Sandy woke with the agony of need coursing through her veins. The pain burned its way through her limbs, her insides, and her brain. It gripped her and shook her and stretched her body taut until she felt there was nothing else to do but snap. Or shoot up.
She remembered the syringe. There might still be some left inside. She’d snuck into Old Henderson’s barn and made her bed on a heap of corn cobs, her baby bundled in a blanket beside her, asleep. The syringe would be there too, but her eyes refused to open and look. Her hand went searching for it, expecting the touch of dry corn cobs and baby clothes, but her fingers found only the smooth, hard surface of what felt like a tiled floor.
All her senses snapped awake and Sandy leaped to her feet, wild eyes darting all about, panting and choking with a panic that eclipsed even her pain. Baby Hanna wasn’t there. Her child was gone. The corn was gone. Even the barn wasn’t there anymore. Instead, she found herself in near complete darkness. Somewhere nearby, a faint and flickering fire lit the dark in shades of orange and outlined a cavernous space, walled and floored with thousands of identical, rectangular white tiles. And in that orange light she could barely make out the menacing shapes of strangers gathered around the fire. The scent of smoke in her nostrils, the booming of laughter in her ears. Was the barn on fire? Did they finally come to take her child away from her? She would die first. She would kill first. An inhuman shriek of a cornered beast rent from her throat as she flung herself toward the light.
Jim pulled up in front of the abandoned Aquatic Center, jumped out of his Ford pickup, and marched for the crowd of onlookers around the entrance to the building, then realized he’d left his windows down and keys in the ignition.
”Shit,” he said through his teeth, but jogged on as fast as a big, sixty-year-old man could, heading for the couple of patrol cars he saw surrounded by the crowd.
He’d bought the truck back in 2049, just before the Ford Company had gone bust, and always felt proud for it. More than ten years under the hood and it was still better than any of the Chinese clunkers that packed the streets these days. But there was no going back now, not even for a second. A team of zappers had already arrived on the scene and their red and white van stood in the middle of the narrow street, flashers rotating like it was a proper law enforcement vehicle. He saw a couple of zappers in orange overalls in front of the van, strapping those packs of theirs to their backs and chuckling about something, looking smug as hell. The stainless steel packs loaded with a mass of electronic gadgets reminded Jim of the things the astronauts used to wear when he was a kid. Damn zappers probably thought they were modern-day astronauts or something.
Jim pushed his bulk through the crowd, most of them giving way when they saw him, some of them calling after him, saying hello most likely, but he was too worked up to pay attention. You’d think after almost forty years people would get used to it, but they still flocked there like a bunch of geese every time. He figured life in a small town was so boring, they had nothing else to do but come here at three o’clock in the morning, at least not since Bill Cofer’s boy, Dylan, got fried by lightning, sneaking into his girlfriend’s window a couple of years before.
Jim ran into a yellow sheriff’s line and a young uniformed sergeant he didn’t recognize. The kid spread his arms to block Jim’s way across the line.
“Hold it!” the sergeant said. “We’ve got a category three situation here.”
“She’s no category three.”
“You know her?”
“I’m her case officer. From the Shelter.” Jim flashed his badge in the kid’s face.
“Oh... You can go through then,” the sergeant said and brought his arms down.
“Damn right I can. What are the zappers doing here?”
“The usual procedure for a category three.”
“Told you she’s no category three. Now, send them back.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir. The procedure...”
Jim decided to ignore the kid and pushed his way past him, heading for the entrance of the aquatic center, but the kid trotted along behind him.
“Where’s Tommy?” Jim asked no one in particular and, not waiting for the answer, called, “Tommy!”
“Where is that guy, God damn it,” he muttered to himself.
The grimy glass double door of the center opened in front of him and Tommy stepped out to meet him, wearing his sheriff’s uniform.
“Mr. Olsen!” Tommy said, his face serious, but his voice warm and friendly, right hand extended for a shake. Jim thought it kind of funny that the thirty-something man still called him Mr. Olsen on account of dating his niece back in high school, but he never said anything. A bit more influence came in handy in situations like this one.
Jim took the extended hand, but he wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries.
“What the hell, Tommy, aren’t you running the show anymore?” he said, shaking Tommy’s hand while glancing back at the zappers’ preparations. “Who called in the zappers?”
“I told him, sheriff!” called the young sergeant behind Jim, “It was procedure...”
“I never heard of any such procedure!” Jim said, cutting him off. The kid’s face went rigid with indignation, but Jim paid him no mind.
“Withers,” Tommy said. “Go and ask them to stay in the van.”
The kid, Withers, gritted his teeth and hesitated for a moment, then backed off and left.
“Who is that kid anyway?” Jim said when the young man went out of earshot.
“Withers? He’s new. Came along with the zappers.”
“The zappers." Jim said with a sour expression.
“He’s not that bad. And by the way, Mr. Olsen, he’s right,” Tommy said. “I barely managed to hold them off until you came. Some high school kids were in the center. Goofing around in the drained pool. Probably high. They built a campfire right there on the bottom of the pool. Got scared shitless when she woke up.”
“She’s just confused and afraid. She’s no danger to anybody.”
“I believe you. But they ran out of there screaming their heads off,” Tommy said, then added, “All I can promise you is I won’t let them do anything if you get her out safe.”
“That’s fair enough.”
Jim turned to the door of the center.
“She’s in the usual spot?” Jim asked and Tommy nodded in response.
“Down the hall. Inside the Olympic pool.”
“Ok, I’m going in.”
Jim took a step, but stopped. He’d completely forgotten about the cigarettes. There would be nowhere to buy them this time of night anyway. He looked back at Tommy over his shoulder.
“Give me some smokes, will you? Lighter too.”
“Smoking again?” Tommy said and handed him a pack.
“Only on special occasions.”
Jim stuffed the cigarettes in his shirt pocket and went in. The old, drained out pool was partially lit up now, some of the lights still working after years of neglect. The first thing he noticed coming in was the fire that still crackled faintly in the bottom of the pool and the scent in the air, a mix of mold and smoke that pervaded the decaying building, a testament of years of roof leaks and fires built to keep bums and winos warm. Graffiti and smut encrusted the walls and all about him a thick layer of rotting cardboard boxes and newspapers, empty bottles and crushed beer cans, along with every other sort of trash, caked the once pristine tiles. And it seemed not that long ago they’d been pouring concrete for the foundations of the pool. The whole town had buzzed with excitement. They were going to have their own Community Aquatic Center. Even the investors were smiling their crooked smiles. Not for long. A few years later the doors got locked up for good. People just had no money to spend on such things any more. It didn’t help none that Sandy popped up there every once in a while, scaring the hell out of swimmers. Jameson, the last manager, still turned his head away every time he came across Jim in the street. What did he think Jim would’ve done, anyway, let them zap her just so some kids could get their butts wet. All of a sudden, Jim felt the load of his sixty years weigh him down like a chain around his ankle.
Then he saw Sandy, hovering in the far corner of the empty pool, looking lost and confused, her long black hair flaring about her head and down over her dress. The same red polka-dot dress that she always wore. Not much more than twenty. Just a slip of a girl. Except her face held no trace of Sandy. It was the face of an animal, contorted with rage and fear and pain. He halted, suddenly not so sure about himself. The fact was, he was lying to everybody. She was a category three and then some. Those kids in the pool had been lucky. And if it was anybody else but him going in to talk to her, who knew what could happen. Each time she had a relapse, it got harder for him to bring her back, and he thought, what if he was too old now, his hair too gray and his belly too big, what if this time she didn’t recognize him at all. But he went on ahead anyway.
As soon as she saw him she charged at him, screaming wild fury.
“Hey, Sandy,” he said, calmly holding his ground. It was him speaking her name that always started bringing her back.
His words slowed her down a bit, but she went for him anyway, climbing out of the eight-foot deep pool with no visible effort.
“Don’t you remember me, Sandy?” he said, sounding more urgent then he’d like.
She stopped, a dozen yards away from him, and her head tilted slightly to one side. Her eyes started to focus and, finally, fix him with a look of recognition.
“Jimmy...” she said, but the word came out rasping, from a mouth unused to human speech, then added more softly, this time with a trace of her old voice, “That you, Jimmy?”
“It’s me alright,” he said, smiling with relief.
“Jimmy,” she said, words getting more frantic and grating as she spoke, and the last word coming out a long painful wail, “My baby...My baby’s gone!”
“Nah, Sandy. She’s ok. She’s fine. She’s with your mom.”
“Honest to God. She’s with your mom.”
Sandy let out a long, deep sigh and settled into an exhausted heap on the floor near the edge of the pool, the rage all gone out of her.
“I was worried sick,” she said, almost in a whisper, her features softening a fraction, “I was afraid they took her.”
Jim stood motionless, his hands held tight behind his back, afraid he might spook her if he moved, and just kept watching her in silence. She wrapped her arms about her chest and squeezed her elbows with pale hands, then started gently to sway from side to side on her knees and murmur incomprehensible words, her eyes fixed to a point somewhere among the tiles of the floor. Minutes passed, and Jim thought she’d forgotten he was there altogether. Then her eyes turned toward him again and there was nothing horrible in them any more, only misery and pain.
“Hey, Mister! You got some? Just a bit. A little bit. Just a dose. I need it real bad. I can work it off.” She moved toward him on her knees, her voice turned husky rough. “I’ll do you real nice, baby. I promise.”
This part was always the hardest for Jim. Unbearable. He felt a squeezing in his chest, a lump in his throat. He had to make her stop at once.
“Sandy,” he said, forcing a laugh through the bitterness in his mouth, “It’s me, remember? Jimmy Olsen. Old Jimmy the square. When did I ever have drugs?”
“Jimmy the square,” she said, giggling and turning her eyes away. “So silly of me. Didn’t recognize you there for a sec. What are you doing standing there? Come sit down.”
Relieved, Jim scanned the pool for a place to sit. There’d been some half-wrecked loungers around last time he’d been there. But the place was stripped completely now. Looters must’ve taken everything that wasn’t bolted down. He got to the edge of the pool, but still made sure to leave her enough space.
He saw the dying fire below him and black and brown patches on the tiles where old fires had burned. And the logs in the fire, half coal-black, half turned white with ash, still glowed red hot underneath, tiny blue licks of flame still flicking through the intertwined wood.
Jim bent down to sit on the edge of the pool, when he saw Sandy bolt upright again.
“Hanna...! Jimmy, where’s my baby?”
“Told you, she’s with your mom. Everything’s fine.”
He stood bent in half with his eyes on her, not daring to move, waiting for her reaction. Slowly, ever so slowly, she sat back down, sat right on the edge of the pool, a couple of yards from him, her bare feet dangling over the edge as she rubbed them together absently. Finally he decided it was safe for him to sit down as well. He let go a muffled grunt as he lowered himself down, partly on account of his bones balking at the exercise and partly because he found his belly was in the way and he had to rest his weight on his right hand before getting his legs from under him and over the edge of the pool. He breathed a sigh of relief and straightened his back. He’d been on his feet for far too long and it felt wonderful to be sitting down.