I step through the hole in the brick façade, give Amanda a hand inside.
Ripping open the pack, I quickly dig out the lantern.
The light reveals the destroyed front office, and the sight of this place in the dark takes me back to that night with Jason2, when he walked me naked and at gunpoint into another version of this old building.
We move out of the first room, the lantern piercing the darkness.
Down a hallway.
Faster and faster.
Our footsteps pounding the rotten floor.
Sweat runs down my face, stings my eyes.
My heart beats so hard it rattles my chest.
I’m gasping for breath.
Voices call after us.
I look back, see lasers cutting through the black and splotches of green from what I assume are night-vision goggles.
I hear the noise of radios and whispered voices and the rotors of the helicopter bleeding through the walls.
A torrent of gunfire fills the hallway, and we flatten ourselves against the ground until the shooting stops.
Struggling back onto our feet, we push on with even more urgency.
At a junction, I take us down a different hall, mostly sure it’s the right way though it’s impossible to be certain in the dark.
We finally emerge onto the metal platform at the top of the open stairs that lead down into the generator room.
Our pursuers are so close I can pick out three distinct voices reverberating through the last hallway.
Two men, one woman.
I move off the last step, Amanda right on my heels as heavy footfalls clang on the stairs above us.
Two red dots crisscross my path.
I sidestep and keep running, straight into the darkness ahead, where I know the box has to be.
Gunshots ring out above us as two figures in full biohazard gear launch off the bottom of the stairs, hurtling toward us.
The box stands fifty feet ahead, the door open and the metallic surface gently diffusing the light of our incoming lantern.
I feel something zip by my right ear like a passing hornet.
A bullet strikes the door with a spark of fire.
My ear burns.
A man behind us screams, “There’s nowhere to go!”
Amanda is first into the box.
Then I cross the threshold, turn, dig my shoulder into the door.
The soldiers are twenty feet away, so close I can hear them panting through their gas masks.
They open fire, and the blinding muzzle flashes and the bullets chinking into the metal of the box are the last I see and hear of that nightmare world.
We shoot up immediately and start walking down the corridor.
After a while, Amanda wants to stop, but I can’t.
I need to keep moving.
I walk for a full hour.
Through an entire cycle of the drug.
My ear bleeding all over my clothes.
Until the corridor collapses back into a single box.
I throw off the pack.
Coated in dried sweat.
Amanda is standing in the center of the box, her skirt dirty and ripped, sweater torn off completely from our run through the abandoned power plant.
As she sets the lantern on the floor, something inside of me releases.
The strength, the tension, the anger, the fear.
Everything flooding out at once in a stream of tears and uncontrollable sobbing.
Amanda turns off the lantern.
I crumple down against the cold wall, and she pulls me over into her lap.
Runs her fingers through my hair.
AMPOULES REMAINING: 40
I come to consciousness in the pitch-black, lying on my side on the floor of the box, my back to the wall. Amanda is pressed up close against me, our bodies contoured together, her head resting in the crook of my arm.
I’m hungry and thirsty.
I wonder how long I’ve slept.
At least my ear has stopped bleeding.
It’s impossible to deny the reality of our helplessness.
Aside from each other, this box is the only constant we have.
A very tiny boat in the middle of a very large ocean.
It’s our shelter.
Carefully, I untangle us.
Pulling off my hoodie, I fold it into a pillow and slide it under Amanda’s head.
She stirs but doesn’t wake.
I feel my way around to the door, knowing I shouldn’t take the risk of breaking the seal. But I have to know what’s out there, and the claustrophobia of the box is wearing on me.
Turning the handle, I drag it slowly open.
First sensation: the smell of evergreens.
Shafts of sunlight slant down through a forest of closely spaced pine trees.
In the near distance, a deer stands motionless, staring through its dark, wet eyes at the box.
When I step outside, the deer bounds off soundlessly through the pines.
The forest is startlingly quiet.
Mist hovers over the pine-needle floor.
I walk out a little ways from the box and sit on a piece of ground in direct morning sun that feels warm and bright against my face.
A breeze pushes through the tops of the trees.
I catch a hint of woodsmoke in the wind.
From an open fire?
I wonder, Who lives here?
What sort of a world is this?
I hear footsteps.
Glancing back, I see Amanda coming toward me through the trees and register a pang of guilt—I almost got her killed in that last world. She isn’t just here because of me. She’s here because she saved me. Because she did a brave, risky thing.
She sits beside me and turns her face to the sun.
“How’d you sleep?” she asks.
“Hard. Awful crick in my neck. You?”
“Sore all over.”
She leans in close and studies my ear.
“Bad?” I ask.
“No, the bullet just trimmed off part of your earlobe. I’ll clean it up for you.”
She hands me a liter of water we refilled in that futuristic Chicago, and I take a long sip that I wish would never end.
“You doing okay?” she asks.
“I can’t stop thinking about her. Lying dead on our porch. And Charlie up in his room. We are so lost.”
Amanda says, “I know it’s hard, but the question you should be thinking about—we should both be thinking about—is why did you bring us to that world?”
“All I wrote was, ‘I want to go home.’ ”
“Exactly. That’s what you wrote, but you carried baggage through the door.”