Chapter One - Wide Awake
“I’m sorry,” admits my coworker, Jazz. “He’s an asshole.”
“J, it’s fine, I totally get it,” I reassure her as I pack my few belongings into a black backpack. “I’ll figure something out, I always do...”
“Yeah but I feel like such a jerk,” she says softly, her eyes filling up with tears as she watches me, shifting from one foot to the other.
I look up at her, reaching out to rub her shoulder. “You’re right that Tony’s an asshole for making you tell me to leave, and you deserve better than him. But I will be totally fine. I have a plan, actually. I’m gonna head upstate. There’s national forest there and probably abandoned vacation homes. I can get away there, and be safe.”
She looks skeptical. “You’re heading to the forest, in the middle of winter? Why not just head to the shelter on Fourteenth? At least there you can get a hot meal. Carmen, think this through, I’m begging you.”
Steely resolve straightens my spine. “I’ve thought about this a lot, J. There’s a little town called Parrish about an hour north of here, and it’s right on the edge of the forest. There might be jobs there. It’ll be easier to hide there, easier to get away from all this…” I gesture around at the city just outside our window.
“You still worried about getting snatched?” Her voice is tense and tight as I sigh, nodding.
“Two of the girls from the shelter on Thirty-Fifth disappeared this week. It’s almost weekly now. It’s gotten to the point where going to my shitty minimum-wage job just isn’t worth the risk. I can’t live like this, J. It feels like just a matter of time before either the Awakened or Task Force abduct me. I can’t go through that.”
Jazz smiles at me, although it doesn’t reach her eyes. “What are you gonna do without your favorite hairdresser friend to help you fight these wavy curls though?” She reaches out and picks up a wayward black strand and tugs it, watching it bounce out of her fingers and snap back into place.
“I’ll figure something out. But I’ve got to get out of here,” I chuckle.
“Billy still showing up at the shelter?”
I nod, wrapping both arms around myself protectively. “Yeah. I mean, he hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s just always around, you know? And I don’t like him in that way. Shit I don’t like anyone that way. I haven’t gone on a date in ten years. I’m just terrified he’ll get hit with the virus, and if he transitions, I just know he’ll come for me. I can’t have that. He gives me the heebie jeebies.”
She nods, straightening up as she turns and leaves the small bedroom she’s been letting me crash in for the last month. When she comes back, she throws two bottles of curl detangler in my bag. “Here, it’s the least I can do if I’m allowing my boyfriend to kick you out. God, he’s such an asshole.”
“Yeah, but he’s your asshole, right?” I offer with a wary smile. I can’t fault her for picking him over me. They’re pregnant with their first child; they need to stick together. And I’m strong, stronger than most people give me credit for. I’ll be fine, I will.
The sun is setting when I finally make my way to the small town of Parrish, New York. My beat up Honda barely runs at this point, but my last foster mom, Lucy, gifted it to me when she passed, and I’m grateful to have something to drive. God I miss her. Reaching into my shirt, I grip the amethyst necklace she gave me for my birthday. She died right before it, but she made sure I had this. It’s my most prized possession, because it reminds me of her and the year I lived with her–the happiest, most carefree year of my life.
Shaking bittersweet thoughts away, I glance around as I drive, looking to see what’s available in Parrish. There’s a little general store and a gas station. I don’t need much else, honestly. I’ll probably come into town once every few weeks for groceries, if I can find someplace to crash.
I think back to a foster family who brought me camping out here once upon a time, before they gave me back up to the system. Thick forest surrounds the town of Parrish, but there are a lot of vacation homes north of town. Homes I’m hoping will be abandoned now because of the virus.
Nobody wants to risk leaving the perceived safety of the city, pfft, and I’m counting on that in this plan of mine. In the back corners of my mind, I can admit this plan has flaws. But I know one thing for certain–I need a fresh start, and I need to feel safe and secure. Most importantly, I want to get away from the Task Force and Billy Ocampo following me around like a shadow.
No matter the cost.
Parking the Honda, I head into the general store and glance around. A woman with a flaming red bouffant glances up at me with a wary smile when I come in. “You need help with something?” she huffs from behind a cigarette that dangles from her lips.
I give her a small smile but shake my head, doing a quick walk through before assessing what’s easy to take with me. I’ve got a hot plate I can use between now and when I find a place to crash. As long as I can find a free outlet I’m good to go cooking-wise.
Taking a second lap around the store, I feel the woman’s eyes on me. “You gonna steal the stuff or just do laps around my store, girl?”
Bristling, I turn, but will myself to be calm. I’ve always had a temper, but I’ve learned from necessity not to show that temper. It’s always best to just extricate myself quietly when situations like this come up. “I’m just trying to decide what I want, I’ve only got one backpack,” I offer, gesturing to the pack slung over my shoulder.
“Mhm,” she deadpans, glancing away from me as a younger woman comes through the door with a fat, happy baby on her hip. The big-haired woman coos to the child and takes him, making baby talk as I head back toward the two aisles of food. I grab a few packages of noodles, a couple cans of baked beans, some hot dogs and a few cans of tomato sauce. Oh, ramen too, because that’s always easy on the go.
When I head to the counter and deposit everything there, the woman looks at me with narrowed eyes but says nothing. She rings me up quietly. “That’ll be $18.42.”
Reaching into my bag, I grab a twenty from my wallet and lay it down, grimacing at how little cash is in there. I’m going to need to find a job, soon.
The woman gives me my change and watches, scrutinizing, as I carefully tuck it back into the compartments of my backpack. When I glance up at her, her face is unreadable, but she and the younger woman are both just...staring. It’s horribly uncomfortable and I can’t think of anything to say.
“Never seen a latina before?” I deadpan, my temper finally getting the better of me as she pushes my bag across the countertop.
The older woman’s face falls. “It’s not that, honey. We just don’t see new people out here at all, especially women. Not since the virus. I’m a suspicious old broad but that’s rude, and I’m sorry.”
Well that’s...unexpected. I can’t think of anything to say, because I feel horribly awkward now, my cheeks heating as both women continue to stare.
“Errm. Well if you need any help with this place, I’m planning to stick around for a little while.”
The woman purses her lips and glances around. “Unfortunately, not a lotta customers these days, although we do handle big orders for a large family that lives about twenty minutes away. Let me talk to my husband. Come back in a day or two and we might be able to throw a little bit of work your direction.”
I can’t resist a little smile at that. “I’ll do that...what’s your name?”
She smiles. “I’m Margie, and this is my daughter Kayla and her son, Ty. What’s your name, honey?”
“Carmen,” I reply with a small smile. “Nice to meet you both. I’ll check back in a day or so and see what I can help with, if anything. No pressure.”
“Sounds good, Carmen. See you soon,” says Margie as I turn to leave the store. I don’t know how that turned from an awkward accusation into some potential work, but I’ll take it. And I get it. People don’t just trust people in this new world order of the Awaken Virus. Everybody wants something, and if they can take it they do. At least, that’s been my experience.
I hope to God things are going to start looking up.