has shattered, the glass crisscrossed by hundreds of tiny, snaking cracks. We're straddling another wreck, and the nose of the car has been shunted up into the air. Lying back in my seat, all I can see in front of me is a foul and angry yellow-gray sky. It's the color of bile.

Ellis moves. I try to lean across and turn toward her, but my neck's stiff. I reach up to massage it, but I stop. My skin feels moist, raw, and pliable. Must have been burned. Ellis shuffles again, and I try to twist around. Then I freeze. I feel my bladder loosen involuntarily.

The force of what just happened must have spun the Land Rover around through more than a complete half turn, and what I can see now through the passenger window is the single most terrifying thing I have ever seen. Between here and what used to be the city, almost everything's on fire. There are flickering flames everywhere, and the ground is scorched and black. The city itself-my home, the place where I lived with my family and where I worked and played and struggled and fought-is gone. A thick climbing column of dark gray smoke rises straight up into the sky from its dead heart. At a height I can't even begin to imagine the smoke balloons out and turns in on itself again and again, forming the unmistakable shape of a mushroom cloud.

Ellis climbs up onto the passenger seat next to me. Thank God I found her. If I'd been any slower or any later or if I'd waited any longer she'd be gone now, vaporized in the blinking of an eye along with so many others. Lizzie, Josh, Edward... all gone. I start sobbing. The apartment, Joseph Mallon, Julia... Don't know why I'm crying. Is it shock, relief, or sorrow...? Ellis looks at the explosion in the distance, then turns and watches me, her brown eyes locked onto mine. I try to talk to her, but I can't make the words come out. My throat is burning and dry. My lungs feel like they're filled with smoke. Is she in shock, too? For the first time since I found her she's quiet and subdued.

"We'll wait here till it's safe," I tell her in a voice that doesn't sound like mine. "Then we'll find somewhere better, okay?"

She looks at me but doesn't react. Then she looks at the broken windshield.

"Snow," she says, the first proper word I've heard my daughter say in months.

"Not snow," I tell her, watching a few large gray clumps drift down and settle on the cracked glass. "It's ash. Dirty. Poison. Make you sick."

She slumps back in her seat, and beyond her I can see the mushroom cloud again. Even now after all that's happened, it's a terrifying and humbling sight. The ultimate symbol of the Hate. Who did this?

"We're going to find a house," I tell Ellis, still watching the cloud, not knowing what I'm saying now or why, "and you and me are going to stay there together. I know it's hard to understand what happened with Mummy and Edward and Josh, but one day we'll work it out, and when we do you'll-"

She springs up from her seat and throws herself across the inside of the Land Rover, leaning on my chest, shoving me back into my chair, and pressing her face hard against the glass. I can't move, pinned down by her weight. She's following something, watching it circling us. With lightning speed she jumps away again, then scrambles over the seats into the back of the car, trampling over the soldiers' still-wet corpses. She yanks at one of the door handles, trying to get out.

"Don't, sweetheart," I shout, trying to turn my aching body around and pull her back into the front. I manage to catch hold of her, but she wrestles herself free. "You can't go out there-"

She squeezes through the gap between the seats again, pushing me back and lunging for the door. I lean across and cover the lock. She shakes the handle violently and screams with frustration.

"Ellis, don't," I plead. "You have to stay here with me. You can't-"

A sudden round of gunfire from somewhere close interrupts me. I turn and look out of the window at my side and see that there are people out on the highway now. Hundreds of them. Mostly they look like our people, but there are Unchanged soldiers among them, too. Our fighters outnumber them. They're hunting them down.

Ellis lunges at me, trying to get past. I wrap my heavy arms around her waist and try to pull her closer, but she kicks herself free. I'm too tired to keep fighting. She shoves me away, and the back of my head cracks against the window. Her constant, violent movements make the precariously balanced Land Rover shake and start to slip and lurch to one side.

"Please..." I say, cautiously trying to reach for her again. She recoils from my touch, scrambling away. She pushes against the windshield in frustration. When the broken glass starts to bulge outward, she does it again. And again. I want to stop her, but I don't have the energy. There's blood on her hands now, but she goes on thumping the glass regardless, desperate to get out. Finally, with a grunt of effort and anger, she breaks through the windshield and scrambles out onto the hood of the Land Rover. My door's blocked by another crashed car, and all I can do is follow her out. I crawl over the front of the vehicle, the metal still hot, most of its paint scorched away, shards of glass grinding into my belly. I drop down onto the ground and lose my footing when it's farther to fall than I think. I get up quickly, breathing hard. The air out here is bone dry and foul smelling.

Ellis darts away, and I follow her, moving out from the shadow of the crashed Land Rover and into the open. I look along the highway in both directions. It's a single mass of stationary vehicles now. Many of the Unchanged drivers and their passengers are dead. I can see them wedged behind the wheels of wrecks, others with their bloody faces smashed up against windows. Some have survived. One of them emerges from the back of an overturned truck a short distance away. Before they've taken more than a couple of steps away, Ellis has attacked. She jumps onto a car, then leaps at the disoriented Unchanged man, landing on his back and smashing him down to the ground with incredible brutality.

A pack of fighters races past me. They've been waiting out here in the wasteland, and now they pick their way through the convoy like vultures, stripping the meat from Unchanged bones, hunting out the survivors and tearing them apart. Up ahead a Brute thunders along the road unchallenged, making kill after kill after kill. Any Unchanged resistance is quickly crushed. Even those who try to run are chased down and killed.

Ellis lunges at another one and disappears from view. I swallow hard and force myself to move. Leg hurts. I look down and see that there's blood dribbling down from my right knee. My trouser leg and boot are stained wet-red.

"Ellis, wait," I try to shout, my voice nowhere near loud enough. I find her on the ground beside a jeep, leaning down over another body. She looks up at me, and a chunk of bloody flesh drops from her mouth. Was she chewing it? I reach out and grab her wrist before she's able to get away. "Too dangerous here. Need to get under cover. Come with me..."

She pries my weak fingers off and crawls away, searching for the next kill. She brings down a dazed, blood-soaked woman who's already half dead. She pulls her down to her knees, grabs a fistful of hair, and smashes her face again and again into a charred car door, denting the paint-stripped metal more and more with each impact. I haul myself toward her, using other wrecks for support. Up ahead the towering mushroom cloud is beginning to fade and lose focus. That makes me even more afraid. Soon the air will be filled with poison if it's not already. I throw myself down at Ellis again and wrap my arms tight around her. The pain in my bleeding knee is unbearable, but I have to ignore it. Ellis is all that matters.

"You have to come with me. We'll both die if we stay out here."

She puts the soles of her bare feet against the misshapen car door and straightens her legs, pushing me away. Overbalanced, and with one leg already weakened, I fall back. She bites down onto my hand, drawing blood, and I let go. She stands over me, one foot on either side of my body. I look up at her, covering my eyes against the fine dust and ash, which is falling faster now. I reach up and snatch her hand again as she sees another Unchanged and tries to run. I won't let go. I can't let go. She screams and pulls and kicks at me, but I won't let her go.

"Stay with me, please..."

Ellis drops down onto my chest and stares into my face. What's she thinking? Does she understand any of this? Another Unchanged trying to drag itself to safety distracts her, and she starts to move. I grip her wrist even harder.

"Don't go."

She clenches her free hand into a fist and hits me. I try to stop her, but she hits me again, then again and again and again until my face is numb and my eyes are almost swollen shut. Too tired. Can't fight back.

I feel her get up.

There's so much I need to say, but I can't get even the first word out. I'm aware of her looking down at me, breathing hard, my blood on her hands.

"Ellis-" I start to say, but she isn't listening. She looks up, then sprints away. I turn my head and watch as she disappears into the maze of crashed vehicles, searching for her next kill. All I can do is watch her go. Copyright 2016 - 2023