Authors: Nora Roberts
He paused a minute, seemed to gather himself.
“I did everything I could for him, for two terrible days. Two days, that's all it took when we realized we couldn't keep pretending it was just exhaustion from working doubles, but the Doom. I'm not going to talk about those two days. I'll just say he died like he wanted. At home. And I took himÂ â¦ where I took him to rest.”
“I'm so sorry, Ben.”
“Everybody thinks their loss is the worst that can happen to them. And this, this fucking scourge, it's taken from everybody. We all had the worst that can happen.”
“But you got through it. You're still getting through it.”
“I wanted to die, too. I wanted to get sick and die, but I didn't. I thought I could take his gun, take his service weapon, and that'd be a way to die. I thought about that while people were rioting in the streets, when people started acting like animals. And I thought of what he'd say to me, I thought how disappointed in me he'd be for not cherishing life, and doing something to help. And still, I wavered.”
He fell silent for nearly thirty seconds, but Arlys said nothing, gave him the time, the space.
“Where I live,” he continued, “the building, people were dying or running or going out to join the animals in the streets. I thought: There's nothing left but the dark now. But I could hear
my husband's voice in my head saying: Don't you do it. Don't you give up.”
“And you didn't.”
“Nearly did. I went out one day, started to. Maybe I'd get some food, maybe I'd just keep walking. I didn't know. And there was a boy sitting on the stairs. He lived in the building. I didn't know his nameâI'm not going to say his name.”
“We'll call him John.”
“All right. John was sitting there crying. Both his parents and his brother, all dead. He couldn't stay in his apartment. You can imagine why.”
“He thought I meant to harm him at first. He didn't run. He was going to stand and fight, that scared, grieving little boy. He'd fight, and what was I doing but wallowing? So I sat down on the steps, and we talked awhile. I took his mama first, and we were going to take her to where I'd laid my husband. When we went out with her, somebody came up. I'm not going to say a name,” he added, but Arlys saw his gaze cut to Fred. “She asked if she could help us. She knew others who could help. So we got that help and we laid John's family to rest.
“And he came to live with me. So we get up in the morning, and we have some breakfast. We do some reading, and some math and such. It's important a boy still learns. I'm teaching him to fight, in case he needs to. We play games because play's as important as learning. We get up and do what we have to do, and that's how we get through it. When he's readyâit's only been a couple weeksâI'm going to get him out of the city. Get him out and find someplace clean. And we'll get up in the morning there, and do what needs to be done. We'll build a life, because death can't be all there is.”
He looked at Arlys now, right into her. “This won't be the end of it,” he said, repeating her words. “We won't let it be the end of it.”
“Thank you, Ben. I hope your story reaches people who need to hear it. I needed to hear it. This is Arlys Reid, grateful for everyone who's doing what needs to be done.”
She switched off the recorder. “Don't wait until he's ready. Get John out as soon as you can.”
“His name is Noah.” T.J.'s eyes flicked between the two women before fixing on her. “You know something you're not telling.”
“I know it's going to get worse here. I know if I had a child depending on me, I'd get him out. Fred said there are people who can help you with that. Pack and ask them to help you. You should go with them,” she said to Fred.
“I'll stick with you. You know who to contact, T.J. Honest, if Arlys says you should go, you should go. For Noah.”
“I'll go talk to him. He knows it's coming. I'm going to miss you, Fred.”
He moved over, wrapped arms around her, towering over her.
“Miss you back, and Noah. But, you know, if it's meant, we'll find each other again.”
“I want it to be meant.” He held out a hand to Arlys. “I thought it would make me angry to tell my story. It didn't. Watch out for yourself.”
“I intend to. Good luck, T.J.”
He picked up the bag he'd brought in to gather supplies, took one last look, and slipped out through the boards.
“It's going to be a good segment. A powerful one. I think he was here because he needed to tell his story, and he needed you to tell him to get Noah and go.”
“Lucky all around.”
“Not lucky. Meant. I have something to tell youâoff the record.”
“Okay, let's grab that soup, and you can tell me on the way back to the station. I want to put this together.”
“I really better show you, and here, where it's safe. Don't freak, okay?”
“Why would Iâ¦”
Arlys trailed off, her jaw dropping, when Fred wiggled her fingers and sparkling lights danced around her.
“How did youâ”
“I wanted you to be able to see better.” Now she held her hands out to the sides.
Before Arlys's dazzled eyes, iridescent wings flowed out of Fred's back, shimmering right through the jacket she wore. And she rose a foot from the floor, circling in the air with the wings waving.
“What is this? What
“I got a little freaked at firstâit just sort of happened one day. Then it was like, this is so beyond all coolness. It turns out I'm a faerie!”
“A whatâa faerie? That's crazy. Would you stop doing that!”
Fluid as water, Fred lowered to the ground, but the wings remained. “It's so much fun, but okay. You can't report on this, ArlysâI mean not about me. They call us the UncannyâI can't figure out if I like that or not, but it's growing on me. I can tell by the way you do the stories, you're like: Oh, yeah, right. But hey.” Fred lifted up again. “Oh, yeah, right!”
“It's not possible.”
“It shouldn't be possible that more than a billion people are dead in a month. But it
possible. And this? Me? Others like me? It's not only possible, it's as real as anything else. Maybe it's some sort of balance. I don't know. I can't figure it out, either, so I accept.”
“Others. Like you?”
“Faeries, elves, witches, sirens, sorcerersâand that's just people I've met since.”
As if the idea delighted her, Fred fluttered up another foot in the air.
“We have to be careful. Magickal people have the good and the
bad, too. So we've got the bad who'd do us harmâand the regular people, who don't get it, who would, too.”
She lowered again, touched a hand to Arlys's arm. “I showed you and I'm telling you because something inside me said I should. I've always trusted the something inside me, even when I didn't know it was there.”
“Maybe I fell asleep at my desk, and this is all a dream.”
On a laugh, Fred gave her a light punch on the arm. “You know you didn't, and it's not.”
“IÂ â¦ we really need to talk about this.”
“Yeah, sure. We have to get back, get that segment up. Maybe after the evening broadcast, when we shut down for the day. We can have some wine and talk about it. I've got some wine squirreled away.”
“I think it's going to take a lot of wine.”
“Okay, but let's get that soup. You should punch up your makeup, redo your hair before you go on the air.”
“I'm pretty freaked.”
Fred smiled. “But you'll do what you need to do. You won't betray me, just like you won't betray your source, or T.J. and Noah. You've got integrity.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Back at the station, Jim called it something else. He called it recklessness and gave Arlys and Fred a heated lecture. A lecture that would have annoyed Arlys down to the core if she hadn't seen the worry on his face, heard it under the anger.
But he couldn't fault the interview. He listened to it twice, then sat back. “It's exceptional. You let him narrate it, let him speak from
the heart. A lot of reporters would have inserted a lot of questions, tried to steer him. You didn't.”
“It was his story, not mine.”
He turned in his chair, stared out the window in the office he rarely used. He'd called them in thereâon the carpetâbecause he'd been pissed and scared.
“It's never supposed to be about you. Before everything went to hell, a lot of journalists had forgotten that. I got caught up in it myself, might have overlooked that quality in you.”
He swiveled around again. “Let's get this on the air. You need an intro.”
“Already in my head. I'd like it to run every hour until the evening report.”
“That's what we'll do. And don't do anything like this again without checking with me first. And don't take this pip-squeak out there. Sorry, Little Fred, but you're not exactly Wonder Woman.”
“More like Tinker Bell,” Arlys mumbled, making Fred laugh.
“Exactly. Now, let's go do our jobs.”
Arlys dictated the intro to Fred while punching up her makeup, smoothing her hair. At the anchor station she waited for the green, for the cue.
“This is Arlys Reid, bringing you what I hope will be a recurring segment. Every day, in the midst of tragedy and despair, people go on. Every one of those who go on lives with loss, lives with uncertainty. Every one has a story to tell, of a life that was, a life that is. This is Ben's story.”
They cut the camera, ran the audio.
She listened to the words again, found they struck her just as deeply. She thought of the big man and the young boy, and hoped they found their way to somewhere clean.
“We'll replay Ben's story in one hour,” she concluded, “to remind
us all of hope and humanity. This is Arlys Reid, signing off for the hour.”
Fred applauded. With a sigh of satisfaction, Arlys rose, signaled Fred as she headed to the newsroom. “I'm going to talk Jim into letting us go out with a handheld camera tomorrow.”
“We won't put anyone's face on who doesn't want it on, but we can get some B roll. If anyone else you know wants to talk to me, let them know I'm going to make it happen. And that wine, Fred? Let's take it to my place when we sign off for the night. You can stay over. I think we're going to need to talk, a lot.”
“Like a sleepover! Love it.”
How anybody could be that cheerful considering the state of the human race, Arlys couldn't understand. Then again, she thought: faerie. Were faeries always cheerful? How could a woman she'd known nearly a year be something that wasn't supposed to exist?
Thinking about it made her head spin.
She needed to do the job, see what she could dig up for the evening report.
She didn't find much, but knew when she reported on a sighting of a woman causing flowers to pop up and bloom through the snow in Wisconsin, she wouldn't do it with a smirk in her voice.
She opted to change her jacket for the evening report, switch out earrings, sweep her hair into an updo. No point boring people with the same visual.
She'd had her quota of coffee for the dayâtake only what you need, she reminded herselfâand opted for water.
She settled back at the anchor desk, checked her copy, rolled her shoulders. She'd be ready for that wine.
She put on her sober, professional face, took her cue. Into the first
segment, she heard a minor ruckus off camera. And Jim's voice into her ear.
“Bob Barrett just walked in the studio. I think he's drunk. I'm coming down, see if I can distract him.”
She kept going, saw movement out of the corner of her eye.
Now Carol's voice came through her earpiece. “Jim's not going to get here in time. I can cut away.”
“Arlys Reid!” Bob's rich baritone slurred his words as he walkedâmore like staggeredâtoward her.
“It's all right, Carol. It's Bob's desk.”
“Damn right.” He stepped onto the platform, dropped down beside her.
He smelled ofÂ â¦ gin, she decided, and stale sweat. His craggy face gleamed with more sweat, showed sickly pale under the studio lights.
Bloodshot eyes bored resentfully into hers.
“Twelve years I sat at this desk.”
“And rock steady. Do you want to finish this evening's report?”
“Aw, fuck the evening report. The world's gone to hell and everybody knows it. Ben's story?” He snorted out a disgusted laugh. “Don't pluck my heartstrings, rookie. I'll give them a story.”
Arlys froze when he pulled out a gun and waved it toward Jim as Jim started sprinting to the desk. “You want to stay back there, Jim boy. You all want to stay back. And, Carol, sweetheart, if you cut the feed, I'll know it. Cut it, and I put a bullet in this pretty girl's head.”
Arlys tried to swallow on a throat that had gone dead dry. “It's your desk, Bob,” she repeated.
When she'd been a fledgling reporter with dreams of conducting hard-hitting, insightful interviews with heads of state, Arlys had imagined herself in life-and-death situations, and how her courageous and intrepid on-the-spot reporting would impact the nation.
Now, as she faced a drunk, potentially crazy colleague with a gun, her mind went blank. Panic sweat rolled greasily down her spine.
“Didn't take long for you to sit your fine, young ass down in
chair, did it? Backstabbing bitch.”
She heard her own voice: tinny, indistinct, as if on a bad connection. “Everyone here knows, everyone in the viewing audience knows I've only filled in until you could get back.”
“Don't bullshit a bullshitter, little girl.”
girl” woke her up, pissed her off enough to snap her back. Later, when she analyzed it, she'd admit the foolishness, the
sheer knee-jerk aspect of her reaction, but it got her up and running again.
“You're better than that, Bob. You're too good, too experienced to fall back on sexist insults and baseless accusations.”
She added the visual equivalent of a
with the angle of her head, the subtle frown.
“You criticized Ben's story, and my reporting, and said you had your own story. I'm certain everyone watching would like to hear it as much as I would.”
“You wanna hear my story?”
“Very much.” Keep him talking, keep him talking. Maybe he'd pass out.
Or she'd just drown in a pool of her own panic sweat before he shot her.
“Twenty-six years I've been in this business. Twelve years I sat at this desk. Do you know why
The Evening Spotlight
's the top-rated news hour?”
“Yes, I do. Because people know they can trust you. Because you're a steady hand, a calm voice.”
“I didn't just read the news, I found it, I fought it out, I reported it. I earned this desk.” He smacked the desk with his fist, hard enough to make the papers on it jump. “I earned it every single day. Night after night, I let the world know the truth. I'm going to give the worldâwhat's left of itâthe truth tonight.”
Gun hand waving, he swung back to face the camera.
“It's over! Are you fucking listening out there? Over! The human race is finished, and in its place come the weird and the strange, demons from hell. If you don't die choking on your own bile, they'll hunt you down. I've seen them, oozing out of shadows, slithering through the dark. Maybe you're one.”
When he swung the gun toward Arlys again, numbness set in. He wasn't going to pass out. She couldn't run.
“You're speaking of what's been termed the
“Fuck that! They're evil. What do you think caused this plague? Them! Not some goddamn bird, not some mutating virus. They set it on us, and they're watching us die like sick dogs. They've taken over the government, destroyed governments around the world, and they feed pitiful, third-rate reporters like you bullshit about a cure that's never coming. They'll enslave the immune.”
On a jerk, he pivoted back to the camera. “Run! Run if you can. Hide. Fight to spend your last days on Earth in freedom. Kill as many as you can.”
“Bob.” Arlys reached out a hand, but at the flash in his eyes, let it drop to the desk. “You're a veteran journalist. You know you have to provide evidence, to give facts to substantiateâ”
“Corpses rotting in the streets! That's your evidence. Demons scratching at the windows,” he whispered. “Grinning as they float. Red eyes staring. I turned off the lights, but I could still see the eyes. They'll poison the water. They'll starve us out. And you sit here and spout their lies. You sit here and pretend a miraculous cure's coming, that there's some sort of pathetic hope because a man took in one stray kid and plays games with him? People need to listen to
! Destroy them while you can. Run while you can.
“You could all be demons. Every one of you. Maybe we need a demonstration. You! Redhead. What the hell's your name again?”
“I'm Fred. I'm not a demon.”
He chortled. Arlys could think of no other word for the wet, sick sound of his laugh.
“Says she's not a demon. Of course she says that. I don't think they bleed. Not red like humans. We can test that right now.”
“Don't hurt her, Bob.” Now Arlys did put a hand on his arm. “That's not who you are.”
“The public has a right to know! It's our job to tell them, show them the truth.”
“Yes. Yes, it is, but not by hurting an innocent intern who comes in every day, even through all this, to help us do just that. She could've gotten out of the city weeks ago, but she stayed and came into work. Jim, he's the head of our division. He lost his wife in this, Bob, but he's here, working in the control booth. Every day. Steve is working the camera, every day. Carol is in the booth, every day. All of us trying to keep the station up and running so we can inform and communicate.”
Now Bob's eyes filled with tears. “There's no point anymore. No point. False hope's just a lie in soft focus. You lie in soft focus. I have two dead ex-wives now, and my sonÂ â¦ my son's dead. It's all over, and they're coming for the rest of us, so there's no point. I'd be doing you a favor.”
He turned the gun back to Arlys, cocking his head. “Think about what the demons might do to a young, pretty woman like you. Do you want to risk that?”
“I don't believe in demons.”
“You will.” He turned to the camera. “You all will, when it's too late. It's already too late. This is Bob Barrett, signing off.”
He put the gun under his chin, pulled the trigger.
Blood splattered, a shock of warm and wet, on Arlys's face even as Bob fell back in the coanchor chair.
She heardâthat same bad connectionâFred's scream, the shouts. For three banging seconds, her vision grayed.
She lifted a trembling hand. “Don't cut the feed.”
She felt Jim's hands grip her. “Come with me, Arlys. Come on with me.”
“No, no, please.” She tipped her face to his, saw tears sliding down his cheeks. “I need toÂ â¦ On me, Steve,” she told the cameraman. “Please. Bob Barrett built an illustrious, admirable career as a journalist with his ethics, his integrity, his no-bullshit style,
his dedication to serving the ethos of the Fourth Estate, to serving the truth. His son, Marshall, wasÂ â¦ seventeen.”
“Eighteen,” Jim corrected.
“Eighteen. I didn't know Marshall had died, and can only speculate how Bob suffered with his great, personal loss in the last several days. Today, he succumbed to his grief, and we who try to serve the truth, who try to mirror his ethics and integrity, suffer a great, personal loss. He shouldn't be remembered for his last moments of despair. And even in them, even in them, he showed me I still have a long way to go to reach his level. In tribute to him, I'm going to serve up the truth.”
She knuckled a tear away, saw the red smear of blood, let out a breathy moan.
“I have to.” She looked directly at the camera, hopedâprayedâChuck was watching. “I have information from a source I consider absolutely reliable. I've had this information since early this morning, and I withheld it. I withheld it from my boss, from my coworkers, and from all of you. I apologize, and offer no excuse. Contrary to the information and numbers given to the media by the World Health Organization in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, the death count as of this morning from H5N1-X is more than two billion. This is one-third of the world population, and does not include deaths from murder, suicide, or accidents connected to the virus.”
Under the desk, she forced her hands to release their fists, continued to stare into the camera.
“Again, contrary to what is being reported, the progress on the vaccine has stalled as the virus has, again, mutated. There is no vaccine at this time. Moreover, the virus itself has not yet been identified. Previous reports categorizing H5N1-X as a new strain of avian flu are false.”
She paused, fought to find her center. “All evidence indicates that only humans are affected. Recently sworn-in President Ronald Carnegie contracted H5N1-X, and succumbed to it yesterday. Former Secretary of Agriculture Sally MacBride has been sworn in as president. President MacBride is forty-four, a Yale graduateâsumma cum laudeâand prior to accepting the cabinet position had served two terms in the United States Senate from the state of Kansas. President MacBride's husband of sixteen years, Peter Laster, died in week two of the pandemic. Her two childrenâJulian, age fourteen, and Sarah, age twelveâare reported to be alive and in a safe location. I can't, at this time, verify the veracity of that information.”
She reached for the water bottle she'd set out of camera range, look a long drink. She saw Carol weeping silently, Jim's arm around her. Fred stood beside them, a hand stroking Carol's back as she nodded at Arlys.
“I have further information that military forcesâI can't verify under what authorityâhave begun sweeps to find those of us who appear to be immune, and to quarantine the immune in unspecified locations for testing. This will not be voluntary. It will be, essentially, martial law.
“I don't believe in demons. That isn't a lie. But I have seen what was once the unbelievable. I've seen the beauty and the wonder of it. I believe what we've termed the Uncannyâthere is light and dark in them, as there is light and dark in all of usâwill also be swept up and detained and tested. And, I fear, that what H5N1-X leaves us, all of us, will not destroy us, but the fear and violence it breeds in those of us who give in to itâthe forced restrictions on freedomâcould.”
She paused, took a breath, looked over at Jim, gave him a signal to be ready to cut the feed. With a nod, he murmured to Carol. She shook her head.
“I'll do it,” Carol murmured, walking off to go back to the booth.
“I held this information knowing if and when I broadcasted it, it would very likely be the last broadcast from this station. That I would endanger my coworkers. And further, I let myself lower the bar on my expectations of the human race. I told myself it wouldn't matter if you knew, if I told the truth. I apologize for that. And I commend everyone with me in this studio for risking everything to get the truth. To all of you, don't give in to fear, to grief, to despair. Survive.
“I'll find a way to reach you again, with truth. For now, this is Arlys Reid, signing off.”
She sat back, hitched in a breath. “I'm sorry, Jim.”
“No, forget that.” He moved to her when she looked over at Bob, slumped in his chair, blood soaked through his shirt.
“Oh God. Oh God.”
“Come away now. I'll take care of him. I'll take care of him.”
“I had to do it.” Shaking, quaking, she let him steer her away. “Bob killed himself. He was wrong, he was wrong, but he was right about the lies. I was part of the lies. I couldn't keep lying afterÂ â¦ Now they'll shut us down. You did so much to keep us up, andâ”
“It was going to happen sooner or later. You got the truth out before we go dark. You need to go, Arlys. If you go home, they'll likely come for you there.”
“IÂ â¦ I have a place nobody knows about.”
“All right. What do you need?”
“I need to destroy the computer I've been using. My source told me how.”
“All right. Do that. Fred, get Arlys some supplies.”
“I'm going with her,” Fred told him.
“Enough for two then,” Jim said without missing a beat. “Fred, you can get both of you some clothes out of wardrobe.” As he spoke, Jim unbuttoned the blood-spattered jacket Arlys wore. “I'll take care of the rest. We probably don't have a lot of time.”
Arlys went straight to the computer, her hands shaking. She couldn't destroy her notes, just couldn't, so she stuffed them into her briefcase before following the steps Chuck had outlined.
Basically, he'd explained, she'd give the computer a virus, and everything on it would be wiped away. Then she was to remove the hard drive, andÂ â¦ smash the shit out of it, in Chuck's words, with a hammer.
Even with that, some genius cyber freak might dig out something, butâaccording to Chuckâby then it wouldn't matter.
She had to change her shirtâmore of Bob's bloodâclean off the blood and the TV makeup. Fred rushed in, snagged some eyeliners, lipsticks, mascaras.
“Nobody's going to use it around here so we might as well take it.”
“Really? I think pretty faces are going to be the least of it.”
“Pretty's never least.” Fred stuffed makeup in her pockets. “Jim says we should hurry, we should go.”
She grabbed her coat on the fly, found Steve waiting. He offered two backpacks. “These got left behind when people stopped coming back.”
“Thanks.” Arlys shrugged hers on, looking over at Jim and Carol. “Come with us. You should all come with us.”
“I've got things to do here. If they come before I'm done, I know ways out.”
“I'm with Jim,” Carol told her. “We're going to close down right.”
“I need to go home. I'm going to give them a hand, then I'm going home. Good luck.” Steve offered a hand.
Arlys ignored it, wrapped her arms around him, then the others.
“We're going toâ”
“Don't tell us,” Jim interrupted. “We can't tell anyone what we don't know. Be careful.”
“We will. I'll find a way,” she promised.
“If anyone can.”
They went out, down the stairwell.
“You were really brave. With Bob. He just, you know, lost it, and you were really brave.”
“I wasn't. It was mostly shock. And then it was shame because he said I was lying, and I was, even if he didn't know about what, I was lying.”