HAVEN CITY

By Beverle Graves Myers


First came sirens and news reports that interrupted must-see TV. Then there was news all the time--reporters pressing hidden earjacks with taut fingers, gabbling and sputtering the unbelievable.

Not long after the TV screens went black for good, Mom strapped Bonner into the middle seat of a Toyota Landcruiser and filled the back with food and camping gear. Bonner curled his fingers around the ragged ear of a pink pig named Lucy and resisted popping his thumb in his mouth. Man of the house now, big boy, too old for thumbsucking.

“Mom, why’re we taking Mr. Gibson’s Landcruiser?”

“Because it’s built like a tank and the Gibson’s won’t be needing it any more.”

“Did the bad virus get them, too?”

Mom nodded, face Madonna calm and lovely in spite of everything. As the big SUV pulled out of the driveway, Bonner gave the two graves by the weedy, withered roses a solemn wave. Mom floored the accelerator and didn’t look back.

Subdivision was deserted. Could’ve been a quiet Sunday morning with everyone sleeping in, except for the scarred asphalt, bone-thin dogs foraging in garbage cans and dark windows gaping with jagged glass teeth.

Bad scare after they reached the highway. Mom was weaving around wrecks, dodging smoking metal carcasses that belched roiling mushrooms of corruption. The Landcruiser slowed and rolled onto the shoulder to squeeze past a jackknifed eighteen-wheeler. Bonner rested his fringy blond curls on Lucy’s soft belly. Eyelids were scratchy, heavy.

Bam! A face smashed into the side window. Mouth a cankered crater, eyes twin jets of black rage. “Mom,” Bonner screamed, “Strifer!”

Mom stepped on the gas and jerked the steering wheel from side to side. The Strifer hung on the door handle with red-raw knuckles, pumped long legs at an impossible clip, hammered the window with his forehead.

Bonner clamped eyes shut, wet his pants.

Mom aimed the SUV toward a bridge abutment. Bones cracked as steel and concrete crushed the Strifer in a bloody sandwich. His scream stayed in Bonner’s head for miles. Long after Mom had stopped trembling and reached back to rub his knee.

“I thought all the Strifers were dead.” Bonner wasn’t sleepy anymore.

Mom answered, bloodshot eyes scanning the highway, “Most of them are, honey. Most of them killed each other off in the first Rampage. There couldn’t be more than a few left now. Just a few stragglers.”

“Will they chase us?” Bonner’s thumb strayed to his mouth.

Mom shook her head. “I don’t think so. They’re getting weak because they think about fighting so much that they forget to eat. It’s the Immunes we have to worry about now.”

“But we’re Immunes.”

“I told you a hundred times, Bonner--not all Immunes are nice. You can’t trust them. They’re scared and sometimes they… they do bad things to people who’re weaker than they are. That’s why we have to get to Haven City. There’s a powerful man there. Someone who can protect us.”

“A super hero? Like Spiderman?”

“Oh, Bonner.” Mom sighed, rubbed her eyes.

“But is he?”

“I guess. Kind of. We can’t fight this new world on our own, but General Martel can. He has guns and airplanes and food. The radio said he’d take care of anyone who could make it to Haven City.”

“Are we almost there?”

Mom didn’t answer, just swallowed hard and white-knuckled the steering wheel. Bonner knew better than to ask again. A ragged pink ear absorbed his damp whisper: “Don’t be scared, Lucy. Mom’s taking us to Haven City.”

***


“… my wife, too. Most of the neighborhood went like that--puking up bloody innards until they were just sacks of skin. Any Strifers pop up around your place?” Bonner listened to the man’s growly voice that sounded like the wolf on his Three Little Pigs DVD. Eyes were closed and Mom cradled his head in her lap. Felt funny not to be flying down the highway.

Funny, but good.

Mom stroked Bonner’s hair, answered the man in her pre-Rampage voice. “Just two turned Strifer on our street. Husband and wife. They killed each other with kitchen knives before anybody even realized that a rogue virus was loose.”

“I’d sure like to get my hands on that son-of-bitch Tibetan who thought up the Soldier Virus in the first place.” Deep growl, angry, ended in a phlegmy cough.

“He was Tibetan?” Mom again.

“You bet. His picture was all over CNN. Some bald scientist from Lhasa working for India-Tibet. He stuck these special genes in a virus, see. But the damn bug got out when China bombed his lab. Who’d you think invented it? A Chink? Or one of them Pakistanis?”

“I never heard.” Mom sighed, breasts brushing Bonner’s clenched fist. “It all happened so fast, and I was busy taking care of my husband and daughter.” Mom’s voice broke, got distant and tight again. “Then the TV went out, and all we had were emergency radio broadcasts. That’s how I heard about the Rampages, and the Chinese landing in San Francisco.”

“Kind of funny when you think about it. The virus was supposed to make the Indian-Tibetans into unbeatable soldiers, but most of them died and it was the Chinks who turned out to be mostly Immune. Guess they’ll take over now. Hope they don’t hold too much of a grudge, you know, ‘cuz we sided with India and all.”

Bonner snuck a peek. Old man, white whiskers, floppy hat. Fire crackled, but it was still cold. Bonner snuggled deeper into Mom’s warmth. She’d started rocking from side to side and couldn’t seem to stop. Bonner squeezed Lucy tight.

“So you’re headed to Haven City with the only kid you got left.” Old man showed yellow teeth, pointed to a can of soup on a rock near the flames. “You going to eat the rest of that? Missus?”

Mom stopped rocking and passed the can. “What other choice do I have? My husband’s dead, and there’s no one else to help me. In these times, good people have to stick together.”

“Don’t know as I’d call General Martel good.”

Bonner felt Mom’s stomach tense. “He takes people in. Keeps them safe. What better can a person ask for?”

“But the General don’t do that for nothing. A lot of people show up begging to get into Haven City. He can afford to make demands.”

“You talk like you’ve been there.” Mom’s voice was sharp now, but Bonner’s eyes were heavy.

“Maybe I have and maybe I haven’t. Maybe I haven’t had what it takes to get in.”

“What does General Martel want?”

The old man’s eyes gleamed in the firelight. “Haven’t you heard about his… hobby?”

His growl dropped to a guttural whisper. Mom moved Lucy over Bonner’s ear. Sleep descended in a pink cloud.

***


Morning was gray mist, dripping from naked branches to a carpet of rotting leaves. Cold. Mom strapped Bonner in the Landcruiser without changing his smelly pants.

“Where’s the growly man?” he asked.

“Growly man?” Mom frowned. She sloshed a gas can, estimating mileage. Bonner had never seen her look so tired.

“The man from last night.”

“Oh, I told him to go on by himself.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, Bonner. I just told him to go on.”

“But why, Mom?”

Mom sighed, twisted blond hair up in a knot, tied it with a bandanna. “He’s old. He’d only hold us back. Plus, he ate too much.”

Bonner opened his mouth. Mom shut it with her finger. “No more questions, young man. We’ve got to get on the road. The most important thing right now is to get you to Haven City. So give me a break and forget the old man.”

Bonner wondered why the man left his good leather hat at the foot of the tree. He didn’t ask Mom.

Rained all day. Highway a flat, black trail of destruction. Got a voice on the radio once. Mom cried, shoulders hunched over the wheel, wouldn’t talk. Finally the hills started, and Mom took a winding road deep into humped, lonely, foggy mountains.

Still light when they ran out of gas. Mom pounded the steering wheel, then grabbed the road atlas. Studied it with a creased forehead.

“We can walk, Bonner. Haven City’s just over that ridge.” Mom smiled for the first time in days. “A few more miles and we’ll be safe.”

Bonner clutched Lucy to his chest. Mom stuffed food and clothing into a backpack, kept her money belt strapped to her waist under her sweater.

Three times men blocked the path. Not Strifers. Men in black uniforms with rifles and radios that crackled static. Mom said she had something for General Martel. The men exchanged hard glances, nodded. The last one said she’d better start calling him President Martel.

Bonner stumbled a lot, so Mom carried him the last bit. Haven City wasn’t like he thought. The sprawling white building with the soaring columns looked like a giant had taken a bite out of its middle. Fog swirled in and out of broken windows.

Tears wet Bonner’s cheeks. “It’s ruined, Mom. Haven City’s ruined.”

“No, it’s not.” Mom put him down, kneeled to his level. “That building is an old resort where rich people used to come on vacation. A long time ago, the government built a shelter for the President in the mountain behind it.”

Bonner sobbed, tired legs aching. “I don’t see it.”

“It’s there, honey.” Mom dabbed at Bonner’s face with her bandanna, then fluffed her hair. She couldn’t fix the blue eyes that had deepened to twitching, purple-bruised pits. “We follow those lights back through the trees. We’ll just march right up there and tell them to let us in. Come on now, don’t blubber, keep your chin up.”

Scudding clouds hovered low; hulking mountains swallowed daylight. Mom and Bonner stumbled over roots lacing the leaf-strewn path, came into a circle of light, found a metal staircase. Black uniforms let them pass.

Clambering downstairs, they were shooting gallery ducks in ice-blue spotlights. At the bottom, concrete walls waited, sweating with damp. Mom and Bonner approached double doors of thick steel plates: the gates to sanctuary.

A smaller door, recessed into concrete, crouched on one side. Beyond the humming of the lights, silence. Bonner pressed his back against Mom’s quivering thighs.

“Is anybody there? Somebody?” Mom’s words rebounded in a feeble echo.

More humming. Then crackling, from all around. “Do you have the price of admission?” A man’s voice boomed off the hard walls. The blue lights brightened. Bonner couldn’t see anybody, just glare.

Mom raised her voice. “I want to speak with President Mart…”

The booming voice got louder. “Pay first, then enter. Tribute goes on the elevator.” The smaller door slid open on a breath of compressed air. Bonner saw a wire cage with a studded steel floor.

Mom sidled Bonner over to the elevator, dropped her heavy pack to the concrete. She squinted up into the light. “If I could just talk to someone?”

Machinery whirred. The elevator quivered and the door began to slide shut.

“Mom, do something.”

He heard her whimper, then: “Wait, don’t close it. I have money, food.”

“Money!” The blue glare vibrated with nasty laughter. “Your money’s garbage here. Present your tribute or get moving.”

Mom was squeezing Bonner’s shoulders so hard he thought his bones would break. With one agonized moan, she dropped her hands and whispered, “Don’t make me do this.”

No answer.

“You assholes!”

Bonner’s head jerked around. Lucy hit the concrete.

The door slid on greased tracks, almost closed now.

Mom’s boot found Bonner’s backside as he reached for Lucy. He shot forward through the elevator’s dark slit. The door bounced off his body, opened wide again.

“Mom!” Bonner screamed. Kept screaming.

He launched himself at the door. Mom blocked his way with an outthrust hip.

Bonner struggled, flailing, helpless. Mom shoved, clawing, unyielding.

“Let me out, let me out,” Bonner’s wail echoed up the staircase to unheeding guards.

Door rebounded from straining bodies. Snap, snap, snap.

“I can’t let you out.” Mom’s face twisted into something Bonner didn’t recognize. “You’re my ticket into Haven City and I’ve got to make it through those gates. I can’t go back out there.” Words tumbled in strangled sobs. “Don’t you get it? I can’t go back. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

“What about me?” Bonner wailed.

“You’ll be okay, Bonner. Just be nice to President Martel. Do whatever he tells you--just like he wants--then he’ll keep you with him forever.” Mom shoved again. Hard and sure. He hit the back of the cage with a jarring clang.

Bonner sank to his knees on the cold floor, limp, still, mouth hanging open, looking at Mom who’d turned into a screaming monster who didn’t want him anymore.

Door hissed shut on Mom and Lucy. Dark elevator plunged. Bonner sucked his thumb furiously, utterly alone for the first and last time in his life.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Beverle Graves Myers is the author of the Baroque Mystery series featuring Tito Amato as an 18th-century opera singer with a stellar talent for sleuthing. PAINTED VEIL is the latest title, and CRUEL MUSIC will be released by Poisoned Pen Press in August 2006. Bev's short mystery and fantasy fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock, Futures and numerous other magazines and anthologies. She lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. Visit her website at www.beverlegravesmyers.com.


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