The journey passed with the speed of a snail. Seeing as none of us had a driver’s license, we thought there’d be less chance of getting pulled over if we avoided the highways. It got even more tedious when we passed into Alabama.
Something was wrong; although no houses had cars in their driveways, the streets were empty. Shop doors were closed and windows boarded up.
To begin with, the damage was minor—missing roof tiles, smashed glass, uprooted mailboxes. But soon the destruction became a lot harder to miss, and it got worse the farther west we went.
Driving into the wreckage, we stopped in front of a sign set in the middle of the road. Sand bags surrounded the base, holding the fluorescent orange board upright. Bold black letters declared the area a disaster zone.
“So what do you think? Keep going, or backtrack and take another route?” Nicole asked from the passenger seat.
“Just go straight through,” Briana said, obviously bored.
I steered around the sign and our right wheels mounted the pavement. Something splintered beneath the tires, but I paid it no heed.
The damage, which had been growing gradually worse, increased in magnitude almost immediately. Soon we were passing flattened houses and uprooted trees. There was no indication that anyone still lived here.
Furniture littered the landscape, perched in the most unlikely of places. One house that’d managed to remain standing now had a full-sized couch and dining room table on its roof. Next door, a flimsy tree supported a refrigerator, in which a bird had begun to build its nest with a variety of debris, scavenged from the garbage littering the landscape. Wires twisted between newspapers, leaves, branches and grass, creating a home for its offspring.
We moved intermittently through the streets, constantly climbing out of the car to clear the obstacles from our path. Briana got grouchy, so I offered her the chance to drive. Nicole, Mouse and I walked ahead, dragging the trash away from the road.
“Where are the people?” Mouse asked. “Why did they leave instead of cleaning up and rebuilding?”
“I don’t know, but it sure seems like they left in a hurry.” Nicole nodded at a house missing its roof. The door hung open, the entrance hall lined with a family’s shoes and toys still scattered across the carpet.
The next house still looked lived in, too. Furniture was arranged around the television in the family room behind the window hangings.
“Do you think…” Mouse broke off abruptly as she slumped to the ground. A gurgling noise scraped from her throat, her left leg jerked uncontrollably.
My chest tightened, and my heart jumped into my throat. Fear coursed through my veins as I sprinted to her side. The convulsions crawled over her until they shook her entire body.
Her eyes rolled back into her head and her breathing accelerated. I yanked my sweatshirt off and tucked it under her head to protect it from the hard ground. I didn’t know what else we could do until she stopped thrashing.
I pressed my hands together, trying to stop them shaking. The spasms racing through Mouse’s body eventually slowed, until she lay completely still. Her breathing was shallow now, her heartbeat faint. I turned her where she lay, tilting her face down to make sure if she became sick, nothing she brought up would block her airway.
My own heart still thudded, the adrenaline raced around my body with no outlet. I couldn’t think of anything I could do to help her. First Mom, then Guy, and now Mouse was in trouble. I couldn’t lose her too.
I sat by her head, stroking hair away from her face as I listened to her soft breathing. Nicole rummaged around in the back of the car until she found a rough blanket, which she tucked around Mouse’s tiny frame. She seemed even smaller than usual.
What had triggered the seizure? She’d never had one before. None of us had. Was there something about this outside world that caused it? The strange tingling I’d been feeling in my own limbs had never happened before we left the labs either...
Or was it something we no longer had that caused the fit? Were the vitamins they’d been feeding us holding back some sort of illness? What would happen without the daily dosage of medicine? Had the years of experimentation left side effects that we weren’t yet aware of?
Mouse shifted slightly. A moan slid from her lips, her eyelids twitched. I didn’t move, not even a blink in case I missed something.
After what seemed like forever, her eyes flickered open. She looked uncertain as she lifted her groggy gaze to me. It was like she was trying to peer through dirty windows, unable to make out more than an outline.
“Are you okay?”
She pressed closer to me. “I…I don’t know.” She shivered, tears welled up in her eyes. They overflowed, and she started sobbing.
I gathered her close, rubbing her arm under the thick blanket.
“It’ll be okay, I promise.” I tried to make myself believe it.
What if we were changing, without the drugs they’d been feeding us? Could we become mindless creatures?
Briana watched solemnly, sitting on the hood of the car. Nicole crouched a few feet from us. I lifted my eyes, silently begging her to think of something to say. For the first time ever, she looked completely uncertain.
I let Mouse cry until she ran out of tears. I made reassuring noises and stroked her hair. When she finally fell quiet and the shivers subsided, I helped her to her feet. With Nicole’s assistance, I maneuvered her into the car. We settled her in the back, curled in the blanket against the door, where she fell asleep almost immediately.
“Make sure you keep an eye on her,” I told Briana, who for once took heed of an instruction without complaint. She looked nervous too.
Nicole and I continued on, clearing the road so the car could pass. I constantly fell back to check on Mouse, to make sure she was breathing properly. I trusted Briana, but it made me more comfortable to see for myself.
Eventually we found ourselves on a clear stretch of road approaching Mississippi. Briana, Nicole and I took turns driving while Mouse slept. She woke occasionally but we refused to let her take the wheel in case she started seizing again.
After debating where to stay for the night, we eventually decided on sleeping in the car. We were trying to avoid leaving a trail that might lead the scientists to us. The trunk of the car was spacious, not an enclosed sedan, but it was still uncomfortable