In the ruins, p.1
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       In The Ruins, p.1

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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In The Ruins


  In the Ruins

  Roadtrip Z - Season Two

  Lilith Saintcrow

  Copyright © 2017 by Lilith Saintcrow

  Cover art © 2017 by Skyla Dawn Cameron

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Print ISBN: 9781973260202

  For Mel Sanders, once more

  Contents

  I. In the Ruins

  1. Life Lesson

  2. Not Enough Pop

  3. Wonder of the World

  4. Ain't A Word That Applies

  5. I Like My Cocktails

  6. Right as Rain

  7. So Were the Living

  8. Goodbye to Old Friends

  9. A Good Hypothesis

  10. Losing Count

  11. Macabre Game

  12. Brandon French

  13. Observations

  14. Put Your Manners On

  15. Get Change Back

  16. Your Useful

  17. Extraordinary Situation

  18. Knowing Be Better

  19. See Who Dies

  20. That's Really Unfortunate

  21. Enough to Bleed

  22. A Fuckin Unicorn

  23. Hunt Eat Sleep

  24. Actually in Kentucky

  25. Momma Has To Eat

  II. STAY TUNED

  26. I Killed the Car

  27. Plumbdamn Insane

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  In the Ruins

  Life Lesson

  This particular Best Western three miles from Lewiston was dark and empty, but an employee door tucked in a northern corner was easy enough to jimmy open. At least, it seemed easy when Lee and Juju did it, and Ginny Mills couldn’t decide if they seemed altogether too practiced at the maneuver or if they were just handy enough it wasn’t a problem. Built to keep the honest people out, Lee remarked, and Juju’s grin in response made him look years younger. From inside, they could manually open the sliding glass doors in the front.

  Fire codes were probably a thing of the past, too, now that the world had ended. Coast to coast, the man on the news had said. The illness raged like a wildfire, fever, flu, convulsions, coma, and the horrid grinding growling while the infected chewed everything they could. Everything, but most especially, anything living.

  The hotel foyer was eerily tidy, a curved check-in desk standing empty and dark. The only sign of something not right, aside from the lack of electricity, was a vase of wilted lilies under a large logo made of cheap pasteboard and glass. Steph Meacham held onto Ginny’s arm so tightly she was going to leave a bruise or two, but Ginny didn’t have the heart to shake free. Instead, she studied the large, shadow-filled space. No bar, no attached restaurant, just an expanse of blue and orange carpet left over from the seventies and an alcove with the blank steel faces of two elevators, useless without power.

  Had they failed with someone inside? Or in the cities, in the skyscrapers…Had it happened all at once? Or by degrees? How long had it taken for the world to fall apart? Had Cotton Crossing been bumbling along like Ginny herself in the duplex, chaos and blood spattering on the other side of thin drywall as her neighbors died?

  “Rooms on the second floor at least.” Juju Thurgood rubbed at the back of his left hand, where a shiny burn scar gleamed against brown skin. His blue knit cap had a cheerful pompom on top, bobbing as he glanced around, the same quick scan Lee used to gauge likely danger. His breath showed, a thin cloud, even though it was much warmer in here without the wind. “Safer. And we’d best take ’em together.”

  “Ayuh.” Lee Quartine, lean and dark-eyed in a fatigue jacket over a tan sweater, ran stiff fingers through his sandy hair and glanced incuriously at the small bell on the counter. A mass-produced sign sat next to it, hard red plastic with white engraving. Please ring for service.

  Nobody was going to be ringing for service for a while, Ginny thought. Traveller trotted away to investigate this new cave the humans had decided to shelter in. The bluetick coonhound’s tail worked furiously, his nose to the carpet, untangling a smorgasbord of aromas. Doggie heaven.

  It was the little things that disturbed her. No lights in house windows. Stores with their doors ajar, or their windows broken and snow spilled across goods pulled almost-free, left midway. When rural peeled away and suburban pressed close it wasn’t so bad, but several strip malls clustering the highway showed signs of looting. No other cars in sight, though there were tracks on the rimed, salt-treated roads. The wreckage of a few abandoned checkpoints had been clear of at least one lane each time, but there was no guarantee that would keep happening along the way. They’d have to start driving on the shoulder or median soon, which gave Ginny all sorts of heebie-jeebies. If she’d been in her Toyota, she wouldn’t have made it even this far.

  Cotton Crossing had slept while the rest of the country broke apart. Coast to coast, the sweating man on the public broadcast station said before the signal cut out; somehow it was this empty hotel foyer that made it seem…well, not just possible, but like a done deal.

  Her back ached from jolting in the truck all day. Ginny studied the clunky chairs, not truly meant for lounging. Polite fictions, a pretense that a hotel wasn’t tiny boxes stacked on top of each other. Apartments, hotels, office buildings—clusters of boxes, all of them. Even her duplex was, individual rooms fitted together. Domestic Legos.

  “—Miss Virginia?” Lee’s voice broke across her thoughts, and he was looking at her, stubble softening the hard line of his jaw. He looked a lot better without his usual baseball cap, and with his buzzcut growing out. “What do you think?”

  “Hm?” Her scalp itched. Were there magazines on the tiny tables between the uncomfortable, overstuffed, and probably board-hard chairs? Would there be magazines ever again, at least in her lifetime, if this thing was not just American but worldwide? We have reports from other countries, too. “Sorry, what?”

  If her inattention bothered him, he didn’t show it. “You want a room with Steph, there, or on your own?”

  God, she wanted to channel Garbo, and be alone. But the blue-eyed girl clutched a little tighter at Ginny’s arm with gloved fingers, and her babble in Lee’s red and white truck, mile after mile of it, had burned itself into Ginny’s brain.

  My daddy…he was makin this sound, and he ran right out at the truck. Half his face gone. And my mama, my mama…Sobbing little breaths, the girl trying to process the damn-near-unprocessable.

  “I think we girls should pair up,” Ginny said, after a long pause. Steph relaxed, her grasp loosening a little and her thin fine hair wildly mussed. “I may even have some nail polish in my luggage; we’ll have a slumber party.” We’ll skip the face masks and the giggling about boys, though.

  Lee’s gaze, piercing even in the cold semi-darkness, warmed. He gave a short, sharp nod, and ridiculously enough, the small bit of approval eased the knot behind Ginny’s breastbone. “Aight.” Stretching the words all right over a few syllables and dropping everything in its middle, like everyone did around here. “Mark, you stay near the door there. Keep Trav with you, and you keep yo’ eyes peeled. Juju, you wanna come with me to see about a genny or such?” Getting Juju’s nod, he turned back to Ginny and Steph. “You want to find us good rooms? Near the stairs, I’m thinkin. End of a hall.”

  Ginny nodded. “What if—” What if there are more of them?

  Of course, Lee got there ahead of her. “Run away. Run down here and start screamin’, that’ll bring us in a hurry.”

  “Amen to that,” Mark Kasprak, his dark e
yes smudged with sleeplessness, muttered.

  It was on the tip of Ginny’s tongue to ask if maybe, just maybe, she should be armed, but the thought of a gun made her unsteady and queasy at once. Maybe something like a baseball bat? She thought it over, decided Steph was nervous enough to bludgeon Ginny if things got scrambled and more of the infected showed up, and that running was probably, all things considered, the best strategy. “That makes sense,” she said, dully. It was taking her too long to plod from one thought to the next. “Oh. First we should check, though.”

  “For what?” Juju shifted from foot to foot, probably eager to find a bathroom. Maybe the pipes weren’t frozen here? Now that was an encouraging thought.

  Ginny patted at Steph’s grasp on her arm, trying to comfort the teenager and probably failing miserably. “To see if this place has updated. If it’s changed to keycards, the doors might not work, except from inside the rooms.”

  “They’s on batteries,” Steph piped up, her blue gaze brightening. Thin tendrils of her hair—somewhere between blonde and brown, shifting colors as the light hit it—stuck to her forehead. “If it’s keycards. When we went to Florida there was a red light on our door and they told Daddy it was the low battery light.”

  “I didn’t know that.” Ginny’s face unfroze. What kind of expression had she been wearing? A normal one, she hoped; now she was smiling. The pleasure of learning something new, though muted, was still considerable. A sharpish smell of disuse had already filled the entire foyer. “Never mind, then. We’ll figure it out, go ahead.”

  Mark whistled for the dog and headed for the square of grey winterlight falling through the door. Beyond the glass, Lee's red-and-white Chevy and Juju's black 4x4 stood patient and snow-caked on painted stripes, under the roof meant to keep Mrs Whoever and her bags from Pokomo from getting rained on. Juju and Lee, both with heavy black flashlights—now those looked useful, they could club the chewing, shuffling things with little trouble—headed off to find a service door. Ginny, her fingers nervous and slick, found the latch securing the little swinging piece of pasteboard that said here is official space, just like the one at the library’s checkout counter.

  God. She would never see Lewiston’s Fifth Street library building again, or the Cotton Crossing branch she worked on Sundays. Never sit through another acquisitions meeting, or sip hot tea in the break room with Annie Collins, or hear her boss Bobbie’s rolling Appalachian accent. Never going to street-park on Sundays because Cotton Crossing kids, bored and full of mischief, had filled the library lot with broken glass the night before. Never going to lay out the papers for Elmore Creary or wish vengefully for his squeaky chair to dump him, or patiently explain how to use the internet to a woman old enough to be her mother.

  God. How was Mom doing? And Dad? Flo, and…the baby? The due date was…Good Lord, Ginny didn’t even know what day it was. Without her phone or laptop, keeping calendar track wasn't so easy. Would survivors eventually be reduced to stone henges and counting on their fingers?

  “Miz Mills?” Steph, anxious, still clutching at her arm. “You okay?”

  Keep it together, Ginny. She took a deep breath, settling her shoulders, and a blinked furiously a few times to get her eyes to focus. Behind the hotel desk, everything looked different, the working side instead of the customer-service façade. “I am,” she lied. “Help me find another flashlight back here, sweetie, and we’ll look at the floor plan.”

  Steph’s wan, sharply pretty face creased, but at least she wasn’t as wild-eyed now. Ginny could see a shadow of what the girl would look like when she finished growing, high cheekbones and soft lips. “The floor plan?”

  “Research is always better than going in blind.” Ginny wasn’t just soothing the teenager, but herself. It was easier to be steady when you had someone else to balance first. “Life lesson.”

  “Lots of that goin around these days,” Steph said, and after a few shocked moments, their laughter—thin, unsteady, but very welcome—made the dark a little less clammy, and a whole lot more bearable.

  Not Enough Pop

  “.22 won’t stop ’em.” Juju shook his head, the pompom on his hat bouncing, while he played the flashlight beam over a gigantic bank of washing machines. The dryers on the other side, each door slighlty ajar, were compound eyes peering at these interlopers. “Not enough pop, even with hollow ammo.”

  Lee Quartine made a noise of assent. He wasn’t sure what kind of gun Kasprak could handle, but Juju had a point. Everyone played with .22s, even Steph could likely use one. Ginny, though…maybe not, being a city girl and all. Still, she’d been the one thinking to ask what she and Steph should do if they ran across one of the things. The critters.

  Kasprak called them zombies. It was as good a word as any, but Lee didn’t like it. He liked none of this. He had a couple other thoughts rolling around inside his head, but they weren’t ready for outside yet. There was one he’d been waiting to broach when he got Juju alone, though. “Guns might not be the best idea.”

  “Huh?” Juju’s boots squeaked a little. Out where the guests would be, it was all carpeted. Back here, there was no use for luxury, and the floor was bare concrete, worn to a glossy shine. “Aha, look at that.”

  “Hallelujah.” A door labeled ELECTRICAL gave onto a small room full of circuit breakers and dust. “Them things, their eyes are caved in. They hear just fine, though.” Lee examined the wall of breakers. “Guns might bring ’em home for supper.”

  Juju gave it a few moments of thoughtful silence. “Baseball bat?” He also examined the breakers. Tip had generally been for going in hot to overwhelm problems before they started; Juju favored the take-a-look-first approach.

  Which suited Lee right down to the ground. “Got to work on my game anyway.” Their boots no longer left damp prints, but he stepped carefully anyway.

  You never could tell.

  A half-snort of a laugh. Juju touched one breaker, another, getting them all clear in his head. “Didn’t know you played.”

  “Don’t. Could stand to start, though.” Lee made up his mind to gamble on a couple switches, once Juju gave the all-clear. “We may be lucky. Looks like a couple of the mains flipped.”

  “Might be juice if we flip ’em back. Not alla them.” Juju pointed, the sleeve of his bomber jacket creaking. A double-layer of sweaters underneath it blurred his outline, but he’d never look fat. “Just that one, and…that one, there. Yeah. That oughta do it.”

  Generally, if you wanted to know about the chassis or the propulsion, you asked Tip; if you wanted to know about the wiring, you asked Juju. Lee was just a general hand; he liked taking things apart, seeing their innards, and putting them back together. There was a deep, itch-scratching satisfaction to making anything work again. “Let’s find out.”

  Two heavy clicks later a subliminal hum ran through the building. A low orange glow peeked under the door, and when Juju swept the heavy metal rectangle open, emergency lights made Lee’s eyes sting a little. You adapted right quick to darkness.

  Humans could adapt to just about anything. Just like cockroaches.

  “Pass the butter,” Juju muttered, sweeping his hat off and jamming it in a pocket.

  “And give me the goddamn beans,” Lee replied, reflexively. “No tellin how long it’ll last. What else we got here, Mister Wizard?”

  “Gimme a second.” Juju eyed the boards. It was damn uncanny, the knack he had for electricals. He was a good teacher when he took a mind to share his expertise, but you couldn’t catch genius the way you could cold. “And I’ll show you some goddamn magic.”

  No restaurant, but the room-service kitchen was still stocked and functional. Steph brightened at this, and took to ordering Mark Kasprak around with aplomb, shooing the grown-ups away. “We can do this,” she said firmly. “Imma teach Mark about a deep fryer.”

  “I know how to open a can of beans,” the shag-haired boy muttered, but he was looking a lot better now. Some color was back in his cheeks, and Lee was thi
nking it was a good thing Steph was sleeping in Ginny’s room. Young’uns bounced back from terror damn quick, and if hormones weren’t the most powerful force ever invented, they were at least in the top five. Juju decided he’d see if the showers were warm yet and hustled off to find out before chow, taking Traveller with him. The dog wanted to stay with Ginny, but he was too well-trained to complain.

  Much.

  Ginny set off down the long, many-times-repainted service hall outside the kitchen as if she had someplace to be, head down and shoulders up, those pretty but useless boots of hers quiet as snowfall.

  Lee had to stretch his stride to catch up. “Where you headed?”

  She stopped dead, pitching forward sharply like her legs had decided on it without informing the rest of her. A few buckwheat-honey curls, worked loose of the two heavy braids wrapped around her head, bounced as she did. “The foyer.” Pronounced in that fancy way of hers. Foy-eh. “I thought…”

  He waited, but she didn’t say what she thought. She simply stood, face-forward, set and pale, her dark eyes slightly red-rimmed. Come to think of it, she hadn’t said much at all, beyond please-and-thank-you, with the notable exceptions of soothing Steph and wondering what the fuck to do if they found critters wandering around upstairs. There were shadows under her pretty dark eyes, too, and that blank stare was one he plain didn’t like.

 
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