Steal Tomorrow

A Flash Fiction Collection
by Ann M. Pino

This collection is based on previously web-published content

inspired by my novel, Steal Tomorrow
Stories have been selected and edited for a print-based readership.

All rights reserved. Copyright ©2009 by Ann M. Pino No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. http://stealtomorrow.blogspot.com

All prints in this book are the property of, or licensed to the author. This book is a free distribution and not for sale.

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CONTENTS
ABOUT
THE

STORIES.....................................................................V
AS IN

CIVIC DUTY...............................................................................3 ON EARTH HEAVEN..............................................................6 THE BEAUTY QUEEN....................................................................9 POST-PANDEMIC HOOP DREAMS.....................................................14 FIRST DO NO HARM..................................................................19 ON
THE

BRIDGE.......................................................................24
OF THE

THE PRINCIPLE

THING........................................................29

SPECIAL DELIVERY.....................................................................34 PRACTICAL NURSE.....................................................................38 ARS GRATIA ARTIS....................................................................41

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About the Stories
These stories are prequels to Steal Tomorrow, a novel set in a world devastated by a pandemic that spares only the young. Children and teenagers are infected with the same deadly retrovirus that killed their parents, and sometime between their late teens and early twenties, they too will die. In the meantime, the most resilient of them seek ways to survive the wreckage of civilization. The young people in the stories that follow will all end up at the luxurious Regency Hotel, either as members of the Regents gang or as independent allies. To reach this place of relative safety, they will have to decide what price their survival is worth.

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The Stories

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Civic Duty
Reymundo Guzman Morales (Mundo) “Diesel,” Jimmy muttered as his spade struck a rock. Mundo looked across the field at the idled backhoe. The work would go a lot faster if they hadn't run out of fuel for the heavy equipment. “That would be nice, but don’t hold your breath.” “What about food?” Carlos asked. “They can’t expect us to keep working like this without feeding us properly.” “No deliveries,” Mundo reminded him. “There’s not much they can do.” “Bullshit. They're hoarding MREs. Everyone says so. ” “They could at least let us rest,” Jimmy added. Mundo glanced up and down the row of exhausted, ragged boys. As the one who had called them together in a spirit of civic duty, he had a responsibility to them. It was one thing to volunteer to help collect the trash and bury the dead, but it was something else to tolerate abuse. He set his shovel aside and climbed out of the pit. The city employee was a thin, nervous man named Preston. He reeked of garlic and had a cluster of tiny ulcers on his lips, but Mundo could see the tell-tale shadows under his eyes and a faint sheen of sweat on his skin. He would be dead soon, his efforts with garlic and Vitamin C no match for the pandemic virus. Mundo had once felt pity for the grownups as they sickened and died, but now he was merely numb. “We need a break.” Preston shook his head. “We have to be ready for a thousand more before two o’clock.” “Just fifteen minutes, so we can rest and have some water.”

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“There’s no more water. Maybe they’ll bring some when they deliver the bodies.” Mundo looked at the pit, where the rest of the crew had stopped working and watched him with expectant eyes. “We’ll just rest, then.” He motioned for them to lay down their shovels and come out. Preston reached for the Glock at his hip. “You can’t do that. This is a civil emergency.” His hands trembled as he aimed the gun at the muddy teenage boys climbing out of the trench. “Get back in there. This is an order. This— Mundo slammed a shoulder into Preston's frail body, knocking him to the ground. The Glock fell out of his grasp, but before he could reach for it, Carlos vaulted himself out of the pit, shovel in hand, and prepared to strike a killing blow. Mundo held up a hand to stop him, then turned his attention back on Preston. “Did it ever occur to you that whether we bury a thousand at two o’clock or at two-fifteen makes no fucking difference when the dead in this city number in the hundreds of thousands? In another few weeks, you’ll all be gone, every one of you. It’s the end of the goddamn world.” Preston's panic turned to the cold rage of fear. “And what’ll you little bastards do then? There’ll be no one to run the electric plants or treat the sewage. No more deliveries of food and fuel. It’ll just be you ignorant kids and a bunch of rotting corpses.” “In that case, what does it matter if we take a break?” The man laughed, a high-pitched, hysterical sound. “Go on, then. Rest. In fact, have a party. Call each other on your cell phones if you can still find a signal. You’ll be tearing each other apart soon enough. Without adults to guide you, it’ll be just like Lord of the Flies.” Mundo wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he knew an insult when he heard it. Preston was weak, yet still had the nerve to abuse Mundo and his friends, who would be the only authority in the city before long. They would probably screw it up, but how could they do worse than the adults who had created this mess in the first place? “We’ll find a way,” he said. “Too bad you’ll be dead, because you might've been surprised.”
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Before Preston could answer, Mundo motioned to Carlos, who silenced the fool forever with a blow from his spade. “That’s one who won’t die from the Telo,” Carlos said. Mundo picked up the Glock and removed the holster and extra magazines from Preston's body. Things were getting crazy and being armed would come in handy. With his crew watching him warily, he strapped the gun on. “I'll find weapons for all of you as soon as I can. We won't let them push us around any more.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the road out of the park, back to the city streets. “Come on, guys. Let's go find us some food.”

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On Earth as In Heaven
Paul Gallard The answer, of course, was prayer. But although Paul prayed fervently, the deaths continued. “It’s because there’s so much sin in the world,” his church friends said. Paul’s parents and older sister hadn’t been religious, and it had been two weeks since they were tossed into mass graves. Nevertheless, Paul was reluctant to ascribe their deaths to sin. The explanations of the scientists didn’t help much either, though. It was a pandemic; it was no one’s fault. If a just and loving God ruled the earth, how could He allow such devastation? Paul shifted his weight on his knees and tried to focus on his prayers. The other young people who had been living at this church weren’t agitated like he was. Heads down, hands clasped before them, they were believers and would be among the saved. Paul, on the other hand, would surely go to hell. He tried to force the pandemic out of his thoughts. Since the words of Jeremy’s anti-plague prayer refused to come to mind, he softly mumbled the only words he could think of. “Our Father, who art in Heaven….” He felt more than heard the presence of someone at his side, but for the moment he kept his eyes clenched shut. “… forgive us our trespasses….” A hand fell on his shoulder and Paul looked up into Jeremy Worthington’s stern features. Did he know Paul had already forgotten the new prayer? As the preacher’s son, Jeremy had taken over after his father had been called to Heaven. The spiritual integrity of the remaining congregation was a duty he took seriously.

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Jeremy gave a little jerk of his chin, indicating that he should follow, and with a knot of fear in his stomach, Paul obeyed. Was this it? Would he be asked to leave for lack of orthodoxy? In a world suddenly without adults, electricity, or food deliveries, how would he survive without the protection and guidance of friends? In the minister’s office, Jeremy waved Paul to a guest chair and took a seat behind his father’s desk. “I’ve had my eye on you.” Paul sucked in his breath and waited to hear the words of banishment. “As you know, it’s getting worse out there.” “Jesus will save the righteous,” Paul said, hoping that was the right response. “Yes,” Jeremy agreed. “But not if we refuse to be instruments of our own salvation.” He leaned forward and rested his hands on the desk. “God has spoken to me, and He says you should be on our salvage team.” Paul blinked. “Our what?” “The church pantry is empty and we can’t go on much longer this way. We need a team to go to the stores, homes and warehouses and get supplies.” “Isn’t that stealing? We should trust the Lord to provide.” “Don’t be ridiculous. The Lord has provided by removing the sinners who were keeping us from obtaining what we need. Now we must collect it, like manna from Heaven.” Paul didn’t care for the analogy, but Jeremy had a point. Taking from the dead wasn’t quite the same as stealing from the living. “You’ll be given a weapon. Don’t hesitate to use it against any infidel gangs who try to take supplies that God has decreed are rightly ours.” “I can't—” Jeremy jumped to his feet. “Are you refusing the call of God? I’m telling you, He spoke to me in a dream and you are among those chosen for this special mission. The world of sin and ugliness is passing and we are to lead the crusade in bringing about God’s holy purpose. You are to find food to feed His needy and you are to send anyone who opposes you
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to Hell.” He fixed Paul with a feverish gaze. “Any questions? Or are you a doubter?” Paul had doubts – lots of them. He had seen the filth of the streets and the wild gangs of angry, desperate children struggling for survival in the wreckage. Realistically, he had always known their group couldn’t hide in this church forever, praying for deliverance. He understood that sin and evil stalked the city streets, but he had hoped that if he were to be called to a mission, it would be to distribute goods to the hungry and preach God’s love to the frightened. What good could come from being a common looter? “There will be a team meeting in the church library in an hour,” Jeremy said. “Be on time, and may God be with you.” In thoughtful silence, Paul returned to the sanctuary. He found a space among the other young people and dropped to his knees. Surely it wasn’t wrong to take abandoned goods and put them to use in the house of the Lord, so why did he feel uneasy? He bowed his head over his clasped hands and waited in desperation for proper words of prayer to come. The Lord would guide him. He had to.

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The Beauty Queen
Kayleen Bryant Kayleen walked across the lobby, conscious of the sound of her shoes on the marble floor. She tried not to glance around self-consciously, since what was there to look at? There hadn’t been anyone else here for weeks and the only other living creatures were the rats and mice— disgusting creatures who competed with her for food in the restaurant kitchen. She sank into a plush chair by the fireplace and picked up a city guide from a mahogany table. She had leafed through this particular magazine dozens of times and the glossy images of boutiques, spas, and restaurants always left her agitated, wanting things that were gone. Well, not all gone. She still had her pageant dresses and designer outfits hanging in her room upstairs. She was free to visit the stores in the magazine ads, if she was willing to take her chances and go looting. The hotel gift shop had provided her with some very nice jewelry and a couple of cute bikinis. But it had been the glamour Kayleen loved, not the fashions and trinkets themselves. She fed on admiration the way the rats now fed on the dead. She set the magazine aside and looked around, willing herself to not be spooked by the shadows and the sound of vermin rustling in unseen places. She was used to people looking at her, envying her golden hair, topaz eyes, and pert little nose. Even alone, she couldn’t escape the feeling she was being observed, judged, and admired, even if only by the ghosts— and Kayleen was certain that with so many dead decomposing in their rooms, this place was haunted. It was hard to stay with so many ghosts around, but where should she go instead? She wasn’t from around here —she and her mother had come to do a little shopping in stores too fancy for their small town. She knew no one, and before the broadcasts stopped and the electricity failed, the news had been full of warnings about violent gangs. Kayleen
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was only a mediocre student, but she wasn’t stupid. A girl with her looks needed protection. Too bad there were no other young people at the hotel any more. They could’ve formed their own gang. But many of the kids left early in the pandemic, seeking aid for their parents, never to return. Others had struck out for home, hoping to avoid the roadblocks and praying they could find enough gasoline to get them where they needed to go. One boy, the hemophiliac son of a banker in town for a conference, had died. A girl about Kayleen’s age had shot herself after being raped by members of the Kevorkian gang when she went into the streets looking for a place to bury her parents. It was better to stay at the hotel, even if it was full of rats and ghosts. But as Kayleen stood to go into the kitchen and check if there were any crackers left, a sound of shouts and footsteps at the entrance made her duck behind a column. On the other side of the doors was movement and color, broken up and distorted by panes of beveled glass. She dashed for the spiral staircase, nearly tripping in her panic as she ran to the second floor. She dropped to her knees and peered through the balcony rails as a group of teenage boys burst through the front doors, tracking grime across her perfect marble floor. They milled about for a few minutes, gawking at the chandeliers, crystal, and gold leaf as if they had never seen such things before. Kayleen sniffed. They must be from a poor neighborhood. The one who appeared to be their leader was almost certainly lower class. Weren’t Mexicans supposed to stay in their barrios eating tortillas or something? “Looks like no one’s been here yet.” “Bar is stocked—we hit the jackpot, man.” “Check the kitchen.” At these last words, Kayleen sat a little straighter. How dare these low-lifes barge in here and take her food! But it was the leader’s next words that chilled her through. “Check for bodies and squatters—every room up to the tenth floor. When it’s all clear, we’ll tell the girls and little ones it’s okay to move in.”
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Kayleen scrambled to her feet and made a run for the nearest stairwell and her room on the fifth floor. She shut the door behind her and secured it with the manual bolt. Would they really check every floor? It wouldn’t make much difference if they didn’t, since she had to come out sometime. What would they do to her when they found her? If they were like those horrible Kevorks, she didn't stand a chance. She needed status, fast. She flipped through the clothes hanging in her closet and selected a spangled vermillion dress that pushed up her breasts and showed off every curve. Then she sat at the vanity mirror and with trembling hands, arranged her hair and began applying makeup. She was ready when she heard the hand on the doorknob and the kick of a boot against the door. “Open up in there!” For a moment, Kayleen hesitated. She could remain silent, let them think there was only a dead person in here. But she had heard the banging and stomping in the hallway. They might break down the door just to be sure. “I want to talk to your leader!” On the other side of the door, a moment of startled silence. “Come on out. You can talk to him downstairs.” “No. Make him come here.” “No one makes Mundo do anything.” Another voice interrupted, speaking in quiet tones so Kayleen couldn’t make out the words. Then footsteps stomped away and the quiet voice warned, “We’ll tell him. But don’t even think of trying something.” Kayleen sat on the edge of the bed, toying with her rings as she took deep breaths to calm her racing heart. With only one weapon at her disposal, she had every intention of trying something, just not what those boys probably had in mind. After what seemed like forever, there was another sound at the door, a knock this time, authoritative but respectful. “You wanted to see me?” Kayleen stood up. “Are you in charge of this gang that’s taking over?”
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“My name is Reymundo Guzman Morales, and yeah, I’m in charge. Open this door or I’ll break it down.” With a silent prayer that she wouldn't find the gang leader too thoroughly revolting, Kayleen opened the door. The young man was solidly built and had skin the color of a Starbucks latte. He was dressed in dirty fatigues, and he carried a semiautomatic in one hand and another at his hip. There was nothing unfriendly in his eyes, though, and Kayleen recognized the sudden light of appreciation as he looked her up and down. He might be leader of a dangerous gang, but he was still a man like any other. Kayleen flashed him her best pageant contestant smile. “So are you guys moving in here for good? I’m the only person here, and I’ve been awful lonely.” She held his gaze, hoping he would understand and spare her the humiliation of spelling out her offer. With the slow smile of a man receiving unexpectedly pleasant news, he put his gun away. “I think I can fix that for you.” He glanced over his shoulder and waved his gawking followers away. “Finish checking the rooms, guys. Me and this girl have some negotiating to do.”

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Post-Pandemic Hoop Dreams
Julilla Walker Julilla bounced the ball and looked around. Still too early. That meant she had time for a warm-up. She went through a routine of her own devising, dribbling and dodging imaginary teammates as she moved across the blacktop and back again, then to the free throw line for a few practice shots. The first one bounced off the backboard, but she was unfazed. Her first shot always sucked. She had envied her teammates who never needed those first practice throws, but a lot of those girls were dead now, and so was the coach, while she carried on, muddling through the post-pandemic wreckage. She threw again and this time the ball slipped through the basket without touching the rim and bounced off the asphalt with a satisfying sound. Julilla leaped to catch it and followed with a couple of quick lay-ups and a hook shot. As she hit her groove, she forgot she was hungry and alone. She forgot the ever-present reminders of the dead in the empty streets and shops. She even managed to ignore the sickly smell of rot that occasionally wafted from the direction of a nearby parking garage where bodies lay piled up, waiting for transport trucks that would never come to take them to the pits. For a few blessed minutes, Julilla’s world narrowed to just herself, the ball, and the shadows of the dead and missing girls who she dodged and scored off in her imagination. If she let her fancy take hold, she could almost believe she was playing for the high school all-stars again, rallying her team for the final victory while her coaches, classmates, and dear Aunt Veegee screamed her name and college recruiters tapped their BlackBerrys. A movement at the edge of the blacktop caught her eye, bringing her back to the present. The children were arriving, but there weren’t enough yet. She continued to practice,
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adding a few exhibition moves—ball between the legs, catch, over the knee and down again, then a high bounce with a little twirl before catching it and spinning it on one finger. A few more children wandered up and one clapped. “I got better moves than this if you’ve got food,” she called. One boy had some crackers. For him, Julilla showed off her quick footwork, and shot three hoops over her shoulder in rapid succession. Another girl had a box of raisins. For her, she performed a new routine she had been working on—a hard bounce, then see how many times she could clap and twirl before catching it. This pleased the girl and her friends so much that they started digging through bags and pockets, and Julilla added some hand jive moves. The girls were giggling and pooling their food resources into something that might take the edge of Julilla’s hunger when a group of rangy older boys wandered up. The chattering girls and clapping boys fell silent and Julilla paused, bouncing the ball slowly while she returned the group leader’s cool look. “You a real basketball player?” he sneered. “Or just some kind of Harlem Globetrotter showoff?” Patience. Aunt Veegee, God rest her soul, always said to wait to see what the other guy would do first. That way you’d have time to plan. “I’m here,” she said. “So I guess that makes me as real as anyone.” The boy reached in his pocket, and for a panicked moment she thought he had a gun. A lot of the older boys did these days, and sometimes the young ones, too. But instead of a weapon, he took out a Milky Way bar. Julilla’s stomach growled and she swallowed hard. “Eleven points,” he said. “You game?” “Is that the prize?” “If you win. Want to know what mine is if you lose?” His gaze tracked across her body. Julilla had seen that look before. It was the same way her mother’s ill-chosen boyfriends had looked at her, including the one who—well, the pandemic had been good for
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something, at least. A wave of anger swept through her, spurring the killing urge that her coaches had so carefully channeled into a winner’s drive. “I won’t lose.” She tossed him the ball. “You can even go first. That way your friends can see you make at least one good shot before I wipe the blacktop with your ass.” “The only move on anyone’s ass is going to be mine on yours, baby.” The boy made a fast break, dodging Julilla’s blocking moves and going for a lay-up. Julilla leaped to knock the ball out of range, but he crashed into her with his shoulder and she stumbled. The ball swooshed through the basket and he caught it with a laugh while the children on the sidelines screamed foul. Julilla thought of calling him on it, but could tell by his labored breathing that she only needed to hold him off and let him wear himself down. It was just like playing defense for the all-stars. Over the next twenty minutes, they panted, sweated and cursed each other as the boy twisted and feinted, unable to lose Julilla as she hovered over and around him, sometimes knocking the ball from his hands, sometimes waiting so she could block his shots. She took stomps to her feet and elbows to her ribs, all of which he pretended were accidental, but as she saw him grow winded and she stole the ball again and again, she didn’t bother to call him on his fouls. All she had to do was outlast this bastard, and as she sank her last shot, she beamed at the crowd of cheering kids. “I think I earned my candy bar,” she told the boy, as he leaned forward, hands on his knees, breathing hard. With a malevolent glare, he stood up and reached in his pocket. He threw the Milky Way to the ground in disgust and when he raised his foot like he would stomp on it, Julilla lunged toward him. Fouls and bruises were one thing, but that was breakfast! To her surprise, the boy’s friends grabbed him and pulled him back. “Let it go, man. She won fair.” As they dragged him off the blacktop, Julilla scooped up the candy bar and ripped open the paper. How long had it been since she had eaten chocolate?

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The little girl who had offered her raisins tugged at her shirt and handed up a bottle of water. Gratefully, Julilla accepted. Putting nasty teenage boys in their place was thirsty work. The girl still stared at her with big eyes. “Ma’am?” Julilla stifled a laugh. She was too young to be ma’am to anyone. “Can you teach me to play?” Julilla assessed. The girl wasn’t much bigger than the ball. “It doesn’t come easy. You willing to work hard?” “Everything’s hard since Telo.” “It was hard before, too.” Julilla broke off a piece of Milky Way for her. “We have to make the most of what we’ve got. That’s how we’re going to get through this.” The girl sucked on her candy and nodded. “Come on, girlfriend.” Julilla held out her hand. “I think I can show you a few moves.”

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First Do No Harm
Johnathan Windston Brody, Jr. Johnny wound the last bit of tape around the boy’s finger, securing the splint in place. “You’ll need to make sure this doesn’t get wet,” he said. “Do you have any rubber gloves?” “My mom used to wear some to wash the dishes.” The boy frowned. “But I don’t live there any more. And I don’t want to go back.” Johnny recognized the look in the boy’s eyes. Children who lost their families often couldn’t bear the memories associated with home. Sometimes it was more than just memories that sent them into the streets looking for new homes and new friendships; many people died where they fell ill, with no one to remove the body afterwards. With a small sigh, Johnny rummaged in a drawer and produced two latex gloves from his dwindling stash. “One for now, one for later if the first one gets torn. But be careful with these. And if you end up not needing the second one, bring it back.” Johnny pulled a glove over the boy’s hand. The child’s fingers were so small that Johnny had to secure the glove at the wrist with a rubber band. “You’re all set. How do you want to pay for this?” “Pay?” “I’ve got to eat too, you know. Food, water, batteries… what do you have?” “Nothing. I’m hungry, too.” This had been happening a lot lately. When Johnny had first set himself up in his mother’s old medical clinic, his young patients had taken it as a given that no doctor would work for free, even one who was fifteen and working out of what he could read from books and remember from dinner table conversations. But Johnny had been too generous. He
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couldn’t bear to send a child away just because he or she had nothing to offer. That wasn’t how he had been raised. But things were different now. Supplies were becoming harder to find, more children needed his help, and now there was a violent new tribe on the scene, breaking into clinics and pharmacies, taking drugs for their own use and for barter. The Pharms had harassed Doc twice already and they had tied up supplies of many of the pain-killers and antibiotics he needed to do his work. Even if he could live off air like a Tillandsia plant, he still needed payment in order to barter with the Pharms. Well, what was he going to do, break the boy’s finger again? “Go on,” he said. “Pay me when you can. But tell your friends I don’t work for free.” The boy thanked him and hurried out the door. Johnny began tidying the room for the next patient, putting instruments and supplies back in their proper places, checking supplies, and wiping surfaces with bleach. He was writing in his notebook where he kept track of all his patients, treatments, and supplies, when a shadow in the doorway caught his attention. The serious young man with the pistol on his hip didn’t look sick. Neither did the two armed boys behind him. Johnny jumped to his feet. “I’m not ready for my next patient, but if you’ll take a seat in the waiting room—” “I’m not a patient.” The young man stepped into room as if he owned it. “Look, if you’re with the Pharms—” “Nah.” He waved a hand. “My name is Reymundo Guzman Morales, but you can call me Mundo. I’m leader of the Regents and I need a house call. Are you the doctor?” Johnny hesitated. Weren’t the Regents that group of kids who had taken over the Regency Hotel? He couldn’t recall what he had heard about them, but if it was something bad he surely would’ve remembered it. “I don’t do house calls. Why can’t you bring your patient here?” “Too dangerous.” When Johnny gave him a skeptical look over the tops of his glasses, Mundo added, “It’s a pregnant
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girl, and I don’t want her out on the streets where she might get hurt.” “I don’t know anything about pregnancy. Sorry.” Mundo sighed and a note of vulnerability crept into his voice. “Look, Doc, we’ve got goods. We can pay.” Johnny scanned Mundo’s face as he considered. “Please?” Mundo ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t make me have to kidnap you. Nisha hasn’t seen a doctor since before the Telo and she’s having weird symptoms. I want my kid born healthy, so just tell me what you want.” Now Johnny understood and for a moment he forgot that he didn’t know a thing about babies and had only the sketchiest understanding of female anatomy. This was an opportunity. A tribal leader with goods and armed guards was willing to let him name his price. “I need supplies,” he said. “And protection from the Pharms. Every time I find a new source of meds, they show up and take them. Give me barter goods and a guard, and I’ll—” To his surprise, Mundo shook his head. “I’ve barely got enough guards as it is. I can’t spare anyone to hang around here waiting to shoot a Pharm.” “I can’t help you, then.” The guards behind Mundo shuffled their feet and Mundo sized Johnny up through narrowed eyes. “What are you really after, Doc? If you just want to practice medicine in peace, I can set you up in one of our ballrooms. You’ll have food, supplies from our forage runs, and guard protection twenty-four-seven.” When Johnny hesitated, he added, “You’re not particularly attached to this place, are you?” Johnny looked around. He knew each wall chart, supply cabinet, and treatment room like they were his own. Even the coffee-stained china cups in the break room were as familiar as his own name. He had been brought here as a baby so his mother could show him off to her co-workers. He had come here as a toddler and colored quietly under the receptionist’s watchful eye. He had listened to nurse and patient chatter, then quizzed his parents at the dinner table, always wanting to know more. How did antibiotics work? Why do you splint broken fingers but not broken toes? Johnny wanted to know it all and he forgot little. Yes, he was
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attached to this place. But he remembered the boy he had treated a few minutes ago and brought himself back to reality. There was something else his parents taught him about medicine, and it was more important than a mere building. Johnny lifted his chin. “If you want me for a private physician, forget it. Go on and shoot me, if that’s what you think you need to do. But if you’re offering me a real clinic where I can treat anyone who needs me, I’ll do it.” Mundo stuck out his hand. “It’s a deal.” They shook on it and discussed the particulars of what Johnny, who Mundo insisted on calling “Doc,” would need. They agreed on a moving date, and then with a clatter of boots on the hard stone floors, Mundo and his guards walked out. In the silence that followed, Johnny looked around. Nothing had changed, yet everything had. He picked up his pen and notebook, but didn’t know what to write. He ran his hand across a stack of brochures about diabetes and colitis, but couldn’t think what to do with them. He contemplated a chart of the major muscle groups. That would be useful. He would take that with him. At a small sound in the doorway, Johnny looked up in alarm. A girl with dirty feet and ragged braids coughed again. “Are you—?” “Yeah,” Johnny said. “I’m the doctor.” “I can’t—I mean, I don’t have—” she held out her empty hands. “It’s okay,” Johnny told her. “I’ve got a patron now. No one needs to pay me any more.”

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On the Bridge
Jay Gallard Darkness above. Darkness below. The ring of boots on metal. Was it really his boots? Jay stopped and listened. Maybe the problem was his ears. Or his feet. He continued walking. The clouds parted and the moon appeared. The water below sparkled—something to dive into and get lost in. He leaned over the railing as the moon vanished again behind a cloud. Now the water was dark like the sky, but it was still there, waiting for him. Jump and it would all be over. No more pills and crazy raids he only half-remembered. No more waking up with bloody hands and patches of memory that felt like someone else’s nightmare. The water would consume him, pull him under, and he would become…what? He took a step back and turned around, slamming into a pole he hadn’t noticed in the darkness. It didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt if you took enough pills and drank enough gin, or whatever the group had managed to steal that day. Sometimes it was the girls who brought him things. They asked him for food and protection. They laughed as if the pandemic was a joke, and for awhile the world seemed right again, until he woke up with missing time and a girl he barely knew lying against his naked skin. That was what Trina had done, Trina who was supposed to be his friend’s girl. Oddly, there had never been a fight or angry word about the matter. And now there was nothing to fight over any more. Jay moved back to the railing. No moon, no water, only an empty pit of blackness. Of course the water was down there. It had been there before, hadn't it? Was he in the right place? He frowned and wished he hadn’t taken so goddamn many pills. But now he had an idea. Wouldn’t the overpass be better? In the water, he might survive, but surely not if he
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leaped off the overpass. Yes, that was the better way to do it. He stepped away from the railing again, felt the world tip and fell to his knees, fumbling for something to grab onto. He pulled himself up against a lamp post, breathing hard. He couldn’t get to the freeway in this condition. Not unless he crawled. In his present state, the idea didn’t seem preposterous. Crawling was safe. Hard to trip and fall that way. But wasn’t falling what he was after? Yes, of course. But one couldn’t fall just anywhere. It had to be from someplace high. He needed to smash his bones and break his skull so all the ugly memories would bleed out, leaving his body free and his mind pure. Water wouldn’t do that. He would have to find a way to get to the overpass. But as he let go the light post, his knees buckled and he sank to the iron grate of the pedestrian walkway. Water would have to do. He dragged himself to the guardrail and pulled himself up. The dark water shimmered below, waiting. Then a soft footstep beside him. A quiet voice. “Jay?” He squinted at the boy in the pale light. Thin, about his own age, with large soulful eyes that looked like they could swallow a person whole. “It is you, isn’t it? They tried to tell me it wasn’t.” “Go away.” The boy put a hand on his arm. right? Your cousin Paul.” “You know who I am,

Jay tried to shake off Paul’s grip. “Of course I know,” he lied. As if he could recognize anyone in the dark and after so many pills. What had they been, anyway? Pharmacy stock was all he knew. “I’ve been looking for you.” “Dumb thing to do.” “But you’re my only family and I care about you.” “That’s because you’re stupid.” “God's not stupid, and he loves you.” “Not after what I’ve done.”
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“If you’re truly sorry, he’ll forgive you.” “There’s things I've done that won’t get forgiven. Go back to your church group, or whoever it is you’ve been hanging out with, and read your fucking Bible.” He jerked his arm from Paul’s grip and moved a few steps away, the better to figure out how he was going to get over the railing. Paul watched in silence as Jay struggled to swing a leg over the rail. “You know,” he said, “You could always try this another day.” “Don’t give me that. You think if I sober up I won’t want it any more.” “I promise if you still want to try tomorrow, I won’t stop you.” When Jay didn’t answer, he waved a hand in irritation. “Come on—what kind of lame suicide attempt is this? You can’t even do it in the condition you’re in. I always thought if there was something stupid to be done, you of all people could get it right.” Jay leaned against a post and looked at him, trying to understand this new tactic. The moon was brighter now and he could see the shadows and angles of his cousin’s face. He was thinner than he remembered, and seemed older. “You don’t get it, do you? It’s over—us, civilization, even your precious God.” He took a wobbly step toward him. “Do you have any idea how many people I’ve killed?” When Paul hesitated, he laughed, a mirthless sound. “Neither do I.” He tried again to hoist a leg over the rail. “If you die, how will you make things right?” “You can’t do anything for the dead.” “You could do something for the living. You used to like to help people.” “Fuck off.” “I love you.” Jay looked at him, then turned away, unable to bear the kindness in his eyes. “I don’t deserve it.” “We don’t always get what we deserve.” “No shit.”

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“Sometimes God gives us better, for no reason at all.” Paul held out his hand. “Come on, man. The bridge will still be here in the morning.” Jay took a step toward him, stumbled, and felt Paul catch him in his arms. “I want to go to the overpass.” “How about in the morning?” “I don’t know.” “It’s okay. You don't have to.”

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The Principle of the Thing
Cassie Thompson and Leila Ossarian Cassie slipped from under the blankets and went to the window. She and Leila had hung quilts over the curtain rods the night before, hoping to keep some of the chill at bay, but she wasn’t sure it had done much good. She pulled a corner of the quilt aside and squinted at the pale winter light. “Wake up,” she said, without moving from the window. Leila burrowed deeper under the covers. stay here where it’s warm.” “You go. I’ll

“We have to go together. Safety in numbers.” “Can’t we eat MREs today? Do we always have to go out foraging?” Cassie folded the window covering back so she would have enough light to dress. Dressing was a relative term. Without gas or electrical service since the die-off, every place was cold. Getting dressed to go out meant layering more clothes on top of what one already had on. She picked up a sweater lying across the back of a chair and pulled it on over the one she was wearing. “We agreed to the rules together, remember? Forage every day we can and save our food for the days we can’t.” Grumbling, Leila got out of bed and reached for her coat. “Sometimes I think the dead people have it easy.” “Don’t talk like that.” Cassie pulled on a jacket and fleece cap. “We have to keep trying.” “What for? We’re infected. We’ll be dead in a year or two and in the meantime we go around eating bad food, trying not to get raped or beat up by a gang, and being cold and dirty in the meantime.” “Maybe you’re dirty, but I’m not.”

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“Rub it in, why don’t you?” Leila went to the dresser and fumbled among the clutter for her gloves. “Like hell I’m going to get wet when it’s freezing out.” “I offered you the no-rinse camp soap.” “It stinks.” “It’s lavender. And it smells better than you.” Leila reached for her hat. “What’s got into you today?” “I’m sorry.” Cassie rubbed her face. “I didn’t sleep too good. And I’m hungry.” “I told you we should eat the MREs.” When Cassie didn’t answer, Leila shoved her hands in her pockets. “I’m ready.” Cassie grabbed her pepper spray, a few packs of cigarettes for trade, and a ring of keys, ignoring Leila’s sneer as she locked the door on their way out. “If someone wants in, they’ll just break a window.” “I know,” Cassie said, dropping the keys in her pocket. “But at least if someone wants to rob us, they’ll have to work for it.” Leila shrugged and the girls headed down the sidewalk. “Any ideas for where to forage today?” Cassie asked. “I thought you had a plan.” “The townhouses on Wilson Street?” “They burned down.” “Not all of them.” When Cassie didn’t get a reply, she said, “Okay, how about Wal-Mart? I know it burned, but those kids in Justin’s gang said it was becoming an open-air market.” “Like I’d trust anything Justin and his friends would say.” Cassie looked at her askance. Justin Tibbs had played football for their high school varsity team and had been nice to Leila their junior year, leading her to think he really liked her. “Just because he only wanted to copy off you in calculus doesn’t mean he’s dishonest about everything.” “Whatever.” Leila scowled and looked away. “Wal-Mart is as good as any other place. Let’s go.”
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Getting to the nearest Wal-Mart required leaving the neighborhood and following Ingall Road to the freeway. Ingall had a small strip center with a grocery store, a drug store, a dry cleaner’s, and hair cutting salon. This was where their mothers had shopped when they had no need to drive to the larger, better-stocked stores a few miles away. The girls had been here a few times since the pandemic and had no expectation that anything was different now. Nevertheless, they looked at the ransacked shops, broken windows, and graffiti with dismay. “Hard to believe—” Cassie began, then cut herself off. Comparing the present to the past only made things worse. When they got to the freeway feeder road, a dog leaped from behind an abandoned car, snarling. There had been a time not very long ago when the girls would’ve been terrified, but Cassie had her pepper spray ready and got the dog full in the nose. As he limped away, whining, Leila muttered, “This shit with the dogs is getting old.” “I hear some kids are eating them.” “That’s disgusting. dangerous ones….” But I guess if they only eat the

“A service to humanity,” Cassie said. Leila laughed in a mirthless, half-hysterical way. She had done this a lot at the start of the pandemic, but not as often lately, as the winter cold and constant hunger sapped her energy for seeing irony in their situation. “We’re not far now,” Cassie pointed out needlessly. “Let’s hurry. I bet they’ll have fires so we can warm up.” When they came within sight of the Wal-Mart, they saw groups of kids of all ages huddled in groups in the parking lot. Some had built small fires of scrap, some had set up tables and were trying to trade merchandise. Cassie and Leila moved cautiously among the sale items but were unimpressed. They already had gloves and winter scarves and had plenty of toilet paper from foraging in their neighborhood. The only kids selling food weren’t interested in Cassie’s money and wanted more packs of cigarettes than she had with her. “We were better off staying home,” Leila said.
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Cassie was about to reply when she noticed a group of girls huddled around a fire at the edge of the parking lot. They were dressed in short skirts and high heels and their faces were heavily made up. One girl in particular caught her eye. “That isn’t Emily, is it?” Leila squinted at the pretty former drill team captain touching up her lipstick in the afternoon sunlight. “I think it is.” They wandered over, startling Emily, who blushed underneath her makeup and returned their greeting warily. As they made idle chatter about the weather and where the best food supplies were to be found, Cassie couldn’t escape the feeling that Emily wanted them to go away. After a few minutes, she saw why. Three teenage boys with greasy hair and guns sauntered over and looked the girls over. Finally the one who appeared to be their leader asked, “How much?” Cassie and Emily exchanged a look. “You should go,” Emily whispered as one of the other girls started negotiating. “You can’t do this. There’s other ways.” Emily shook her head. “It’s easier than scavenging, and I bet I eat better than you.” Leila had been listening to the negotiations and gave a small shrug. “We sure don’t ever get to eat Oreos.” “Oh, come on.” Cassie frowned and tried to grab Emily’s hand. “You don’t want to sell yourself for a package of cookies, do you?” Emily jerked away. “It’s easy work. And I’ll be dead soon anyway, so who cares?” “We care.” Cassie looked at Leila for confirmation. “Come with us. We found some rice yesterday.” “No way.” Emily darted a glance at one of the boys. “These guys have Hershey bars, or haven’t you been paying attention?” She flashed a boy a smile. As he walked over, she muttered to Cassie out of the corner of her mouth, “Go away. Now.”

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Cassie and Leila did as they were told and started back toward their neighborhood. They walked in silence for a long time before finally Cassie said, “You were right. We should’ve stayed home and eaten the MREs. That was depressing.” “I can kind of see her point, though,” Leila said. “We work awfully hard and don’t have much to show for it.” “At least we haven’t compromised.” “Maybe not, but does it matter?” Leila waved a hand at the trash and burned-out cars littering the deserted street. “Look at this place. We have no future, so why give a damn about the present?” “I don’t know,” Cassie said, after appearing to think about it. “Sometimes doing right doesn’t make any sense, but you have to do it anyway.” “So it’s the principle of the thing.” Cassie took a deep breath and tipped her head back so she could see the startling blue of the clear winter sky instead of the muck of the streets. “Something like that. We may be living like animals, but at least we'll die like humans.”

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Special Delivery
The Twins With a thwack, the knife embedded itself in the wood paneling. Danny flinched. “That was close, love.” Danica picked up another knife. “It was supposed to be. You need to hold still.” “I did. Your aim was off.” “I’m never off.” Danica took aim but before she could throw, a knock on the door made her jump. “What the—” Another knock. This time Danny started across the room. “Why would anyone come here?” Danica put the knife aside and scampered after him. “Maybe someone heard about us and wants us for a job.” “That would be nice, especially if they can pay in food or water filters.” Danny peered out the murky peephole. “I don’t see anyone.” He reached for the semiautomatic he kept next to the door. “Get ready to cover me, in case it’s trouble.” Danica grabbed a .38 and waited while Danny fumbled with the bolts and locks. They were the only residents of the building since pandemic, but that didn’t mean they were safe. In the early months of the die-off, gangs had roamed the area, but lately things had been quiet. So who was at their door? A small box, apparently. After checking that no one was waiting to jump him, Danny stood over the package and frowned. It was about half the size of a shoebox and wrapped in neat brown paper. Danica peered around his shoulder. “UPS?” “Very funny. It might be dangerous.” “I’m sure it’s just an ordinary delivery. Some of the kids must be trying to re-establish a post office.”
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“That wouldn’t explain why they brought something here. It doesn’t have our names and address on it. Maybe it’s a bomb.” “Who would want to blow us up?” “You never know.” “I think it’s harmless and we should open it.” A debate ensued, in which the twins discussed possibilities as disturbing as explosives and anthrax to the more horrific notion that the box might contain a fruitcake from their grandmother, dead in the pandemic. “Sometimes things get lost and don’t get delivered for decades,” Danica pointed out. “Whatever it is, I don’t like it. I’m going to move it out of our doorway.” “Why? It’s not in our way, since we always go in and out the window.” Danny found a mop and pushed the suspicious package to the end of the hall where he left it by the stairwell. He returned with a satisfied air. As he locked the door and set the bolts, Danica asked, “If it really is a bomb, what if it blows up the stairs?” “Then we won’t have to worry about any more deliveries.” Danica threw herself onto the sofa with a giggle. “That would be nice. Maybe no one would bother us again, ever.” She stretched with the sensual moves of a cat. “I didn’t expect this much excitement on a non-foraging day.” Danny stalked toward her with a grin. over yet.” “What more could happen?” Danny leaned over her and ran a hand up her thigh. “Do you need some ideas?” Before Danica could answer, there was another rap at the door, more urgent than before. “Let them knock,” Danny said. buttons of his fly. The knocking continued.
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“The day’s not

He fumbled with the

Danica helped. “Right. We’re busy.”

Danica paused. “Maybe it’s important.” “Nothing’s more important than you, babe.” “Then we should find who’s doing it and shoot them.” “Too much trouble.” He gave a little tug at her pants. “You going to leave these on, or what?” Danica cast a glance toward the door. “I just wonder if—” “Don’t wonder.” He pressed her shoulders into the cushions and kissed her until all urge toward curiosity was gone. By the time Danica squirmed out of her clothes so he could make love to her, the knocking had become a distant background noise, easily ignored. An hour later when Danica wrapped herself in a robe and peeked out the door, she saw nothing on the empty stoop or in the vacant hallway. Even the original package was gone. “That's odd.” “Everything's odd since the die-off.” Danica shut the door and leaned against it, frowning. “Yes, I guess that's the apocalypse for you. You never know what to expect.” “It's all about us now.” “So can I throw knives at you again?” “Of course, love. Nothing matters but you.”

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Practical Nurse
Rochelle St. Clair “We’ll be there soon.” Rochelle said it for herself more than for the sick boy who lay curled on dirty towels in the shopping cart. She had heard that the gang at the Regency Hotel had a clinic with a real doctor—or at least a boy who had been raised by doctors, which was the next best thing since the pandemic had wiped out the adults. Word on the street was that John Brody was smart and capable. Twelve year-old Rochelle had her doubts—there were a lot of rumors these days. But she was desperate. She pushed the cart along the muddy street, past thin, hungry children hustling for a meal. On a corner, a teenager with painted face and a hard look in his eyes assessed her with a steely gaze that Rochelle felt through her clothes like the unwelcome grope of a pedophile. She shuddered, gave the cart an extra push and hurried on. When she arrived at the hotel, she found it under guard, but a tall black girl with a Glock at her hip listened to Rochelle’s words with compassion in her eyes. “Our clinic isn’t free for people who aren’t in our gang. Can you pay?” Rochelle shook her head. The only currency these days was food, and she hadn’t eaten in two days. “Maybe we can work something out.” Rochelle was too weak from hunger to remove her brother from the cart unaided, so the guard helped, and together they took him upstairs to the ballroom, which had been turned into a clinic. A slight, brown-haired teenager in spectacles met them in the triage area and introduced himself as Dr. Brody. “This is Rochelle,” the guard said. “She says her brother has some kind of infection.”

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The doctor instructed Rochelle to lay her brother on a mattress and proceeded to examine him. The wound on his leg had suppurated and gave off a foul odor. “You should’ve come earlier.” “I’ve been rinsing it every day and giving him antibiotics. At least that’s what I was told they were.” “Whatever you septicemic now.” were given, it didn’t work. He’s

“What does that mean?” “It means it doesn’t look good.” He took off his glasses and wiped them on the tail of his dingy lab coat. “I’ll do what I can, but it’s hard to get the right meds. Don’t expect much.” Rochelle’s heart gave a little lurch. “You mean he might die?” “Yes.” She sank into a chair and watched while the teenage doctor worked on her brother’s leg. When he had done all he could, he carried the boy into the convalescent ward. “I’m not optimistic. But I’ll do everything I can.” Rochelle was dizzy with gratitude. “I already told the guard I can’t pay, but I can help in other ways. I’ll clean your clinic. I’ll feed your patients and change their sheets, I’ll—” The doctor shook his head. “Only group members are allowed to work and you'd have to be voted on. But I’ll vouch for you.” “I don’t understand.” “What I mean is I could use a decent nurse. You kept your brother clean and took good care of his injury. It’s not your fault you didn’t have the right medicine to keep it from getting infected. If you want to join our gang, I’ll be your patron. That way you’ll get voted on right away.” Rochelle hesitated. She had heard this hotel gang was well-organized and relatively peaceful, but did she want to give up her independence? “Your brother's care will be free, and I'll teach you everything I know.”

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The doctor's eyes were kind and his words were wise. Without skills or a protector, she was nothing. Rochelle didn't much care what happened to her any more. The pandemic had taken everything that gave her life structure and meaning. But younger children like her brother needed hope. And help. “I’ll be your nurse,” she said. “Just tell me what I have to do.”

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Ars Gratia Artis
May Ellison May walked the city street with an empty water jug in each hand. As she wove around piles of trash and picked her way over debris, she tried to reconcile the evidence of her eyes and nose with what her brain still struggled to acknowledge. They were all dead—not just her parents, tutors and professors, but all the adults, from newscasters and bank presidents to hedge-trimmers and street musicians. The ones who died first got graves. Later, the dead were thrown into pits. The last of them still lay in the streets and buildings where they fell, hence the smell that May tried to counter by wearing a perfume-soaked scarf over her face. It didn’t help much. She saw some kids hawking bottled water on a street corner, but although she was tempted, she continued to the park. Here, the turf had been dug up for burial pits and a broad open area showed scorch marks from an attempt at mass cremation, but May avoided these hazards and followed the stone path to the canoe launch. As she stooped to fill her gallon jugs with river water, she heard a voice. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” She looked around in alarm, but then relaxed. The boy looked to be about twelve and although he was dirty, there was nothing about him that suggested danger. “Everyone who drinks that water gets sick,” he said. “It’s because of all the dead people.” May turned back to her work. Ignorant child. Of course the river water would make a person sick if it wasn’t properly treated. But she was a chemist and the daughter of chemists. She went to college at sixteen and would’ve been in her third semester if not for the pandemic. She knew how to keep from getting sick off the water. By the time she capped the jugs and got to her feet, the boy was gone.
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As she walked back to the vacant building she was squatting in, she found herself mulling over the incident at the park. They boy who had warned her was only trying to be kind. Instead of ignoring him, why hadn’t she explained about distilling and pasteurizing? Why hadn’t she told him where to get chlorine or iodine? She knew how to survive; science had taught her a lot of useful things. But if she wasn’t going to teach others, what her purpose? It occurred to her that she had the skills to put together a cocktail that would kill her quickly and with relatively little pain. Perhaps that was the best thing. She didn’t really want to help anyone; she had spent her entire life doing what other people wanted. A pack of dogs ran past, chased by children wielding baseball bats. A hunting party. Well, good luck to them. May paused so they could go by but when she started walking again, she felt something embedded in the sole of her shoe. She muttered a curse and stopped to remove it. The glass shard she pulled from between the treads of her sneakers was bottle-green and caught the afternoon sunlight. A flicker of memory stirred: mosaics at the art museum, stained glass in church windows, the glitter of fanciful costume jewelry on the necks and arms of the girls at her high school—girls her parents wouldn’t let her be friends with because she was so much younger and needed to study to win a scholarship to Harvard. She had spent hours poring over books and mixing chemicals in the lab when what she really wanted was to surround herself with bright, colorful things that sparkled. May looked around the filthy streets, ignoring the curious stares of a group of boys sitting on the curb, passing a bottle back and forth. The glass of their bottle was brown and would probably sparkle too, once its contents were drained. She could smash the bottle, scoop up the glass, and…what? What indeed? Who was to tell her not to take the ugly, broken shards of civilization and make something of beauty? The road was littered with blue glass, chips of mirrors, red and amber bits of plastic, and who knew what else? It was hers for the taking, and to hell with her parents’ goal of seeing her in a lab. They were dead, and so were all their dreams.
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May dropped the piece of glass in her pocket and picked up her water jugs. They felt lighter now. In fact, her whole body felt made of feathers and her heart fluttered with excitement. There had been a time when she thought she would have to wait a lifetime to realize her dreams, but who was to stop her now? She would go home and distill her water, and tomorrow she would scavenge art materials on the city streets. Her life would not be long—she was infected with Telo like everyone else. But at least her life was finally her own.

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About the Author
Ann Pino lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband Dan, her cat Pixel, and her rabbit, Cadbury. She works for the University of Houston.

About the Book:
When her parents died in a global pandemic, seventeen-yearold Cassie Thompson thought her biggest problem was finding her next meal. But “Telo” is a virally-transmitted genetic disease that targets adults, and no one is immune. Surviving to adulthood isn’t looking very good as her city succumbs to food shortages, sanitation problems, and gang violence. When Cassie accepts an invitation to join a group of young people living in a luxury hotel, she thinks her most immediate troubles are over. Her new tribe appears committed to alliance-building, order, and civility. She soon finds, however, that her new friends have dark secrets and the boy she is falling in love with might be the most dangerous of them all. Steal Tomorrow is available in print and pdf at www.lulu.com and in Kindle format at www.amazon.com. This book was previously serialized on the web and can still be viewed at http://stealtomorrow.blogspot.com, but it has not been edited to the standards of the lulu and amazon versions. .

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