Earth: Population 2 (Paradise Lost Book 1) (5 page)

I wrapped the rock into my sheets and stashed it in my closet. I wanted to throw it out the window, but I couldn’t leave such a dangerous thing out for the neighborhood children to play with.

I paced back and forth as I thought of a plan. Tomorrow, I’d walk to the dumpster out back and toss it. It was too dangerous to keep in the apartment, even if I could sell it on eBay. Many asteroids fell that night. The scientists would have to find another sample to study.

Vulnerability coming over me, I lay back down in bed, this time with no sheets. I only had one set, and, after touching that rock, they’d have to be washed when I got home from work.

Work. I had to sleep, or tomorrow would suck. Working an eight-hour shift on no sleep was like living in grocery hell. I closed my eyes, trying not to think about aliens, radiation poisoning, or the strange rock lurking in my closet. I’d take this one day at a time. Tomorrow, I’d get rid of the rock, and then I’d monitor myself for any strange symptoms.

Symptoms. My eyes snapped open. What if the rock gave me super powers? How totally awesome would that be? Pointing at the ceiling, I spread my fingers and pretended to shoot lightning like the emperor from Star Wars.

Nothing. My fingers clutched the air awkwardly, and embarrassment flushed over me.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did I allow myself to dream so big?

I closed my eyes again and concentrated on my breathing. Sleep came, and nightmares with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

ALONE

 

 

June 24, 2013, 5:56 a.m.

Day 1

 

Darkness surrounded me, and the rustling leaves whispered secrets I couldn’t understand.

Why the hell am I in the woods?

I’m way smarter than this. I’ve lived in the worst neighborhood in town for years without anyone even pulling a knife, and here I stand in the middle of nowhere?

Panic threatened to take over, and I swallowed my fear. Think. Where is the safest place to go? The sizzling sound of static sent fear through my limbs, and I ran in no particular direction.

Even though I ran hard, my feet stumbled in heavy sneakers. Branches blocked my path, and I scrambled over them. Sap covered the bark, sticky and wet, slowing my progress. Behind me, the forest beeped unnaturally. The smell of burnt circuits and chemicals tainted the air. Panicking, I lost my balance and fell on the other side into a bush. My skin tickled, and I swatted at my arms and legs. Ants. Or worse, spiders. All over me.

I caught my scream in my throat. They were close, and they’d hear. I stood and pushed ahead, breaking through the trees into a clearing. Hailey’s pickup sat on the other side, right where we’d parked it that night.

Some part of my consciousness told me we’d already driven out of this place. But here I was again, and I didn’t have time to think. I ran to the pickup and opened the driver’s side door. Mike sat in the passenger seat. His head drooped down, his wavy brown hair in front of his eyes.

He wasn’t as bad as the aliens and stepped in with one leg.

Mike looked up at me with solid black eyes. Opening his mouth in a silent plea, he reached toward me. A pink suction cup oozing clear gel protruded from each of his fingers.

I screamed, flinging myself back into the night. Another figure stood on the opposite side of the clearing, gazing into the woods.

Holy freakin’ moly. It was Gale Williams. I held my breath. All my fear and anxiety vanished into one single emotion: shock.

He wore a simple black sweatshirt and jeans, like the picture I’d seen on TMZ of him at a coffee shop in Los Angeles. But he wore them like no other guy could, like the clothes were meant to fit his body alone. He looked at me for the first time, and his striking blue eyes registered my presence. I’d been staring at him all these years, and to have him stare back was beyond real.

This has to be a dream. Wait—make that a nightmare. I forgot about the aliens.

He reached toward me. “If you want to live, come with me.”

I didn’t care what he offered. I’d go with him anytime. “Sure thing.”

As I walked toward him, my leg jerked back, and I fell on my face in the dirt. I turned around, and Mike’s suction-cupped fingers wrapped around my ankle.

“You don’t deserve him.” He spoke in a strange voice that sounded a lot like my own as he pulled me toward him. “You’re just a poor cashier, your mom’s biggest mistake. You’ll never amount to anything.”

I kicked at his fingers as he reached for my other leg. “That’s not true.” But, even as I protested, my chest ached like a sore wound. I was her biggest mistake, the defining factor that had held her life back. And, now, she was mine. We were trapped in this cycle of poverty, she and I, with no way out.

Mike’s black eyes stared, unblinking. “Why don’t you give in? Complete your destiny and have your own baby with me?”

“Never.” I kicked him until his grip loosened, and then I squiggled out of his grasp and stood. Gale Williams had disappeared. I turned back to Mike with venom surging inside me. “How dare you! He’s gone.”

Mike chuckled, sitting back and tapping his suction-cupped fingers on his big stomach. “Dream all you want. You’ll be working at Save ’n Shop in your golden oldies.”

That thought scared me more than the aliens, and I refused to be governed by my past.

I closed my eyes and screamed in rage until red and purple starbursts blossomed on the backs of my eyelids. The anger surged inside me until it defined me, and the blind fury ate me whole.

 

 

My alarm screeched, and I batted my arm against the nightstand until I hit the top and shut it off.

Damn. That was some dream.

I rubbed my eyes and sat up in bed. Something felt off as my alarm echoed in my ear.

I rolled to face the window and pushed the glass up. Alarms wailed throughout the building.
How rude.
You’d think their owners would shut them off so the rest of the world could sleep.

My stomach sickened as a creepy dread came over me. An occasional alarm going off happened now and then, but never twenty at once. Had everyone abandoned their apartments? Terrible thoughts flew through my mind: nuclear attack, terrorist bombing, or emergency evacuation.

Why hadn’t anyone told me? Surely Hailey would have called.

I pulled on my jeans from last night and opened my door. “Mom?”

When I turned into the living room, disbelief shook me to the core. Mom’s wheelchair sat empty. The TV played static as if the Home Shopping Network had run out of commercials.

“Mom?” Had she finally decided to get up and move on her own? Hope blossomed in my chest. I listened for the shower, but the chorus of unruly alarms rang in my ears. I checked the corner, but her fake leg lay where she’d left it, buried under faded, secondhand
People
magazines passed down to us by the guy upstairs. Angelina Jolie’s face stared back at me with a cruel grin.

“Mom?” Each time I called her name, my voice rose in pitch. I checked the bathroom. Empty. The kitchen. Empty. Was this some type of sick joke? She hadn’t left the apartment in months. Why now? And without her fake leg and her wheelchair?

Panic rose and my throat tightened. I forced air into my lungs. I was supposed to protect her. She’d looked after me all those years before her accident, and now I’d failed her in return. The thought of Mom lying helpless somewhere, maybe in pain or fear, drove an icy stake through my chest, tearing me in two.

I’d find her. Wherever she’d crawled to, I’d find her and bring her home. I slipped on my sneakers with shaky hands and opened the door. The hall lay empty. I followed the moldy carpet to the stairs looking for any trace of where she’d gone.

I hoped to bump into someone, anyone, to ask them if they’d seen her, but no one came through. Usually, at seven on a weekday morning, doors opened and shut, and people pushed past me. Everyone had jobs to get to, and the hall bustled with activity. Not to mention the alarms that just. Kept. Going.

I walked outside the building and covered my ears with both hands. “Hey!” I yelled up to the open windows above me. “Shut off your alarms.”

No one answered.

I shouted until my lungs felt raw. “I’m serious. This isn’t funny. Shut them off.”

The alarms mocked me with their relentless beeps.

I turned to the parking lot. Every car claimed its parking spot from the night before. No one had left for work. Not even Ellen, the nurse who lived in apartment 24, or Ed, the car mechanic in 12. His gold Oldsmobile sat in his normal parking spot. Usually, he woke at the crack of dawn and was already on the road by the time I got up.

A sick light-headedness came over me, and I collapsed on the curb, watching the street adjacent to the building. No cars. Not even a bicycle or someone walking their dog. It wasn’t just my mom. Everyone had disappeared.

I forced myself to think through the chaos of my mind. If the town had been evacuated, Hailey and Mom would never leave without me. So, why was I sitting here all alone?

There had to be a good answer, and I’d figure it out. I went back into the building and jogged up three flights to my apartment.

An irrational expectation of seeing my mom sitting in her chair filled my heart as I swung open the door and ran through the apartment. Every room lay empty. I grabbed our phone—an old, round dial model that still needed to be plugged into the wall—and called 911.

I bounced up and down as I tried to think about what to say. They’d think I was crazy. Who’d believe a story like this?
Hello, no one’s here. I’m all alone.
No. That wouldn’t work.
I’d like to report a missing person. Wait…make that hundreds of missing people.
That’s what they said on crime shows on TV. In reality, I’d never dialed 911 before and had no idea what to expect.

The phone rang and rang, with no answer.

The police were gone, too?

On a whim, I dialed Hailey’s number. The answering machine picked up, and her mom’s bright voice came on the line. “Hello beautiful caller. You’ve reached the Stone residence….”

I hung up and collapsed into the frayed armchair we’d inherited from my grandmother. Pulling at the loose strings on the armrests, I collected my thoughts and tried not to panic. I needed to figure out how far this evacuation went.

Twitter. Of course. If anything was happening, it would be on Twitter.

I ran to my room and booted up my computer.
Please, please, please work. Now is not the day to die.
Captain Jay Dovetail smiled from my wall, as always, and his eyes promised everything would be okay.

I logged into my Twitter account, but the tweet stream was over seven hours old. As often as I refreshed the screen, no new tweets came. The last known tweet was from Carla, a woman with a cat licking an ice cream cone as her profile pic, tweeting about a giveaway right after I’d gone to bed. I made sure the Wi-Fi I picked up from someone in the building still worked. It did. I checked the local news site, and the website had news from seven hours before, same with the national news. Nothing had been updated.

Denial built up inside me in a hard wall, blocking the rising panic threatening to swallow me whole. The whole world couldn’t have disappeared overnight. I walked to the TV and tried every station. Static, static, and a high-pitched warning that said they experienced technical problems. I turned the TV off and started pacing.

I needed a plan. First, I’d go to work and see if anyone showed up. My shift started at nine, anyway, and I couldn’t skip out, even if it was the end of the world. I was too responsible for that. If no one showed, then I’d search the town.

I couldn’t be the only person left on Earth. What made me so special? I was just an average teenager. Nothing I did ever stood out. All I had to do was find everyone else and go on from there. Mom couldn’t be gone. I just had to figure out how to find her. If there were other people alive, she’d be with them.

Plan in hand, I packed my backpack with granola bars, two water bottles, a cigarette lighter, and an umbrella. Taking one last look around my empty apartment, I turned and faced the empty world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

HYPOCRITE

 

 

Walking down an abandoned street reminded me of all the zombie movies I’d seen with Hailey. I half expected one of the flesh-eating corpses to jump out at me from behind a parked car or an alleyway. Fingers shaking, I walked in the middle of the street with a clear view of either side, brandishing my umbrella like a sword. No zombies lurched out to bite me.

It took me fifteen minutes to walk to work, but never had the trek felt so long. The doors to the Laundromat and the corner store were locked, and big orange signs still said closed, even though they should have opened hours ago. Now and then, I heard an alarm going off, but everything else lay silent.

No pigeons perched on the telephone wires. Not a single bird flew in the sky. The angle of the sun and the movement of the clouds above told me time passed as always. But only I was there to experience it.

The local bum, whom everyone called Raggedy Al, was gone from his usual spot on the sidewalk in front of Mindy’s Coffee Shop. His rusty tin can lay propped against the side of the building. So many times I’d walked by him on the way to work, ignoring his hard, lined face. I had nothing to give him. I was poor, too. I had my own responsibilities, my own people to take care of. Still, guilt always followed me for the next block.

I stopped in my tracks in front of the coffee shop, actually missing him. Making sure no zombies ran at me, I walked to the side of the road and picked up the can. It held a dollar bill and twenty-three cents. His sign that read
homeless, please help
lay in the dirt by the side of the road. Why would he leave it?

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