Plague Page 2

But if he were being honest instead of just angry, he’d have admitted that Astrid had her own problems. That she was filled with guilt and didn’t need one more thing to feel guilty about.

Little Pete was in a coma. Astrid blamed herself, although it was stupid to do so and she was the furthest thing from stupid.

But Little Pete was her brother. Her responsibility.

Her burden.

After that rebuff Sam had stood awkwardly while Astrid spooned artichoke and fish soup into Little Pete’s nerveless lips. Little Pete could swallow. He could walk if she guided him. He could use the slit trench in the backyard but Astrid had to wipe him.

That was Astrid’s life now. She was a nurse to an autistic boy with all the power in their world locked inside him. Beyond autistic now: Little Pete was gone. No way to know where he was in his strange, strange mind.

Astrid hadn’t hugged Sam when he said he was leaving. Hadn’t touched him.

So that had been Sam’s evening. Astrid and Little Pete. And the twinned undead creature Orc and Howard kept watch over.

If Drake somehow escaped, there were probably only two people who could take him on: Sam himself, and Orc. Sam needed Orc to act as Drake’s jailer. So he had ignored the bottles beside Orc’s couch and “confiscated” only the one in plain view on a kitchen counter.

“I’ll dump this,” Sam had told Howard. “You know it’s illegal.”

Howard shrugged and smirked a little. Like he’d known. Like he’d seen some gleam of greed and need in Sam’s eye. But Sam himself hadn’t known. He had intended to smash the bottle or dump it out on the street.

Instead he had carried it with him. Through the dark streets. Past burned-out houses and their ghosts.

Past the graveyard.

Down to the beach. He’d cracked the seal, ready to pour it out on the sand. Instead he’d taken a sip.

It burned like fire.

He took another sip. It burned less this time.

He headed up the beach. He knew in his heart where he was going now. He knew his feet were taking him to the cliff.

Now, many sips later, he stood swaying at the top of the cliff. The effect of the booze was undeniable. He knew he was drunk.

He looked down at the small arc of beach at the base of the cliff. The slight surge painted luminescent curves on the dark sand.

Right here, right where he was standing, Mary had led the preschoolers in a suicide leap. All that kept those kids alive was Dekka’s heroic effort.

Now Mary was gone.

“Here’s to you, Mary,” Sam said. He upended the bottle and drank deep.

He had failed Mary. From the start she’d taken charge of the littles and run the day care. She’d carried that load almost alone.

Sam had seen the effects of her anorexia and bulimia. But he hadn’t realized what was happening to her, or hadn’t wanted to.

He’d heard nervous gossip that Mary was grabbing whatever meds she could find, anything she thought would ease her depression.

He hadn’t wanted to know about that, either.

Most of all he should have seen what Nerezza was up to, should have questioned, should have pushed.

Should have.

Should have.

Should have . . .

Another deep swallow of liquid fire. The burning made him laugh. He laughed down at the beach where Orsay, the false prophet, had died.

“Good-bye, Mary.” He slurred, raising his bottle in a mock toast. “Least you got outta here.”

For a split second on the day that Mary poofed, the barrier had been clear. They had seen the world outside: the observation platform, the TV satellite truck, the construction underway on fast food places and cheap hotels.

It had seemed very, very real.

But had it been? Astrid said no: just another illusion. But Astrid was not exactly addicted to the truth.

Sam swayed at the edge of the cliff. He ached for Astrid, the booze had not dulled that. He ached for the sound of her voice, the warmth of her breath on his neck, her lips. She was all that had kept him from going crazy. But now she was the source of the crazy because his body was demanding what she wouldn’t give. Now being with her was just pain and hollowness and need.

The barrier was there, just a few feet away. Impenetrable. Opaque. Painful to touch. The faintly shimmering gray dome that enclosed twenty miles of Southern California coastline in a giant terrarium. Or zoo. Or universe.

Or prison.

Sam tried to focus on it, but his eyes weren’t working very well.

With the exaggerated care of a drunk he set his bottle down.

He straightened up. He looked at the palms of his hands. Then he stretched out his arms, palms facing the barrier.

“I really hate you,” he said to the barrier.

Twin beams of searing green light shot from his palms. A torrent of focused light.

“Aaaaahhhh!” Sam shouted as he aimed and fired.

He shouted a loud curse. And again, as he fired again and still fired.

The light hit the barrier and did nothing. Nothing burned. Nothing smoked or charred.

“Burn!” Sam howled. “Burn!”

He played the beams upward, tracing the curve of the barrier. He raged and howled and blazed.

To no effect.

Sam sat down suddenly. The bright fire went out. He fumbled clumsily for the bottle.

“I have it,” a voice said.

Sam twisted sideways, looking for the source. He couldn’t find her. It was a her, he was pretty sure of that, a female voice.

She stepped around to where he could see her. Taylor.

Taylor was a pretty Asian girl who had never made a secret of her attraction to Sam. She was also a freak, a three bar with the power of teleportation. She could instantly go any place she’d ever seen or been before. She called it “bouncing.”

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