I wake up in a cold sweat, sitting up violently as my dream abruptly ends. This is the third night in a row this has happened, and I’m starting to worry. The first was the night after I saw Anna for the first time. I don’t say that because I think they’re related, I’m just using it as a frame of reference.
I slept restlessly, and I am thankful that this time when I wake up there is light streaming in through the blinds, illuminating the suspended dust in the air; it’s morning. I get up slowly, feeling achy and stiff. I try to put the nightmare out of my mind, but it gets harder every day as more details are revealed, as it feels more real.
I throw some clothes on and leave my room, heading for the shared apartment space for breakfast, where I pour a bowl of dry Cheerios and sit at the table, tapping my foot restlessly.
“You feeling alright, Jamie?” Catherine asks me.
“Yeah, fine,” I say absentmindedly.
She comes over to me and places the back of her hand against my forehead. “Jamie, you’re burning up!” It’s too bad she and Link don’t have any kids, because Catherine is a classic mom-type.
I push her hand away gently, “I’m fine, just had a rough night.”
“You sure you don’t feel sick?”
I do, but I say that I don’t. My mom used to make me go to school feeling worse than this, there’s no point in making a big deal out of it now.
“Alright,” she says, and I know she doesn’t believe me. She pulls out a packet of Emergen-C from the cabinet and mixes it into some water and hands it to me anyway. I smile and thank her.
When people raided store shelves, they left some good stuff, like flavor packets and vitamins. They overlooked it for the more obvious things – canned foods, the last of the perishables. Of course we took milk and juice and stuff, too – why not, just eat those first while you still can – but most good non-water drinks require refrigeration, so we took Emergen-C, knowing eventually we’d be down to just water. So we have boxes of flavor mix-ins and powdered iced teas and lemonades, you name it. It at least keeps things interesting.
I used to gag on this stuff, but now I gulp it down like it’s my favorite drink in the world. I feel hopeful – drinking this will make whatever almost-sickness I have go away, and things will be fine.
Just when I’m starting to talk myself up, Kennedy sits down across from me at the table with her own bowl of cereal. Her wild hair is pulled back into a ponytail that just seems to say “I’m ready for the day!” and she wears jeans a tank top.
“Well don’t you look awful,” she says, shoveling cheerios into her mouth.
“Gee thanks, Kennedy. You look great today too,” I retort. I am not in the mood for this.
“You sick or something?”
“I’m fine,” I insist, not looking up, but trying to finish my cereal as fast as I can so I can get the hell out of here.
“You don’t look fine.”
“I said I’m fine, Kennedy.” I scoot my chair away from the table, get up, and take my empty bowl and cup with me. I rinse them in the sink, dry them, and put them back in their respective cabinets. We are civilized.
“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” I hear her say behind me as I leave, but I don’t respond. Not today, Kennedy. Not today.
“Morning, Jamie!” Johnny says cheerfully as he passes me in the hallway.
I respond with a brusque, “Hey,” barely looking at him, and keep my brisk pace back to my apartment.
I am still tired because of how little I slept last night, but I don’t want to try to go back to bed because I know I won’t be able to sleep peacefully. I’ll have another nightmare, or I’ll wake up after fifteen minutes drenched in sweat again. I don’t even want to try, so I pick up Fahrenheit 451 and head for the fire escape.
I collapse there; sitting down clumsily and leaning my head back against the side of the building. Okay, I give in: maybe I am getting sick. I open the book to start reading, and find myself struggling to focus on the words.
I want to see everything now. And while none of it will be me when it goes in, after a while it’ll all gather together inside and it’ll be me. Look at the world out there, my God, my God, look at it out there, outside me, out there beyond my face and the only way to really touch it is to put it where it’s finally me, where it’s in the blood, where it pumps around a thousand times ten thousand a day. I get hold of it so it’ll never run off. I’ll hold on to the world tight some day. I’ve got one finger on it now; that’s a beginning.
I haven’t been reading – or trying to read – for more than twenty minutes when I glance up and see a whole parade of soldiers walking through the usually abandoned streets, checking buildings and alleyways. They are several blocks away – coming on foot and in cars.
Maybe Anna’s dad was right – maybe the suburbs were just the beginning, maybe all of Portland is set for destruction. Or maybe this is just a routine search, maybe the army wants to set up a base camp nearby and they’re just checking the area. Maybe…
Whatever the case, the group downstairs needs to know, we need to clean up, arm ourselves, and hide. It’s too risky – and too late – to leave. We’ll have to make do staking out in here. I jump up and run inside, and head back down to the fourth floor. It’s eight floors below, and I race down the steps like it’s a football warm-up.
“Where’s Aiden?” I shout into the hallways. Dizzy from the effort, I find myself staggering, holding out an arm to brace myself against the wall. But I try to push that weakness away; I need to tell the others.
My consciousness is already fading.
“What’s going on, Jamie?” Link asks, standing up from the table in the group apartment, his face twisting in confused concern.
“Soldiers – in the streets,” I manage. “Lock the doors.”
And then everything goes black.