Ashla Townsend was afraid to drive on New Year’s Eve.
Since this was a well-known fact, she was at a huge loss when she asked herself for the sixtieth time how she had managed to end up being the designated driver for the night. It wasn’t that she wanted to be one of the drinking revelers herself, just that she dreaded the idea of being on the roads with the untold numbers of other drinking revelers who hadn’t taken the time to choose a designated driver.
“Ashla, sweetie, relax,” Diana Quaid scolded with knowing sympathy from the passenger seat. She reached to touch soothing fingertips to one of the hands Ashla had clenched around the steering wheel in a legitimate white-knuckle hold.
“I’ll relax when we’re all at home safe and sound like all those designated driving ads promise us,” Ashla qualified with a nervous glance in the SUV’s rearview at the four other passengers. They had all finally wound down from the excitement of the party they’d attended, and Cristine, her younger sister, had even fallen asleep against her boyfriend’s tuxedoed chest. “We should never have come so far out on New Year’s. Or we should have at least gotten a room at the hotel or something.”
“Oh, c’mon!” Diana groaned, rolling her eyes. “How could we not go? It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance! To party at the Theodore Hotel with so many rotten rich people? It’s one of the hottest parties in the tri-state area. Plus, that guy who gave you the invites is totally into you. He danced with you so many times you’re going to have to have a funeral for those shoes.”
“Bite your tongue.” Ashla couldn’t help her grin at that. “These cost three hundred bucks.”
“And worth every cent.” Diana chuckled. “You looked hot tonight. That man all but grabbed you at midnight to kiss you.”
Ashla flushed with the memory, keeping her eyes glued to the road as she recalled the possessive grasp of Samuel Benson’s hands on her waist and back as he had pulled her into that kiss. The midnight tradition had allowed him to breach usual dating protocols, and he had taken full advantage of it. Ashla had surprised herself with her willingness to go along with him. Sam’s kiss had been one of intensity and impressive skill. Not an entirely unpleasant experience and, now that she thought about it, one she might not be averse to repeating in the future.
“It was just a kiss,” she noted aloud with a single-shouldered shrug. “A very nice kiss. It’s not as though the Earth moved or heavenly choirs sang.”
“God! Ashla, I swear you are so…so…!”
Diana never finished the expression of her frustration with her tightly wound friend. The oncoming truck that crossed into their lane and hit them head-on at ninety miles per hour killed her instantly.
Ashla stood shivering in the darkened streets of Times Square.
She was almost used to the total lack of light, and even the eerie absence of sound in a city that ought to have been clamoring with noise, but what she couldn’t adjust to was the absolute barrenness of humanity.
How long had she been in this surreal, postapocalyptic version of New York? Had it been a week? Three? She had lost track. One of the most populous cities in America, and she had yet to see a single soul besides herself.
Ashla was a bit hazy on some of the details of when this all had come about, of how and why the world had blossomed into this bizarre, barren landscaping, but she did recall her initial reaction of pure panic. She remembered quite clearly the act of running around to all of the places where coworkers, friends, and even family were supposed to be.
Queens. The Bronx. Eastern Long Island. Eventually here, in Manhattan.
There was no one.
Oh, everything worked all right. Subways. Cars. Machinery. All of it as if the regular occupants of the world would return any moment to pick up and go on just as they always had. Only, there were some strange details missing. There was no television reception or projection. Lightbulbs, neon lights, and anything providing the smallest glimmer of illumination refused to perform their designated functions. That had truly freaked her out in the beginning. The lack of light had made the vast vacant spaces of the city seem somehow claustrophobic and paralyzing. It had gotten better, thank goodness, as her eyes had adapted to the total darkness with a surprising rapidity. She had even grown accustomed to the fact that it always remained nighttime and never turned to day like it should.
Things had definitely improved once she stopped thinking of reasons why there might not be a sun.
Another odd thing was the food. Food was always fresh for the taking, somehow replenishing itself as though invisible workers still carried out their daily duties of stocking and rotating it. She never saw any of it happen, it just did.
In the end, she had realized that the ideal course of action was to not spend too much time thinking about the details. She never got answers when she did, and only managed to scare herself witless in the process. Explanations escaped her for those and many other anomalous details, but she was weary of the constant heart-racing panic that overwhelmed her every time she thought too hard about her shadowed environs. Instead, she learned to enjoy things…like foods she’d never tried before, or sneaking into homes in Chinatown just to see how different they were.
There was one light, however. Moonlight. It was the one and only relief to the dark world. The growing cycle of the moon, with its inevitable turn toward fullness, would shed more and more beautifully pale light onto the world around her. Ashla didn’t even mind all the spooky shadows it cast in long black and gray streaks. She already knew no one was hiding in them.
In fact, her reality remained completely devoid of humanity, just as it had for the better part of a month now. Two months? More? Even time seemed to have given up on this lifeless wasteland that made no sense to her. She supposed she had given up as well, eventually trudging away from the overwhelming grief over lost loved ones and even abandoning her furious frustration at her suddenly senseless world. Now she simply wandered New York and the rest of the tri-state area trying to amuse herself.
Until then, she had never realized how vital the presence of others could be to a person’s sanity.
It had actually been fun for a little while, walking paths and places that were normally so heavily protected by security or warning signs, and examining all the strange inner workings of things she’d never questioned before. At least, it had been fun until she had taken a bad fall in a subway station and it had occurred to her that if she were hurt very badly, there would be no one around to help her; no one to rush her to a hospital for care; no one to care enough to keep her from rotting away from hunger and thirst alone in a dark, tiled tunnel.
She hadn’t gone belowground since that particular panic attack. Aboveground might not necessarily be less hazardous, but it was far less enclosing and she took comfort in whatever she could at that point. Ashla’s sense of security on the open streets was relative. She was safe from dark, creepy subterranean dangers, perhaps, but she was also left feeling even more alone as towering buildings soared above her, miniaturizing her and making her feel as though she were standing at the bottom of a great abandoned canyon. She had struggled with the ever-increasing fear that someday something might happen and she wouldn’t know what to do to help herself.
And then sometimes, some very awful bad times, she couldn’t even remember all the names of the people she knew. It was at those times that she truly became frightened. Down deep to the bottom of her soul terrified. Because those were the times when she feared she had simply lost her mind. After all, what other explanation could there be? What could possibly make her forget her beloved sister Cristine? Or even her brothers Malcolm and Joseph? Her parents. It horrified her to think there was anything that could make her forget what it had been like to grow up in her mother’s care.
She took comfort that today she remembered it all, and tried not to worry about tomorrow.
Other than all of that…
New York City was her playground.
Saks. Barneys. Macy’s. Bloomies. Granted, they would have been more fun if there had been some decent light to see by, but she compensated for it by shopping close to windows that filled with moonlight. She walked in whenever she wanted and walked out without needing to pay. Every day she picked a new store to get dressed in. She’d amused herself enough at the department stores, and dazzled herself in the Diamond District, but now she was gravitating back to the retro boutiques she had always loved. She liked the priceless vintage dresses, lace and beads and hand-worked details that were so rare in the modern world. So she made her way to her favorite shop and, before long, was slipping into an ivory gown with a tautly stitched empire waist, à la Jane Austen. It had a silk underlining and hand-crocheted lace over it in a perfect pastel cream. It was unique, delicate and beautiful, the style transporting her back to a time when men fought duels for the honor of a woman.
That was when she heard the first resonant clang of metal on metal.
She was so startled by the sound after so much silence that she threw herself against a wall and hid, her breath panting and her heart pounding for a full minute before working up the courage to sneak to the window.
“Something probably dropped. Toppled over. You’re just being a ninny,” she lectured herself breathlessly.
It was a plausible idea, right up until the moment she heard the second crash of metal against metal, the clang reverberating in the dim world and vacant streets. Understanding crystallized when she heard the hard sound of running feet coming toward her, and she strained to somehow hide and see what was going on all at the same time.
She glimpsed the dark shape of a man an instant before a second man plowed up into him and they both came flying toward her. Ashla ducked with a scream and barely got her arms up protectively before they barreled through the plate glass window in a shower of shards. Clothing racks and tables disintegrated as they broke the momentum of the two large-bodied fighting men. A sword, of all things, went skidding across the hardwood flooring, bumping to a stop against Ashla’s bare toes.
“Oh, yeah, Ash, you are definitely swimming in the deep end now,” she muttered to herself as she stared down at the weapon. A sword. Not an Uzi. Not a handgun. A sword. Ashla was beginning to realize she had never given her imagination enough credit until she had gone crazy. Now she had to admit that the sword was a neat touch to her little fantasy world. So were the men, for that matter.
She watched with dismay as they grappled with each other on the floor amongst the inventory and glass debris. They were both dark-skinned and had dark coloring. The larger man kept his hair long, whipped back tightly into a plait, the jet color of it gleaming in the weak moonlight filtering into the store. His brawny build filled out his clothing almost to test the integrity of his seams. Denim jeans in black hugged tightly to thickly muscled thighs, biker boots holding his braced feet in place against the floor. His shoulders bulged against the dark gray cotton of his dress shirt, and a necklace of some kind dangled almost tauntingly against the disadvantaged man’s cheek below him as they struggled for ownership of the remaining sword.
“Give up!” the brute spat down into the face of his adversary. “You know I will win this!”
“I’d rather kiss the sun,” was the gruff, straining reply from the slimmer man. It was true, Ashla observed with concern, that the other man was outweighed and, while of impressive physique himself from what she could tell, he was also outmuscled. This one’s hair was close-cropped at the back of his neck and around his ears, but there was a little bit of length to the top as it fell back to reveal a widow’s peak. The curve of his hairline made his squared jaw and prominent cheekbones appear deeply exotic. The ebony sheen of his wildly tossed hair set shadows on his already dark eyes, making him appear just a little wicked in his features. The impression deepened as he gave his opponent a slow, amused grin that belied his struggle to keep hold of his weapon. “Give it up, Baylor. You’ll not win this. Not today!”
The observation was more like a prediction as a knee levered up between Baylor’s braced legs, caught him hard, and sent him flying ass over shoulders above the other man’s head. Baylor’s back slammed into the floor, forcing a startled cough from him. Free of his opponent, the other man scrambled to his feet but did little more than stagger up against a nearby counter. His sword hung tiredly from one hand, the tip grazing the ground. He raised the back of a broad hand to his nose, which, Ashla realized, was bleeding. For all his determination and bravado, it was clear even to her that he was exhausted and had taken a serious beating. Despite the dusk of his skin tone, she could see the swelling and color of new bruises appearing on his face and battered knuckles.
The one named Baylor was on the floor groaning, trying to recover from a hard shot in the testicles that had to hurt even more than when a woman delivered it. Most men would consider the maneuver fighting dirty, but the weary man had clearly needed every advantage against the behemoth Baylor, and Ashla didn’t blame him in the least for resorting to such a brutal tactic.
“You…dare…to betray…our people,” the standing man gasped between difficult-to-draw breaths. He was hugging an arm to his side, his ribs obviously hurting him, and Ashla found herself actually worrying that he had broken one or more. She didn’t even know him, or what they were fighting about, so why, she wondered, was she starting to show concern for one side over the other?
“There was a time when you were considered the traitor, Ajai Trace,” Baylor growled. “History is written by the one who wins the coup.”
Baylor rolled over onto his hands and knees, panting hard and groaning beneath his breath as his movements sent obvious reminders of pain through his reproductive system. He looked up and suddenly Ashla found herself staring into deep eyes of black and menace. But as bad as the scowl initially was, the subsequent grin that showed his teeth was far worse.