After following every twist and turn the road threw at us—and creating some of our own—we reached California. Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles, to be precise.
California was still in one piece, unaffected by the devastation seen in other parts of the country.
Bars and clothing stores lined the short pedestrian road of Hermosa Beach. The wide walkway continued out over the water in the form of a pier. It seemed a lifetime away from the hustle and bustle we’d passed in Santa Monica. Far removed from all of the gray, dirty buildings we’d seen en route as well.
We wandered aimlessly along the path in the cool winter sun, enjoying being out of the car. I kept an eye on Mouse, who still seemed tired after the other day. She had worn an expression of nervous fear ever since, and I didn’t know what to say to put her at ease. She didn’t raise the subject, and I didn’t know how to bring it up without scaring everyone more than they already were.
“We need to find a place to stay,” Nicole said.
“There are only shops here, though.” Briana turned in a full circle.
“Let’s ask in there.” We had stopped in front of a big shop, overflowing with touristy things. The counter was manned by an elderly couple; a guy not much older than us broke down boxes at the back of the store.
“Oh yes,” the woman said, answering our question. “There’s a hostel up there.” She pointed through the roof at an angle.
Nicole eyed the ceiling. “How do we get there?”
I’d seen the buildings that extended past the first-floor shops, but hadn’t been sure what was in them.
“Josh!” the woman hollered at the top of her voice.
The younger man jumped and made his way to the front of the store.
“You want to show them how to get to the hostel?” she asked him.
“Sure,” he said with an easy smile.
After we thanked the woman, Josh, who had ginger hair and a lobster-like sunburn, led the way around the back of the buildings to a steep flight of stairs. If regular girls were following a stranger into dingy-looking building, I’d have told them they were crazy, but if he tried anything we wouldn’t be the ones in trouble.
As we reached the top of the stairs, a huge mural stretched down the wall. The point right in front of us displayed men and women in tribal skirts and facial tattoos. Down the hall we could also see pictures of wallabies, a sort of marsupial from Australia, and soccer players wearing white and blue.
Josh led us to a small office containing a desk and a chair, in which a dark-skinned girl with short black hair sat. Her eyes momentarily flicked up from what she was doing before she carried on, tapping away at her laptop.
“Have you got a reservation?” she asked with a very proper British accent.
“No, but do you have four beds available?” I tried my best not to do some stupid imitation of her voice. One of the few lessons I’d enjoyed in the labs was studying languages. I loved imitating noises and pretending I was someone else from some far-off place. That's probably why I'd been assigned languages as my specialty.
She pulled out another drawer and flipped through a card index. “We have four beds left in an eight-berth dormitory on the third floor. Twenty-five a night each. You want it?”
“Yeah, we’ll take that.” We couldn’t afford luxury; we had to make our money last.
We paid in cash for two nights, took the key and found our room. It wasn’t too shabby, but the bunks did remind me uncomfortably of the beds back at the labs.
One of the beds was occupied, and a second girl sat in the middle of the floor organizing her pack. Belongings were strewn everywhere and a towel hung over the end of the bunks. Her finger shot to her lip as we entered, warning us to stay quiet.
I twitched the blinds to the side and peered out. The room was on a corner, it overlooked the pedestrian road, the beach and the pier.
“What a hole,” Briana moaned, sparing no thought for the sleeping girl.
The others wanted to relax and shower before getting some dinner, but I was itching to get outside while it was still light.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said.
“Make sure you’re carrying,” Nicole reminded me, as if I would forget.
I stepped into the en suite bathroom and strapped a shoulder holster into place. I positioned one of the SIG Sauers in it and slid my arms into my new jacket. We’d each bought one during the drive after we’d realized we couldn’t easily conceal our weapons under the sweatshirts.
A glance in the mirror assured me the gun was completely covered before stepping back into the dormitory. The sleeper had woken and was now hanging over the side of the bunk, talking to the other girl in rapid German. I made myself seem disinterested so they wouldn’t know I could understand them moaning about the 'rude American girls.'
With a wave goodbye, I skipped down the stairs into the sunshine. I walked along the buildings, away from the hostel, passing the backs of the shops and restaurants that lined the boulevard. I rounded the end of the block to find a convenience store we’d passed earlier.
Most of the shelves were filled with alcohol, but I was sure there’d been a display freezer with signs for ice cream. I was right.
I pushed open the glass door. A chime rang above my head, causing the cashier to look up from his magazine. I pawed through the flavors on display—banoffee pie, cookie dough, blueberry delight…why would they put such weird flavors into something so good? I'd never even heard of banoffee pie.
Digging deeper, I finally found what I was searching for. “Jackpot,” I murmured, shaking the triple-chocolaty goodness free from the ice, which had built up while the container had been hidden in the bottom corner.
“Got any spoons?” I passed over a handful of coins I’d dug from my jacket pocket.
He grunted. Barely lifting his eyes from the magazine, he shoved the plastic wrapped utensil across the counter. He was reading about the man in the mechanical suit too.
Outside of the store, I pulled off the plastic cap and peeled back the foil. My mouth literally watered at the sight of the ice cream. I tossed the trash into the garbage can as I passed, digging into the frozen confection. There was no point keeping the lid, I had every intention of eating the whole tub right now.
The first mouthful was heaven. I actually stopped in my tracks. Closing my eyes I enjoyed the creamy chocolate melting over my tongue. I’d always had a thing about closing my eyes, shutting off my sense of sight to concentrate more fully on other sensations, like the taste of the chocolate right now. I guess it went back to early times with Mom. Every time she gave us a gift, we had to close our eyes and try to guess what it was by how it felt or what noise the box made when we shook it. She only introduced new tastes if she knew we wouldn't judge it on appearance first.
I walked lightly down the street, bouncing on my toes with every step. I was in my own little world as I made my way in the direction of the sand, until I was jolted back to reality.
The skin prickled on the back of my neck; I was being watched. I paused, peering around me. A man in the bar to my left busied himself, pushing his meal around his plate.
I turned back to the beach, sneaking a peek at him out of the corner of my eye. He was still playing with his food.
A hint of suspicion nagged at me, but I started walking again. When I reached a bronze statue of a surfer at the end of the pier, I turned again to see him chatting to one of the waitresses. Nothing strange there.
I slipped back into my own thoughts as I pushed off my shoes and stepped onto the sand. Sitting down on the ramp of a small white building I stared out to sea. The water was mostly flat. Occasionally tiny waves danced toward the shore on an angle, pushed off-course by the breeze. Not many people were on the beach, even fewer actually in the water.
Taking a deep breath, I could taste the salt in the air. I let out a sigh and leaned back against the wall of the hut. There was no way I was ever going to go back to those labs.
I let myself relax for a moment, enjoying the ice cream, before my thoughts returned to the creatures.
What were we going to do about them?