Chapter Twenty Nine

Posted: June 16, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
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     Maddie froze in mid-step. The screams from below pierced her fragile belief in their escape plan, shattering it instantly. She was suddenly certain that the lobby had been over-run, and it didn’t matter which way they used to get out of the building – by the time they got around to the car, parked right out front, the dead would be spilling out of the enormous glass doors, swarming over Vinnie’s car like flies. They were screwed.

     We could keep going, she thought dully. All the way to the roof. That’s another way out.

     As quickly as it came she shook it off, the way a prissy dog shakes away the rain. She thought of Caleb, still and quiet in Vinnie’s apartment, and her lips twisted into an unconscious sneer. She might die in this disgusting, dilapidated building. Or on the dirty sidewalk outside. Probably would. But still – one floor from the exit. You are not giving up one floor from the exit. No. Fucking. Way.

     The scream came again, and now that she had a firm grip on her panic, she realized there was no way it could be coming from the lobby. They were too far up for that. Two floors down, three at the most; much closer, much more dangerous, but not if she kept moving. She just had to keep moving.

     So MOVE.

     Her legs unlocked, and she was surprised to see that she could run. As tired as she was, she could still run. The others ran too, hurtling up the last two flights of stairs and bursting onto the landing of the twentieth floor, they ran, Maddie and her sister following Vinnie’s lead as he darted to the left and led them down the hall. At the end: the door to the fire-proof stairwell.

     It wasn’t locked.

     With a sob of relief, she shoved the door open and they went down, feet barely touching the landings as they raced in a circle, down and down, the sound of Vinnie’s boots ringing off the metal steps and echoing off the concrete walls of the stairwell, pounding in her ears. Down and down and down.

     At the bottom, breathless, she reached for the door, yelping in surprise when Vinnie shoved her away.

     “Wait,” he said. His face dripped with sweat, his shirt stuck to his chest in large wet patches, but he was not, Maddie noticed, breathing hard. He adjusted the bags across his back, and then drew his gun. “Wait.”

     They waited. Every cell in her body screamed at her to go, to yank the door open and rush pell-mell down the alley, but she willed herself to be still.

     Carefully, Vinnie eased the door open. He stuck his head out slowly, checking in both directions, the nodded. The door swung fully open. “Okay.”

     Maddie tumbled out behind him, gasping in the fresh air, not even caring that it smelled of garbage and mildew and what she thought was probably urine. It had been too long since she’d been outside; she was grateful for anything that didn’t smell of sickness, and death.

     Glancing down the length of the building, she saw others pouring out of a door on the other end. A maintenance entrance, she guessed. Or another stairwell. People stampeded through the narrow exit, pushing and shoving each other in their haste to get out and away. As she watched, a woman went down, her stacked espadrilles flying out from beneath her as the frantic crowd behind her surged forward. The car seat she carried flew out of her hand, landing on its side with a resounding crack. She hit at the same moment, but the flow behind her didn’t stop; they ran right over top of her.

     Maddie didn’t realize she’d taken a step toward the woman until Vinnie grabbed her arm and yanked her back. “This way,” he said, tossing his head in the other direction. “There’s a side alley.”

     “But that woman-”

     “No time.”

     Maddie gaped at him, appalled. “They’ll kill her!” He stared back at her, his face impassive. “She has a baby.”

     When he still didn’t blink, she turned away, moving again toward the woman and child. He grabbed her arm again and she struggled, trying in vain to shake him off. His hand tightened on her wrist, a metal band, and she gasped with the pain. Before she could kick him, or do whatever she thought would make him release his hateful grip, she saw someone in the crowd reach out and pluck up the seat without missing a beat. The mother stayed down, and Maddie saw, even through the churn of feet, that she wouldn’t be getting back up.

     She turned back to Vinnie, prepared to hiss blame in his uncaring face, but he jerked her forward before she could speak. Jessie followed, pale with fear, as they made their way down the narrow side alley. Halfway to the end the way was partially blocked by a rusted-out railing, likely taken off one of the outdoor fire escapes and left there to rot; several of the spokes were twisted out of shape, their sharp points waiting to jab unwary passerby. Vinnie knocked it out of their path, sending up plumes of orange dust, and waved the girls past.

     Tetanus, Maddie thought as she skirted around the jagged metal. And we can’t even get a shot now.

     And then, they were there. The car. Maddie fell against it gratefully. All around them people ran, crowding the sidewalks and spilling into the street, weaving in and out of traffic, unmindful of the honking horns and screamed obscenities. Driving anywhere, she could see, was going to be a bitch.

     “Here.” Vinnie popped the trunk and heaved his bags in, then gestured for the girls to hand over their cases. Once they were stowed, he slammed the lid shut and took Maddie’s hand. “Get in. And lock the doors.”

     Her fingers closed over the keys he’d pressed into her palm. “Wait. What are you doing?”

     “Going back for the kid,” he said, his tone infuriatingly calm.

     “What?!” Maddie exploded. “No! Hell no! You can’t go back in there!”

     “I said I would try.”

     Maddie shook her head. “That woman…you said no. But you’ll go back for him?”

     He looked away for a moment, his face tinged with pink. When he met her eyes again, she saw there was no point in arguing. Nonetheless, she tried. “He chose to stay. He chose.”

     Vinnie’s throat worked, and he seemed to be groping for words. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft. “He’s just a kid.”

     Maddie flinched. Hearing her own words thrown back in her face, spoken what felt like years ago now, she felt her stomach knot with shame. Desperately, she reached for him, her fingers scrabbling numbly at his arms. “You can’t. Please. You can’t go back in.”

     Pulling away from her, he moved around to the side of the car and opened the driver’s side door. “Get in.”

     “Vinnie. Please. Just listen a minute. You can’t-”

     “Get in.”

     “No! Listen! You can’t go back up, you can’t, you-”

     Someone shoved her from behind; Maddie whipped her head around and realized it was Jessie.

     “Get in the fucking car!”

     She shoved again and Maddie stumbled, still babbling, against Vinnie’s chest. He pushed her down into the seat; lifting her feet, he tucked them into the car, then took her grasping hands and set them on the wheel.

     “Listen, you can’t, you have to stay here- Vinnie!”

     Jessie scrambled into the passenger seat. Vinnie leaned over Maddie, ignoring her, and addressed the other girl.

     “Twenty minutes,” he said. “If I’m not back, you leave.”

     Jessie nodded.

     “No! NO!” Maddie writhed, trying to twist her fingers into his hair. She knew she was caught in the grip of insane panic, knew it but couldn’t stop it. “You can’t! You can’t leave us here!”

     The door slammed. On the other side of the glass, she saw his mouth moving, repeating his instructions. “Twenty minutes.”

     Maddie moved to get out, to open the door and throw herself on him, but her sister dragged her back. Sharp nails dug into her scalp as Jessie grabbed a hunk of her hair and yanked her into the center console.

     “Stop it!” Jessie shouted. “Stop! He gave you the keys! We can find a way home! We don’t need him!”

     Maddie turned on her, baring her teeth in a savage snarl. Jessie cringed away, her eyes wide.

     “Do you know how to load a gun?”

     “I-” Jessie stopped. “No.”

     “Do you know how to shoot?”

     “….No.”

     “He does!” Maddie screamed. “He does!” She started to laugh, a high-pitched cackle tinged with hysteria. She gripped the wheel in her fists and brayed laughter at the windshield. “A trunk full of guns, and we don’t know how to use them! But he does! WE NEED HIM!” She threw open the door, her sister too shocked to stop her this time, and screamed into the street. “VINNIE. VINNIE. VINNIE!”

     But he was gone.

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Comments
  1. mxcoot says:

    Very emotional, gave me goosebumps and brought a tear or two. Surprised to find myself crying. We’ll done!

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