Crystal had taken refuge from the rain in her car. The shower was hard enough that it obscured her version; she thought, at certain moments, that she saw shapes amid the gray, thundering torrents of water from the sky—but then, after peering harder, realized nothing was there.
"Shane," Crystal whispered to the deluge outside, "where are you?"
"You okay?" Shane asked Anna Lou in the cabin of the immobilized vehicle.
"Yeah, yeah," Anna Lou muttered, cradling her baby.
"It's my fault," he said, despondent. "I wasn't watching."
"It came out of nowhere," Anna Lou offered.
Even after all I've said to her, Shane thought, amazed, she still wants to be a friend to me.
But he did not acknowledge her attempt at reassurance. He just said, "We'll have to get to the overpass on foot." He opened his door. "Come on. We've got to move."
The rain was slackening. Crystal got out of her car again, to look for Shane. When would he appear? In ten minutes? In an hour? In eight hours? Never?
Stop it, she told herself. Believe for the best. You have to.
You have to.
For once it was good news. Shane had not realized just how close they actually were to the overpass. Through the trees he saw the train tracks that led into the rail yard. In an odd way, they were better off now without the car. Instead of having to travel by road, they could simply follow these tracks through the yard all the way to the overpass—where Crystal would be waiting for them.
If she hasn't been taken…
But he could not let himself think that.
"Come on, Anna Lou," he said, putting her arm around her as she clutched her baby tightly, "we're gonna make it."
The rain had stopped, leaving a troubled gray sky. All the world seemed quiet, still, and drenched.
Crystal stood, waiting.
How much longer could she stay here?
Forever, she decided, or until Big Shane D. shows up—whichever comes first.
The overpass was in sight now.
"Take the baby," Anna Lou said, handing Tim over to Shane as they hurried alongside the tracks. "You can run faster than I can. Get him up there, where he'll be safe."
"We're all gonna be safe, Anna Lou," Shane assured her, even as he took Tim away from her.
And yet, observing Anna Lou's present condition, he wondered. She seemed constitutionally unable to keep pace with him, even when he walked fast. If he ran, or simply jogged, he would leave her behind. And they both knew it. She was simply in poor shape.
"Go," Anna Lou, gasping for breath. "Please, just go on ahead of me."
Suddenly, from behind them, a soft whine…
"Shane!" Crystal called from the overpass. She had been scanning the rail yard for creatures, had not expected to see Shane—along with Anna Lou—approaching her on foot.
And was that a baby in his arms?
If we survive this, Shane, you're going to have some serious explaining to do.
Shane heard Crystal's voice, heard her call his name. He looked to the overpass, saw her waving at them.
"We're almost there," he said to Anna Lou, grabbing her arm with his free hand and pulling her forward. "We've almost made it.
The whine was becoming louder. And there were more of them.
"They're behind us," Anna Lou wailed. "They're behind us!"
"Don't look back," Shane ordered her. "Just keep running!"
It was just as well that Shane could not see what Crystal saw. In the distance—from the bowels of the rail yard, from the sprawling neighborhood along the tracks—creatures were emerging, more and more of them. They did not move quickly, just blundered along in ungainly fashion, but there were so many of them…
"Shane!" Crystal called out, "hurry!"
Shane, with Timothy, was staying well ahead of the nightmarish horde—but space was opening up between him and Anna Lou. He only realized how wide the gap had gotten when he went against his own advice and looked back. Immediately he stopped.
"No!" Anna Lou hollered at him, panting as she tried to catch up. "Don't stop for me! Keep going!"
"We can all make it, Anna Lou," Shane said. "They're still a ways back. But you've got to run."
Why are they stopping? Crystal wondered frantically. Why?
In moments they had reached the base of the overpass. Shane, without realizing it, had once again sprinted well ahead of Anna Lou. Even carrying a baby, the guy could move. He bounded up the overpass, winded by the steep incline, but determined to make it to Crystal—for the sake of his young passenger as much as his own.
"Shane!" Crystal cried out, rushing to meet him.
"No, stay at the car," he ordered. "I'm coming to you."
But Crystal kept coming. She met him halfway down the overpass. They embraced but not hard as there was a baby between them.
"Who's this?" Crystal asked, stroking the child's head. He was crying yet again but Shane no longer noticed.
"He's Timothy—Anna Lou's son."
"He's not yours too, is he?"
"No," Shane said, and thought: But he could have been—a long time ago.
He looked back and saw Anna Lou staggering up the overpass. She was holding on to the metal guardrail for support—on the other side of which lay a steep drop to the train tracks below—and appeared as if she were about to collapse from exhaustion. Shane's fear was that, if Anna Lou fainted, she might topple over the side.
"Take the kid, all right?" Shane said, giving Tim to Crystal. "I've got to go help her."
Anna Lou held up her hand, opened her mouth to say something. Stay there, maybe?
Shane never knew.
He never knew because just before Anna Lou spoke a beast appeared from the other side of the guardrail—no doubt having scaled one of the overpass' support beams while he and Crystal were having their reunion—and plunged its quills into her chest. Then, squealing with delight, it lifted her high into the air, like some obscene trophy.
"No!" Shane cried. "Anna Lou!"
He lunged for her, grabbing Anna Lou around the waist with one arm and shoving the creature away with the other. Perhaps the beast was physically stronger, but its balance on the guardrail was precarious, and the violence of the push Shane delivered was enough to cause it to lose its grip. It hurtled to the ground below, landed with a sharp smack on the rails, and did not move again.
But Shane had lost his balance as well. Briefly Anna Lou slipped from his grasp, and, in taking hold of her again, he was partially pulled over the side; Anna Lou, for her part, went over completely. She did not fall only because Shane had her by the hand.
It was an unenviable—and untenable—position in which the pair now found themselves.
Shane was bent in half across the guardrail. With one hand he held to the rail; with the other, he dangled a bleeding, worn-out Anna Lou. The wounds to her chest were not deep, but the flow of blood was steady, soaking her blouse. She moaned softly.
Shane heard Crystal cry out to him. He looked and saw she was advancing, even as she still held the baby, keen to do something, anything, to help him.
"No," he shouted, "stay back!"
And then to Anna Lou: "Hang on. I can pull you up."
Anna Lou smiled. "No, you can't. You'll just pull yourself over too."
She began prying his fingers loose from her hand.
"Don't, Anna Lou," Shane pleaded.
But Anna Lou kept right on loosening his grip. "Take care of Timmy, all right?"
"Anna Lou, please stop."
"It's my fault, Shane. I deserve it."
"No, you don't." He tried to grab her wrist, prevent her from slipping away. "If it hadn't been you, they'd have found somebody else."
"But it was me."
Creatures were gathering below them on the train tracks, like sharks awaiting a meal.
"Y'all are going to be great parents," Anna Lou said, beginning to weep.
Shane, tiring fast, was having a hard time holding onto her—which, of course, was Anna Lou's whole aim. "Don't, Anna Lou. I'm begging you. Don't."
"I'm sorry," the doomed girl whispered up at him. "I'm sorry for all of this."
"I forgive you." Now Shane was crying too. "Do you forgive me?"
He got his answer just as she wrenched herself free of him. Hers was a fall that seemed to last forever: purple blouse and skirt fluttering as she dropped to earth like a butterfly that had suddenly died in flight. She landed amid the crowd of monsters; in a single writhing mass they swarmed over her lifeless body, and he could see no more of her, and maybe that was a good thing.
But Shane had gotten his answer the moment before she fell—a single word, mouthed rather than said; silent, but easy to read on her lips.
"Shane!" That was Crystal's voice. "They're coming!"
Shane pushed away from the guardrail, hurried back to Crystal, who tossed him the key to her Civic. They jumped inside the vehicle as the horde of monsters began climbing onto the overpass, shrieking and mewling, ravenous for new victims. But the beasts' hunger went unsatisfied—for in mere moments the car was gone.
A half-hour later, Crystal noted her face in the rear view mirror.
I look terrible, she thought, and I don't even care.
She looked down at Tim, asleep in her arms.
You don't mind, do you, sweet thing?
Then she glanced at Shane, now driving in silence.
And I'm pretty sure you don't mind either. I don't think you ever did, really.
They were on Interstate-16, hurtling towards the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Whatever strange elixir was now present in Shane's blood, it worked a powerful magic on the aliens' poison. If that elixir could be isolated, and synthesized, and reproduced, then human beings could ensure that no one would ever again suffer the fate as so many here had suffered in the last twelve hours or so. The same hands that had brought about the death of a small town might now be the rescue of an entire planet.
You're going to have to drive carefully, Shane, Crystal thought, smiling.
Shane had told her a lot of things just after Anna Lou's death, on their way out of town. He had told her what he knew of this alien menace. He had told her of the sad fate of Tim's dad. He had told her about the brief relationship he'd had with Anna Lou many years ago. Crystal had listened to it all, saying nothing. As he spoke, she carressed the back of his neck. She understood, she told him. She understood everything.
In the pocket on the front of Tim's little-boy overalls, Crystal noticed for the first time a tiny, rectangular bulge. Taking care not to disturb him, she unbuttoned the pocket and extracted the object within. It was a magnetic name tag, no doubt issued by Murl's Famous Country Buffet, that read,
Somewhere along the way she must have slipped it in there, Crystal thought. But why? Did she know, or at least suspect, that she wasn't going to make it out of that town alive? There was no telling. Crystal decided to put the little memento in her own pocket. She would keep it safe from now on. It was the least she could do.
"Crystal," Shane said after a while, "whenever we stop, I'm going to ask you to do something I know you won't want to do."
"I'm gonna to use my pocketknife to make a little gash on my thumb—and then I want you to drink my blood from it."
"And we're going to give some to the baby too," he added. "Okay? I mean, it's either that or run the risk of…you know, turning into—"
"Sure," Crystal said. "It's fine."
What else could she say? Shane was only expressing love when he asked her to do this: love for her, love for this child they would likely be raising together. A little disconcerting, a little unusual, yes, to drink the blood of your significant other, but it was for love—and that made all the difference.
Something else had made all the difference too: their choice of dining establishment last night.
Of all the places we could have gone, Crystal thought, we went to Murl's.
And it was a good thing they had.
If Donny hadn't forced them to go to Murl's Famous Country Buffet last night, then poor Anna Lou McElroy could never have given Shane the antidote that saved his life, an antidote that could now potentially save the lives of six billion other people. Simply stated: because two young couples had decided to patronize a certain restaurant, the human race now stood an excellent chance of survival; and that chance had arrived in the form of something as simple as a bowl of beef stew—from Anna Lou.