Robbie was making Zandra a cup of hot chicory when he heard her scream. In the dining room Glenn stood over her, the pale sun marbling his face. “What’ll it take to get the princess out of bed?” he asked Robbie. “Pico needs help with the water.”
“You can ask her,” Robbie said. “She’s right here.”
“Give me a minute, asshole,” Zandra said. “Don’t sneak up on people like that.” She pushed aside her blankets and threw a tattered suit jacket over her clothes. On her way out she stepped into the leather boots that Robbie had gotten from an old woman for a brace of squirrel.
“I still regret taking her in,” Glenn said. “Charitable impulses are a luxury.”
Zandra had arrived two months earlier, black and blue and hungry. Robbie was glad Glenn hadn’t turned her away. But he didn’t argue. They were lucky to be in Glenn’s crew. Before the grid went down Glenn had been some kind of computer guru. That was less useful, now, than his knack for maintaining small engines. But techies of any sort were scarce and his skills kept them better off than most.
This house, too, was better than most of the places that had served as a bunker for the crew. It was in decent shape, high on a rise with an open view over the road. A clear stream ran at the base of the hill behind the house. Where the windows were not boarded up, the interior was bright. They had done their best to clean up the downstairs and the big bedroom that Glenn had claimed. The other two bedrooms were still wreathed with the latticework of spiders. Little plastic dinosaurs mixed with bones and scat on the floor of one room; in the other, posters of spiky-haired boys clung to the walls by a few bits of desiccated tape.
Glenn jerked his head toward the front door. “Get out there. Kathy spotted customers.”
Robbie picked up his rifle and followed Glenn out. On the lawn Pico was manning their 50-caliber Big Fucking Gun, while Kathy, Glenn’s second-in-command, crouched on the roof with her crossbow. Other crew members held weapons at the ready in the upstairs windows. “Hey,” Kathy called down. “It’s the docs.”
“Fantastic,” Pico said, standing down from the BFG. “I’ve got a rash on my ass that’s killing me.”
Now Robbie could see the gray-haired couple trudging up the road. The man dragged a generator in a makeshift wagon. The woman carried a loaded backpack and a rifle in the crook of her arm. He lowered his own gun. About ten years ago, when Robbie was fifteen, the docs had tried to help his father, but they had no antibiotics. Afterwards they let Robbie sleep at their place for a while. Finally they’d sent him away, kindly but firmly, with his dad’s gun clutched to his chest and a few rounds.
Glenn shook hands with the old couple and bent over the generator, scratching his bald spot. The lady doc rummaged in her pack and pulled out a battered metal item the size of a large matchbox.
Glenn looked at it and gave a quiet whoop. “Pico, go cook up some lunch,” he called.
“Glenn’s not so bad,” Robbie said. He put his plate and gun down on the hard ground. It was cold but he didn’t like Zandra being out by herself, even with a spotter on the roof.
Zandra laughed. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“It was bad, before?”
“Well, they didn’t hurt me every time. That was something. But this is better.”
“Then why don’t you try harder?”
She spooned a few beans into one of Pico’s tortillas, rolled it up, and took a tiny bite. She had pushed up the sleeves of her jacket; the dark down on her forearms shone silver in the cold sunlight. “Glenn won’t keep me anyway,” she said. “He doesn’t want me for that and I’m not much use otherwise.”
“There’s lots of stuff you can do around here. Just do what he says and don’t give him crap. It’s not so hard.”
Zandra shrugged. She smiled at something off in the distance and took another little bite.
That night, Robbie bolted upright. Light from the gibbous moon shone through a half-boarded window onto Zandra’s empty blankets. He rose and crept around the downstairs. All he heard was Pico’s faint whistling as he made his rounds outside. Dark lumps curled here and there on the floor in ratty sleeping bags.
He moved upstairs, avoiding a creaky tread. For a moment he stood outside Glenn’s closed door. No. Glenn didn’t even like Zandra.
Eyes now adjusted to the darkness, he noticed a faint glow in the ceiling at the end of the upstairs hall; a corner of the attic rope ladder had stuck in the hatchway. Quietly he poked it with the broom handle that was leaning against the wall. The ladder dropped and he climbed up. As soon as his head cleared the opening he saw Glenn’s worktable. It was covered with wires and gizmos. On the back of the table was their radio, less useful with every passing day as the airwaves got hijacked by crackpots and gangs. In the middle of the space sat the old laptop computer they’d found in the living room. Glenn had charged it up and coaxed it into life. Then he’d made it clear that it was strictly off limits.
Zandra was typing on it.
Robbie pulled up the ladder and set the door carefully in place. “What are you doing?”
“Look at the game I found. It’s called Prom Night.” All Robbie could see on the computer screen was a pink jumble.
“You can’t be up here,” he said.
“But prom is only a week away.”
“A prom is a special kind of dance,” she explained. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“I know what a prom is. You need to get out of here.”
Zandra let out a sigh. “OK, OK. I’m at a good stopping place anyway. My friends need more homework points before we can go shopping.” She pointed to pictures of three girls’ faces lined up along the side of the screen, labeled Julia, Shiloh, and Zandra. Each face had a box with a number in it.
“Who are they?”
“Well, I couldn’t play by myself, could I, so I made up some friends. Those are our scores.” She exited the game and put the computer back to sleep.
“Glenn will know someone was on his computer.”
She shrugged. They crept downstairs.
In the morning Glenn brought Robbie and Kathy up to the attic. “Check this out,” he said. Robbie was afraid that Zandra had left behind some sign of her nocturnal pastime, but Glenn didn’t say anything about that. Instead he showed them the small metal box that the docs had given him, waiting for a reaction. Robbie and Kathy shook their heads.
“This is a modem, babies,” Glenn said impatiently. “People used to use them to make computers communicate. They connected them with phone lines, but I’m pretty sure I can hook it up to the radio with a little customizing.” He laid the box carefully on the worktable. “I found out last week that a bunch of techies are putting together a computer network.” He didn’t bother to hide his glee.
Kathy said, “You’re resurrecting the internet. That, I remember.”
“It’ll be really primitive at first,” Glenn said. “And we won’t be able to go the distances we got on the radio. But once there are enough of us we’ll set up a relay system.”
Kathy’s face lit. “When you get it going we can hook up with those other crews, set up better living arrangements.”
Glenn nodded. “More people watching our backs and sharing supplies. And that’s just for starters. So, you two, see if you hear anything when you’re out and about. If I need something, I’ll send one of you to make the trade. And listen: keep it quiet. If this gets out, people are going to get nosy. Hear me?” He gave them a hard look and they nodded.
“OK. Robbie,” Glenn said, “go do a perimeter check. Take Pico.”
Robbie and Pico walked a wide circle around the charred remains of the houses they’d burned down to discourage neighbors. A hint of smoke still hung in the air, even as spindly birch and pine crept back up the lawns. Far off Robbie heard children playing. He wished they’d shut up. It wasn’t safe. Maybe they were on their own. He’d had to learn a lot of things like that the hard way before Glenn had taken him in.
On their way back they bagged a couple of wild turkeys.
“I’d love some venison instead of these tough bastards,” Robbie said. He was pierced with sudden memory: a deer blind in the misty dawn, the joy of stretching his cramped legs. His father saying, Good shot, son. Now thank your kill for providing us with food.
“No worries,” Pico said. “A handful of herbs and an apple up their butts and these birds are gonna taste like Thanksgiving dinner.” He shifted his burden and they hiked a few more steps before he spoke again. “Uh, Robbo,” he said. “Don’t take this wrong, but that Zandra is one chica loca. You should steer clear.”
Robbie didn’t answer. Who did Pico think he was, anyway?
It took a long time to pluck and dress the turkeys and load them onto sharpened spits. They wouldn’t be ready to eat until the next day. Pico began making a soup from the heads, feet and gizzards. When Robbie got free he found Zandra at the stream, pushing clothes around in the water with a stick. “You’re by yourself?” he asked.
“The others left.”
Robbie sat down on a rock with a view of the path. He lowered his rifle to his knees and stroked the well-oiled wooden stock. “Hey,” he said, “I don’t know what you were doing last night, but stay out of Glenn’s workshop, OK?”
Her laughter pealed out over the gurgle of the water. “Silly. I’m not going to miss a minute of this.”
“I told you. The prom is next Saturday. My friends and I have our dresses all picked out. Shiloh’s dress is a horror, but Julia’s the only one who can tell her.”
“Zan, there is no prom.”
“I know it’s hard for you, not having a date and all. But that’s no reason to ruin it for the rest of us.” She went back to poking the clothes and humming. He squinted at the horizon and started loading the wet clothes into the trash can she’d dragged down to the stream. “If Glenn doesn’t catch you, the night watch will,” he said.
“It’s usually Pico. He won’t bust me.”
Zandra raised one fine dark brow but he still didn’t get it. “We made a trade,” she said.
Robbie absorbed the punch. He took a deep breath and words just came out of nowhere. “You know what bothers me most about my dad? I can’t remember what his voice sounded like. My mom or my sister, either, but they’ve been gone longer.” His throat closed and he stopped speaking. He looked up and her eyes flicked to his. He waited for her to say something, to acknowledge what he’d shared. But her face was blank.
That night Robbie could sense Zandra staring into the wash of silvery light. When the owls began calling she got up, as quiet as the mice they hunted. After a minute he followed her. He tucked himself into a dark corner of the upstairs hall. If someone woke up he could at least create a diversion.
Robbie brought his lunch out to the patch of dirt he’d begun to think of as their spot. Zandra looked up, dark circles limning eyes in an ash-gray face.
“Here’s the latest,” she said. “Everybody expects Julia to be prom queen, since she’s popular, and also she’s dating the quarterback. That’s worth like a zillion points. My boyfriend Todd is only in a band.”
“Your turkey is getting cold. Try it. It’s good.”
“But listen to this: last night I slept over at my grandma’s house and she told me she’d had a vision of me with a tiara on my head. Grandma is never wrong about these things.”
“Zan, that game doesn’t have a psychic grandma.”
“Oh, I’m not counting on being prom queen, but wouldn’t it just make the night so perfect?” she said, clapping her hands. “Did I tell you the theme? It’s Beautiful Universe. If I can earn enough points I’m going to have the stylist weave little silver comets into my hair.” Zandra’s eyes started to close and she swayed sideways. “Here,” she said, pushing her untouched plate over to him. She stood and walked back into the house.
The next morning Glenn walked into the kitchen in a fury. “My computer is a brick,” he said. “Dead.” He pointed to Zandra. “I know you were using it. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” His voice shook. “Get out of my sight, you crazy bitch.”
He turned and left. Zandra drifted toward the dining room, leaving Robbie and Kathy in the kitchen.
“Shit. I wonder how long it’ll take to find another computer,” Kathy said quietly.
“And even if he gets one working, he’ll probably have to start over with the programming.” The two of them traded a bleak look. Robbie followed Zandra into the dining room.
“You told,” she said.
“No. I would never.”
She bent to pick up a shirt. “Then it was Pico.”
“Or Glenn just figured it out. I told you he would.” Zandra stuffed the shirt into her knapsack. “What are you doing?” he said.
“Why are you always hanging around me?” She kept packing.
“Zan, no. If you stay here I can take care of you.”
“But I don’t want you. I want Todd and my girlfriends and Grandma. And I want it to always be the week before prom. I don’t even need the computer anymore.” She picked up her pack and brushed by him.
Robbie grabbed his rifle and followed her. He stopped on the front porch, thinking. If he went with her he would need to pack quickly and scrounge some ammo. He felt torn in two.
Glenn came out on the porch and put his hand on Robbie’s shoulder. Together they watched Zandra wander down the driveway, singing softly. “It would be safer for us if she stayed,” Glenn said. “It’s not a good idea to have her out there talking about what we’re doing.”
“I asked her to stay,” Robbie said. “She wouldn’t.”
“Remember what I said? Once people find out what’s going on with the network, everyone’s going to want a piece of it.”
“She doesn’t know anything about that,” Robbie said. “Glenn, she only used the computer to play a stupid game.” He swiped his sleeve across his eyes.
Zandra stopped in the driveway and began rooting around in her pack. They watched her for a few more seconds. Then Glenn squeezed Robbie’s shoulder. “Son,” he said gently, “you know she won’t last a day out there. It would be a mercy.”
Robbie wiped his eyes again to clear his vision. The safety of the old gun clicked loudly as he released it and Zandra turned to look. When he squeezed the trigger, a corsage bloomed over her heart.
BIO: Beth McCabe recently moved from New England to the South Puget Sound in Washington State, where she is greatly enjoying culture shock. McCabe is a graduate of the Barnard College Creative Writing Program, where she placed second in the Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize. Her writing has appeared in Blue Monday Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Highlights for Children, Literary Mama, and other publications.