And that’s when she sees the rifle barrel pointed directly at her face.
Whoa there, mister, she says and lowers the blade. I was preparin to chop you for a slug. What’s the idea sneaking up on people like that?
As soon as he hears her speak, the man lowers the rifle.
I thought you were one of them, he says. You were standing there for so long doing nothing.
Well excuse me for takin a perusal.
He looks around, a good-looking man, in his thirties, she would say, with straight blond hair that falls into his eyes. He’s freshly shaved and has a look of alertness that makes her think of a cat or a rodent, some animal that is always hunched for running.
It’s not safe here, he says to Temple. Come with us.
Who’s us, golden boy?
At that he puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles, and from around the corners of buildings and out of alleys rushes a small army of men—maybe twelve all told—and they circle around her.
One man, wearing glasses, approaches her and begins examining her arms and the skin of her neck.
Are you hurt? he asks. Are you bitten anywhere?
I’m dandy. Lay off me.
He puts both hands on the sides of her head and looks into the pupils of her eyes. Then he turns to the blond man.
She looks all right. We can do a full exam when we get back.
Not if you’re fond of breathin, she says.
Come with us, the blond man says. We’ll take care of you. You’ll be okay.
You got ice?
You got ice to put in drinks?
We have freezers, yes.
Okay, then. Lead away, mister man.
They guide her through the lofty towers of downtown, shooting a couple slugs in the head on the way.
To keep the population down, explains the blond man, whose name is Louis.
Louis is at the head of the group, and the others trail along behind scanning the area in all directions.
Temple follows, but off to the side, keeping a fixed space between herself and the others. There’s one man in particular she doesn’t like the looks of. He’s skinny and has an oily mane of hair kept in place by a baseball cap—and he seems to be distracted by her. She can see his gaze on her, heavy, reflected in the dark shop windows. She slows her pace and falls to the back of the group to try to get away from him, but he simply does the same until they are together at the rear of the line.
My name’s Abraham, he says to her. What’s your name?
Sarah Mary what?
Sarah Mary Williams.
How old are you, Sarah Mary?
He looks her up and down, his eyes lingering with a little sneer over every part of her.
You ain’t twenty-seven, he says.
My brother Moses says I got an intuition for truth and lying. He says I can sniff out a liar at a hundred yards. It’s my secret talent. I can sniff you out, Sarah Mary.
She looks straight ahead, grinding her teeth and thinking about a tall glass of Coke with ice in it from top to bottom and a bendy straw.
Let’s see, he goes on. I would say you’re sixteen, seventeen at the outside.
I lived some years. Don’t guess it matters how many.
Where’d you come from, Sarah Mary?
South of here.
See, that’s how I know you’re not bein truthful with me. There’s nothing south of here. That’s creeper country all the way down to the Keys.
She can feel his eyes on her, trying to shimmy up under her clothes and press against her skin.
So what’s your story, Sarah Mary? You runnin away from a boyfriend? Lookin for someone to take care of you? You can tell it to me true—I’ll make sure you’re all right.
She bites the inside of her lip to keep quiet and trots ahead to the one who seems to be the leader, Louis.
Where we goin anyway? she asks.
Look up, he says.
Above her rise four identical towers, each taking up a full city block. There are retail stores on the ground level and most likely business offices on the rest of the floors. The four buildings are connected, about six stories up, by enclosed footbridges to create one massive insular complex. You could safely house a thousand people in such a structure.
Louis leads the group around one of the buildings to the alley behind it where the concrete dips down to a loading dock. They approach a small door by the steel gate and look around once to make sure there are no slugs following—then Louis quickly unlocks the door and ushers the others inside.
This your fortress? Temple asks.
When everyone’s in, he shuts the door, locks and bars it.
This is our fortress, he says.
THEY HAND her over to a woman named Ruby, who feeds her and gives her new clothes from the barricaded department store on the ground level of one of the buildings and shows her a place she can sleep on the sixteenth floor where the offices have been converted to residences.
Ruby tries to dress her in a sky-blue gingham dress, but Temple insists on cargo pants like the ones she already wears except not torn through and not covered in dried brown blood. Ruby examines them when Temple hands them out to her from the dressing room, and the woman shakes her head and titches her tongue like some kind of desert bird.
You poor thing, Ruby says. It must have been a tough road for you to get here.
The road was all right, Temple replies. It was the meatskins were the problem.
Oh this world . . .
It seems like Ruby may have more to say on the subject, but she trails off as though despair has gotten the better of her.
Hey, Temple says. You got ice here, right? I’m thinkin a tall ice Coke would hit the spot right about now.
So Ruby brings her a glass of Coke with ice in it and the two go down to watch the children playing in one of the lobbies. A swing set and plastic slide have been dragged over from one of the department stores and hopscotch squares are drawn on the floor with chalk.
We have a school too, Ruby explains. My sister Elaine runs it. Six days a week in the mornings. Education is the most important thing, of course. So we can rebuild when all this is over. Did you go to school?
I learned some things.
I was just a young woman when it started. I guess you weren’t even born yet.
This must seem like a strange world to you.
The world, it treats you kind enough so long as you’re not fightin against it.
Ruby looks at Temple and shakes her head, sighing. She’s a chubby woman, Ruby is, with a round face and eyes that wrinkle on the sides when she laughs. Her hair is done up in a style that Temple has never seen before. It’s piled on top, mostly, but some of it hangs down too. She wears a long shapeless dress and sandals, and her fingernails and toenails are painted a pretty shade of burgundy red—exactly the same color, Temple thinks, as spilled blood when it’s about twenty minutes old.