The sound of Maggie’s cries fell in time with the beating rain, filling George with a deep sadness. The poor girl was sure to starve—or freeze—to death on her own. There was no question. Neither Ken nor Jack deserved the badges and guns of their station. They were a disgrace not only to Police-Corp but to the whole of humanity. Forget fighting that deviant; he wanted one good shot at both of those pathetic excuses for men.
With the rain and its echo against the hard cement walls, it was difficult to discern how close she was, and the farther he went, the tenser his body grew. He couldn’t stop the mental picture of the ceiling giving way, trapping him, perhaps badly injured, within the confines of the fallen slabs. Perhaps he wouldn’t even have an inch to move. Maybe he’d drown in a sea of mud. What would that feel like, earthy sludge filling his lungs? Would he struggle long? Would he lose all sense of time and space, destined to spend his final moments suspended in the ruins?
The mental image stopped him for a moment. His lungs grew heavy, the air feeling thin and stagnant. A wave of lightheadedness sent him staggering to a wall, and he leaned against it to keep from collapsing. His heart raced. Pins and needles tingled through his hands and feet. He pushed forward, certain each step would be his last.
Breathe … just breathe….
Should he turn around instead of pushing forward? Maggie’s sobs captured his attention. She needed him to reach her. No one else would. One step after the last, his numbing feet staggered over one another. He couldn’t give up. Not now. As if in response to his determination, the rain pummeled even harder. Joining in the effort, his heart hammered against his chest in rhythm with the heavy beat. Cold air seized his lungs.
He let out a sigh of relief when his light washed over Maggie’s huddled body.
Maggie turned, blocking the light with an arm. “Go away!”
“It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“I’m not going back!”
He knelt down when he reached her. “There isn’t anywhere else to go right now. It won’t be forever. I’ll figure something out.”
“No, I don’t want to go.”
“It’s better than roaming these halls on your own, don’t you think?”
She shook her head. “I don’t like the policeman.”
“I don’t like him much either.”
“I remember now where I saw him before. I don’t think he should have been made one of the police. You should have picked someone else.”
“Picked someone else?”
She nodded. “To be one of the new policemen. You’d be much better at it than him. They should vote you to take his place.”
“I don’t think it works that way. We can’t just vote any person to suddenly become a police associate.”
“Why not? You did it with him.”
George looked down the hall to ensure no one else had followed then leaned in close and spoke in a hushed voice. “He wasn’t always a police associate?”
She shook her head.
“What was he before?”
She followed his lead and whispered, “He was the plumber Repair-Mart sent when the toilet broke. Mommy said he broke more than he fixed, and she didn’t want to pay. He got real mad and yelled at her until she gave him her credit card.”
“You sure about that?”
She nodded. “Why did you make him one of the Food-Mart police?”
His thoughts became muddled, the shock of having not assumed the obvious hitting him like a heavy blow to the head. “I don’t think anyone did.”
“So how’d he get all that police stuff?”
Feeling weak, he sat down beside her and took a few seconds to catch his breath. “That’s a very good question.” Both possible answers looped again and again through his mind: Either he’d come across a dead police associate whose uniform was a decent fit or he’d killed someone for it. Neither diminished the fact that the man was a fraud, a liar, and no more suited to carry a gun and handcuffs than anyone else there.
And what about Jack? Was he a fake, too?
What did that mean for the group? They deserved to know the truth, but would anyone believe him if he said anything? Maybe Maggie had the right idea after all. Moving aimlessly through the district was a dangerous strategy, but was it any worse than living under the rule of a man who’d claimed authority that wasn’t his to take? How long could the rest of them possibly last under his tyranny?
Did he really want to find out?
Maggie’s safety was now his biggest immediate concern, but he wouldn’t likely be able to live with himself if he didn’t at least try to help the rest of the group. He also needed to consider how he would feed the two of them after they’d abandoned the stockpile. They could try returning to the district housing and breaking into other apartments, but there was no guarantee they’d be successful in bypassing the well-locked doors. Even if they did manage to break in, there was no telling whether they’d find any nonperishable goods for their effort.
They would need to go back, stay long enough to dethrone the impostor police associates, grab what they could carry, and then leave the district in search of a deviant camp. It would be a gamble, but it was time to play the odds.
Although his pulse continued to race, his lungs began to relax and the pins and needles in his extremities started to abate. Why the air suddenly became breathable again was beyond him, but he was grateful nonetheless.
He turned to Maggie. “I have a plan, but I need you to trust me.”
About Aftermath: Beyond World-Mart
When all seems lost, when all the world has crumbled away, what will rise in its place?
In this highly anticipated conclusion to the World-Mart trilogy, George once again travels beyond the district in search of possible surviving family. What he finds along the way, however, changes everything he thought he’d known about the world—and the end of the world—as he knows it.
Travel alongside George, back through the deviant shanty-towns and beyond, to a place he’d nearly forgotten—and to another he never could have imagined existed.