Running late to catch the bus, Luisa kicked a raised part of the sidewalk toes first.
“Mierda!” She winced but managed to keep her balance. She stopped, raised her leg, and massaged her big toe through her canvas work shoes. Relieved to feel no broken bones, she lowered her foot, ignored the pain, and hurried to the bus stop.
She shouldn’t have tripped, but that’s what happens when you’re not paying attention. After walking the same way to work for the past eight months, she’d memorized every crack and weed in the three hundred eighty-six square concrete slabs from her apartment building to the covered bench where she sat and waited most days. Today, she woke up late after dreaming of the warring city, and keeping to a strict daily routine had been what saved her. The bus driver, a friendly middle-aged man named Toby, had waited for her with the door open.
“Thank you,” she gasped.
Toby smiled. “Saw you coming. How’s your foot?”
“It’s okay. Thanks.”
He closed the door behind her and pulled away from the curb. She went to her usual spot on the bus, always empty an hour before sunrise. Nine rows back, opposite from where Toby sat, Luisa sidestepped her way to the window seat and plopped down. She pulled her hurt foot out of the shoe and examined the stubbed toe. Dark purplish blood spread out underneath most of the nail bed in the shape of a cloud. She shook her head, knowing the dead nail would eventually peel off on its own, leaving her with a raw, fragile toe. Luisa looked to the right at her reflection in the glass.
“See what you made me do?” she whispered.
Four months ago, Luisa noticed a girl who mimicked her every move in the window. The reflection looked much like her own, only younger, a girl in her late twenties maybe. She had a bleak expression and fear in her eyes. It took two weeks of experimenting to convince herself the anomaly was real and not a trick of her mind or wishful thinking. She’d taken a mirrored compact from her purse and looked into it, glanced at the bus window and back again. The reflected images differed from one another. In her compact, she saw herself as she should be: a 48-year-old widow from Guatemala, lucky to get a job at her age for financial support. A woman with two sons, both adults in constant trouble with the law and presently serving time in the California prison system. For her own good and sanity, she didn’t keep in touch, disappeared from their lives. Life would’ve been different if she’d had a daughter.
Sadness showed on her face, but didn’t compare to the young girl in the window. That girl’s eyes expressed a fear she hadn’t felt since first arriving in America. All the horrors Luisa had suffered through, she’d left behind in the jungle villages of the old country.
The bus screeched and hissed. It had been still for ten seconds before Toby yelled back:
“Your stop. Number twenty-two.”
Her stop had come too quickly. She shoved her foot into the shoe and glanced at the reflection before rising.
“This is your fault, too.”
At this rate, she might end up late to work, and that wouldn’t be good. Too many others wanted her job. She passed Toby and thanked him.
“You sure you’re all right?” he said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever had to—”
“Yes, I’m fine.” Luisa hurried off the bus.
It would be another twenty-minute walk to the Motel 8 off I-5 near Old Sacramento. Instead of thinking about the younger Luisa, she tried counting cracks in the sidewalk. After five hundred, she gave up and jog-walked the rest of the way.
This must stop. The girl in the window, I won’t look at her anymore.
Luisa arrived ten minutes after seven, late for the first time since she got the job. Jan, the shift supervisor, gave her a disappointed look when she handed over the color-coded rooms schedule. Luisa glimpsed the green circular sticker on the upper right corner of the paper and held back a groan. Floors seven through ten, where they checked in most of the families with small children.
“Thank you,” Luisa said, but she didn’t mean it.
“If anyone finishes early, I’ll send them up.”
Luisa nodded and headed for the service elevator, knowing no one would come. Everyone stalled to avoid helping clean the family rooms. The coveted blue rooms schedule, where single businesspeople checked in, would be sorely missed today. They tended to be the neatest, with short stays, and on the first three floors. Sometimes, the beds hadn’t even been slept in.
After loading up with supplies, she grabbed a vacuum and pushed the heavy cart down the hall to her first room. The door opened to a disaster area. Fast food containers with spilled contents lay strewn everywhere. Pasta noodles littered the floor next to the beds, some of them stepped on and smeared into the carpet. On average, it took thirty minutes to clean a blue room. Forty minutes into cleaning the green room, spending most of the time on her hands and knees, Luisa swore she’d never be late again.
While running the vacuum over the carpet, now clear of items too soft or wet for the machine, something black darted across the front of the window to the corner of the room. She jumped a little but kept her balance with a firm grip on the vacuum’s rubber handle and continued to work. Ghost shadows often moved past her periphery in the hotel. If she ignored them, they’d go away.
The other girls often told stories about people who’d died in the hotel’s rooms and scary things they saw at work during their lunches and over breaks. Luisa didn’t listen to them. She kept to herself and stayed away from the gossip. Knowing too much might frighten her and she needed the job. Being isolated from their conversations came with a price, though. Other employees took it the wrong way and stopped inviting her to potlucks and parties. Sometimes, she wished they’d ask her again.
Pushing the vacuum back and forth, she could tell the black thing hadn’t moved. A knot of discomfort tightened her gut. The temperature dropped, sending chills down her spine. Maybe if she glanced at it, the ghost would be satisfied and disappear. She backed toward the door with the vacuum in front of her and looked up.
It stood in the corner and pointed at the window.
Luisa crossed herself, shook her head, and prayed in Spanish.
The black thing had a human body. It took a step forward then motioned its other hand for Luisa to come.
• • • •
Ottaya attempted several sleeping positions while bombs exploded far off to the north of the city. Their decoy transport had worked again, but how long would their luck continue until the rebels caught on? The old woman who’d been coming at night to join the transport caravans for shelter needed Ottaya’s help, but also slowed her down. Then every morning she’d be gone again. Ottaya didn’t mind showing her the way, even though she didn’t quite understand why. Anybody else she might have let fall behind, but something about this woman reminded her of an important thing she couldn’t explain.
When the time came to move again by day, the same woman could be seen, but only in the window glass. Ottaya thought in earlier times a different person might have looked back at her, someone younger, more familiar, but the memory remained clouded. A lot of war had happened since then, and the glass was always broken now or missing. Recently, she’d made it a point to sit in seats with more intact windows so she might learn more about the woman. But the older lady stared and said nothing.
A loud crash shattered her sleep. The transport went over something that lifted her out of the seat and she banged her head against the metal frame.
She rubbed her temple and opened her eyes.
The older woman looked at her from a glass shard.
How does she get there?
Warm blood trickled down the side of Ottaya’s face, which she wiped with her filthy jacket sleeve.
“This is because of you.”
“Who are you talking to?” a burly man said from the aisle, hunched over because he was too tall for the transport.
“No one,” she said. Then she shouted to the driver. “What is it, Deegan?”
“Road block. They’re coming on.”
Ottaya rolled her eyes and pushed up her sleeve while the tall man went back to where he’d been sitting. A tattooed barcode appeared on her wrist with the numbers 12-21-9-19-1 imprinted underneath the lines—her resistance identification. Four armed, uniformed men boarded the transport and moved through the rows, checking each passenger. One soldier used a handheld scanner to inspect the barcodes, while the other three had their guns aimed at passengers. Ottaya knew the men wouldn’t hesitate to fire if the reader failed to verify a code, even if it was a momentary glitch in the system. She’d seen many innocents of the resistance die this way. When they got to her, she recognized one of them.
“It’s good to see you’re still alive,” he said to her.
“Don’t move,” he said.
The scanner’s laser beam read her identification.
Ottaya held her breath and stared into his weapon’s muzzle. If something happened, she knew he’d make it quick. When the green light came on, she exhaled.
“You never know,” the soldier said, and shrugged—a reminder of how they’d all become indifferent to life and death.
The men moved to the next person. On their way back, the familiar soldier stood next to her and shouted at the driver. “Road bombs ahead. We’ll send two cycles in front of you.”
Someone in the back groaned.
“I know it doesn’t always work, but if the riders stay tight and move fast enough, they could trip a bomb, ride past it and clear the way. It’s all we can do,” the soldier said. He looked down at Ottaya and smiled.
“Try to keep alive.”
“Where is the decoy traveling tonight?”
“You know I can’t tell you.”
She did, but it never hurt to ask.
“You’ll be safe,” he said and gripped her shoulder. “We need you in one piece for the genetics module transfer.” The soldier released his hold and exited the transport.
My father’s memories and knowledge, broken down and injected into my brain.
It would happen soon. Ottaya had been mentally preparing for it. Her mind would be a jumbled mess for a day or two, but then she’d have all the knowledge to create the genetic weapons her father had worked on before the rebels eliminated him.
The rebels and resistance had warred for millennia. They’d destroyed many places and then moved on and ruined more. Her father had discovered a way to infect the enemy on a genetic level. A way to break down the chemicals that made them up.
Ottaya looked at the woman in the glass.
“My revenge. It’s coming.”
Engines rattled and shook the transport as the driver put them back in gear. They’d soon be crossing terrain with hidden mines.
She shifted in the seat, feeling anxious and warm. An enormous shadow surrounded them and loomed overhead. Some of the others strained their necks to the side and leaned their heads to look up. An air convoy hovered in the sky above.
• • • •
Luisa trembled, unable to move, as she stared wide-eyed at the black thing. Her focus remained on its face, and the features became more familiar—the girl from her reflection.
But why was she at the motel? What happened to her?
“Vas,” Luisa said. “Go.”
The girl from the warring city motioned again for her to come forward. The blackness covering her had once been skin. She had been burned. The char split apart like hard-caked desert floor. Red showed between the cracks—bloody raw flesh. Luisa winced. Perhaps the girl wanted to tell her what happened. Luisa’s foot resisted stepping forward. Tears welled in her eyes and she shook her head.
The girl didn’t leave. Luisa took several deep breaths, trying to compose herself. Maybe she would pass out and the vision would go away. After several minutes of feeling nothing but dizziness and nausea, she looked down at the carpet to avoid seeing the girl. Luisa continued to shake, but keeping her focus elsewhere helped. Only then did her body allow her to step toward the window.
Burnt feet and legs filled her periphery. She lifted her head and stopped. The girl pointed to the window. Luisa felt her body rise from the floor and float closer. Her body came to rest inches from the window with her feet on the carpet.
Reflections moved in the glass, but not the same way they did outside. The images differed. Cars sped across I-5 in the distance, but up close, what she saw in the window confused her. Luisa shifted her focus back and forth between the two scenes, and they didn’t make sense.
The reflected landscape had been destroyed; she recognized it now—the warring city. Charred bodies and remnants of an exploded bus littered a road. A large shadow blanketed the scene. A rectangular airplane, like a floating semitrailer, hovered above the carnage. Luisa moved closer, pressed her forehead against the glass.
One of the burnt people came into focus and Luisa gasped.
The eyes! They’d been removed, but after the body had been burned. The sockets were nothing but dark caverns surrounded by bloody rims, their empty depths extended to the back of the girl’s skull. Her brain, everything . . . gone. Something covered in soot and hardly distinguishable had melded into the palm of the charred woman’s hand—a black bag with white stars drawn on it.
“Como?” she said, turning to the burnt woman for an answer.
No one stood in the corner.
• • • •
“They’ve sent an air convoy to protect us,” Ottaya said.
Two men up front turned around and looked at her.
The man in the back, who’d groaned earlier about the cycles, spoke up. “Oh yeah, I’m sure it’s here for me because I dig trenches. Most valuable member of the resistance.” He laughed.
His glare bore into her, but Ottaya kept quiet. Yorn had always been a disagreeable bastard, but she didn’t feel like getting up and kicking his ass. She rolled her eyes at the others and they grinned, then returned to what they’d been doing. A sudden forward lurch, then back, and the transport traveled on.
Air convoys tended to be inaudible stalking shadows, loaded with weapons, explosives, and soldiers on the ready. The cycles, stripped down for speed, made a high-pitched whirring sound, but so far ahead, they’d be silent. Cyclists had one weapon—a reaper caplet—to be taken if caught by the rebels. Everything remained quiet except for the transport, which needed a new suspension and bounced and squeaked over the bumpy terrain.
A dull pop sounded from the road ahead. The transport jerked to a stop. Everyone stood and looked forward. Plumes of smoke had shot into the air. The air convoy moved forward to investigate. Deeg, the transport driver, turned up his signal receiver.
Loud static, then a voice, “Cyclists triggered mine. Sped past. Both unharmed.”
Everyone clapped and cheered.
The tall man looked at Ottaya and winked.
“Stop it,” Deegan shouted. “I need the numbers.”
When it quieted, the air convoy’s navigator relayed land coordinates for Deeg to follow in order to avoid the massive road hole left by the bomb. All fifteen passengers scrambled to find openings to look through when they went around the exploded mess.
Shadows made by the transport stretched farther across the road and crept onto the land. Soon it would be dark. Ottaya knew she’d come—the woman who reminded her of something she did not understand. Her mother had died giving birth; her father disappeared into the laboratories after that. Raised by soldiers, and other members of the resistance who cared for her while her father found a way to destroy the rebels, she knew nothing else.
At the first transport stop, and final checkpoint before leaving again for a safe place to spend the night, Ottaya saw the woman in line. She had something clutched to her chest and a look of fear on her face. The people in front of her had rolled up their sleeves, ready to be scanned.
Before the woman moved, Ottaya approached. The stranger turned to her and spoke in an unfamiliar language. Ottaya took the foreigner by the arm, leaned in, and shushed her. The woman nodded. Together, they walked away from the end of the line to an isolated area around the side of the checkpoint.
The woman whispered gibberish and reached into the bag she had a death grip on earlier. Ottaya paused, and the stranger recognized her hesitation, stopped talking, and smiled. She took something Ottaya had never seen before from a carryall—yellow, long, and curved. The woman pulled the top back and Ottaya jumped a little. This made the stranger giggle, but Ottaya didn’t think it funny and would’ve snapped the woman’s neck if she thought her dangerous. The woman peeled the sides down and took a bite, chewed, smiled again, and handed the thing over.
Ottaya took the yellow thing out of respect, smelling it. Slow and cautious at first, she took a few bites, and a pasty sweetness of exotic flavor filled her mouth. Then she devoured the yellow thing with ravenous fervor.
The foreigner smiled and appeared satisfied.
Ottaya reached into her black carryall. She’d used white stones found roadside during one of her transport trips to decorate it with stars. Drawing had always been one of her favorite things to do. Many people of the resistance had complimented her on the beautiful sketches she’d created from the ashes of the ruined cities.
The woman watched and inspected the bag.
A soldier startled both women. He’d been the familiar one. Ottaya didn’t know his name, didn’t want to. She’d seen too many soldiers disappear from her life, and she liked this one.
“What are you doing over here?” he said.
“Helping this woman.”
“What is in your hand?”
“The skin of something I ate.” Ottaya let it drop to the ground.
“It’s time to go.”
“Can you get us both on the transport?”
Ottaya looked up at the soldier in the most seductive way she knew how. “Without going through the line, I mean.”
“Please, I’m begging you. It’s important. She’s with me.”
The woman stood silent and unmoving, waiting, as if she had done this before.
“You know I can’t.”
“Then I’ll stay here.”
“Dammit! You’re stubborn.”
“Come on, then.” The soldier escorted them to the bus with his weapon pointed ahead.
“You look very official,” Ottaya said. “What’s your name?”
“I’ve seen you for years and now you ask me my name?”
“You’re helping me. Yes, I’m asking your name?”
“I like it. Thank you for helping us, Vinto.”
“Who is she?” Vinto nodded to the old woman.
“No questions. Maybe I’ll tell you after the module injection.”
“You might forget.”
“Then I forget. Maybe you should, too.”
None of the other soldiers questioned Vinto when he escorted the two women onto the transport. Ottaya took a seat next to some window glass. No reflection appeared.
Maybe because of the darkness, maybe because she’s here.
The foreigner sat next to her and smiled. An hour into the ride, the woman’s head rested against her shoulder. She’d fallen asleep, and eventually Ottaya did the same.
• • • •
Yorn eyed the two from the back and wondered about the strange woman Ottaya had picked up at the checkpoint. For the last few weeks, he’d noticed she had come and gone like a ghost. Perhaps the woman had been sent to further protect Ottaya. He wondered what weapons she carried.
• • • •
It took Luisa into overtime to finish cleaning the green rooms. No one helped, not even Jan. During lunch, the other women kept to themselves. Luisa spent the entire day working slower than normal and thinking of the young girl. Why had she been burnt, killed—whether or not she came to warn her—or if she’d lost her mind and imagined it all?
With thoughts of the girl on her mind, Luisa almost walked past the bus stop. The deafening rattling of the engine snapped her out of the daze. The late afternoon bus drivers changed every other day. She slid her pass and chose a different seat than normal, but it didn’t matter. Moments later, the younger version of the woman appeared in the glass, uncharred and undamaged. She looked happier. Luisa wondered what made her smile, and knew it wasn’t her own reflection. Smiles didn’t come often. Happiness was far away, perhaps in a distant past; exhaustion, for sure, but not happiness.
When she got home, Luisa reheated leftovers and ate with the television on, then showered and went to bed. Sleep came late, even though she’d been tired and would’ve passed out before dinner had it not been for the beeping microwave.
The warring city exploded into her dreams. Bombs and gunfire in the distance. Ruined places. Luisa waiting in line.
The girl took Luisa by the arm and walked her to the side of a building. Soldiers scanned the arms of those at the front of the line. Luisa knew she wouldn’t pass. She tried to explain about seeing her burnt ghost, and thank the young doppelganger for protecting her, but in her dreams Luisa spoke Spanish. The people of the warring city spoke a language she’d never heard before.
For the first time in her dreams, Luisa brought her purse. The girl looked thin and hungry, so she’d reached in and found a banana. The girl jumped as Luisa peeled it, which made her laugh. The girl carried a bag, too, but it looked like a backpack for school: black, with white, hand drawn, childlike stars. Luisa somehow knew this girl had been deprived of a childhood, and she wanted to make it right—the chance to have a daughter—even if only in her dreams.
One of the soldiers approached and startled them. Luisa could tell he liked the girl, and maybe the girl had felt something for the soldier, too. He helped them bypass the line and onto an old bus with boarded windows and torn seats. In the back, a strange man watched the young girl. Luisa didn’t like the way he stared.
Blaring electronic sounds jolted Luisa upright.
The dream-world dissolved as she opened her eyes.
She turned off her alarm clock, then started her daily routine. For the first time since her husband had died, looking around and counting were far from her mind as she made her way to the bus stop. The man at the back of the bus occupied her thoughts—the last bit of dream she remembered. His expression disturbed her.
“You sure you’re okay?” Toby said, looking concerned.
Luisa slid her pass and a wave of vertigo forced her to grab the metal handrail.
“Give me a minute.”
Luisa recovered and went to her seat, hoping to see the girl.
Stars from the vertigo blurred her vision of the window.
Stars! The backpack. The girl dies.
“Aye, mija,” she whispered to the glass.
Tears welled and rolled down her cheeks. The thought of losing her dream daughter . . . She touched the cool window.
Where could you be?
She’d been asleep on that old bus before Luisa woke up. If only she could go back and warn her.
Luisa arrived at work before anyone else. Jan had still been working on the rooms schedule when Luisa went into her office.
“You’re early,” Jan said.
“Making up for yesterday.”
“Nice job on the green rooms, by the way.”
Jan handed her the blue rooms schedule. “Here you go. Early bird gets the worm.”
Luisa smiled, but felt disrespected that Jan likened her to a bird eating a worm. She shook her head and left the office.
Every time she’d unlocked one of the doors, Luisa looked in the windows for signs of the girl. All day she worked and saw nothing. Then, in the last room, she pulled the sheer curtains together and saw the girl in the reflection.
The scene was the same as before. A total massacre of blackened, twisted metal, an enormous blast scar toward the back of the old bus—she recognized it now—and her burnt dream daughter with her eyes and everything inside her skull removed. The image horrified Luisa. She crossed herself and looked away.
The sky rained soldiers. They fell from the floating tractor-trailer. As soon as they touched ground, one of them ran to the young girl’s body. He dropped to his knees and hid his tears from the other men. His face was familiar, even through the grimace: the soldier who had helped Luisa and the girl get on the old bus. He took a vial from his pocket and popped off the lid, then poured a liquid over the charred body. She glowed bright green from head to toe, then crumpled to ash. Luisa crossed herself again. Her knees buckled and gave way. She fell to the floor and wailed.
• • • •
The memories transfer injection went well. Ottaya remained groggy and couldn’t recall much about the ordeal. She’d been attached to a mess of wires, while science team members spoke over one another and shined bright lights in her eyes. Even though a part of her father had been injected into her, she felt no closer to him than she had before. The disconnection made her sad, and melancholy followed her as she drifted off to sleep.
She remembered Vinto smiling down at her, telling her everything would be all right. Ottaya sensed him nearby. She forced her eyes open to the shadow of the air convoy above. She picked up on Vinto, but perceived nothing from her father’s memories.
She would be happy to see the older woman again, but knew she needed rest before her arrival to help her get on the transport. Ottaya looked forward to the warmth of her body sitting next to her. The foreign woman comforted Ottaya and made her feel safe.
The next time she woke, they’d stopped at a checkpoint. Ottaya got off the bus and looked around. Relief coursed through her, and she smiled when she saw the older woman waiting at the side of the building. Ottaya neared, and the foreigner approached her with happiness. She opened her arms and wrapped them around Ottaya. Ottaya didn’t understand the physical greeting. Then a look of dread came across the woman’s face. As they walked back to the side of the building, the woman’s incessant gibberish intensified. Ottaya stopped, placed her hands on the woman’s shoulders, and in a calm, clear voice, told her everything would be all right. The foreigner relaxed, then reached into her bag and took out another one of those yellow things. Ottaya accepted and wolfed it down.
Once more, Vinto escorted them onto the transport. The old woman nudged Ottaya forward so she walked next to him.
“How long will it take to get to the lab?” Ottaya asked.
“Not long. Two moons.”
“Why not suns?”
“Suns, moons, same thing.”
Ottaya smiled at him.
“How are you feeling?” he said.
“Are you ready to end this?”
“Endings also mean beginnings.”
Vinto leaned over and kissed her cheek. Ottaya turned around. The old woman had a big smile across her face.
Ottaya felt weak as soon as they sat in the transport.
Vinto loaded up into the air convoy after walking them to their seats. The old woman held Ottaya close as the transport moved on.
An explosion jarred Ottaya from sleep. Chaos had erupted on the transport. The old woman stood her upright, pushed her into the aisle, shoving her to the front. Frightened, Ottaya grabbed the rails. She got caught among others fleeing the transport. Deegan’s throat had been slit; blood spray covered everything.
Forceful hands pushed her toward the door. The old woman was no longer behind her. Ottaya grabbed the handrail, dug her boots into the rubber padding on the floor and held her ground. The old woman struggled with Yorn. He held a blade and brought it down into her chest. Ottaya screamed. The old woman looked back, yelled at Ottaya, and then pulled at something in Yorn’s coat.
The tall man back shouted, “He’s got mines!”
Everyone pushed in a wave. Ottaya lost her grip and flew out the doorway.
• • • •
Luisa didn’t trust the man in the back of the bus. She’d awakened before the crash and saw him kill the driver. She pretended to be asleep like everyone else. He hurried back to his seat and waited for the bus to hit something and cause a commotion. Luisa knew he wanted to hurt the young girl, take her eyes and brain. She couldn’t let it happen. As soon as the bus crashed, Luisa got the girl up and pushed her into the moving crowd. Then ran to the back and tackled the man, hoping he’d hit his head and get knocked out. That didn’t happen.
While Luisa fought him, she felt things under his coat. They reminded her of grenades she’d seen government forces use during her country’s civil war. Then the man stabbed. Adrenaline pumped so hard through her body, the pain distant. Luisa thought of the young girl. She saw her and shouted, “Te amo, mi hija.” and pulled a pin from one of the devices in the man’s jacket. His eyes widened.
Luisa pulled him close, forcing the knife deeper into her chest. She held him with a strength she’d never known. Then all went silent before bright light swallowed—
• • • •
Ottaya awoke on something soft but itchy green. She sat up and moved her palm across the tips and they tickled her skin. She rolled over and saw the old woman’s carryall. Ottaya lay there, admiring a blue sky that was familiar, and yet . . . not quite. She wondered if it might be one of her father’s memories. Tall buildings surrounded her, still intact and new: concrete flesh instead of steel and brick skeletons she’d been more accustomed to seeing.
Dark shadows took shape and descended from the clouds in a formation she recognized. Rebel air convoys filled the sky. Ottaya rose and ran with the old woman’s bag clutched in her hands. She needed to find safety, and a lab where she could wait for the resistance, and Vinto—they would help her. The memories of her father would save this world.