We drove for several hours. The narrow lanes of the countryside wound curling paths over hills and between fields. We turned the radio on to drown out the silence that settled over us, but there only seemed to be bad news. The elation I expected to accompany freedom never reared its head.
Eventually we reached a town large enough to have a hospital and far enough away from the chaos of the labs for us to be comfortable stopping for a short time.
We left Guy at the emergency room on his own. I wanted to stay, but he said we would raise suspicion covered in so much blood. He gave us a map and pointed out where we could find some clothes and food, naming stores we should keep an eye out for.
He tossed his wallet to Mouse, told us to get what we needed, and walked into the building.
Mouse unfolded the brown leather to find half a dozen plastic cards. Taped to each was a scrap of yellow paper with a four digit code.
“What are these?” she lifted one free.
“Pass it here.” I examined it, turning it over between my hands. It was metallic blue with a row of numbers punched into it, a square holographic sticker and Guy’s name printed below. “It’s a credit card. Mom used to have a couple. You put them into machines and they give you money.”
We ignored the cards and Mouse opened another compartment. She pulled out a stash of paper notes. We knew what money was and how to use it, but we’d never actually held any before.
“How long do you think he’s going to be?” Briana asked.
“I don’t know, but we should get a move on so we’re here when he gets back.” I slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Nicole climbed through the middle to take the passenger side and began reading instructions from a map.
The streets were busy; women pushed strollers with squalling toddlers in tow. Old ladies walked side by side, their tightly curled heads close together as they gossiped. Shopkeepers went about their business.
“Check that out!” Mouse said. A teenage boy sped past atop a skateboard as we were stopped at traffic lights. I’d only ever seen one on television before. I watched until it was out of sight, adding that to the list of things I planned on doing, now that I could.
The lights were green.
I lifted the hand brake, put the car into gear and accelerated smoothly; driving was one of the lessons that came easily to me.
“There it is.” Nicole pointed.
It was a parking lot, surrounded by huge buildings with colorful window displays, just like they’d shown us in the training videos. We couldn't experience it firsthand, so they'd hired actors to roleplay what were supposed to be everyday scenarios.
I pulled into the driveway and circled the lines of cars until I found an empty space. I parked, opened my door and stepped into the cool sunlight. A breeze swept between the cars, the fabric of my pants flapped around my legs. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. My heart fluttered in my chest.
We weren’t out of the woods yet… Guy was hurt, and they’d be chasing us once they’d dealt with the more immediate threat posed by the creatures, but a thread of excitement grew inside me.
I propped my elbows on top of the car. A smile played around Nicole’s mouth opposite me. Mouse looked a little nervous, but excited, and Briana seemed just as surly as ever.
“What do we need?” Mouse asked.
“A change of clothes and some food. That’s all for now.” Nicole’s voice was firm as she took charge. “You two,” she pointed at Mouse and me, “can go and find the clothes. We’ll get the food.”
“Why can’t I get the clothes?” A scowl crossed Briana’s face.
“We don’t have time for you to fuss around.” Nicole focused on Briana properly for the first time, her eyes skimmed over her stained clothes. She gave us a once-over too.
“Put this on.” She pulled Guy’s big jacket from the floor in front of the passenger seat and handed it to Briana.
“Because you’re the one covered in the most blood. I don’t want anyone asking questions.”
Briana scrunched up her nose. “But it’s horrible!”
“You’re never going to see any of these people ever again. You don’t need to worry about being pretty.”
Briana snatched the jacket out of her hand and shoved her arms into the sleeves with a scowl. She gave up arguing—Nicole was in charge, whether Briana liked it or not; she always had been.
Mouse extracted the notes from the wallet, handed half to Nicole and kept the other half for us.
“Do you think we’ll have enough for everything?” We followed the sidewalk that ran along the front of the stores and peered into each as we passed.
“Not a clue,” Nicole said. “There’s ours.” She pointed to a small grocery store. “And that’s yours.” The clothing shop was on the other side of the parking lot. Nicole and Briana veered off toward their destination. Mouse and I continued onward.
There were racks of clothes everywhere inside the shop. I wandered over to the silver frame closest to us and lifted the sleeve of a delicate dress. I crossed my eyes and let it drop.
“What’s with all the frilly stuff?” Mouse asked, rifling through a similar rack.
“Surely all the bits and pieces hanging off would get in the way?”
Footsteps sounded behind us, so I turned to meet them.
“Can I help you? Are you looking for something in particular?” a girl, not much older than us, asked. She ran her eyes over our clothes, an expression similar to the one I often saw Briana wearing spread across her face.
“We’re after clothes we can run around in,” Mouse said.
The girl's eyes flicked over our dirty clothes, a slight curl twisting her lip. “Sure you are...”
She led the way to the back of the store, where the clothes on the silver hangers were plainer than those we’d already seen.
We selected four pairs of black pants and four gray T-shirts.
I lifted a thick hooded sweatshirt. “Do you think we should each get one of these?”
“Will we need them? I’m not cold.”
“Neither am I, but everyone outside seems to be. They’re all wearing jackets.”
Mouse stared critically at the garment for a moment. “We probably should, then. We need to blend in.”
We took our selections to the counter, where the girl had disappeared to without a word. She looked at us strangely but didn’t say anything as she processed our purchase.
“That’s ninety-five dollars and thirty-seven cents.”
Mouse pulled the folded stack of notes out of her pocket and the girl's eyes grew wide. She counted out a hundred dollars and handed it to the girl. The girl deposited it in her till and passed back the change.
Shopping in hand, we returned to the car. Briana and Nicole arrived soon after, the former with a stormy expression settled firmly upon her face. She didn’t say anything, just took an apple from the paper bag and bit into it.
I dropped into the driver’s seat and navigated through the streets back to the hospital. I parked the car and waited. There, Nicole and I changed seats, since she volunteered to take a turn driving.
I found a magazine in the glove compartment. I’d seen it when I’d been searching for the screwdrivers. It had lots of pictures and told some sort of story about a man with a mechanical suit who flew around saving the day.
By the time Guy came back, Briana and Mouse were silently snoozing in the back seat and Nicole was starting to nod off, too.
“You all right?” he asked gruffly, climbing in beside Mouse.
“Yeah, we think we got everything,” I said.
“We’ll keep going for another hour until we hit the next town. There’s a motel there where we can crash for the night.” He looked ready to pass out.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Mouse asked, awake again.
“Yeah, they patched me up.” He held out his heavily bandaged arm as if to prove the point. “I told ‘em a dog bit me.”
He leaned between the front seats and picked up his phone off the dash. “Now, you need to follow this road until you get to the intersection. Go left then take the second right and the next left. Then keep going until you see the sign for the motel.”
Sitting back, he flipped open his phone and pressed two buttons before holding it to his ear. He spent the entire hour conversing with someone on the other end of the phone, talking about a cabin out west where we’d be safe until we could get ourselves sorted out in the real world. Even with my enhanced hearing, I couldn’t decipher whether he was speaking to a man or woman. The person was using some sort of filter to distort his or her voice.
As Nicole turned to the right, a motorbike turned too. It trailed not far behind us, its lights off. I kept my eyes on it in the rear view mirror until we turned into the parking lot of the motel.