Petra stood in the deep shadow under the trees. Across the bright lawn, a farmhouse sprawled in the sun. Petra could see a blond woman walking around in the kitchen, and a boy and girl in the front room. She imagined what they were saying to each other, what games the children might be playing. The smell of pancakes drifted through the morning air, and Petra took an involuntary step toward the big, white house.
Suddenly, the woman inside the house froze, her face framed in the kitchen window. Petra turned to look in the direction of the woman's gaze. Oh, no. There was something moving behind the garden shed. As the woman reached for a phone, Petra backed away carefully, further into the trees, until she was out of sight of the house. She knew what came next; she'd seen it happen over and over, pretty much the same way every time.
Perched on a branch high up an oak tree, Petra could see the shed through gaps in the cloud of leaves. A big square police unit pulled up to the house. She could hear its tires crunching on the gravel drive, but otherwise the black armored truck was silent. Petra thought she could remember police cars with sirens and lights, but maybe that was only something she'd seen on t.v. when she was little. Officers in bulky black Kevlar, faceless behind riot helmets, poured out of the truck and across the yard. As they moved toward the shed, Petra wanted to close her eyes. She really didn't want to see this part. But she made herself watch, because she had to see what they did if she wanted to keep safe.
The police squad went behind the shed. Petra heard the bang as they kicked in the door, and then shouting. After a minute, the squad came back to the front of the shed, pushing an old man in ratty clothes in front of them. One of the officers had him around the neck with one of those pole things with the loop on the end. The old man was moaning, and he had his hands up in front of his face. Probably his eyes hurt. That's why he was in the shed, Petra thought.
One of the officers yelled something. Maybe he was in charge. Two officers in disposable white jumpsuits came over with big axes, while another two hit the old guy with tasers. He dropped to the ground, twitching and moaning. The officer with the pole pulled, yanking the old man's head back, and one of the ones with an axe came up and chopped the guy's head off. It took a couple of swings. The sound still made Petra's stomach hurt, no matter how many times she heard it.
She did close her eyes for a little, while they hacked the old man's arms and legs off.
Petra opened her eyes in time to see the two guys in white use pitchforks to stick all of the old-man pieces in the special bin on the side of the truck. She wished she'd missed that part. She moved around to the other side of the tree trunk while a bunch of police got out their detectors and scanned all around the outside of the house. Petra knew they'd point the scanners into the woods, and maybe even walk in a little ways. But the police never really spent much time searching the forest that was all around the miles of connected suburbs.
The two clean-up officers took off their helmets, and Petra could hear them talking.
"Christ! I will never get used to this."
"Hah! You think this is hard, picking up a few AGCs out here in the fresh suburban air? When the automated units take over out here, we'll end up digging slags out of the city sewers, instead."
"What are they, anyway? Does anybody know where they came from?"
"Maybe somebody knows, but they haven't told us. We're just the pop and chop squad. C'mon. Let's get the gear disinfected before the sarge comes out."
# # # # #
Up until this spring, Petra lived in a house out in Seneca with her parents and her little brother. Things were actually pretty good. When they closed Brookside High School after winter break 'cause there weren't enough kids in the district anymore, Mom said Petra could study at home the rest of the year and start sophomore year at Maple Ridge. So she spent a lot of time that winter reading some of Mom's old biology books from college, and Catcher in the Rye, and doing the algebra problems Mom made up for her and Zach. Catcher in the Rye wasn't all that good, although Petra totally loved The Martian Chronicles.
Even though her dad was gone a lot with the Army, it was still okay. Mom kept things going, even that time last winter when all the lights were out for like a month and there was no heat. They used the fireplace, and went "shopping" in the empty houses down the road for canned food and candles and stuff to burn. Once, she and Zach found this huge woodpile behind an old farmhouse and got scared by a seriously big raccoon. But they brought a whole bunch of the wood home in the back of the car. After a while, the lights worked again and things seemed to go back to normal.
Dad finally came home on leave, and that was the best. They even went all the way into the city to go to the movies once. But then they all got sick, first Dad, then Zach, then Mom, and finally Petra. At first, she tried to take care of everybody, even though they were, like, really sick and puking and other stuff, and the phones weren't working to dial 911. Dad seemed like he was getting better, but Zach was spitting up blood and Petra didn't know what to do. All they had in the house was aspirin and that pink stuff for your stomach. She tried to help Zach, tried to wake up Dad, but then there was this feeling like her guts were being pulled out through her belly button. Petra didn't remember anything after that, for a long time.
She spent a lot of time in the bathroom, puking and stuff, and after a while she must have dragged herself into bed. Sometimes when she opened her eyes, sunlight was coming through the window. Sometimes her room was dark. When she could finally lift her head up without getting sick everywhere, the house was really quiet. Petra staggered down the hall, holding onto the wall, to Zach's room. The door was open, and Zach was still in bed.
He was dead. And so were Mom and Dad, Mom in the bed and Dad on the floor halfway across the room, like maybe he tried to get up, tried to get help, but he hadn't made it.
Nothing after that part mattered very much. She hadn't died, and after she got a little stronger and the ground was softer, Petra dragged Zach and Mom and Dad down the stairs and out the back door. She dug holes for them in the garden. It took days, and the holes weren't as deep as she thought they should be. She wrote their names and "I love you" with a Sharpie on pieces of wood she found in the garage, and put them up for gravestones.
But she never really got all the way well. The sun gave her headaches. She was tired all the time, but when she laid down she couldn't go to sleep. And she wasn't ever hungry anymore. Even when she made herself eat, she couldn't keep anything down, so she quit trying. She got all skinny, and her skin was really pale. After a while, Petra just sat in the living room with the curtains closed, not even reading, just sitting there.
Petra didn't know how long she stayed like that. But one day she heard footsteps on the porch and some people came right in the front door without even knocking or anything. They went into the kitchen first. Petra could hear them banging around, yanking out drawers and slamming cabinets.
"Look, I found the pantry! Come help me with this."
"More ramen noodles. How come it's always ramen noodles? "
Petra was still trying to figure out what these people were doing in her house when they came into the living room. One of them went to the front window and yanked the curtains open. A huge cloud of dust flew out. Petra thought the way it sparkled in the sun looked like Tinkerbell at the beginning of those movies.
"Shit, shit, it's one of them! The guy was pointing at something behind her. No, he was pointing _at_ her.
Petra tried to say something, like "Who are you? " or "Get out of my house! " but she hadn't talked for so long her voice wouldn't work at first, and all that came out was a raspy moan. She tried to stand up, but she was stiff from sitting in the same place and her feet were asleep or something, so she wasn't very steady when she finally managed it. But by then she was thinking straighter, and she was angry.
Her voice finally kicked in, and Petra stumbled toward the guy at the window, screaming. Wasn't it bad enough, that everybody was dead and she was sick and nothing was ever going to be right anymore, and then these jerks came into her family's house to take their stuff?! She screamed and screamed and screamed. Even after they ran away, she kept screaming until no sound came out anymore.
After a while, she opened the rest of the curtains and sat down on the couch, and tried to think what to do. It didn't seem safe to stay in the house, but where should she go? Wasn't there supposed to be someone who would come help her? Like the police, or a nurse, or -- what were those people called who took care of orphans and kids who were getting abused?
The lights didn't work, or the t.v. Neither did the phone. Petra went out to the garage and found Dad's emergency radio, the kind where you had to crank the handle for a while before you could turn it on. Maybe there would be something on there about what she was supposed to do.
"...AGCs are considered to be extremely dangerous. The public is warned not to approach one of these creatures. The CDC reports that captured specimens exhibit distinct pallor, lack of cardiopulmonary activity, and photosensitivity. If you believe you have seen an AGC, inform local law enforcement immediately. Mobile units will be dispatched to your location to destroy the infestation.
"Regional authorities advise that the following unincorporated areas will no longer receive public services: Alderson, Chesapeake, Montgomery, Neosho, Red House Hill, Seneca, Sumner. Residents of these areas will no longer have access to local police and fire service, public education, public health services, or weekly food depots. If you live in one of these areas, you are strongly encouraged to evacuate to more populous locations."
More populous locations? What did that mean? Maybe she should go to Maple Ridge, see if she could find somebody at a police station or somewhere who could help her get in touch with Mom's sister in New York. Petra hadn't seen Aunt Becky since Zach was still a baby, but that was the only relative she could think of. She wondered if it would be okay if she drove Mom's car, even though she didn't have a license.
Petra went to her room and packed some clothes in her backpack. And Puppy, the stuffed animal some ancient relative gave her when she was born. She was really too old for Puppy anymore, but she couldn't leave him here if she maybe wasn't coming back. She threw in a brush, too, and some hairbands. And her favorite bracelet that her best friend Isabel had given her in 7th grade.
She was wondering whether she should take her diary when she looked up and saw herself in the mirror. The sunlight was really bright on her face, and Petra realized how pale she was. Like, ghost white. And her eyes weren't blue anymore. They were almost white, too. It was so weird! Her own reflection was freaking her out, and she kind of squeaked like she did at the scary parts of movies. Except . . . usually her heart would be trying to jump out of her throat.
Petra put a hand over her heart. She didn't feel anything. She tried feeling her wrist, but that didn't work. She put her fingers on both sides of her throat. Nothing. She didn't have a pulse. And now that she thought about it, she wasn't breathing, either.
Petra sat down, hard, on the floor. Why wasn't she breathing? What should she do? She needed a hospital or something, right? Somebody needed to tell her what to do!
Backpack in her hand, Petra took Mom's car keys off of the peg by the back door and left the house. Backing down the long driveway was hard, even though she was trying to aim straight, but finally she made it to the road. That was easier, especially since there weren't any other cars.
She drove really slowly, 'cause even though it was kinda cool to be driving it was actually way more scary than cool. The road up to Highway 16 was a lot longer than she remembered it, and there was trash everywhere. Broken-open suitcases and rain-soaked boxes full of dvds and stuff like refrigerators and gross, squishy couches were just left out on the side of the road. And there were huge drifts of trash piled up against all the buildings like disgusting snow.
Finally, she saw the strip mall on the left that meant she was coming into Maple Ridge. All the stores were closed, and a lot of the windows were broken.
Petra turned into the hospital and drove up the long curve to the emergency room doors. She couldn't figure out where she was supposed to park, so she drove past the big sliding doors and tried to park next to the sidewalk. Except she got closer than she meant to, and the car ended up sort of half on the sidewalk. Her backpack was pretty heavy, so she left it in the car.
Inside the emergency room, there were a lot of people. Most of them were just sitting, waiting, sort of slumped in their chairs, but a few were really hurt. One girl had bandages all around her hand and blood dripping onto the floor.
There was just the one nurse behind the counter and a huge line of people waiting to talk to her. Petra got in line, wondering if she could maybe skip to the front since she, like, wasn't breathing and all, but she felt funny about pushing in front of all these sick people and a woman with a baby, so she waited. Suddenly, an alarm wailed and the scratchy PA behind the nurse's desk came on.
"AGC sighted in Ward D. Repeat, AGC sighted in Ward D. All personnel implement emergency procedure alpha."
The people in the waiting room were all talking at once. The double doors to the left of the nurse's desk slammed open, and a woman came running out. Her face and eyes were pale white, and her clothes were dirty but still nice, hanging on her like she used to be a chubby soccer mom but got all skinny. The woman put a hand in front of her face and burst through the crowd and out the doors to the sidewalk. Petra rushed with everyone else over to the doors to see what would happen.
Outside, hospital security came running down the sidewalk toward the woman. One of them pulled out something that looked like a remote control, and then the woman was laying on the ground squirming around and moaning. Taser. That was a taser! Petra watched, fascinated and horrified, while one of the guards sprayed some white foam all over the woman. The foam expanded and looked like it kept her from moving.
Petra turned to a man standing next to her. "What's that stuff?"
"Spray restraint, hardens as it dries. That way the guards don't have to touch the slag."
Petra couldn't figure out what he meant. What was a slag? Outside, two of the guards had long poles with hooks on the end, and they hooked those onto the foam cocoon and dragged the woman across the sidewalk, further away from the emergency room doors.
"What'll they do with her? Is she under arrest?"
"Where have you been, girl? That's an AGC. Above Ground Corpse. You don't want to get near one, nobody knows what kind of diseases slags carry. And they're hard to kill. When the police get here, they'll chop it up and then take the pieces to the incinerator."
"Oh," said Petra. Suddenly, she realized that AGC meant her. The radio had been talking about people like her.
"Hey, what's wrong with you? You don't look so good."
"Uh, I'm fine. I was just looking for somebody, but he's not here. I better go."
Petra slipped through the crowd and out the door before the man could get a good look at her. She knew what she looked like. She looked like that woman being dragged down the sidewalk.
Petra went toward the car, keeping her head down so her hair fell around her face. But as she got closer she saw a security guard looking through the passenger window into the car. They were probably just waiting 'til she got close to the car before they zapped her and wooshed that hard stuff all over her!
She turned around, and walked really quickly in the other direction. When she got around the side of the building, Petra turned to see if anybody was following her. Nobody was watching, so she ran as fast as she could into the trees on the other side of the parking lot. Later, she tried to sneak back to the car to get her backpack, but the car was gone.
She'd been living in the woods ever since. She wasn't exactly sure for how long. Petra remembered that the trees had been green the day she drove to the hospital, and they were mostly orange and red and brown, now.
Even though she'd seen people like her sometimes, it was always from far away. And never to talk to. Petra was starting to think that maybe none of those people could talk. Maybe that went away, too, like breathing or sleeping or your heart beating. More than anything, Petra wished she still had Puppy. Especially at night, when she didn't sleep.
Petra learned not to hide anywhere near houses, and that even though the police scans could pick up whatever body heat people like her still had, the police didn't scan very far into the trees. She stayed in shadows whenever she could, since it made how white she was less noticeable, and since bright light hurt her eyes. And she looked in any empty houses she found, to change into clothes that weren't raggedy and to take a bath if there was water. The more normal she looked, the less likely anybody was to notice her.
# # # # #
After the police squad packed their equipment in the black truck and left, Petra climbed down from the tree and walked into the woods. At first, after the hospital, she tried to get home. Maybe her house wasn't all that safe, but it was safer than being around people. The problem was, it was a really long walk back to Seneca, and she wasn't always sure what direction to go. It wasn't like she could ask somebody for directions.
A noise grew, behind her. It sounded like a motorcycle or maybe a lawnmower, sort of a snarly noise, coming toward her through the woods. Petra ran as the noise got louder. Looking over her shoulder, she ran straight off the edge of an overgrown gully. The weeds and bushes broke her fall, though, and she ended up sprawled in the mud beneath a screen of leaves.
A pair of black machines, low and square and complicated-looking, went screaming past. The leaves and dirt kicked up in clouds around them. They had, what do you call it, air jets or something instead of wheels. Some kind of whirling blades underneath, too, and what looked like IR lenses around the top.
After the machines went past, Petra waiting a long, long time under the weeds. By the time she started walking again, it was pretty late in the afternoon. She was busy trying not trip over roots when she heard the black machines coming back. Petra started running again.
She tried to find a place that could hide her from IR. But the ground rose in a long slope up to the top of a hill, with no ditches or hollows big enough to hide her. Petra charged up the hill, trying to get over the top and down the other side before the machines came close enough to spot her. All she could think about was how horrible it would be, to be chopped up beneath one of those things.
The woods ended abruptly just over the far side of the hill. Petra skidded on a smooth slope of neat grass, scrambling to get back into the shade of the trees. There were a lot of people on the grass, walking around a park with picnic shelters and a ball field.
The machine snarls grew louder. She had to go down there, where IR couldn't pick her out from all the other people.
Petra tried to remember how to walk without looking like she was hiding. She moved carefully down the grassy slope toward a picnic shelter. Inside, she leaned against a concrete post. Those machines wouldn't come into a park with all these people. Maybe this would work out okay.
"Come on, we know you're dating!"
"Yeah, might as well make it official."
Voices, coming closer. A group of kids, around her age, were walking across the park toward her shelter. It sounded like they were teasing the smiling boy in the middle.
"Jo-oo-ohn," one girl singsonged. "Tell us! Who's your girlfriend?"
"All right, listen! Either John kisses his girlfriend, right now, or nobody talks to him for a _week_ and he doesn't get to come to the party tomorrow."
Shouts of agreement, laughter. The group passed Petra's shelter, arguing and laughing in the afternoon light. The smiling boy stopped, raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, I give up!"
The group stopped and the boy walked up to a girl with long brown hair. He put his hands on the girl's shoulders, leaned toward her, and kissed her. Hidden in the shadows, Petra watched the laughing kids kissing in the sun. It felt like time stopped.
And then it was over. "All right, enough already! Come on, we're gonna be late."
As soon as the group was out of sight, Petra threw herself out of the shelter. She ran up the hill and back into the trees and kept going, feeling the branches snatch her hair and the weeds tangle around her feet. The third time she fell, she recognized where she was. The weedy gully felt safe, familiar. Petra crawled on her belly deep into the tangle at the bottom, and then curled up into a small, tight ball around the hurt in her chest.
She wasn't like them. She wasn't like anyone anymore, except maybe the old man in pieces in the police truck. No boy was ever going to kiss her. She'd never go back to school, never have a boyfriend or go to prom, never go to college and become an astronomer, never travel to Paris or get married or have kids. Nothing was ever going to be right, be the way it was supposed to be, ever again. She cried, so hard the weeds shook around her. But no tears came out, and no sound. Her voice wasn't working anymore, either.
A long time later, Petra rolled onto her back. She didn't need to sleep, or eat, or even breathe. She wondered what else had to stop, and how long it would take, before the pain in her heart went away. Before everything went away.
Petra looked up through the leaves at the stars, and waited.