Asphalt pebbles kicked up behind Jana’s heels, stung the backs of her calves. Black smoke plumed from a storefront ahead. The ringing in her ears drowned out the surrounding screams. The thick August heat, intensified by the explosion, pressed against her skin. She flung the sweat off of her forehead with a flick of her hand. Tugging her shirt collar up over her mouth and nose, she ducked into the smoldering building and skidded to the floor behind a counter. Rolling a cushioned chair out of her way, Jana crawled into the space beneath the desk.
Money floated to the floor, riding the air like feathers. If those men followed her in here, she hoped they’d be too distracted by the cash everywhere. Jana couldn’t imagine what anyone would do with money these days. It wasn’t worth anything on the island of Manhattan, not anymore.
The smoke didn’t hold back her pursuers. Their muffled voices conferenced on the other side of the service desk, though Jana couldn’t make out what they were saying. She caught only one word, which replayed in her mind again and again: Food. Her stomach rumbled. She clamped her arms over her abdomen as though that would silence her hunger. Even the pungent odor of burning couldn’t stop the need to eat something, but she didn’t budge. She didn’t budge even though her coat pockets were stuffed with rolls and cheese she lifted from a market a few blocks over. August was too warm for a coat, but this one came in handy, and it was all she had left of Ryan.
The coat was too long for her; it hung almost to her knees. The broad shoulders drooped over her arms. She’d sewn pockets into the lining. Taking a bag from someone was too easy–but Ryan’s coat was like a bag that she wore around her whole body. Besides, it served to remind her that in a way, she was doing this for him.
The two men, burly and stomping, knocked over charred chairs, spilled contents of desk drawers, and shouted “Clear!” on their march toward her. Jana glanced toward the window…or the gaping hole that was once the window, behind the service desk. She could probably escape, but not without being spotted.
A moment later, the chair that hid her was pulled away. “Found her!” A meaty hand clenched around her ankle and tugged. Jana kicked out with her free foot, connecting with the man’s face. He released her, his own hands coming up to his nose. Blood poured from beneath his palms. She kicked again.
She scrambled and ran for the window. A few rolls slipped out of her pocket, but she couldn’t go back for them. Jana jumped over the counter and surged forward, only to stop short. Something caught her coat. Jerking her head to see what snagged her, she saw the other man holding the hood. He snatched her arm and tugged. The floor came up fast.
Jana crab-walked backwards, away from both men now, though the one she’d kicked didn’t seem menacing. He stuffed tissue after tissue into his nose. But the other man loomed. Smoke hung in the air around him, like fog drawn in charcoal, obscuring his face. She could tell by the way he carried himself that he was strong.
“You stole from us,” the looming man growled. “No one steals from us.”
“I was hungry.” Jana got to her feet. She still had to crane her neck to look up at him but she wasn’t going to cower. She’d only cowered once and it was the night Ryan was taken, and only because he made her promise to hide. To this day, she regretted honoring his request and refused to show fear to a stranger.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us.”
“Why? You’re not the law. There is no law. Take back what I stole if you want but I’m not going anywhere with you.”
The looming man reached into the back of his waistband and withdrew a semi-automatic pistol. “I think you are.”
Jana eyed the gun. When everything went crazy in the streets, there had been guns reporting almost every night, but after a couple of weeks, the gunshots diminished. Jana figured the island was running out of ammo. She had no way of knowing though whether this guy saved some. She nodded.
“And you’ll answer for your theft and assault on my brother here.” He grabbed her elbow with his free hand and called to his brother to come along. The trio exited the bank, the stunning sunlight forcing Jana to close her eyes. A light tug at her elbow and she turned left.
When her eyes adjusted, she looked up. A street sign that read “Lexington” dangled from a pole. They passed a few others on the street, though no one stopped them even though the gun was in full view. Either they didn’t care or they were afraid. Afraid of the gun. Afraid of the man holding it. Afraid that one of them–probably the guy with blood dripping from his nose–would get them sick.
The gunman stopped on the corner of Lexington and 68th. His bloody-nosed brother skirted around them to hold aside a sheet of corrugated metal that served as a door. Pushed through the doorway, Jana followed through a series of hallways. They stopped outside of a locked door and the broken-nose-man drew a ring of chiming keys from his belt to unlock it. The gunman tossed her into the room so that she had to stagger to keep from falling. “Wait here.” He shut the door again and the room went dark. No windows, no lights. Jana closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she opened them again she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once she could make out the edges of the room, she sat down in the corner, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. They never said how long she would wait, or what it meant to them to answer for her crimes.